My Story Starts with a Stutter.
I grew up with a speech impediment. I stuttered. I also grew up on a farm, in the cornfields of Illinois, with the big dream of being an actress. I was obsessed with being a movie starlet or a guest star on my favorite TV show or at least a Price is Right girl. My obsession must have erased any ounce of common sense I had in my head. Because, who in their right mind actually thinks it’s possible to be an actress and stutter? Apparently, I did. And, apparently, somebody else did too. While I was still home on the farm detasseling corn, I ended up smack dab on the front page of my hometown Gazette. The headline read, “Local Farm Girl Stars Opposite Patrick Dempsey off Her First Audition.” But how this stuttering farm girl got there is the real story.
(opposite Patrick Dempsey in the WB's movie, "With Honors")
I was barely 20 years old when my friend, Peter, called the family farm. Peter had just gotten a job working for an agency that cast extras and small roles in movies that were to be filmed in Chicago. He told me that they were looking for a six foot tall actress to play opposite Patrick Dempsey as his “too tall” girlfriend in a new Warner Brothers flick. Being a corn fed, whole milk drinking, six foot country gal I knew that this had to be the big moment that I had been waiting for since the day I sang “Over the Rainbow” in my Dad’s barnyard.
I didn’t have a headshot yet, so my Mom took a Polaroid picture of me, and we mailed it to casting. Obviously, this was before smartphones and WeTransfer. A week later the casting office called and told me to be in Chicago the very next day for an audition. WHAT?!?! CHICAGO?!?! Home of Al Capone and Gino’s pizza? My hometown was only two miles wide, two miles long, with a population of 1100. Chicago was as scary to me as a horny bull in April. But showbiz was calling, so I decided to grab that bull by the horns and hang on for dear life.
The next day my Dad loaded the family into the pickup truck and off we went to Chicago. We rolled into Chi Town like Land of Lincoln Hillbillies with Hank Williams Jr. playing on the radio. I can count on one hand how many family vacations we had taken in my childhood. So, my Mama looked at this trip to Chicago as a family vacation. You would have thought she had arrived in Paris. They dropped me off at the Four Seasons Hotel, where the audition was being held and gave me a kiss for luck. I remember my Dad tipping his International Harvester ball cap in my direction as they headed off in search of a Chicago Style Hot Dog with extra relish.
As I entered the Four Seasons it became very clear that I was not the only gal who specialized in being tall. The hotel lobby was full of beautiful women all standing at six feet or taller, comparing notes on where to buy long pants and cute shoes in size 12. Was I at an audition for a movie or try outs for the WNBA?
When my name was finally called, I was escorted into a conference room that had been set up for the auditions. As the door opened, I felt like Dorothy Gale entering the land of OZ. The director asked me to stand on a piece of masking tape stuck to the carpet. Then he introduced me to Patrick Dempsey. HOLY RHUBARB PIE!...it’s really him. It’s a bonafide movie star. It’s the “Can’t Buy Me Love” guy. This was obviously before “Grey’s Anatomy” and McDreamy. Then the director asked me to look into the camera and say my name. “Huh? Say my name?” Ok, so here’s the real slap in the face. As I mentioned, I stuttered. And the letter “M” was the most difficult letter in the alphabet for me to pronounce, especially when I was nervous. My name is Melinda. Can you imagine not even being able to say your own name? I swallowed hard, looked into the camera, and said, “Hi, I’m Mmmmm--m-ma-m-ma-Mmmeeeelinda Chilton.” The director winked and told me to relax. He then asked how tall I was. I smiled and held up six fingers. Clever, huh? You can’t stutter, if you don’t talk. The director then asked me to look at Patrick Dempsey and say the line ‘Doesn’t money buy food?’ Really? Are you f-ing kidding me?! Isn’t there any other line in the whole script that doesn’t have an ‘M’ word in it? Damn! I took a deep breath, looked Patrick Dempsey deep into his dreamy eyes and said, “Doesn’t mmmmmoney buy food?” The director suddenly sat up, scooted to the edge of his chair, and said, ”Do it again. This time make it even sexier.” Huh? Well, shit twice and fall back in it. He didn’t realize I was stuttering. He thought it was my ‘character choice’ to try to make the word ‘money’ sound sexy. I took a deep breath and said the line again. And this time, for the first time in my life, I didn't have to try and hide my embarrassing stutter. I let my speech impediment fill the entire room like a well tuned engine purring at a tractor show. “Doesn’t mmmmmMMMMMmmmmmm...mmm...money buy food?” They loved it!
Two days later I received a phone call telling me that I got the part! Holy Moly, I’m gonna be in the movies, Mom!!! Well, not quite. Insert sound of screeching brakes! Another week later, casting called and told me the producers wanted to recast my role. Welcome to show biz, kid. Embarrassingly enough, this call came after my hometown Gazette had printed the story that I was going to be in a movie with Mr. Patrick Dempsey. Word travels fast in a small town. The casting director felt so bad that he suggested that I re-audition for the same role. “They now want to hire a European actress,” the casting director said. “Can you do a European accent?” You’ve got to be kidding! Now, they want me to stutter with an accent?! I channeled my inner Meryl Streep and said, “Ok. How about a Polish accent?” Sounds crazy, huh? Don’t worry. I had a plan.
My Grandparents on my Mother’s side of the family had immigrated to America from Poland. The oldest generation in my family still spoke Polish. My great aunt, we called her Cioca, had a housekeeper who had just arrived in the states from Poland. BINGO! I grabbed my new state of the art cassette recorder and headed straight to my Cioca’s house. When I arrived, Cioca and her housekeeper were already sitting down at the kitchen table with fresh coffee and a plate of homemade paczki--Polish doughnuts. As I ate my warm paczki, I recorded the housekeeper saying the line, “ Doesn’t money buy food,” with her beautiful Polish accent. I listened over and over again to every nuance of her voice. Could this be how Meryl Streep prepared for “Sophie’s Choice”?
The next day I was back at the Four Seasons waiting once again to audition for the same role that had already been given to me and then taken away. This time the lobby was full of women of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Wow, they really changed their minds. Then my name was called. The same lady from my first audition came out and escorted me back into the same room and had me stand in front of the same group of people, and probably on the same piece of tape. This time Mr Dempsey was not in attendance. She told me to just say the line into the camera. With my newly, perfected dialect I said, “Doesn’t mmmmoney buy food?” The director cocked his head and smiled. “Polish?” he asked. Quite pleased with myself, I nodded. “Very nice, he said. Please wait outside in the lobby.”
That’s it? All that work for a thirty second audition? I sat in the lobby for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour passed. I wanted to cry. They’re all going to laugh at me back home. This is more pathetic than that three legged pig in the county fair annual hog race. Then a tear rolled down my cheek. SHIT! I’m gonna start crying in the lobby of the Four Seasons!! I got up and started to run towards the bathroom just as I heard someone say my name. Damn it! I stopped, wiped away my tears, and turned around. The casting director was walking towards me. He seemed as upset as I was. “Can ya believe it?” he asked. “They tell me they want to recast the role. So I arranged a second audition. I put out a new breakdown. I found dozens of new girls to come in and say that one little line. And what happens? They recast the same girl from the first audition. Melinda, you have the part...again. Check your messages when you get home. They want you in wardrobe the day after tomorrow.” Huh? Say what? Did anyone else hear that? I think the three legged pig just won the race. I’m back in the movies, Mom!!!
And that, my friends, is how a stuttering farm girl landed a role in a Warner Brothers movie.TWICE! To top it off, when I got to the set to shoot my big scene, the director told me to drop the Polish accent. I kept the stutter. At least for a few takes.