From top: Terry McMahon in Fair City, 2007; Terry today
Neither advisable for every situation nor technically lawful,
But sometimes you have to reach for the part.
Terry McMahon writes:
The rabid determination of Leo Varadkar and Regina Doherty to criminalise recipients of social welfare brings back memories of the vulnerability of what it was like to be on the dole.
Over twenty years ago I was broke, ignorant and desperate. Dumb too. On multiple levels. A kid. But, by then, I was having a kid of my own. A boy.
Varadkar would have been proud of me. I was up early every morning. 4am. In a blind panic. When we brought our boy home from the hospital and lay him on the mattress of my bedsit I decided he’d never lie on that damn bed again. It was time for something bold. Audacious. Drastic.
And when you have no formal education, no experience, and no way of getting in the front door of anywhere, you learn to quietly kick in the back doors.
I was being investigated by the welfare. Nothing personal apparently. They were doing it to everybody. Still horrible. They arranged for a meeting the following month where I was to explain to them what I was doing to get off the dole. I knew nothing about anything except a little about movies. And less about television. And nothing about soap opera.
Fair City was a long running soap opera. A juggernaut. Still is. Incredibly successful. Some may say incomprehensibly. To each their own.
But this soap opera is made by the national broadcaster RTÉ, which means they have to respond to whoever contacts them. This means they were willing to audition a completely unknown lunatic looking to do something drastic to get his boy off a dodgy mattress in a dodgy bedsit.
I called the producer. This was a time when people answered their own phones. No buffers. He agreed to meet. It wasn’t verified but we penciled in a bank holiday Monday a couple of weeks away. That day arrived and I called the number. The producer wasn’t there. Understandably. So I decided to leave a message to say we had made an obvious mistake and could he call back tomorrow to arrange a more suitable time.
That’s what I intended to say. But somehow the words that came out were essentially’ go fuck yourself’. Told you I was dumb. Game over. Couple of days later I get a call on the coinbox in the hallway. The producer’s assistant. Would I come in and audition for the show? Game on.
I’d never been in the RTÉ canteen before. This was not my world. But I kept thinking of that beautiful boy on that bedsit mattress. My world wasn’t working. I
had arrived two hours early. Scared I’d miss it. Walked out to Montrose from town. Stomach sick. Found the entrance to the Fair City lot and peered through the tiny opening in the doorway. Saw a long line of actors. Waiting. Rehearsing. Vogueing. The acting community was small back then. Tight. Incestuous. Maybe still is.
I bolted back to the canteen. The bathroom. Puked up a breakfast I’d never eaten. Just tell the missus it’s done. Pretend it already happened. Slip out the canteen into town. Away from RTE. Forever. Then I thought of the kid. On the bed. In the bedsit. Bastard.
Without looking up from her schedule a bored assistant gave me some pages with words from a scene. Sides she called them. Told me to take a seat. But all the seats were taken. And all the takers were looking up at me. Recognised some of them too. Some were big shots. Some were medium shots. None of them knew me. The virgin in the whorehouse.
I read the words on the pages. It was an angry scene. A threatening scene. A soap opera scene. I needed to puke again but focused instead on the sounds coming from the audition room. Read the words on the page as the actors played them inside. They were really going for it. No prisoners. Balls out. Eleven on the Richter scale.
My turn came. I told the others to go ahead. One by one they went inside. One by one they got to the fractious part of the scene where the two characters go toe-to-toe.
One by one they raised their voices on the big lines. Angry. Macho. Hate. The threat delivered. The bloke reading in for the other character was getting more confident with each reading. He was loving this shit. His day to show just how good he was. Cock-blocking the other actors. Same beats every time. Same reactions. Same everything.
Eventually nobody was left. Just me. The bored assistant looked at me. Time.
There was a surprising number of people in the studio. Good size crew. Lights. Decent camera. Proper sound. Real playback monitor. More than an audition. A screen test.
The producer looked at me and we shook hands. I wanted to apologise for the asshole message I’d left on his machine but was too busy trying to conceal the fact I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. They told me to sit. And that’s when I saw him. I had been listening to his voice for hours now. And his physicality was just as arrogant as his voice.
I sat beside him and offered my hand. He shook it but didn’t look at me. Too busy demonstrating how tight he had become with the crew. Laughing loudly at a shit joke. I whispered was it okay to touch him?
He looked at me for the first time. Pure dismissal. Comic book contempt. He said, anywhere you want, tough guy. The producer asked if I wanted a rehearsal. I understood the word. But not what it meant. I shook my head. No. The producer asked for quiet. Cockblocker got in one final guffaw, rolled his neck as if he was doing me a solid, and nodded. Action.
