Thursday, 28 November 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 lessons: lesson # 88 - "Can I get back to you? I'm right in the middle of Naomi Wolf's Vagina."

Courtesy of
Lucky Amy Tan!  Her latest novel The Valley of Amazement has made the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2013, she's spending Thanksgiving in London, and gets to hang out with Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna and me. Well, strictly speaking, she's spending more time hanging with the Humphries but we did spend about an hour last night talking face to face.

It went something like this: me and some 149 other fans rocked up to Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London to hear her sold out talk about her latest book. I got there EARLY, had a nice chat with Andy, Foyles' event manager and possibly the sweetest man in the world, and landed a seat in the front row, directly in front of Amy, having guessed correctly which of the two chairs she would be sat in.

Then me, my tiger pants and hot pink patent Doc Marten's settled in waiting for the show to start. I passed the time reading Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui (Anais Nin and Henry Miller's Chinese baby) and chatting to my two neighbours. There was the lovely Brett, a young American English Lit student from Long Beach California who was spending one semester at the University of Leicester, had come down to London on the bus and was clutching his advance copy of The Valley of Amazement which his Mum had couriered to him from Long Beach. Then there was Brenda, a deep voiced older American lady from LA who turned out to be a documentary maker, a huge Amy Tan fan ('I've brought all 8 books from my collection for her to sign. Only found out this afternoon that she was doing this event and moved heaven and earth to be here.') and an even greater fan of my tiger pants.

The talk was great. Towards the end I was one of 3 picked to ask Amy a question ('In your work, you use elements of your real life mixed in with fiction, do you have any plans to feature Bobo (her Yorkshire Terrier puppy) as a character?')  Not very highbrow but I figured that a month into her book tour, she might appreciate a question she probably hadn't answered before.

The road to restraining orders is paved with good intentions. Instead of informed and fun, I may have come across as the weirdo stalker with a crush on Bobo. But ever the consummate professional, Amy proceeded to answer my question with grace and thoughtfulness. Meeting Amy Tan in the flesh is how people have described meeting Queen Elizabeth II: flawless skin, tiny and luminescent. Amy has a transatlantic accent and a beautifully modulated voice not unlike the female Chinese speaker in my Pimsleur lessons who's pronunciation I'm trying to emulate. Everything she says sounds sexy and precious and in impeccable taste.

Unlike, some would argue, my tiger pants and pink Doc Marten's combo (and Oilyly bag).

I wish I could be her (Amy Tan that is). And if not her, at least her editor. Amy regaled us with an anecdote about working out  how much sexual language and sex scenes to include in her novel, with her (male) editor. At the end of the conversation he said to her: 'Amy, let me think about it. Right now I'm in the middle of Naomi Wolf's vagina.' Turns out he was referring to Wolf's biography 'Vagina' published last year, which he also edited. Imagine being so good at your job that you get to edit Tan and Wolf in tandem.


Speaking of being good, here's an update on my Chinese lessons. I'm becoming more confident constructing more complex questions/answers and have been learning some interesting vocabulary: hobby, listen to music, classical music, read books, novels, gym, running, tai chi and coffee house. I also understand 'fill out this form, please sign here' and 'can I use travellers' cheques - they're in US $ - as I don't have any cash.'

And on the acting front? I met a healthcare specialist a few days ago for the first time and she greeted me with a 'have we met before?'. Now, I get that a lot. I look like people's Irish cousin, a long time friend, a French actress (my personal favourite), or someone on the telly (that would be me in the Heinz tomato ketchup advert which is still running on high rotation here in the UK - long may that continue.) It turns out that although we had never met before, she had indeed seen me before, in my first ever and only corporate gig out of Drama School: a video about the importance of children for clinical studies aimed at Healthcare Professionals. It prompted my husband to quip: 'So, you're big in healthcare.'

Looks like I am.

I'd rather be in the middle of Naomi Wolf's 'Vagina'.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 lessons: lesson number 78 part 2 - "I want my MTV..."

Where were we? Ah yes, I'd just sat down to await my turn for the 'awkward moment' audition having just had an awkward moment of my own with my indiscriminate mention of budgie smugglers...

Casting studio dude: Isabelle? Up you go.
Me: Ok then. Thanks

Director: Hey Isabelle, thanks for joining us. Love your bag!
Me: Thank you.
Director: Everybody, this is Isabelle. You know, the one who shouts 'budgie smugglers' at complete strangers. Maybe we can get her to do it again. Ok Isabelle. Sit at the desk and imagine it's a family dinner table. This is the best holiday dinner ever but it's all about to go wrong. You get splashed with gravy all over but you pretend like nothing happened. You know, stiff upper lip and all that. 
Me: OK.
Director: and... let's do it.
Me: Oh, patron saint of actors and lost causes please give me a sign: do I start now or do I wait for him to say action? 

So I started miming being at the dinner table, eating, passing the salt, checking that my imaginary children had everything they needed, offering them more mash. I really got into it but suddenly realised there would be no cue for the gravy splashing and I'd better get a move on. So I did a weird all over body shudder and then wiped the imaginary gravy off my face and imaginary blouse with my imaginary napkin all the while trying to put a brave face on (which most likely resulted in me looking rather wild eyed and demented.)

Director: O-kay Isabelle... That was good. What was that!? Especially the set up. You took ages!  But can we do the splashing again? And maybe this time you can carry on eating as if nothing happened... You're supposed to be an actor! I'm ever so disappointed  I really expected more from a budgie wrangler. Ah well...
Me: Ok. I'm sorry!
Director: and... let's do it.
Me: Why oh why won't he say action? Or give me a cue for the splashing so I can act surprised? I'm so rubbish. I'm so not getting this job. Why are they even asking me to do it again? 

So I repeated the whole sorry scene, tacking on a bit of brave face eating at the back end but to tell you the truth, my heart wasn't in it. 

Director: Ok. Thank you. I hope the next one's better.
Me: Thank you. I'll never get another audition.


Fast forward to Saturday night and the MTV Staying Alive Foundation charity gala. (Check it out, they do really cool AIDS prevention work for young people.) We had the tux, we had the gown, (and the new trunks). I put on my fiercest face paint (I'd done a dry run a few nights before at 2 in the morning channelling Lady Gaga), sleeked my hair back (do you know how hard it is to slick back a short fringe?) and pulled on my gorgeous new dress. 

