A Dog Named Humphrey
Identity Confusions Arise On the Set of Gossip Girl
When the opportunity to appear on the teen drama Gossip Girl came my way, I felt like I had won a contest. Not a contest it would have occurred to me to enter, but the type of contest of which I am dimly aware as a result of living in the world. Instead of objects, the prizes are people. Yes, people. Be pulled onstage by Bono and have him lick your face! Have lunch with Kate Moss! Many philosophical confusions arise—for both the winner and the prize—when it comes to packaging real people and presenting them as if they were objects to be bid upon and bartered. For one thing, it strikes me as vaguely denigrating to the celebrities. The underlying message to civilians seems to be that a celebrity life is best accessed not through hard work or talent but through lottery-type luck. What a lesson. And what of the civilians? Are we not setting ourselves up to feel badly about our modest level of notoriety, a level with which we were perfectly comfortable just the day before? Then there’s the shame of the thrill, the tiny hope that someone famous will turn around and call you a natural. Is there not something slightly, well, gross about being as tickled as we are by celebrity culture? We are, at best, pleased by the scraps. We are, at worst, validated by them.
This was the kind of social paranoia swirling around my head when I got the call. The prize I’d won—the chance to mingle, and for a moment be an equal, with the actors on the set of Gossip Girl—was not initially meant to be mine. Hollywood is not known for its sensitivity; I was told outright that a more-famous writer had already been offered the walk-on and declined. The news that someone I respected would not do what I was willing to do in a heartbeat had absolutely no effect on me. I knew some people who slavishly followed Gossip Girl and I wasn’t one of them. Still, I knew what it was, I was familiar with the premise, and I knew what channel it was on. The show is what my grandmother used to call “good junk.” Ergo—I wanted to be on Gossip Girl. I told myself that the famous author had clearly said no because she was unfamiliar with the show’s good-junkiness, not because she was weighing the benefits of being on such a show, and making her decision based on what an author who hopes to be taken seriously should and should not do.
But when I hung up the phone, I thought: Which is what, exactly?
What’s unclear to me, even now, is how I missed the part where I would be playing myself. I knew I wasn’t being solicited for my acting skills. But I thought I’d just be a nameless extra, waving while someone pulled my skateboard in slow motion across the background.
I learned otherwise when the script was emailed to me the night before. The scene is a book party thrown in honor of the book’s author, Dan Humphrey, the scruffy DUMBO-based progeny of a former rock star and, as such, a distastefully pedigreed outsider to the Upper East Side world of Gossip Girl. Dan, because he attended an exclusive high school (the Constance Billard/St. Jude’s School, a fictionalized version of Nightingale-Bamford) and dated one of its queen bees, has snuck an insider peek (thus the title of his book, meant ironically: Insider) at a life he is doomed to distantly watch. This condemnation becomes increasingly hard to swallow as the series unfurls, given Dan’s social, carnal, and claustrophobically familial (his father marries his girlfriend’s mother) connections to this cloistered world. None of these ties deters him from jotting down his spiky observations. And observe he has done. After scoring a short-story publication in the New Yorker as a high-school junior (an “in your dreams” incident of implausibility that’s become increasingly plausible in these days’ youth-prized scribes), Dan, in true Truman Capote fashion, writes a “biting the hand that feeds him” roman à clef about his tony friends and the socially stratospheric family into which his father has married. He is then embarrassed by the publication because he fears they will confuse fact and fiction, as they probably should.
In my scene, a young woman playing a literary agent escorts me to a group of actors. These include Dan’s father and stepmother (Rufus Humphrey and Lily van der Woodsen, played by Matthew Settle and Kelly Rutherford) and their stepson, a dastardly but lovable peer of Dan’s (Chuck Bass, played by Ed Westwick). Chuck is the motherless son of a ruthless business scion; his broody eyebrow-acting is a triumph. Gossip Girl is not so much about teenagers with grown-up problems as it is about New Yorkers with Dallas problems.
According to the script, I am to be presented in a manner reminiscent of Wikipedia: The Movie:
“And this is Sloane Crosley,” says the literary agent.
She is instructed to step aside and gesture, then she helpfully adds, “the best-selling author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake.”
Then the whole group is then meant to ooh and ahh as if I had invented the cheese grater.
