June 24, 2014
So this spring, as I have every year for the past 13 years, I attempted to balance the work/parent thing. Not unusual, and I’m sure many of you reading this are attempting to do the same thing RIGHT NOW.
The balance is ever-shifting, of course. A video game with endless levels. When I had a newborn and was executive producing and starring in Judging Amy? Work: too much. But when I decided that I’d take time off after Bodhi’s birth (which was great), when he as about 18 months I got that itchy feeling again. Time to go back.
Ensemble projects are better for parents of course – job sharing is ideal. I got lucky on “Private Practice” and lucky again on “The Leftovers” (HBO, premieres Jun 29), because in those I play complex, autonomous women who do and say complex, autonomous things, but who don’t have the show on their shoulders, such that I, Amy Brenneman, get to duck out and still be a Little League mom. Which is the measure of true balance.
Scratch that. In “The Leftovers” I play a complex, autonomous woman but I do not in fact say complex and autonomous things. As some of you may know, Laurie Garvey has taken a vow of silence (not giving away why, you’ll have to tune in), so in fact in four months I’ve said not one word. No joke, this has been one of the most delicious challenges of my career, and I still don’t know, on a daily basis, if it “works.” A high wire act; a thrill for any artist.
So yesterday I found myself cleaning up room 25 at my kids’ school, readying it for Drama. I have co-taught Drama all year and have missed relatively few classes, even amidst shooting “The Leftovers” in New York. I do what bi-coastal working parent has done before me; I’ve made really good friends with American Airlines.
Back to room 25 and the boy who plays the lead in this semester’s play. A fifth-grader I’ll call Joe, he’s never been in a play, but has such natural charisma and confidence we gave him the lead. Now he’s interested. His dad is an AD on a show that shoots in LA and while not a “Hollywood kid” by any stretch, he is savvy about some things. Suffice to say, he understands the difference between above and below the line, something I learned at the age of 29.
“So, are you on staff here at school?” he asks, as I sweep up some vile seventh grade detritus.
“No, Joe, I’m a mom. I’m Charlotte’s mom, I just help out.”
Jesus, I thought, I must be around A LOT if he thinks I’m on staff. I can’t help myself so I say, “I’m an actress Joe, I’m working on something right now in New York, that’s why I’m not here all the time.”
“Oh.” He muses. “Do you have a lot of lines?”
Ah yes, the moment of counting lines to determine how big your part is. I know that moment well.
“Actually no,” I say, thinking of Laurie Garvey, “I have no lines at all in this one.”
“Oh,” he condescends. “You an extra?”
I laugh, and explain that no, I have a real part, a big part, but the character herself doesn’t speak. He looks unconvinced. I find myself actually saying to this bright, can-do fifth grader, “I mean, I’ve worked a lot, Joe! I’ve been nominated for five Emmys!”
“Uh huh,” he mumbles, poking around his lunch box looking for a stray pretzel, “I think my uncle has, like, 15 of those.”
I’m not sure what Joe’s uncle has 15 of, and I had to laugh at my hackles going up with this feckless boy in defense of my career. But when the moment passed I realized a few things.
I pulled it off. I am starring in an HBO series that shoots in New York and my kids and their friends barely know I’m gone. This helped by their phenomenal father, their stable caregivers and their school which is as much about their identity as their home is, if not more.
And I realized, yes. That is at it should be. We parents should be extras in our kids’ lives. They are the stars, we are the supporting players who hopefully had parents who were extras when we were coming up. Pity the child who has a mother whose narcissism doesn’t allow her to fade gracefully and let her kid shine. It was a little victory that Joe could think I was on staff at school.
And yes, I realized that I should ask Damon Lindelof for a line or two in “The Leftovers” so that I keep my union insurance. Can’t be too careful.