I'd bought some gold and silver glitter sprays from Claire's (a UK chain that caters to the beauty needs of the under 12s which is about my styling age as I wasn't allowed to experiment with make up as a teenager) and sprayed it over every inch of exposed flesh - all the while hoping I wouldn't end up like the dead girl in Goldfinger. 

We got to the party early and met up with my friend D. for a game of celebrity spotting: oooh look, there's Boris Becker, Linford Christie, and Julien Macdonald fresh from his stint on Strictly Come Dancing... Then the rest of the party arrived and - this is the thing with my friend D. - his other guests were more interesting than the A-listers! It was like meeting the cast from Cluedo but without a murder:

First there was Miss Scarlet, international conceptual artist who combines beauty, wit, the authority of an admiral, and a deep sense of humanity. She rocked the black fish tail look.

Colonel Mustard was a cool, suave and debonair American, working in DC (he denied being a spy but I'm sorry, regular people do not look that good in a tux). I made a mental note to ask him to explain the plot of Gravity's Rainbow to me once we knew each other better.

Professor Plum (the young cool version): a young engineer who builds Rolls Royce engines in his spare time (just kidding, that's his job). Imagine a cross between David Niven and Marcel Dassault in the making. I thought about my crappy little audition from the day before and cried a little on the inside.

Mrs White (the young sexy version): an opera trained Beijing-based performer with more wit and vim than Truman Capote, and Mr Green (the decadent playboy version) who had some fantastic anecdotes.

Then there was the Willy Wonka of Design, rivalling my friend D in the sweetness stakes. If it were me, and I'd designed the new London bus, and the UK pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo amongst other design wonders of the 21st century, I think I'd cop a bit of a diva attitude. But he was just lovely. He even complimented me on my mother-in-law hand me down of a clutch (which - if truth be told - does rock some pretty nifty giant diamante action) which made me feel 10 feet tall. 

And finally, there was what appeared to be the by-product of a cougar's fantasy: combining the looks of a GQ model, a posh pedigree, rugby player, avid skier, sky diver, linguist, Cambridge scholar with a social conscience and all around cutie. I figure, once God finished putting him together, he took a step back and thought: 'gee I wish I'd based the whole lot of them on this model but I can't be bothered with a world wide recall so I know, I'll just make him a twin!' And he did. (The twin wasn't there because even at an MTV gala, you can only take so much perfection.)

I can attest he was pretty real as he ended up sitting next to me at dinner. I know, right, how lucky was that! Even luckier in the lucky stakes was that my husband sat directly opposite me so I was able to blow kisses and mouth 'I love you's' across the table all evening. 

And that, as they say, is that. 

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 lessons: lesson number 78 part 1 - "The ball gown and the budgie smugglers..."

'Hey, are you guys free on Saturday to join me as my guests at this charity gala black tie thingy? Should be quite an evening. I have a table!'

This delightful invite came through the cyber letterbox on Tuesday morning. Who could resist the chance to play dressing up and spend time with D. an old friend from the Lycee (old as in we've known each other for a long time as opposed to ancient, cos we're the same age so obviously he's quite young.) D. has got to be one of the most lovely and smart people I know -  like, if Warren Buffett and Toblerone had a baby, that would be my friend D. Like totally. 

Now all we needed were some serious grown up red carpet outfits to rock the night. Tux for hubby, gown for me. Easy peasy.

Not so easy as it turned out. Or peasy. First his tux: he needed a new one and seeing that he was in San Francisco for the week (without me but that's another story) I was on tux duty. In case you ever find yourself up the same proverbial creek without a paddle, I mean dilemma, here's a 10 step guide to purchasing a tux without a body:

1. Peruse the myriad of sites dedicated to the art of dressing men with style and good taste.
2. Check out the Brooks Brothers' website recommended by aforementioned sites.
3. Wait (7 hours) for it to be morning in California.
3. Call your husband and ask him to read you the sizes of the Brooks Brothers trousers and blazer he's taken with him.
4. Contact your local Brooks Brothers store and speak to the store manager.
5. Wait for the plumber to show up, fix the tap, and leave so that you can make it to Brooks Brothers before closing time.
6. Take one of your husband's suits with you as a proxy for a body.
7. Play tailor with Iliana the fabulously kind and competent store manager who I imagine moonlights as the fairy godmother.
8. Ask Iliana to put a tux shirt on hold for you (you will then need to run home, grab a measuring tape, follow Iliana's instructions and call her to give her your husband's shirt sleave length)
9. Hand over a some cash.
10. Pray that the tux will fit when your husband comes back and tries it on Friday afternoon.

With the tux sorted, it was time to find an evening gown. Did you know that you could rent a designer gown for the evening for £100 online?  I got a bit carried away and looked at hundreds until it dawned on me I couldn't tell how the dress would translate from the tall skinny model in the picture to me, or what size to order. So I decided to forego the online rental option but not before Google's algorithm  in its wisdom decided to plaster my screen with evening gown offers for ever more...

My next option was to go vintage - the only advantage of living in Shoreditch if you ask me - and so the next night I skipped Yoga with George and dragged myself shopping instead. The first two stores were an unmitigated disaster. One had the types of dresses you'd expect to see in a nightmare about having to shop for a dress the night before your wedding. The other... didn't stock evening gowns. With a heavy heart, I made my way to Rokit on Brick Lane.

Rokit is like Auntie Mame's wardrobe on steroids. You have to go in with a plan and stay focused. Within seconds, I was ambushed by some beautiful Chinese and Japanese robes and coats which I admired and tried on (I blame Amy Tan and her upcoming novel The Valley of Amazement) before coming to my senses and heading for the evening gown rack. Waiting for me were 3 black beaded gowns: 2 halter necks (my favourite option) and one Marilyn like spaghetti straps-ooh-la-la -I'm-not-wearing-anything-underneath chiffon and beads concoction.

I went back to the sales girl who'd joined me in admiring the pink Japanese silk coat and she showed me into the changing room.