Cockblocker began the scene as he had every other time. King of the hill. Top of the world. Made it, ma. I didn’t look at him. Wouldn’t look at him. I kept looking at the producer. The one I had left the asshole message for. He was looking back. Confounded. Curious. He kept glancing at me then back at his monitor. Frowning. I spoke quietly. Tentatively.
Cockblocker was in his element now. The more I swallowed back the words the more he projectile vomited his out. He was on a roll and nothing was going to stop his victory lap. It came to the big finale. The showdown. The knockout. And he went for it.
I could feel his spit splashing against the side of my ear. Burrowing in. Abusing my brain. He got to the highest point possible. His raging screams echoing off the studio walls. His pitch blowing the mics. His genius unquestionable. This was the greatest performance in the history of acting. He knew it.
And, now, as he waited for my response, his warm breath repeatedly slapped off the side of my face. I’d never had sex with a man. But this must be close to what it feels like.
The producer stared at me. It was my big moment. Where I lose it. Where I dominate. Where I show what it means to be macho. Every other actor had nailed it. On time. On cue. On the nose.
But there was nothing from me. Zero. The producer sighed and was about to say Cut. Wrap it up. Go home. But, without looking at Cockblocker, I gently, tenderly, almost imperceptibly, rested my hand on his crotch. Not a squeeze. Just an open resting palm. Slight curvature of the fingers. Spread over his cock and balls. Deathly silence.
This wasn’t how Fair city auditions were supposed to go.
Cockblocker continued speaking the scripted text. But his voice was different. He stuttered. Words weren’t working. Semi-paralysis. His fingers gripped my knuckles to remove the uninvited hand.
But that’s the thing about force.The more relaxed my hand became the more impossible it seemed for him to prise my fingers off his retracting testes. He began shouting the words louder. The words that he had learned so well. The words that he had used to upstage every previous poor bastard looking for a life-saving job. The words that were now betraying him. A bit like his balls.
Behind the camera the producer’s shoulders rocked silently, rhythmically, up and down. Suppressed laughter. The crew looked to each other. Faces frozen in strange shock. Something was happening in the scene. That was certain. But what the hell it was, nobody knew. Or, if it was even legal.
His face now purple, Cockblocker gave up trying to remove my hand. As he continued speaking, the meaning of his dialogue had altered. The subtext of every statement now was a plea to stop. To unhand him. To unfurl him. To stop being a bastard.
As gently as I had cupped my hand on his cotton covered undercarriage, I now removed it and looked at him for the first time. Almost shy. I hesitated then tenderly inhaled his aroma from the tips of my fingers. The aroma was imagined. But the point was made. This was love. Not hate. Vulnerable. Not macho.
I raised the hand with the imaginary aroma and delicately touched my thumb onto his dried lips. He stopped speaking. I had cut him off slightly early but I don’t think the author would have minded. I spoke to him the way you speak to an animal you love. A dog you adore. At the vet. Before he’s put down. I slid the tip of my thumb into his mouth. He didn’t resist. He knew I was willing to kill him. Because I was. The threat delivered.
Nobody knew what to do. The text was over but the scene wasn’t. I held my thumb there. In his mouth. He stared back at me. All pretense gone. I liked him now. I could finally see his potential.
If he dropped the swaggering horseshit he could be a half-decent actor. No Brando. But not bad. The producer let it hang. Like all good producers do. Then he looked up from the monitor. The laughter was gone. No guffaws left. Game over.
I ran out of the Fair City lot. Out of RTÉ. Out of my mind. My kid was going to be lying on that bedsit mattress longer than intended. By the end of that month the welfare folks came around to investigate. Surprisingly nice people. Doing their job. Wanting to know what I had been doing to get off the dole.
Mid way through my stumbling answer there was a knock on the door. The coinbox in the hallway. A phone call. The producer’s assistant. We want to offer you the part.
Later, the producer, a beautiful man, told me he had brought people in to listen to my original answering machine message to him. Wondering what basketcase had balls big enough to leave such a message.
They were different times then. Not as insular. Not as cancerous. Twenty years later I’m still broke, ignorant and desperate. Except now there are four kids. And a dog. And a government determined to destroy lives.
Might have to give RTÉ a bell and swing an audition for a role. Or call the Benefits Office and swing an interview for the dole. Or just join Fine Gael, and swing a welfare recipient from a pole.