As one of the many people who goes through life not being Bono, I was grateful for the plug. I just didn’t want to be standing right there, the camera zooming in on my face as I watched the plug enter the outlet. At a real book party, such information would be encased in a quiet murmuring and the subject would be across the room.
Perhaps if I were playing a version of myself instead of myself, I would have had less of a flushed reaction, even though a decent number of decent New Yorkers have done walk-ons and cameos on Gossip Girl, among them Cynthia Rowley, Joe Zee, Simon Doonan, and Ivanka Trump. This roster of past guest stars is part of the reason I was so excited to be on the show. Gossip Girl has been unusually good to Manhattan-based industries via name-drops, guest appearances, and product placements (the BluePrint juice cleanse received its second “as seen on” badge during the episode I filmed; an episode shortly thereafter centered around the play Sleep No More). Being invited on the show (even as a backup choice) felt like a minor local knighting conducted on national television.
More than that, however, an unusual number of book-publishing figures and authors have appeared on Gossip Girl. In several seasons, Jay McInerney plays a once-young-’n’-famous writer named Jeremiah Harris who gives advice to young Dan, then interning at a Condé Nast publication and struggling to become young-’n’-famous, too; Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster appears several times on the show because S&S is publishing Insider whether Dan is ready for it or not, goddamnit; Blair, another Constance Billard queen bee, is close personal friends with Lorrie Moore and invites her to a party; Jennifer Egan and Chad Harbach get shout-outs; and a poster of Elissa Schappell’s short-story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls appears on the wall of a publisher’s office. The thing is, their roles are generally proportional to their real-life fame and relevance to the Gossip Girl world. If they are recurring and substantive enough, they have character names and personas other than their own. When Wallace Shawn plays Cyrus Rose and dates Blair’s mother, it’s difficult to get past his Wallace Shawn–ness, but, in a way, we’re not meant to. Normally we judge an actor by how quickly the actor can make us forget reality. However, the Gossip Girl producers know a large swath of their fan base will recognize Jay McInerney on sight. So why bother with forgetting when we can appreciate the clever meta-ness of the show’s writers (and experience pride at our own cleverness for getting the reference)?
Nuance aside, whether you’re playing yourself or a wink-wink persona, the law of cameo syllogism goes as follows: if you spend a certain amount of time playing yourself, you are no longer yourself but playing a version of yourself—a stereotype of you. Add a bonus layer if you are playing a stereotype of you in a fictional scene in which all the fictional characters are outraged by the possibility that the fictional (or fictional fictional) characters in a fictional book published by a real publishing house might be based on the actual real fictional selves they’re playing.
Sloane is the best-selling author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake.
My line in response: “Which I am still in search of.”
Here I am referring to actual cake. This syntax is complicated and awkwardly phrased, and sounds like I’m contorting myself to express a desire in a grammatically correct fashion, even if the result is not grammatically correct. Which I am still in search of. It’s not dissimilar to the reality-TV-show contestant’s ungrammatical attempt to appear grammatical, a quirk of using the subject pronoun after a preposition, instead of the correct object version. So: You have to choose between Brad or I.
In terms of verisimilitude, however, the line rings true. Which I am still in search of. It sounds like I am saying whatever gobbledygook is required to get me out of an awkward conversation at a party.
It’s called method acting.
My next line: “So if you’ll excuse me…”
I trail off. So preoccupied is my me-version character by the possibility of stuffing her face at the snack table, she has no mind for small talk.
“Oh, it is so nice to meet you!” exclaims Lily van der Woodsen.
I don’t have another line.
I look Lily dead in the eye, ignore Dan’s father, Rufus Humphrey, and Rufus and Lily’s stepson, Chuck, and walk away. Rufus opens his mouth and looks as if he’s about to add a pleasantry of his own. Alas, I have already turned my back to him.
The professionals in charge of writing the episode surely did not realize how strangely this would translate once the cameras were rolling. Or, more likely, they didn’t think twice about it, because it’s an expendable five seconds in an hour-long episode of a television program that’s been on the air for five years. I am left holding the bad-manners bag. But I am also a guest in the house of Gossip Girl, afraid to ad-lib. I am convinced it’s on the same spectrum as inquiring about my “motivation.” So I wind up sticking to the script and saying nothing more.
I hear Lily’s words as I flee the scene.
“Oh, it is so nice to meet you!”
I fucking bet it was.