The first halter neck looked great on but the beading was in pretty bad shape, so I put it aside as back up. The Marilyn number was... stopped by my shapely Spanish bottom so I never got a chance to see what it looked like because it was A SIZE TOO SMALL. The third halter dress was in beautiful condition with amazing beading. I tried it on and it fit like a glove - with that little extra wiggle room that makes you feel ever so slim! I bopped to Britney Spears' "Poison"  as I admired myself in the (appallingly lit) changing room (which actually gives you cellulite on the back of your hands). The song ended, I took the dress off, checked the price tag (£45!!!) put my yoga gear back on , and headed for the till.

Me: Hi! I'd like to buy this dress please.
Desperate-hipster till boy who was younger than the dress: Yeah...
Me: It's beautiful, and it fits me!
Till boy: Yeah... (pause) It's great for Halloween.
Me (slightly peaved): It's not for Halloween! It's for a black tie dinner!
Till boy: Yeah...


Fast forward to Friday. My husband went to retrieve his tux alone as I had an audition in town. (Brief from the casting director: 'Needs to have a very British awkwardness to them (everyone else go home then cos I'm a shoe in). Interesting to look at. Perhaps larger than average nose, eyes, mouth teeth or ears - maybe not all on the same face!' I love a casting director with a sense of humour.)

As I arrived outside the casting studio, my phone rang with the tux update:

- Tux: double tick, gold star, perfecto! Well done me.
- Tux shirt: not so good, hated the pleats, too big, all wrong. As they say in the Eurovision contest: nul points.

Me: So you're picking up another shirt, do you need me to pick up anything else for you?
Him: I'd like some trunks please.
Me (walking into the lobby and checking my hair in the mirror): Is that like boxers but not so loose? You don't mean the bugdie smugglers?
Him: No definitely not the budgie smugglers, I hate those. The not so loose boxers is what I want.
Me: Ok. No budgie smugglers. Gotta go I'm at the casting now. Call you later.

I walked up the flight of stairs into the open plan reception.

Casting director: What's budgie smugglers?
Reception dude: Like speedos? I think it's an Aussie thing.
Film director: I've never heard the term budgie smugglers...
Casting director: Interesting expression budgie smugglers.

I interrupted: 'Hi, I'm Isabelle Gregson. Sorry, that was my husband, he just bought a tux and needs tighter fitting under pants, but not the really snug speedo type ones, you know: budgie smugglers. Have I made an impression? I hope it's a good one. At any rate you won't forget me any time soon, me and my budgie smugglers. You asked for that very British awkwardness. That awkward enough for you? Cos if not, I can do more! Just say the word. Awkward is my middle name.

So we had a nice chat, all 3 of us, about the merits of male underwear and gala dinners, and then the reception dude handed me a script, I filled out a form, he took a mug shot,  and I went to sit down and wait my turn.

to be continued...

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Learning Mandarin in 90 lessons: lesson number 77 - Happy Halloween!! "I need a dominatrix and I thought of you..."

It's been one of those weeks.

First I discovered that our ex-neighbours (not the rock star in unit 4 who's judging The Voice UK next season but the nice couple below) were most likely professional spies.Then, I was asked to be a dominatrix.

But first let me update you on the Mandarin lessons. In the beginning, I went all Macbeth ('If it were done, when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly.'),cramming 3 lessons a day, to 'only' managing the recommended 1 lesson a day. But I'm still going and determined to finish all 90 lessons.

Then when I'm done, I'll go back to the beginning and do them all over again until it STICKS. All of it.

As I approach the last 6th of the course, it goes without saying that I'm nowhere near qualifying for simultaneous translation gigs. I can however utter full grammatically correct sentences across several subjects ranging from the lackadaisical (going for a walk to the park and stopping by the lovely tea house), to the useful (finding the post office/hospital), to polite small talk (talking about the weather (hot, cold and now cool and warm), to the utilitarian (talking about business trips, hotel reservations, restaurant reservations, travel (by bus, on foot, taxi, subway, train, express train, plane, and boat).

I can talk about family (number of kids, age, where they live, where they study) and as of yesterday I can ask to speak to someone on the telephone, apologise about dialling the wrong number, ask about area codes, phone message and say 'I'll try calling back later'. I can also apologise for being late.

If you were to accompany me on my next trip to China, I could order food/lunch/dinner, although currently limited to ordering Peking Duck and mung bean cake... I'm more versatile when it comes to drinks so you could join me for wine/beer/water/tea (white or green)/coffee or white liquor.

Oh, and I have mastered the most important words in any language: right/left, fast/slow, expensive, good, too much, on/under, above/below, next to, in front of, here, there, where, and get on/get off.

I'd like to add a caveat to the previous paragraphs: I have no idea if my pronunciation is doing this extended vocabulary justice. So far, I've realised on my musical ear; the next step will be to practice with/on some native speakers. I will keep you posted.

Now, back to my ex-neighbours and the possibility that they may be spies - both of them:

First,  I've got form. Three of my friends are DEFINITELY working the dark arts. (I know this because I love them to bits and they are simply too creative, smart, educated and let's admit it - devious, to be doing the most boring/random jobs on naval bases and political hot spots that they claim. And, whenever I've raised it, they've laughed nervously and changed the subject zippity quick. Besides, I've seen Mr and Mrs Smith.)

Second,  I've got evidence that prior to moving into our building our now ex-neighbours did not rent in Islington, London as they told me, but rather owned a brand new flat in Vancouver, Canada. I also know for a fact that they have not since moved to Australia as they assured me but are now living in Germany.

Third, between them, they speak  about 10 languages (the kind that you'd want to speak if you spent your days eavesdropping on potential terrorists and cyber hackers).

Finally, I was rather fond of them and would rather think of them skulking around some embassy in cat burglar outfits than as pathological liars.

What's this about being a dominatrix? I was asked to play the part of a dominatrix in a brand new feminist play about (amongst other things) bikini wrestling - on the recommendation of an ex-tutor from drama school (I must've made quite an impression). I had to turn it down because it clashed with another project - but I was tickled pink to be asked.

Plus, that's this year's Halloween costume sorted.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Learning Mandarin in 90 lessons: lesson # 65 - "When being boring becomes an occupational hazard..."

It all started innocuously enough with two texts and three emails from my lovely agent. An audition (tick!), for a corporate film (un-tick!), paying a decent fee and travel to Berlin (re-tick!).

