“Don’t forget to smile,” Dorea hissed, straightening her napkin for the tenth time. Her face was the same chalk-white as her blouse, and set in a grimace that might have been her attempt at an encouraging smile.
It’s okay, he’s just a guy, I chanted to myself, avoiding Dorea’s eyes. I looked down at the cheerful blue checkered tablecloth, and at my right leg which was jiggling restlessly. A bad habit, I did it whenever I was feeling especially anxious. I held down my thigh with my hand. Then I noticed my nails, which were ragged and raw from my relentless biting.
I was a goddamn mess.
And I was somehow supposed to make a good impression on Aiden Hunt, the biggest movie star in the world.
“You need to convince him you’re perfect for the role,” were Dorea’s exact words, which had made my heart plummet to subterranean depths.
“Isn’t it the casting director who decides if I’m perfect?” I protested over the phone. “I met Katy, she loved me!”
“Not in this case, baby,” Dorea said, her husky, breathy old-Hollywood voice staticking over the bad connection. My apartment was so crappy that we didn’t even get three whole bars on our phones, which was a mystery to both my roommate and me, given that we lived in a major city like LA. “Aiden Hunt’s accepted the role for the other main. That means you’ve gotta do one hell of a job ass-kissing him into agreeing to hire you.”
“What the fuck is Aiden Hunt going to care who else is in the movie as long as their names are billed lower?” I groused as I frantically looked through my tiny closet for something that could make me look convincingly business-y and successful.
I didn’t have much luck. Most of my clothes screamed the truth—I was a bleeding heart hipster in his twenties who shopped at thrift stores and still thought avocado toast was delicious. I wasn’t trendy or interestingly broke, I was just regular broke.
Here was the deal: I was a struggling, near-starving-artist who acted in tiny indie movies made mainly by equally struggling aspiring directors fresh out of film school. The budgets were usually just whatever their parents tossed their way, and the mark of a flush production was if we didn’t film in their parents’ garage.
That was what I’d been doing for the past four years, along with the various part time jobs that helped me pay rent, because the acting sure as hell didn’t.
But the last role shook things up for me a little. It got noticed, more than the other movies, which quickly sunk into obscurity. This one premiered at Sundance, got a few good reviews and people actually thought I was decent in it.
It might not sound like much, but they’d already changed my life, those lukewarm reviews. A few days after that, I got a call from Dorea saying she wanted to represent me and that she thought I was going places.
A couple of months later, and here we were now. She’d kept her promise, and it was time for me to make a damn good impression on the people--well, ‘person’--who mattered.
And that person was Aiden Hunt, the biggest movie star in the world. He was Hollywood royalty, born into the business, and he’d been acting in movies since high school. And now, at the age of twenty five, he was a bona fide A-list movie star with a combined box office of over a billion dollars.
And if I played my part right, I had a major role in his next superhero vehicle. The filming budget alone was a hundred and fifty million--double that if you counted what they studio would spend on marketing and advertising.
I was only a tiny prawn, so I would be earning a percentage of a fraction of what Aiden was getting paid. But, as my Mom always said, a few dollars is better than no dollars. And no dollars was exactly how much I had right now, so there was nowhere to go but up.
So I wore the only pair of slacks I owned that could pass for slightly dressy (my socks had eggs and bacon on them, but I was hoping nobody would notice), and a shirt that I borrowed from my roommate. The sleeves were slightly too long, and I’d already dipped them in my coffee twice accidentally.
I shoved the cuffs back until they rested below my elbow and prayed Aiden Hunt would be above noticing stained shirts or funny socks.
We were in a cafe that had a line that stretched longer than the block with people waiting to get in. Our server greeted us with, ‘Welcome to LA’s most Insta-ed brunch spot!’ which didn’t seem to me like an auspicious start.
I didn’t really…do social media, so I knew that put me in the minority of my age group, but whatever. I liked to people watch instead of staring at my phone screen, filled with FOMO by everyone else’s amazing vacations and outfits.
I sipped at my coffee, which was served in a flowerpot and tasted faintly of clay, and felt extremely out of place.
Everyone around us was young, fit and gorgeous. Like, eye-poppingly gorgeous. It seemed insane that I, with my plain face and regular-guy body, could exist in the same world as this room full of walking six packs. I had that revelation every time I went outside in LA. No doubt my barely-above-average looks contributed to the low number of callbacks I was getting. I wouldn’t pick me either, if it came down to a choice between six pack-owner number seven and boring Peter Czerny.
