Why the Long Face?: The Adventures of a Truly Independent Actor

Why the Long Face?: The Adventures of a Truly Independent Actor

by Craig Chester

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Craig Chester's witty and wry observations on his life and those who have occupied it come together to create this funny, sentimental, yet irreverent collection of essays. From the backroads of Texas to the boardrooms of Hollywood, Craig Chester is unabashedly honest about the pain and the unique rewards of remaining an outsider in an insider's world.



Craig Chester's witty and wry observations on his life and those who have occupied it come together to create this funny, sentimental, yet irreverent collection of essays. From the backroads of Texas to the boardrooms of Hollywood, Craig Chester is unabashedly honest about the pain and the unique rewards of remaining an outsider in an insider's world.

While his family prepares to watch the apocalypse from their rooftop with a bucket of KFC, Craig is trying to climb the social ladder at school by saving his neighbors from their sinful ways and speaking in tongues (with not-so-successful results). Along the way Craig experiences gender confusion at grade-school summer camp and has massive reconstructive surgery to correct his deformed teenage face, only to emerge and realize that Hollywood success isn't always measured in externals, but also in the machinations of the heart and how much you don't show. All along he expertly captures the feeling of what it's like to not always fit in—and have that be okay—with a comic timing that's tuned in to the heart and soul of trying to get by day to day.

His tales of life, from growing up in the Bible Belt to starring in nine films, prove that the average American life is anything but normal.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this witty, absorbing memoir, Chester muses about his unlikely trajectory from growing up around trailer parks and born-again Christians to working as an openly gay actor who's appeared in several indie films, including Swoon, for which he earned a Spirit Award nomination. An engaging storyteller, Chester indiscriminately pokes fun at himself and others and is almost always upbeat (save for nicknaming his hellish summer camp "Kidshwitz"). It's not all light, though. Chester tackles serious issues and candidly reveals his own struggles with his career, relationships, substance abuse and a disfiguring jaw malady (hence the title: "By fourteen," he writes, "I looked like a Picasso sock puppet with pimples") that required extensive, painful surgeries. Although readers may wonder how real some of Chester's fiction-worthy characters are, they'll nonetheless be entertained. Chester has a fresh voice-though occasionally he tries too hard to be funny-and when he opines that "the most counterproductive barriers to true genius are a healthy childhood, healthy relationships, and healthy surroundings," readers will be grateful he suffered no such encumbrances. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Chester's go-ahead-and-laugh debut memoir shows a difficult adolescence evolving into a successful independent-film career. The author reflects on his youth with a bleak, steady wryness. His family is standard-issue dysfunctional: Grandma’s comradely advice includes, "It's much worse to get hit in the face with your own shit than with someone else’s. Remember that"; while Mom offers, "I hope there's sex in heaven ’cause I sure do like it!" Growing up in this hapless, hopeless, yet oddly secure environment, Chester describes himself as "a socially unskilled, constipated, Christian gay child," painfully shy and the class joke. Things can't get worse, it seems, until he begins showing symptoms of Long-Face Syndrome, a genetic disorder that tests even Chester's capacity for black humor. Painful and humiliating, endless surgery gives him a new face, and his experience out there on the margin of things presumably gave him the ability to see the comedy in his predicament that distinguishes his recollections—while asides like "the only thing better than winning in this life is proving people wrong" hint at a bilious undercurrent. Out of these ruins an actor is born, well versed in nuances and the oblique. Chester calls up choice moments in his rise as a performer, remembering an early gig at which his parents "sat quietly as their only son sang songs about eating ass." On the politics of being openly gay in Hollywood, he comments of belatedly candid celebrities that "coming out once you have a mansion and a Range Rover isn't really the same as putting your ass on the line from the get-go," and notes the weirdness of losing gay roles to straight actors because he’s "not gay enough" or because thepeople at home need to know it’s "all just pretend." Intriguing midpoint autobiography sure to rouse curiosity about what the next half has in store.
From the Publisher
This is a charming, often hilarious book about a very interesting man and this man’s very interesting town—Hollywood.”—Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors

“Not only does he have some delightfully eyebrow-raising stories to tell, but he tells them with a wit and comic sensibility that can’t help but be heard.”—Dennis Hensley, author of Misadventures in the (213)