The brief on the second email read: "Business woman, mid 30s. She comes across as rather uptight and mean but that's only because she is a very busy business woman (unlike you, friendly actors, who are never busy). Underneath it, she's quite nice. Please wear full business attire (ie don't show up in your ripped jeans and with holes in your shoes.) to the audition. Scripts to follow (ie please learn your lines)."

The third email arrived the following day, with a script attached. (Note the use of the singular.) With my memorising skills in elite athlete shape thanks to the daily Mandarin lessons, I had my (four) lines memorised in no time.

Next morning, I took the business suit out of the wardrobe, still in the dry cleaner's protective plastic.This suit was a tried and tested stalwart: stretchy and forgiving, even on a fat day. But not today. As I zipped up the trousers, the seams tensed against my inner thighs and set off the voices:

French Isabelle: Oh la la la la! Je suis enorme!
British Isabelle: Maybe the fabric needs a bit of time to relax, you know, after the dry cleaning...
French Isabelle: Mais non! It's FAT I tell you. Ow could I let zis happen...
Spanish Isabelle: Stop it! Look, your bottom it looks like a sexy pomelo!
British Isabelle: Maybe its the Body Pump class, all those squats. You know you bulk up really easy...
French Isabelle: Oh let's just go, on va etre en retard.*

I stepped out of the tube station at lunchtime into passive aggressive rain: wet enough to turn fashion forward hair into an unruly matronly mop but not wet enough to warrant the use of an umbrella without coming across as the "Not the hair! Not the hair!" type.

I pulled out my black collapsible umbrella and strode purposefully towards the casting studio. The entrance overflowed with 20 year olds - definitely not in full or even limited business attire -  filling out their casting forms. A very shouty piece of French rap blared from the shelf behind the greeter's desk. I felt old and overstuffed in my suit and glared at the greeter.

Me: Hi, I'm Isabelle Gregson.
Greeter: Gregson... Gregson? It's upstairs.

I made my way upstairs to the other waiting room where four older actors in identikit dark blue business attire sat studying their scripts. Suddenly I felt young again and ooh look, I was in my brown tweed flared pant suit from Fenwick of Bond Street paired with my red patent leather heels from Rucco Linea. For a moment, I even forgot the tightness of my trousers. "Hi!". The blond lady seated across from me looked suitably uptight and didn't respond.

I made a point of not studying my script, because I knew my four lines and, as everybody knows, over-studying the script is an audition killer. Anyway, I hadn't brought the script with me. (They always hand out copies in the waiting room. As in always except for today.)

Suddenly one of the children from downstairs made his way past us towards the sign marked "Toilet". The bathroom boasted a floor to ceiling version of saloon doors last seen swinging to an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. I knew from experience (I'd been here before) that the space between those swinging doors and the actual toilet door was so short that you couldn't help being propelled rather painfully against that second door as soon as the saloon doors swung behind you.



As we waited, the toilet doors went on to claim another 3 or 4 victims. We waited some more. And a bit more after that. The man seated to my right suddenly announced rather pompously that by his calculations, they were now running about half an hour late.

Suddenly the casting studio door opened and we all looked up expectantly. A middle aged man in a rumpled business suit came out, grabbed his coat, yelled "laser!" and left, chuckling. Finally the casting director came out.

Casting director: I'm terribly sorry to have kept you waiting. We're running a bit late. Just to recap: you're playing the BORING business person. But by the end of the script, you're quite engaged by the Tom character, he's young and cheeky and you'll let your personality shine through.

She turned to Mr. Pompous: Richard, follow me, your next.
Mr. Pompous (getting up to follow her): I think I may have learnt the wrong part...
Casting Director: Oh dear! Come with me.

The slightly chubby friendly looking man sitting across from me pointed at the toilet sign and asked me: "I'm sorry, I haven't been keeping track, is there anyone left in there?" I shook my head no. And with that, he got up, braved the swinging doors and collided with the girl who was coming out.

Mr Pompous reappeared a few minutes later script in hand and sat back down next to me.

Me (leaning over) It's a much shorter part, there aren't too many lines to learn.
Mr. Pompous: There are two scripts! They've given me 20 minutes to learn them...
Me: Did you say two scripts?

The Casting director reappeared: "Stephen?"
Mr. Chubby: Yes?
Casting director: Did you learn the right part?
Mr. Chubby: Yes, I think so...
Casting Director: Oh good man! Follow me!
Me: Excuse me, are we supposed to have one or two scripts?
Casting Director: Two.
Me: I only got script 3.
Casting Director (rolling her eyes): Agents!  Wait here. No, not you Stephen, you come with me.

She returned with a script. Turns out Script 1 had a lot more lines...

Twenty minutes later, Mr. Chubby reappeared, collected his belongings and left. The casting director's child - I mean assistant -  sauntered in behind him: "Hi everybody! Why don't you tell me your names so I can cross you off my list!"

'Everybody' - all four of us - dutifully gave their name and waited expectantly.

Casting director's assistant:  Thank you!... So... which one of you is Isabelle?

Me: Tell me, are you - and this is a stab in the dark so correct me if I'm wrong - were you by any chance the one responsible for emailing us the scripts? I'm Isabelle. 

Casting director's assistant: Really?

Me: Oh let me check. Am I? Ooh I don't know! Where's my brain?

I followed her into the casting studio. The casting director had disappeared.

Casting director's assistant: That's John on camera. Meet Mark, he's going to play Tom. Mark this is...
Me: Seriously? Isabelle.
Casting director's assistant: ... Isabelle who is playing the BORING businesswoman but by the end of it she'll be quite into you because you're a cheeky monkey type and the subtext... no that's another script.
Me: Did you just say subtext? Sorry, which script are we doing first?
Casting director's assistant (waving some papers at me from across the room): This one. And action!

Turns out it was Script 1. Turns the cheeky monkey didn't know his lines. Turns out he talked over me and left awkward pauses and stared at me expectantly whenever he thought it was my turn. Turns out he stood upstage which made it hard for me to talk to him and face the camera at the same time...

Casting director's assistant:  Mark, you're starting to remember your lines!! That's GREAT! Let's go again. Isabelle please face the camera, I'm getting too much of your profile. And action!

I wanted to slap him. He made me feel uptight and mean and not even 'quite nice underneath.'  He made my suit feel even tighter

We moved on to the second script. Twice. Turns out didn't know his lines for this one either. I wanted to bash him over the head with subtext.