“This may not have been the best environment to make an impression on Aiden Hunt,” I told Dorea glumly.
“Don’t be silly, you look great,” she said, distracted already by all the internet-famous people around us. “Look, is that the girl whose sex tape was just leaked? I heard she surgically removed her own ribs to look smaller…”
“That’s disturbing,” I said, refusing to look where she was looking. Our waitress came by again with a dimming smile as we shook our heads at her, still nursing out coffees.
Mine was a plain black cold brew—the cheapest thing on the menu but still five dollars. Five dollars! I could have bought three giant tacos at the stand on the corner near my apartment for that much money.
It didn’t taste like it should cost five dollars, but what did I know? I couldn’t even appreciate that I was sitting two tables away from the girl who was famous for streaking on late night show stages. She had three million followers and counting, apparently.
There was a sudden flurry of movement outside, and I heard people yelling.
“Is everything okay?” I asked the air. Other people were pointing their phones at the entrance, recording whatever was happening. There were flashes of light, and excited screaming.
Then he walked through the door.
In a black leather jacket that cost more than a year of my rent, sunglasses that he was paid millions to endorse, and dark jeans that hung on his hips in a way that was bordering on obscene.
“Oh my god!” a guy said, scrambling up. “I love your work so much! Would you--?”
He was followed by several other people, all queuing for a chance to take a selfie with Aiden Hunt. He didn’t take his sunnies off for any of the photos, which I thought was weird. Maybe he was hungover.
“Oh my lord, he’s here!” Dorea breathed, clutching at my arm with fingers like pincers. She could get a little Southern when she was flustered.
“Ow,” I said, but was ignored.
Aiden Hunt took photos with his adoring fans for a full ten minutes, before turning to a burly man in a black suit—clearly his bodyguard. I felt a little faint when I realized that I was going to meet someone who needed a bodyguard.
I thought bodyguards were solely for the President, and people so rich their net worth dwarfed the GDP of most countries. But no, now I realized you would need a bodyguard if you were That Famous, just to keep away people with grabby hands, and of course stalkers.
His bodyguard muscled his way in front of Aiden and smoothly led him to the back of the restaurant, where we were. They were followed by a woman who I thought might be Aiden’s agent. She was tiny, and so tan that she would probably glow in the dark, with fried yellow hair. She was wearing a tight yellow dress and tottering in heels so high and sharp that they could easily double as murder weapons.
Dorea half-stood up, waving at them. I almost felt like grabbing her hand and running out of the place.
This was a mistake.
From the bottom of Aiden Hunt’s three-grand-sneakers to the top of his impeccably styled hair, everything about him screamed that I should run away and find a role that didn’t come with this baggage.
“Hey, y’all!” Dorea called, and several heads turned.
Someone giggled in amusement.
But soon, they were seated at the table with us, and I was gaping at all three of them like a silly goldfish. We sat in an increasingly awkward silence, with Aiden’s agent studying her nails and Dorea almost vibrating out of her skin with excitement.
I stared at him out of the corner of my eye, while pretending to examine the pattern on my china cup.
He just mostly seemed…bored. I couldn’t tell who or what he was looking at behind the opaque glasses that hid his eyes.
But I had to make an impression. Right.
“H-hi,” I said, embarrassingly high and obviously nervous. “I’m Peter Czerny. And you’re obviously—um. It’s amazing to meet you.”
Aiden’s agent was looking at me now, and Aiden’s head tilted like he was looking at me as well.
Breathe, I reminded myself. Don’t have a panic attack here, that would be bad.
“You’re the one who auditioned in the cape and tights,” he said flatly. His voice was low and liquid, like molasses. I shivered like I cat that was being stroked the right way. Yep, this was a real movie star, as rare as those were these days. “I watched the tape.”
A girl laughed too loudly in the background, and another guy passed very slowly by our table, holding his phone up like he was texting but really and obviously just trying to take a photo of Aiden.
Aiden Hunt had an electric effect on the room just by being in it. He could have read the phonebook and held everyone spellbound.
And he was expecting a response from me.
“Ah…haha, yeah, that was me,” I said, hand resting on the back of my head. “It was a bit on the nose, but…I thought it was funny.”
“Funny,” Aiden repeated, in the same creepy, toneless voice.
“Yeah,” I said, darting a look at his agent. She was wearing a look so blank she could have been a professional poker player. “Uh, did you…um, what did you think of the audition?”