Gossip Girl calls the Upper East Side home, but the day of my appearance, it was being filmed on the Upper West Side. A minor park-width fudge considering all of the far-flung locales that Toronto claims to be. I didn’t care where I was going, so long as I would be lent something to wear. This was the first prediction my girlfriends made, offering an “I bet they’ll dress you!” if they were fans of the show and an “At least they’ll dress you” if they couldn’t care less. The Gossip Girl wardrobe was one of the preposterous elements I could get behind. Movies and television shows set in New York have a reputation for being visually unrealistic, and they can get away with it because the idea of New York held by real people is so unrealistic. And I’m not talking about someone in a small town watching Sex and the City reruns. I’m talking about the people who actually live here.
The city is big and varied enough that it’s always possible that someone out there is leading the life portrayed onscreen. There could very well be teenagers akin to the ones portrayed in Gossip Girl, living on their own in the Waldorf Astoria, and girls who are in no way Japanese wearing Chanel berets en route to drug deals. You may not know them personally. But they’re out there, leading pretty much your same life—just with a few more rhinestones glued to the edges. I’ve seen glimpses of them, or the people I think might be them, at fancy benefits that I have rarely paid for, because I was acting as escort to one famous author or another.
In my time working in actual book publishing (prior to becoming a full-time writer, I worked for years as a book publicist), I never dressed up for a book party. I never went home after work to change. Wearing a cocktail dress at a book function generally indicates that you are fresh from (a) an interview for another job, (b) a funeral, or (c) a fake funeral to cover up the interview you just came from. For the dwarf’s handful of fancy events the publishing industry hosts each year, I would bring a change of clothing with me on the subway and hop into A-line dresses in my floor’s handicapped bathroom stall. But even these occasions were rare. The fancy book-launch party itself had become unrealistic even in reality.
Thus when the producer called and encouraged me to bring what I might wear to “an average book-publishing cocktail party,” I was disappointed. Yes, I was playing me, but did I have to dress like it? I had never attended a fictional book-publishing cocktail party before.
Gossip Girl is taped many months before it airs, so the pressure is on not only to wear something chic, but to wear something that will remain chic in the future. With no time to shop, I threw a few well-liked and hardly-stained-at-all dresses into a wardrobe bag and made my way out into the rain. It was pouring by the time I arrived uptown. I met a production assistant outside the apartment building, hangers cutting off my thumb circulation, and exchanged my small umbrella for her large one. She escorted me to a silver street-side trailer and knocked on the door, whereupon two stylists answered and yanked me in as if I were a spy about to blow my cover.
Maybe the inside of the Gossip Girl wardrobe trailer is normal. Maybe it’s not objectively impressive if you work in television. But I had never seen anything like it. It had sliding ladders and tiers of clothing racks. The names of the characters were taped to various wooden drawers and they said things like blair: tights, strapless bras. It made me wish I was pals with a thirteen-year-old boy for whom I could swipe a souvenir.
The head stylist was chatty and generous and she led me to the back of the trailer and pulled a heavy curtain behind us.
“Lets see what we have here,” she said, medically.
As she examined my dated dresses, a Chihuahua pushed under the curtain and began sniffing my feet.
“That’s Humphrey,” said the stylist.
Humphrey stared at me. All the humans he encountered smelled like fine leather goods and aioli and French macarons. I must be a stray.
“Is he named after Dan Humphrey?”
This, I assumed, was a self-evident question.
The costume designer studied my face, questioning her own judgment in treating me like a real person up until this point.
“After Humphrey Bogart.”
“Oh.” I looked at the dog. “I guess you had him before you started working here.”
“I’ve had him for about three months,” she said, “but everyone thinks he’s named after Dan for some reason.”
She pulled the last dress from my bag and called for her assistant.
“This will work,” she said. “But tell you what… why don’t you borrow a pair of these?”
We were flanked by walls of overpriced designer fabrics and tailoring that glimmered at every turn. I peered over her shoulder, anticipating a tray of designer earrings or, say, some very expensive shoes.
She handed me a pair or Spanx.