On the positive side, I won't be seeing him again as neither of us will be getting a call to pack a bag, grab the passport and board that EasyJet flight to Berlin come Tuesday morning. And that's fine by me... I've got quite a busy week.

* We're going to be late

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Learning Mandarin in 90 lessons - lesson #47: "I'm going all Kim and Aggie on that ..."

Auditions are like the proverbial buses: nothing for a while and then several come along at once. The phone rang; it was my agent. My face lit up like a Martha Stewart Christmas tree not just because my agent is super lovely but because I guessed they were calling to tell me that I'd landed the crazy lady part from the other day.

They weren't.

Which just goes to prove either that life is unfair, or that actors have an inordinate sense of optimism.

Me: Hi!
Lovely agent: Hi Isabelle, did you get my email?
Me: No! Did I get the part?
Lovely agent: I don't know (agents are pragmatic types and cut to the chase) I'm calling you about another audition.
Me: Oh, cool!
Lovely agent: Are you online?
Me: Hang on, I'm logged into my other hotmail at the moment. (I've been using it since 1996 so have earned the right to carry on calling it that. I'm not calling it Outlook. It's my one woman private protest against the Microsoft corps.)
Me: Sorry, I can't seem to log in right now. (Microsoft!!)
Lovely agent: It's for tomorrow afternoon. Thing is, let me read you the casting description...
Me: Ok. Why do they feel the need to check with me, is it another nude part? Do I need to cluck like a hen or bark like a dog? Do I have to kiss a girl...
Lovely agent: It says needs to look like she has a lot of money.
Me: ??
Lovely agent (reading): She needs to be dressed like she has cash in the bank.
Me: I'm an actor, I can pretend I'm loaded!
Lovely agent: (laugh) Just go looking French, that always impresses the English!

The next morning, I checked my email (Problem resolved. Thank you Microsoft.) and read the casting description for extra intel. "She needs to be quite striking with red hair if possible and glamorous looking - she needs to look like she’s got money!" Well darn it if I didn't wear my hair bright red for the past year and have only just grown it out back to its natural colour (in anticipation of dyeing it platinum blonde but that's another story). 

Luckily I still had my trusted red bob wig and emailed agent accordingly (with reference picture) to ask which incarnation should attend the audition. 

"No, stick with your normal chic!" 

I'm telling you, just lovely. 

I slapped on the face paint (I've been going au naturel since Shanghai so I felt like I'd awaken my inner drag queen) put on all of my jewelry (and I mean all of it), and took my most prized purse out of storage (it's a pastel pink Daisy bag from Tanner Kroller circa 2004 and cost so much money that I still wince when I think about it).

The casting studio was in the basement of a crumbling Clerkenwell warehouse. (A proper run down ruin of a thing that would make Shoreditch desperate hipsters tremble in their too tight and ill fitting trousers. Ha!) A trio of Balkan pirates lurked in the courtyard puffing on their cigarettes and glared at me. I spared a thought for the hipsters as I hurried inside. 

So imagine my surprise then when I found myself walking into a... salon.

Well, I looked like a salon! It had a black glass chandelier hanging from the ceiling, a huge gilded mirror, statement wall paper on one wall, designer upholstered vintage chairs and a cutie on the front desk with a bleached under cut, a tight black leather t-shirt and a strong European accent. And a lisp.

Me: Hi!
Cutie: Bonjour! What ith your nombre?
Me: I'm Isabelle.
Cutie: I'm tho thorry. We've jutht had a bit of an akthident here and I need to print out thome more formth.
Me: Is everything ok?
Cutie: It wath jutht a cup of coffee but it went all over the dethk!
Me: Sorry to hear that. I'll just sit over here. There's no rush.
Cutie: (grabbing paper towels and giving the desk an energetic rub down) I'm going all Kim and Aggie on thith one...

The young casting director popped her head around the corner. 

Casting director: Hi!
Me: Hi!
Casting director: We'll be with you in a minute. I spilt my coffee all over the desk just now, it went all over the forms...
Me: Ah.
Casting director: Jose, I'm so so sorry.
Jose the cutie: (with a big smile)  It'th OK. You didn't do it on purpoth.
Casting director: You know Jose, I don't know what you were on about. Your teeth look great, I should have put you up for that part last week. Why didn't you want to do it?
Jose the cutie: Well, latht Dethember I wath doing The X Factor and even on thothe big showth they don't pay you till three month after. Tho I thought I'm going to take a break from being a danther!

Yeah, me neither.

After a while, I was called into the audition room with a kind looking and smiling fellow auditionee named Jonathan.

Director: Hi! So the ethos of this film... Ethos. Did he really say ethos? Is about the moment when you discover the piece of furniture of your dreams.
Me and Jonathan: Ok.
Director: Good. We're going to start with you Isabelle.
Me: Shall I use my bag as a prop?
Director: No, just put it down over there. But it's a Tanner Krolle! I want you to imagine that this (pointing at the couch) is a bed and I want you to sit on the edge demurely at first, then lie back, and exhale.
Me: Ok.
Director: And I want to hear you go 'phhhhh'...

I refrained from cracking an off colour joke about the actress, the director and the casting couch and instead did as I was told.

Director: And cut! That was great... Oh dear... but you didn't say 'perfect'. Oh, he meant 'perfect' not 'phhhhh'! I'm so glad I skipped the casting couch joke.
Me: Oh, right! Sorry.

So I did it again and made sure to say 'perfect'.

Director: Good. Now Jonathan, you stand here. Isabelle you sit on the chair over here and pretend you are sitting at a dining room table. It's the dining room table of your dreams and you love it. And Jonathan here is your husband and I want you to get more and more excited about the table and catch his eye and say "I love it!!!"
Me and Jonathan: Ok.
Director: Roll the tape. Action!

So we did the scene a few times. And a few times more for good measure.  I started to feel slightly demented after the 10th "I love it!!!!!" "I love it!!!" but also indulged in a nice bit of miming as I checked the edges of the imaginary glass table of my dreams.

I thought Jonathan did great. I was sure he'd get the part.

Stepping back out into the waiting room, I found Jose the Cutie helping a very buff very beautiful model who was struggling with the zipper on his bag. He looked like Seal.

