Puffing on Illusion

Some people do yoga. I hang out in a little cigar shop on Melrose Avenue.

Cigar people know this place, and I've found myself to be a cigar person. Looking at me, that might be the last thing you perceive. I'm pretty girly, so the sight of a thin blonde with a big fat stogie in her mouth is somewhat—can I say?—shocking.

It's my favorite place to 'get away.' I come here to regroup after a week in which I audition for ten projects and get none of them—not even a callback. I come here to center myself, to think, to write, to contemplate the meaning of my existence, and existence in general.

The shop is run by a family who moved to America from Afghanistan. They know me here. When I walk in, A'deem, one of the owners, brings a dark chocolate bar and a hot espresso with just the right amount of foam. It's comforting to be a regular.

Sitting beside me today on the large leather couch is one of my best friends. From the minute I sat down Adam and I are busy catching up. (Actually, when I say 'catch up,' I mean 'complain.') Mostly we laugh. Sporting his usual boyish smile, Adam—who is about to begin grad school at UCLA for acting—pulls out a silver Zippo and lights my cigar.

This particular type is my favorite, a smooth-flavored beauty called 'Illusion.' What a perfect name! It's like the cigar knows I'm struggling in an industry based entirely on illusion—illusions of talent, skill, training, luck.

In fact, I'm having one of those days in which I wonder whether I even want to continue in this business. Lately, those days are more common than not. And the bitterness has hit a toxic level inside me I've never experienced before. I don't even recognize myself anymore.

One experience earlier that week nearly sealed it for me. Let's just say it involved an indie director, a middling part, and a very creepy offer in exchange for the role.

Mid-gripe, Adam motions for me to look toward the shop's entranceway.

A Hispanic-looking man enters. His dark, curly hair is a mess, and his five o-clock shadow looks a week old. He's wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt. He looks like any other L.A. guy, except he has a strong, masculine presence. I don't recognize him, but Adam can't stop staring.

A'deem chats amiably with the man, who buys a Cohiba Esplendidos—an extremely expensive cigar. Lighting up, he sits on a leather couch next to us. The elegant smoke wafts over toward us. My cigar smells like a Marlboro Light in comparison.

Adam leans over, and says to the man: "Sorry to bother you, but I loved you in ['Huge Box Office Hit.']" Patrons make similarly fawning comments about roles in a couple of other well-known movies he's done.

Then it hits me. I do recognize him. (He's shorter in person, I think cattily.) But I'm apparently less impressed than Adam and the others, who quickly congregate. A'deem even hands him a chocolate bar, gratis, which he gently and gratefully accepts.

Jealousy quickly builds up in me. I've always been more than a little spiteful of the special treatment celebrity actors get—especially ones I imagine gained fame too easily. You know the kind: As their plane taxis to a halt at LAX, a top agent and a career-making film role are seemingly waiting to greet them at Gate 407.

Today is not the day I want to deal with it. My emotions are too close to the surface.

"So, how'd you get so famous anyway?" I blurt out.

I hadn't even introduced myself, yet here I was challenging him to a duel. I was ready to hear the worst: How he got his first big role through a family member or 'a friend,' reinforcing my suspicion that only connected people get the best agents and roles in top movies. And once he confirmed it, I wanted to somehow humiliate him—mostly to make myself feel better.

He smiles, staring straight ahead. He didn't reply for what seemed like a long time.

He took a puff from his cigar, then shifted his body. Looking at me, I could see his full facial expression, which looked confident yet humble. He spoke slowly and carefully, answering me as honestly as anyone I've ever heard.

"Well, I graduated from ACT in San Francisco back in..." He mumbled the year, laughing to himself. "After moving to Los Angeles, I spent ten years doing theater and little comedy shows, mostly for free, just for the love of being onstage. But I won't glorify it: Many of those plays had more rats roaming behind the curtain than people in the audience.

"Years passed, and I watched friends get married and have children and build abundant, beautiful lives while I lived in a North Hollywood studio. No big breaks came, just a regular grind of cattle-call auditions and tiny playhouses near the 405. I tutored children to pay the rent—often falling short and having to scramble, taking day work or borrowing from my folks.

"But I was dedicated. I believed. I never stopped believing, even though I was so dedicated to my art that I never allowed himself to get entangled in a real relationship. Not one that might take me away, that might interfere, that is... you know."

He chews on the cigar, staring into space for a moment.

"So, how's I get so famous, you ask? Well, I'm waiting for my turn at this low-budget film audition in a squat building on Sunset. From another room, this guy walks out, sees me, and asks if I'm auditioning for ['Huge Box Office Hit']. I said, 'No. I'm here for the horror film.' I tell him I don't even know what movie he's talking about or who's directing it. The guy says [huge director] is putting it together.

"I laugh. I'm thinking, no fucking way would I be auditioning for that. Like, not even a chance in hell. But this guy starts saying that the director's looking for a guy that has my 'look.' He says I should give it a try. So I call my agent—and I'm not with CAA or any of those big-shots, my guy is a small timer—and I mention that so-and-so said he should call him and schedule an audition for the film. Even my agent laughs, but he makes the call and they set up a time.

"Long story short: I go down there, but since I don't believe I'm going to get the part, I'm not nervous, and I really give it my best shot. We do an improv scene, and I kill it. After all those years of stage work and improv, I'm pretty good on my feet, I guess.

"Needless to say, not only do I get the part, but the director himself calls to offer me the role. On the first day, I panic cause I'm thinking he's going to see me and realize I'm the wrong guy."

He takes a deep long puff on the cigar. "Oh... That was my first movie, by the way. Ever."

"How old were you?"

"Thirty-five," he answers without hesitation.

The others are listening but don't say anything. I lean in and speak more softly.

"During those years, did you ever... feel like quitting and moving away, doing something else?"

"It's the actors who stay..." He coughs a bit. "It's the ones who stick it out. They are the ones who make it." He ashes his cigar in the glass tray. "Don't ever let it stop you. Don't lose faith."

His phone rings. I had so many more questions, but he got up and walked to the back, chatting busily. I had to leave, but I wish I'd had more time to speak with him.

As I drove away, his story—particularly the last line, "Don't ever let it stop you"—rattled through me head. It?

Then it hit me. He meant doubt. Oh my God. Don't let doubt stop you. Keep faith. Keep belief. The words rattled in my head for hours afterward. I wrote them down.

Since then, whenever I have a bad audition, a rough performance, or just a lousy day, I think of those words. In the past, smoking a cigar always helped relax me, but these words have helped even more.

I laugh now as I realize that illusions can go both ways. Some hide the truth from you, and some reveal it.

Most recently, Alexis Peters played a role in the upcoming Garry Marshall film "Valentine's Day." On the ScyFy Network, she was Ingrid in the original film "Grendel," and Sif in "Thor: Hammer of the Gods," which debuted in spring 2009. Other TV work: "Days of Our Lives," and the FOX pilot "Faceless." Stage roles include "Summer and Smoke" and the 2004 ADA award-winning "Moonchildren." Alexis can be reached at alexisbackstage@yahoo.com.