“If Noel Coward had grown up in a trailer park, he would have become Craig Chester.”—Illeana Douglas, actress

Augusten Burroughs author of Running With Scissors
"This is a charming often hilarious book."
Out Magazine
"There is no denying his heart and humor, both of which are abundant."
Michael Musto
"His page-turner of a memoir is a Sundance audience favorite waiting to happen."
Mike Albo author of Hornito
"This is an insanely funny book. Chester's life is deeply weird, but also hilarious, mortifying and triumphant ."
Parker Posey
"[Chester's] perspective and voice are unlike any other of his generation. "

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  Why the Long Face?
1Where’s Your Top?Dottie looked fifties. She was, for a girl born in 1966, somewhat unnaturally preoccupied with the generation that preceded hers and she took to that carefree decade’s mind-set like a poodle to a skirt. For a girl whose life goal was the confining margins of 1950s housewifery, Dottie was undeniably out of sync with the times. It was, after all, 1976 and while women were burning their bras defiantly, Dottie counted the days till she would fill her very own darts. She was fabulous and kooky but mostly she was just fifties.Before I knew that “camp” meant Valley of the Dolls and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, that four-letter word inspired ominous dread. Church camp, in case you don’t know, has nothing to do with gay men lip-syncing to “Amazing Grace” in Virgin Mary garb. There are no aging Christian actresses, no eye-rolling at audaciously bad line readings from the Bible—none of the irony that word would later embody for me.As a child, “camp” meant being ripped from the safe bosom of my doting mother and thrust into the mosquito-infested, Scripture-ridden swamps and lakes scattered throughout California and later Texas. Like Meryl Streep’s little girl in Sophie’s Choice, I would be loaded into a windowless railroad car with all the other doomed and damned children of the world, and away I would go, shipped off to a Born Again Kinderlagen for two-week stretches of internment.On my first ride to Kidshwitz, huddled next to Rosa Parks in the back of the bus, I gazed at the wondrous creation that was Dottie as she held court up front. En route, I began strategizing how I might survive this two-week wrongful conviction.I always felt that on some level I was a blousy old actress shoved into the effeminate body of a small boy. I never really liked any of the other kids, mostly because they didn’t particularly care for me. I desperately wanted their attention, if not necessarily their company, and I find that maddening dichotomy to be true of myself even today.But on that day, I wanted nothing more than Dottie’s attention—to be near her, to bask in the glow of her luminescent incarnation. I was the only boy in an extended family of all-girl cousins, aunts, and the like. Our family gatherings resembled a casting call for a trailer-park production of Little Women. But Dottie was different from my cousins or my aunts—she was glamorous, full of confidence, and she had that cool 1950s look to boot.“Did you watch Laverne and Shirley last night?!” she squealed to her entourage of girlfriends. “Oh my gosh, I was, like, totally there when they filmed that episode. We met Shirley and Squiggy after the show, they signed my Boo Boo Kitty doll!” she boasted.Shirley Feeney was Dottie’s false god and I wondered what Cindy Williams, the actress, had thought of this ten-year-old miniature version accosting her backstage on the Paramount lot.Growing up in the suburban hellhole of California’s San Gabriel Valley, I was always painfully aware of the fabulousness of Hollywood that glittered just over the hills. For those of us living behind the HOLLYWOOD sign, we knew the illusory qualities that symbol possessed—from the rear, the HOLLYWOOD sign is just a bunch of wood.People in the Valley have a relationship to Hollywood very similar to that of Brooklynites with Manhattan. There is a feeling of not being quite whole—always living in the shadow of something greater, more amusing, and more important. Still, as a child so fascinated by television that I watched test patterns, I longed to go over that hill. To escape my predicament. I wanted to climb into the TV and play all the parts myself—and every color of the test pattern too.As a boy, people often mistook me for a small girl from a far-off land, an exchange student, perhaps, from the country Androgomenea. Stifled by lip-zipping shyness, I rarely spoke to other children, although not for a lack of anything to say: bullies had beaten muteness into me and I shut up for fear of giving them brass knuckles.Sporting longish straight black hair with china-doll bangs that I fought over tooth and nail with my parents, I was rarely seen as a boy, much to the dismay of my parents, who both fit perfectly into their allotted gender