Seal: do you have some safety pins? I've got to ride home on my bike and this bag won't close.
Jose the Cutie (disappearing behind a door) I don't have thafety pinth but we have a thtappler. We'll go all retro punk!
Seal: (zipping up the bag) Got it!!!
Jose the Cutie (coming back in with the stappler): Here!
Seal: Thanks but I fixed it.
Jose the Cutie: Oh!
Seal: Thanks anyway.

And with that, Seal took himself out of our lives and back into the glossy pages of whatever high end fashion magazine he'd temporarily stepped out of. Jose the Cutie looked heart broken.

If Jonathan's up against Seal for the part, he doesn't stand a chance.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Learning Mandarin in 90 lessons - Lesson 45: A man wearing a kilt walks into a room...

I finished work quite late last night which is why it wasn't till past 9pm that I discovered that (a) my wonderful agent had got me an audition, (b) the audition was for the following afternoon, (c) there were 2 pages of monologue to memorise. For once, and I hope I'm not jinxing it, I think I may have a decent chance of landing the part. The casting blurb read: "European looking, not too English: TICK; shouldn't look down market: TICK; should look like she's had some bad experiences but still look attractive: TICKish." 

Further, the shoot is scheduled for the (UK) August Bank Holiday weekend: TICK!!!!; and the script calls for some harrowing emotional depth which is right smack bang in the middle of my range (those who dislike me might even say that it constitutes my whole range but there are very few of those people around, and most of them live - like - in my head.)

So this morning after I sprang out of bed extra early, I turned on the iPad, downloaded the script and set to learning my lines as I prepared breakfast. (I'm a girl, it's called multi-tasking.) Luckily, one of the (many) side benefits of studying Mandarin with La Methode de Pimsleur is that my memory is sharp sharp sharp and it took me less than half an hour to memorise the text.  

Then I spent some time making the script specific to me. (It's a Method thing... it's about creating make believe for myself so that I don't have to 'act'. 'Acting' terrifies me because I still don't know how to do it - and instead I can just 'be'. Or 'do'.) 

Later, over my lunch break (Mandarin lesson #45 which means I am half way to learning 'basic Chinese'!!) I headed off to the audition. On the way there, I ran into my good friend and sexiest Samba dancer alive Miss G. I took to be a good omen. (TICK!!)

I walked at a leisurely pace through the throng of tourists and played 'spot the men in kilts'. There were everywhere: walking down the street, in car parks, standing outside pubs, entering betting shops. My guess is it was either some sort of experiential promotion for Scotland Tourism, or they'd beaten a hasty retreat down South to avoid all the Southerners swarming their beloved Edinburgh with poncy plays.

Either way, I soon reached the door of the casting studio and was buzzed in by a young and friendly male voice. I climbed the stairs (see what I mean about the stairs) to the first floor and walked into a singularly sparsely decorated space. Table: one. Chair: one. Bin: two. Phone charger plugged in wall: one. Small 2 person sofas: four. One very blue carpet.

I filled out my form, had my mug shot taken and sat down waiting for my turn. 

God I hate actresses. 

Oh come on, you know what I mean, not my friends who are actresses, ACTRESSES.

Let me explain. I have nothing against jobbing actresses, nothing even against the schoolgirls/talent school types who show up in full Cheryl Cole make up, with skirts up to here and cleavage down to there. What I dislike is the middle aged, embittered actress full of self-hatred because she's lost her figure, (or worse: angry because she's starving herself to keep that figure), or her looks, or sex appeal. 


Casting assistant: Come in!

She made her entrance with a stroller and two (rather sweet) children in tow, proceeded to interrogate (antagonise!) the lovely casting assistant about the job, then abruptly left the room (and her kids) to take a call about a house she was in the process of buying. She wore a skirt up to there, revealing some pretty good and tanned pins, and some black patent leather pumps that made her feet bulge out.


A friendly looking lady walked in and I picked up my purse to make room for her next to me. I thought a bit of conversation would help wash off the bad karma from Madam Real Estate.

Me: "Nice trousers."

Miss Green Trousers: Thanks. (in a stage whisper) They're from a charity shop. I wear them all the time.

Me (realising too late the error of my ways and desperately trying to close the door I had unwittingly opened): That's nice.

Miss Green Trousers: Do they have a copy of the script? To the casting assistant: Do you have a copy of the script? I only got mine on email at 9 o'clock last night. Go ahead, you antagonise him too, that's just what we need.

Me: It's not that long, it's mostly description.

Miss Green Trousers: Oh I know! It's not a problem.

I started to dislike her green trousers.

Sound of footsteps and then a door (not the front door) opened and Mr. M the casting director walked into the room. 

Mr. M: Hello!

All of us: Hello!

Mr. M: You don't need to be word perfect, just ad lib if you don't remember the words, we just want to see a natural performance straight down the lens.

Miss Green Trousers: You mean straight down the lens. 

Me: !!!

Mr. M: ? Yes, you direct your performance towards the camera, as if you were being interviewed. 

Miss Green Trousers: So, down the lens...

Mr. M turning to the lady seated on the other side of me: Helen! Hi! We'll start with you.

Helen and Mr. M disappeared behind the door.

Madam Real Estate came back in, phone call finished, and sat down. She gave the perfectly behaved children some sweets ('To keep them quiet!') and handed the little boy a device which he proceeded to switch on allowing us all to share in the inane voice over of whatever children's programme he was watching. 

Madam Real Estate to casting assistant: Where are the toilets?

Maybe I'd been too hasty despatching the green trousers.. but before I had a chance to re-engage the casting assistant said: "Isabelle, it'll be your turn next."

Me: Oh good! Thanks. 

Sound of footsteps again, the not-the-front-door door opened and out popped Helen. She gathered her things and on her way out threw a collective "Good luck ladies!" over her shoulder, which given that there was only one female part smacked of passive aggression and hypocrisy.

I let it slide. 

Now it was my turn. What a dilemma! Did I go in right away or wait for a sign? What if they were waiting for me behind that door? 

Suddenly Mr M. bounded out, grabbed the casting list from his assistant and gazed wildly around the room.

Mr. M: Now, who is Isabelle?

Me (getting up with enthusiasm): It's me!

Mr. M: Hmmm, ha. Who do we have next?

Casting Assistant: Isabelle.