I should say that everyone from the director to the actors to the prop stylist was extremely welcoming and kind. Both because it’s true and because I should say it. For as small as the world is, New York is even smaller, and Gossip Girl is even smaller than that. There are so many people involved with the show, it’s rife with awkward intersections that, really, should not happen in a sane universe. Acquaintances of mine are friends with the cast or the music supervisor or used to live in the same building as one of the actors. Other friends used to write for the show or were publicists for the actors. Once, I had seen a couple of the stars make out with each other on the swanky sofa of a swanky apartment while I attempted to scoot off the selfsame sofa. It’s not that my points of connection were, by and large, particularly elite. It’s that Gossip Girl has been filming in New York for exactly the right amount of time to make it a cottage industry of sorts. It’s the Law & Order of our generation, destined to pop up in Broadway Playbill bios for years to come.
I did have one concrete connection to the show, and I was not proud of it. As I walked out of the wardrobe trailer to the white van with the blacked-out windows that would drive me to set, I prayed that Chace Crawford (who plays the show’s handsomely dumb golden retriever, Nate Archibald) would not be in it. Five years prior I had sat across from Chace at the now-shuttered Empire Diner in Chelsea. I held a microcassette recorder purchased from RadioShack for the occasion, and I watched him order an apple. Gossip Girl was growing increasingly popular and I was writing a profile on Chace for a magazine. The magazine strongly encouraged me to make him address rumors of his having a romantic relationship with a former Backstreet Boy. I waited until the end of the interview and, not quite being able to pull the trigger, abruptly asked him to play “fuck, marry, or kill” with three men, one of whom was the Backstreet Boy, one of whom I can’t recall, and one of whom was Burt Reynolds.
“I can’t do that,” he laughed. He was anxious to clear up the gay rumors, but not that anxious.
“Well, it’s that,” I said, gesturing at a bulldog tied to a tree outside, “or I ask you to kick that dog.”
“Sorry, just trying to think of something you’d rather not do. Sorry again.”
“I’m not going to do that, though,” he deadpanned.
In the end, we compromised and I threw a starlet into the mix. As we parted ways, I went to hug him. Realizing that ours was not a hug-appropriate relationship, I squeezed his arm instead, using the hand in which I was holding the tape recorder. It dropped and broke in front of him.
That was the end of the interview.
When I crawled into the white van, Matthew and Kelly were already running lines with each other. Kelly twisted around in the front seat and said hello; Matthew was instantly charming from the back row. I felt like we were all about to go on a field trip. For the briefest of seconds I forgot where I was and thought, Good god, these people look familiar.
“You’re the author, right?” said Kelly.
“I’m an author,” I said, stating the facts. “I’ll be one on the show.”
“You write books, though?”
“Yes,” I said. “I did. Two.”
“But you don’t anymore?” Matthew’s voice came from the backseat.
“No.” I could feel myself being unnecessarily confusing because of my own inability to say the words. “I will. I am. I’m a full-time writer.” So I clarified that, yes, “I am the author.”
It was the first time since quitting my publicity job that I had said it with such authority. Or at all. I imagine it’s the same frame of mind women are in when they tell their manicurist they’re pregnant before they tell their own family. Here is a safe space to test out who you are, see how it sounds.
“Do you want to run lines with us?”
“I like your glasses,” Matthew said. “I’m in the market for new glasses.”
“Who’s in here?” came a perky female voice from the open passenger-seat window, saying, “Hi hi hi bye!” before it bounced down the street.
“Who was that?”
“That was Leighton,” said Kelly, referring to Leighton Meester, who plays Blair.
I almost stole your bra, Blair.
I was immediately at ease upon entering the apartment. This was because it was shockingly well scouted, a real ringer for a space in which one might hold a book party. Especially a literary one. It was a large four-bedroom Upper West Side apartment with lots of quirky oil paintings and dark bookshelves and beat-up area rugs. It looked like the kind of place the editor in chief of an independent publishing house might have bought for $150,000 in 1970. We were ushered down a hallway as extras and crew members pressed their backs against the wall. In the living room, the rest of the actors were already stationed.
Leighton wasn’t in my scene. Nor was Blake Lively (who plays Dan’s ex, Serena) or Jessica Szohr (Dan’s childhood friend, the bi-racial daughter of Vermont hippies, whose mom is a dead ringer for Maya Angelou) or Chace Crawford. But Ed Westwick, the stylish Brit who plays Chuck, was. During the long breaks between takes, in which the women lay on the master bed like mummies, lest they ruin their makeup, Ed chatted with concern about riots in London that had been dominating the news. Then he showed me a perversely hilarious video of a horse being hit by a truck on a country road.