Just then, our waitress turned up, with a smile so blinding she could have lit up the Hollywood Bowl.
“What can I get you today?” she asked, directing her gaze at Aiden. Her focus was so laser-sharp I was afraid she’d burn a hole in his skull, but he was indifferent. This was probably just everyday life for him.
“I’ll have a coconut milk latte,” he said, and finally whipped off his sunglasses.
His eyes were the color of the Arctic, and equally cold.
Ridiculous, I thought faintly, as I let myself be transfixed by his frosty gaze. It seemed completely unfair that someone could look like their eyes were passed through a vibrancy filter in real life.
“I’ll have a chai with almond milk and whey,” Aiden’s agent said briskly. “Are you sure you won’t have anything else?” she asked me, to my surprise, “You probably shouldn’t have any more caffeine, though.”
I followed her gaze to my leg, which was jiggling so fast it was nearly a blur, and stopped, and went red immediately.
“I…guess I’ll have a sparkling water,” I told the waitress.
“Sure!” she said, still bouncing on the balls of her feet. She didn’t bother looking at me, which I got. If I was waiting on Aiden Hunt’s table, I didn’t think I’d look anywhere else either.
Even if he did seem like a bit of an alien.
It was the complete and utter blankness of his gaze, I decided, that freaked me out a little. It didn’t crumble under the force of Dorea’s slightly desperate smile, it wasn’t moved by the almost physical force exerted by the cheerful waitress’s focus.
He must be a damn good actor, I decided, to play humans so convincingly on screen.
She went away with one last, hopeful look at Aiden, leaving us to more awkward silence. Surprisingly, Aiden was the one to break it this time.
“You played him differently in the third tape,” he said abruptly, sweeping his perfectly-coiffed dark hair back with careless fingers. The dark strands fluttered back into place, framing his impossibly blue eyes, adding to his look of ‘brooding fallen angel’.
It just wasn’t fair.
“The third tape?” I asked, racking my memory. “That was...the one where Orion breaks out of the Kiridian prison and returns to earth, right? And he finds Apollon alive.”
“When they’re at the Sanctum of Power,” Aiden said, staring hard at the napkin holder on the table, “And they receive a distress call that the Tower of London is under attack from aliens with warships. You give him a moment after the rest of his team leave. The script says ‘Orion smiles and high fives the team, glad to be in the thick of the fight again’.”
There was a loaded pause.
“Yes…?” I agreed uncertainly.
Aiden’s eyes narrowed at me very slightly. Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say.
“But you sighed and looked at the ground. You looked…defeated,” he said accusingly. “That wasn’t in the script.”
“Oh, right,” I said. “Well…I guess it didn’t make sense to me that he would be all ‘rah rah war’ when, y’know, he was a POW in an alien prison for like a decade or something before escaping and returning to earth. And isn’t he the last of his kind? So I just find it hard to believe that he wouldn’t even think oh great, here we go again, wonder how many of the people I love are going to die this time…um,” I finished eloquently, as I realized that Aiden’s eyes had shot up to look at me.
It was like being a mouse under the mesmerizing gaze of a snake that was trying to decide if it was hungry.
“You realize that would completely change his arc in the entire movie,” Aiden said coldly.
“Well, I don’t see why,” I said, losing some of my nervousness and replacing it with enthusiasm.
Talking about the role was helping. It was hard for me to be tongue-tied and awkward while talking about my favorite subject. “The lines wouldn’t have to change. Orion would just be a little…jaded, and tired. I’d play it—I mean, his narrative would be that he finds a reason to fight again, by the end of the movie.”
“What exactly would his reason be?” Aiden asked tonelessly. I couldn’t figure out if he agreed with me or not, but I barreled ahead anyway.
“His reason is Apollon, obviously,” I said, letting my mouth stretch into a grin. “They’re legendary brothers-in-arms. They’re the most important person in each other’s lives. And the team, in a larger sense.”
Aiden opened his mouth to respond, but the waitress came rattling up to our table with a tray of cups that she placed carefully, clearly terrified that she would spill hot coffee on Aiden Hunt’s designer jeans.
“Your ginger latte,” the waitress said, placing his cup down carefully. There was some sort of intricate floral foam art on top of it.
“I asked for coconut,” he said flatly.
“Oh! I’m so sorry Mr. Hunt--” she said, the other drinks on her tray sloshing as she quickly reached for it. “I’ll replace it immediately.”