Mr M: Hmmm, ha. Hmmm.

This isn't one little bit awkward. I'm an actor, I can use this in my performance. This is a gift!!!

Mr. M: (Finally. To me.) It's up the stairs.

I went through the door and discovered the narrowest and steepest little stairwell in London. I smiled to myself at the thought of Madam Real Estate in her patent leather stilettos. Karma!

At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a mob of about 10 people. Seriously, I had a bigger audience than some of the shows at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Me to them: Hi! I'm Isabelle.

Them as a chorus: Hi Isabelle!

Mr M. suddenly appearing behind me: take a seat.

I took the proffered seat. 

Mr. M: state your name and go straight into the monologue. And remember, straight down the lens.

And we were off.

Mr. M: and cut. 

One from the mob: that was good. Now I'd like you to do it again, talking straight down the lens Isabelle!!! please and in the bit where you talk about your daughter, make it feel like it's hard for you to say.

Me: ok! Sorry about the lens thing!

Mob: Not a problem!!

And we were off again. Now the beauty of preparation is that if you trust that it's there and you leave it alone, it'll rise to the surface all by itself. That's the theory. In practice it's quite hard because you have to let yourself be, you have to leave yourself alone and trust that the work you've done will find its way into the performance so that you're not acting you are reacting...

I got to the bit about the daughter and a wave of sadness and fear rose in me and I surfed all the way down its spine and the room went so quite and no one moved till the end. 

One from the mob: and cut! That was great. Thank you so much.

Mr. M: thanks, very good. 

I got up, thanked them all, wished them a good afternoon and negotiated my way back down the stairs and back into the waiting room. 

Me (to casting assistant): That's me done. Thank you. See you later. 

And I walked back out into the sunshine and throng of tourists. Back into the real world, albeit one full of men wearing kilts.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days: days 8 and 9 - L is for (old) Lesbian part 2


The door latch released and I was buzzed into the building. I climbed the stairs, up all 4 floors (what is it with casting directors and their aversion to lifts?), collected myself on the landing and removed my glasses. (I may be shortsighted and contact lenses intolerant but my acting persona refuses to wear glasses.) I knocked and wandered in.

It was a big industrial loft space. I made out an empty receptionist desk ahead of me and some tall potted plants to my left and took a few steps forward. And a few more.

Suddenly Mr. D materialised at my elbow.

Mr D: Mwah mwah.
Me: Mwah mwah.
Mr D: Hello lovely, take a seat. (He gestured vaguely in the direction of the potted plants.) I'll be with you in a tick.
Me: Ok!

I made my way back to the entrance and the potted plants and found the waiting area. I took off my jacket and sat down in a corner of the wooden bench dotted with cushions. Very boho. Someone had left their purse and jacket on the bench opposite. The wall was covered in movie posters. Then I heard it. The distinct sound of the ocean lapping a sandy beach 'Woooosshhh, moooooosshhhh, booooosshh, poooooshh.... ' emanating from behind the potted plants. I peered into the leaves but failed to uncover the lagoon, instead I spotted one of those white noise machines.

Before I had a chance to reflect any further on the sound accoutrement, a door opened and a tall, I mean TALL and slinky girl dressed all in black with a few visible tattoos and an eyebrow piercing emerged from a meeting room. She shook hands with a friendly looking lady, sashayed across the hard wood floor, swept up her purse and jacket and floated out the front door.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days - days 7 and 8: L is for Lesbian

I received a slightly apologetic call from my lovely agent yesterday afternoon.

"I know you're busy with work but Mr. D (casting director for feature films) called up and specifically requested you for a project. D'you think you could free yourself up to go to the audition?"


Is the Pope Catholic?

I dutifully freed up my diary for Monday lunchtime.


Right on cue an email arrived from my agent (lovely and efficient), confirming the audition time and place and providing me with some details about the project as supplied by the casting director.

It read: Indie feature film. Profit share. (ie no pay upfront but we'll feed you and if we make any money you'll get a piece of it). Lesbian subject matter.

I'd rather it paid something upfront but other than that, I look forward to meeting up with Mr D. for the first time in 4 years.

I'll now throw in some insight into the inner paranoid workings of an actor's mind - free of charge:

I met Mr D straight out of drama school. I wasn't auditioning for him you understand, it was more of a meet and greet kind of thing. He was very kind and complimented me on my coat. Then I didn't hear from him again and I assumed he'd:

a) decided I was a an appalling actor (they can tell you know, even without an audition to go by)
b) forgotten about me (there's always the proverbial exception to confirm the rule)
c) black listed me (for some obscure, unknown and unspecified reason. I guess just because, you know, he could)
d) all of the above

But no! All this time, he'd had me sitting in the giant doll house of his mind, where (I imagine) he keeps his collection of actors.

I felt a rush of warmth and gratitude towards Mr D and looked forward to our lunch meeting. He'll be well impressed when I mention in passing that I'm learning to speak Mandarin and aiming to be conversational by mid September. I mean, I'll be impressed! I might even get the lesbian part without having to audition.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm not conversational yet, seeing that I have just completed lessons 7 and 8 of Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese part 1. So how is it going?

I'm still getting the 'OMG! I can't remember a thing' feeling at the end of each lesson so I have been making sure to run each session twice, in some cases preceded by a third run of the previous day's lesson for good measure. Only now I break it up: one hour in the morning, half an hour in the afternoon. That way I'm keeping up to speed but my brain doesn't explode.

Something else I've noticed is that I catch myself uttering words and phrases out loud in Mandarin - and sometimes I don't even understand what I'm saying. Sometimes it happens at night.

Do you think that's slightly freaky?  I'm more inclined to think I'm mimicking young children's behaviour when they start talking: Ma! Mah! Mamamamamamamama! Papa! Papa! Chicken! Cow pat poo! Bird pat poo! (These last two shamelessly borrowed from Aardman's Creature Comforts.)

Or in my case: where is the Beijing Restaurant? I want to eat now. I don't want to eat later. I want to eat lunch. And my favourite: I don't want to eat at your place... but I'd like to do some shopping. (That will come in really handy in the Chinese Soap when I get cast as the Western gold digger.)