It was violent and funny. I laughed disproportionately. It’s possible I even said the words that’s so wrong. Kelly opened her eyes on the bed and raised her eyebrows at me. I couldn’t help it. They were all just so nice, asking me where I was from, what I wrote, and where I lived in the city. They genuinely wanted to know about me, a path of conversation that ran in direct opposition to my understanding of the day—that I wasn’t quite me.
“Are you working tomorrow?” Ed asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I have a couple of deadlines.”
He studied my face. What he meant was: was I coming back to set? It was a lovely misunderstanding, one that made me feel as if I had temporarily transcended my walk-on complex. Was I a natural after all?
By two o’clock we were halfway through filming and I was starving. In a last-ditch effort to do what a real actress might, I had skipped breakfast. I assumed Breakfast Pastry Heaven would await me after shooting. But somehow, either because I missed seeing Kraft services while running through the rain or because we were crowded into a home with a kitchen filled with sound equipment, I found myself begging mints off a lighting guy. The prophecy of my one line had come to pass: I really was in search of cake.
Off-camera, I eyed the tray of real hors d’oeuvres meant to be part of the background of the party. I quickly consumed a pecan, trying to keep my jaw still and eat at the same time.
“They spray those with poison, you know,” said Matthew, who had witnessed my entire operation.
“Yeah, right.” I took a second nut.
“No, really.” He gestured at the spotlights in the corner. “It’s so they’ll pop on camera.”
I grabbed a cocktail napkin and spit the nut out, a little wet pile of masticated mess.
“I’m kidding,” he said.
He was a very good actor.
Fittingly, the actress who played the literary agent and I became friendly. We had to stand uncomfortably close to each other for much of the day, because that’s how we were blocked. It had a camp-like effect. It turned out we lived about half a block from each other in real life. While the director spouted off terms I had never heard before, embedded in instructions I was meant to follow right now, she took me under her wing and explained everything to me. She told me when we were rolling, what was practice and what was real. She explained that a “side” was a portion of a script. All while being directed herself in her first multi-episode role on the show. I was grateful. She would not go back to being some other self tomorrow. This was her real life, her career, her paycheck—and I, the walk-on, was threatening it with dumb questions. But she was so selfless in her assistance.
To celebrate her inaugural appearance on the show (she appeared in one episode before mine, the three after, and several more down the road), she had a small party at her apartment. As the lights were dimmed and we settled down to watch, I grilled her about the rest of the party scenes, about what happened to the characters in the days after I left. Late in the game, I had become a bit of a Gossip Girl addict.
“Whose apartment is it supposed to be, anyway? Your boss’s?”
“No, it’s not.”
“Yeah, it’s supposed to be my apartment.”
“No. That can’t be.”
With a quick snip, my one tether between reality and Gossip Girl was cut. A twenty-seven-year-old literary agent doesn’t live in that apartment. She just doesn’t. I didn’t need Gossip Girl to be realistic about publishing or writers or books. Or pretty much anything. The show features a lot of usurping of fashion shows and sabotaging of record deals, for example, and I am willing to accept that these are not pitch-perfect representations of their respective industries. But being a New Yorker, there is one realm in which I demand total realism, and that realm is real estate.
After the show, I walked home, remembering the very last moments of my day on set. You can’t see it on TV, but what happens is this: I deliver the second of my two lines, excuse myself to hunt for cake, and rush to get off camera as quickly as possible. Between the director, the assistant director, the operators of the six cameras, the makeup people, and so forth, there are about forty people in the living room at any given time. I duck under a boom microphone, squeeze between two cameras, and find myself released into a dining room visible in the background when the show airs. The room is filled with extras, split into festive, gesticulating clumps. A couple of guests in the corner absolutely light up upon seeing me. I feel the same way I might feel upon entering a party alone and spotting friends. They mouth, “Hello.” I wave and whisper, “Hello” back. The camera is still rolling in the next room, but I am no longer acting. I cross over to them, brushing past other extras, who also aren’t saying much. I want to find out how I know this couple. Once I arrive, I see their lips are moving, but they are not actually speaking. Their champagne is flat. There is blocking tape at their feet. Embarrassed, I stand there, leaning on the bookshelves too tall for leaning on and playing with the seam of my Spanx. It’s not me they are happy to see, it’s me.
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