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Clueless and Dismissed by the Bell

Ok, here is a useful movie making tip in case you should ever suddenly find yourself on a movie set. Trust me, it can happen.

Just before a scene is to be shot, before cameras roll, before they yell action, a bell rings. Now, this bell isn’t one of those little clanky cow bells tied around Bessie’s neck. This bell is one of those big ass loud bells that you hear echoing in the hallways at school telling you class is dismissed. The bell on a movie set is heard everywhere, by everyone, anywhere nearby. The sound of the bell is letting people know that a scene is about to start shooting so shhhhh, quiet on the set, shut your mouths. The very first time I ever heard one of these bells was when I was on the set of a Warner Brothers movie, With Honors, that was being shot in Chicago. It was my very first acting job ever. I was still living on the family farm at the time and didn’t know showbiz from shucking corn. All I knew was that I didn’t want to mess up or do anything wrong. So, there I was on my first film set. My hair and makeup professionally done. Patrick Dempsey was sitting to the left of me, Brandon Fresiar across from me, and Mora Kelly next to him--not bad scene partners for my first time out of the chute, huh? These actors were the up and coming young stars of 1992, and I was the stuttering farm girl who suddenly found herself on a movie set. I told you, it can happen.

I only had two simple lines to remember. Just to be safe, I had written them on the palm of my hand. I was ready to go. The director stepped onto the set and took his place near the camera. Everyone was in their places. It was time to start shooting. Then the bell rang. Being a graduate of the public school system, I knew exactly what a bell that sounded like that meant. Class dismissed. Like Pavlov’s dog, I reacted to the sound of that bell the way I had been trained to do during my school days. I immediately stood up, walked across the set, down a flight of stairs, across the studio lot, and back to my trailer. I had left everyone on set just sitting there. The entire cast, the entire crew, and the director were probably all completely dumbfounded as to why an actress with only two lines would suddenly just get up and walk off set for no apparent reason, especially right before the director was just about to yell, ‘action’. If I wasn’t so damn clueless about what I had just done, this would have been the single most humiliating moment of my life. But, I was clueless--clueless and hungry. So I stopped by the food truck and ordered a ham and cheese sandwich on the way back to my trailer. Trust me, I’m not making a humble brag. Trailers for actresses with two lines are about the size of a porta potty.

I had just sat down and had taken a bite from my ham sandwich when there was a knock on my trailer door. I opened it to find a production assistant standing there staring at me. After a brief silence, the production assistant spoke, “Would you like to shoot the scene now?” I smiled my special Goldie Hawn smile. The one I had always seen Goldie use during her interviews on the Tonight Show. I had been practicing that smile in the mirror for years. “Let me wrap up my ham sandwich first. I didn’t know the break was going to be so short,” I explained. “Just make it quick,” she snapped as I noticed her rolling her eyes at me. Oooops! Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it was a ham sandwich. I had heard that a lot of the people in the movie industry were vegetarians. I wrapped up my sandwich, checked to make sure nothing was stuck between my teeth, and followed the production assistant back to set. I couldn’t get over how fast she walked. I could barely keep up.

When we arrived back on set, much to my clueless surprise, everyone else was already on set and in their places. It was almost like they had never left. Probably because they hadn’t. The director immediately walked over to me and said, “May we begin, Miss Chilton?” WOW, how sweet was the director to go out of his way to make this good ol farm gal feel so welcomed on set. I suddenly felt like Nicole Kidman. I shot him my best Goldie smile and nodded. As I walked over and took my place next to Patrick Dempsey, Moira Kelly stared at me as if she was channeling Cruella Deville; and I was one of those little Dalmatian puppies. Gosh, what happened to her during the break? Brendon Frasier sat there staring at the floor. Patrick Demspey took my hand, leaned over, and whispered, “If you have any questions about anything today, just ask me, ok?” Oh my God, is Dempsey flirting with me? Then the bell rang again. Dempsey suddenly squeezed my hand even tighter. Holy shit, I think he loves me. Then I finally heard the words I had been waiting my whole life to hear, “Lights, camera, action.” My childhood dream had finally come true. I was acting in a movie.

Life has a funny way of protecting you from yourself. That day on set ended up being one of the best days of my life. I had so much fun. I was so happy. It never ever dawned on me that I had started the day by holding up production. Believe it or not, I went all day and still never figured out what the hell that bell meant. Thank God. Had I realized that day what a fool I had made out of myself in front of an entire Hollywood cast and crew, my life could have taken a completely different path. You see, it honestly took every ounce of courage I had that morning to leave the warm safety of my family’s farm, drive one hundred miles to Chicago, and step onto a movie set for the very first time. I was scared shitless and with good reason. I was vulnerable and as green behind the ears as corn in July. We all have days in our lives that will define us. That was one of mine. Had I realized the errors of my way that day, I would have been crushed. My low self esteem would have plunged even lower. I probably would have run back home to the farm and never ever allowed myself to pursue acting or any one of my passions ever again. Pursuing your dreams can hurt like a son of a bitch sometimes, but life knew I wasn’t ready to feel that kind of pain just yet. So, on that day, life protected me from myself by wrapping me in a warm, beautiful blanket of naive cluelessness. With the additional help of Patrick Dempsey taking me under his wing and keeping me in line, I had a great day. So great, that seven years later, I drove 2,000 miles to Hollywood to give my childhood dreams a shot. Ok, so it took me seven more years to finally move to LA. Some things take time.

All these many, many, many years later, I am damn glad I made the journey to Los Angeles. Pursuing my childhood dream gave me a kind of self respect and courage I don’t think I would have otherwise found. Oh yes! And the year I finally arrived in LA, was the year my stuttering finally started to go away. Uh, how about that for a coincidence? Makes me wonder, are our childhood dreams merely just dreams? Or could they possibly be road maps guiding us to becoming the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be? Oh yeah, one more thing. A couple years after moving to LA, I landed my first TV role. It was on the set of that TV show that I finally realized what the hell that bell meant. Ooops! That was an embarrassing realization.

To this day, I haven’t crossed paths with Patrick Dempsey again. I often wonder what I might do if I should happen to see him. Would I run up to him, shake his hand, and thank him for being the kindest first scene partner a young clueless stuttering actress could hope for? Or would I shrink and hide out of sheer embarrassment? I may never find out. It doesn’t matter. I am here just being me. And that’s a pretty cool place to be.

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