There's also the faint possibility - it's only a vague impression for now - that this language programme is actually an alien's experiment in human behavioural brainwashing. Here's an example:

I'm being taught to say 'I would like to drink some tea, or some beer.' The thing is I like to drink water not beer. But I'm not being taught how to say 'water', and if they don't teach me how to say it before the end of the course, I may very well feel compelled to switch to drinking beer. D'you follow?

Like I said it's just the faintest outline of a possibility, for now. But let's keep an eye on it.

Until tomorrow...

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days - days 5&6: "Freak Out! Le Freak c'est Chic..."

Go on.

Humour me for a moment and close your eyes.

Imagine you're standing on a treadmill.

Visualise the dash board. For those who can't or wont trust a freestyle approach, there's a programme button to set the type of exercise you might want:  interval, gradual climb, high intensity, etc...

Are you still with me?

Right. Now, open your eyes.

What do all these programmes have in common? A warm up section before they get down to business.

So why did I think for a minute that my 90/90 Chinese Lesson Masterplan would be any different?

Because lessons 1-4  were a walk in the proverbial park, that's why.

I thought to myself: 'this learning Mandaring business is a piece of (moon) cake.'


That's one piece of cake I won't be eating any time soon.

Words, so many new words:  Long Peace Road. College Street. Over here, over there, everywhere. Go to. Want to. Don't want to. Now. When. Later. Not later. Not Now. Your place/my place (you never know when that could come in handy). When? Where?

Then I remembered the underlying philosophy of this intense language programme: listen, repeat, and relax!

So I did. Repeat that is. And repeat. And repeat...

Now I can say Long Peace Road and I can say Street but try as I may 'College' is just not going in. I'm just going to have make my (Long) peace with it and let it go.

I listened and repeated, and listened and repeated again. I played back lesson 5 twice, and stopped and started until I got it right. Today I even replayed lesson 5 a third time before moving on to lesson 6 which I then went over twice.

That's an hour and a half of Mandarin.

My brain is so addled right now it's probably shrunk to the size of a raisin. Please don't ask me anything. Especially not how to say 'College' in Mandarin because I may just squash you  like a bug as I fall over in a coma.

I won't know whether the overdrive (some would say commitment, but I think crazy's more like it) pays off until lesson 7 but I promise to keep you posted.

Until  tomorrow...

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days - Day 4: Spending the day as a totally ordinary person

I'm the kind of person who gets to the airport at least 4 hours before scheduled departure so leaving myself 5 minutes to walk from Piccadilly Tube station to the Soho casting studio was really cutting it fine.

Then I had a senior moment. Where was Beak Street? I stood on Brewer Street, staring at the street sign across the street willing it to read Beak Street. But it wouldn't, it read Brewer Street.

I know Beak Street. My old hair dresser (before he got famous and moved to LA) was based in Beak Street. Beak Street used to be my home away from home. But there I stood on Brewer Street, outside Scoop, unable for the life of me to conjure up Beak Street in my mental map. Soho's not a good place for asking directions because these days most shops are manned by people who live out in the burbs and who have no intimate knowledge of the area.  Then I saw it, no not Beak Street but a locksmith's with two old types behind the counter who looked like they'd been in there since the days when Soho was all strippers, hookers and porn cinemas.

Me: "Hello. Excuse me may I ask (which incidentally I now know how to say in Mandarin) where is Beak Street?" (and as of today I can also say that in Mandarin)
Guy #1 behind the counter: Beak Street you say? Dunno. Pete, d'you know where Beak Street is?
Guy #2 behind the counter (a.k.a Pete): Beak Street? Isn't that off Rupert Street?

Me: Where the h*^% is Rupert Street? Do you have an A to Z or a map?
Guy #1: I don't have an A to Z...
Me: Really? No me neither, I  used to, back in the day when the dinosaurs roamed the earth but now I have an app on my smart phone. But it's on the blink for some reason so that's why I'm asking a human being for direction.
Guy #1: ... but I have a map!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days - Day 3: In conversation with French Meerkats

The casting brief from my agent read: "French mum, 30-35, doesn't need to be too pretty..." Now, this is what separates the starry eyed wannabees from the hardened pros. First, bypass the Ego. Let me tell you something: ugly/old/stupid/nerdy/unsexy, they're all good. I'm not a swimsuit model, I'm a method actor. I can play 10 different types of pimple if required. You want ugly? I can do ugly! You want me to interact with an imaginary talking stoat/meerkat? You want me to deliver the lines in French even though the script is in English? Yes Yes Yes. Hey, I'll play the stoat if you want me to (it's a long running campaign so the puppet is probably getting paid more than the real people).
It's day 3 of Mandarin lessons so I'm not quite ready to do an advert in Mandarin but in 87 days, well, it may be a whole other story... What if I get cast in a long running soap on Chinese TV? Eastenders/BBC casting: eat your heart out!
So how are the lessons going? They're going well. The trick is to relax into it and not get hung up if you can't remember a word or expression. It's a bit like the Heathrow Express: if you miss one, you know there'll be one along in another 15 minutes. What new words have I learned?  "Here", "there", "where"... and most importantly: "I don't understand what it is you are saying." Betcha that's going to come in really handy (especially as I'll be hearing that being said to me quite a bit).
Until tomorrow...

Monday, 17 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days - Day 2: Of Pimms and Plimsolls

Cannes Festival?
French Open?
Summertime in London?
Not last time I checked.

It's 27 C (that's about 84F) in Shanghai. I'm just putting that out there. Make of it what you will.

Where was I? Day 2 of the Mandarin Chinese lessons. Here's something weird: I'm remembering words today that I couldn't remember yesterday during the lesson. It's like my brain's been studying in its own time.

Worth every penny. (Now if only I could get my body to exercise in its own time, like when I'm sleeping. I'm just saying.)

So what's the secret?

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Learning Chinese in 90 days - Day 1: .As the Frog Said to the Beijing Duck...

I'm learning Mandarin.

You heard it here first (well, technically speaking my Facebook friends read it first on Facebook but you're getting the context).

It all started with lunch at the Albion Caff with a long lost Anglo-Scottish friend from the Lycee who's spent the last 20 years in China. What can I say? Blame it on the pork and apple sauce (him) orthe devilled kidneys (guess who), or on my drinking a shot of espresso for the first time in a couple of months, but I decided then and there that I was going to learn to speak Mandarin, like now, right away, tout de suite, immediatamente.