Dorea tried to paper over the awkward moment with some fluttery chatter, which Hunt answered in monosyllables. His agent didn’t even bother. She was alternating between scrolling through her phone and flicking her eyes at me when I spoke. Which wasn’t often, to be fair.
Our waitress arrived again, holding a tray in hands that were still shaking. This time she was more subdued. I wondered if her manager was unhappy with her and felt a pang of sympathy.
“You could have just gotten it right the first time,” he said stiffly. Her smile dropped and she went away quickly. I frowned.
“It’s really busy here today,” I informed him. He blinked at me.
“And she’s probably thinking about the dozen other tables that need to get their orders and tired from being on her feet since seven in the morning--”
“Your point being?’
I gritted my teeth. “She’s not screwing up on purpose.”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s bad at her job,” he said dismissively.
“The coffee here is amazing!” Dorea said loudly and artificially, smiling like her jaw might crack. “L-locally sourced, isn’t it?”
I bit my lip. Right. Better not to get into a fight when I was trying to make a good impression.
“She forgot your sparkling water,” his agent said, peeking over her phone at me.
“That’s okay, I-I didn’t really want it.”
“This place is awful,” Aiden said abruptly, putting his mug down. “I don’t know why we came here.”
“Me neither,” his agent agreed. “What a waste. LA’s going to the dogs.”
Neither of them was being discreet. I could hear the people at the table closest to us murmuring to each other. Aiden Hunt’s judgment could make or break a restaurant.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” I said mildly.
He barely gave me a glance. “Should we move this to Nihari?” he asked his agent, drumming his fingers on the table, almost like he was on edge. Nihari was the achingly trendy new bar that had opened up a few weeks ago. I heard tables were booked out six months in advance.
“Fine,” she yawned. “I’ll call us an uber. We can talk more there,” she added to me.
I stared at the two of them. “Um--I’m not sure what else there is to talk about.”
“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough,” she said, raising an eyebrow as though I was being stupid on purpose.
“Are we going to get the check before I age out of leading roles or what?” Aiden muttered as the waitress came to take away our cutlery. She almost whimpered in fear.
I was glaring at him when she left. “You could stand to be a little nicer,” I told him heatedly.
“Excuse me?” he asked, with glacial politeness.
“She’s just a waitress--”
“She’s an employee who’s bad at her job,” Aiden corrected, mouth twisting. “But let me guess, you’ve waited tables before.”
I bristled at the implication that it was something I should be less than proud of. “Yes, I do. I think nearly every starving actor out there has at some point.”
“Not every actor is so self-righteous about it though,” he said, raising his eyebrow at me.
“And I suppose you haven’t had to work for anything in your life,” I said, well and truly riled up. I’d never felt such a strong urge to punch someone in the face before.
“Is he an idiot or just doing a great impression of one?” Aiden asked his agent, sounding bored.
“Hopefully the second,” she said, smirking. “Though I’m not sure which possibility is more entertaining.”
“Maybe we should reschedule,” Dorea said hastily, gripping her hands together like she was fighting the urge to clap a hand over my mouth.
“No, I don’t think so,” I said firmly. I looked at Aiden across the table. His skin was lightly tanned and glowing, his perfectly-hanging clothes looked so expensive it made me ill, and the expression in his eyes was open contempt and irritation. “I don’t think this is going to work out,” I said steadily.
“Don’t think you can cut it?” he asked unkindly.
“No, it’s just that you’re a fucking asshole and I’d rather stab myself in the eye than work with you,” I said, my voice clear as a bell in the pocket of absolute silence that had formed around our group. “You—you’re rude, and a bully.”
“And who exactly do you think you are?“ he snapped, looking me up and down like he was really seeing me for the first time. He took in the shirt that didn’t fit me right, and the hair that badly needed to be cut, the slightly crooked front teeth that dentistry hadn’t managed to fix, and his lip curled like he thought he was wasting his time.
“I’m literally nobody,” I said, digging through my wallet and tossing a five dollar bill on the table, ignoring the voice that was screaming at me not to waste the money on a grand gesture of defiance. “But at least I don’t treat people like crap because I can.”
“Peter,” Dorea said faintly. “Hold on, let me just get my--”
“No, you stay and finish your coffee,” I told her firmly. I didn’t want to drag her into my mess. Plus, she was probably dropping me as a client anyway.
“Yes, you should stay, we have a lot to talk about--” Aiden’s agent was saying as I got up, swaying a little with the knowledge that I had just effectively set my career on fire, and walked out of the restaurant without looking back.