roles. My mother only wore dresses, cooked, cleaned, suffered longly, and never cussed. My father sported tattoos on his arms, drove with one wrist on the steering wheel, and watched football when he wasn’t busting a gut over Sanford and Son.Church camp was just one of many Herculean efforts by my folks to socialize me as both a God-fearing Christian and pussy-whipped straight man. My parents had made me suspicious of other people, consistently bemoaning the fact that everyone else’s families were a bunch of messed-up, untrustworthy nutcases who would screw your wife, kick your dog, and do anything to break up your happy home while dragging you to hell with them. The complete mistrust of non-Christians was counteracted by utter and blind faith in church and all of its devotees. The thought was that nothing, besides fear of prison time, could possibly rein in the wanton moral chaos of those with no concept of hell to regulate one’s choices.Since no one could be trusted, my options for playmates were limited. As a result, my only childhood friend was a retarded man named Brian. Brian was eighteen when I was eight, and while the May/December aspect of our friendship might seem a bit unusual, it was actually quite natural, being that Brian’s mental capacity was somewhere near that of mine. We would play for hours, taking breaks to eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches his mom would make. He always smelled like peanut butter, bananas, and poop and he was my best friend. For years I thought I was retarded too since we were so much alike, and I’m certain some ex-boyfriends of mine might agree that I was on to something there.Just before I had been shipped off to camp, my sister Kim and I had squeezed past the throng of onlookers at our suburb’s Fourth of July parade. There, sitting on a sparkling white convertible, was actress Valerie Bertinelli.One Day at a Time had debuted the night before and when I saw her, a jolt of electricity ran through me. She was being her perky little self, hand up, waving like an animatronic at Disneyland’s Country Bear Jamboree. She was the first bona fide celebrity I ever saw in the flesh. She had come over the hills to the Valley, waving and spreading her joy to the smog-choked civilians. Valerie Bertinelli lived, worked, and played over the hill and I wanted to jump in her convertible, wave good-bye to my sister, and have Valerie carry me to a place where I could finally gaze upon the HOLLywoOD sign as it was meant to be seen—from the front.But there were no white convertibles in my childhood, just a bus to Big Bear Camp. And the Valerie Bertinelli of that camp, while certainly not as highly paid, was Dottie.Dottie’s popularity increased once we settled into the camp setting. Her log cabin was next to mine, and from my screen window I would hear her nightly laughter echo off the pine trees—that squeaky peal of delight unique to ten-year-old falsettos. I would lie in my cabin thinking about Dottie. I decided that she would be my friend no matter what and someday I’d be the one to get her to laugh that high-pitched cackle.Olympic fever had made it all the way to Big Bear Mountain that year at camp. Shortly after arriving, we were instructed by camp counselor Steve that we would be participating in our own version of the Summer Olympics. Not only would we be competing in events, we would also make our own bronze, silver, and gold metals out of plaster of paris.Counselor Steve was perhaps the most spectacularly handsome, sun-kissed specimen of male beauty I had ever seen. Dark hair that smiled slightly at the ends, tan and lean, he possessed a look that was unique to the time period—a look that I’ve only seen since in 1970s porn.Steve also had the supernatural ability to make his heart stop on cue. This party trick was the talk of camp. While sitting around the dining hall Steve invited all those who were interested to press their head up against his chest and listen, while he closed his eyes and stopped his heart from beating for what seemed like forever. Then he would start it again, taking a deep breath, and everyone would scream with goose-bumped delight.Dottie partook of Steve’s party trick and squealed her squeaky laugh. Next it was my turn. Slowly I approached Steve. He pressed my ear up against his muscular chest, the warmth from his sunburn radiating onto my cheek. The thump, thump, thump gradually ceased. As he stopped his heart, mine started. His skin cooled slightly, then, just at that moment of panicked concern, it would beat again. I looked up at him and smiled. But inside I was squealing with Dottielike glee.After the ceramic Fauxlympic medals were spray-painted their colors of victory, the games began. Each of us was assigned to a team. I was assigned to the same team as Dottie—much to the chagrin of all else involved. Dottie sussed up the situation by talking to each of us individually.“What event are you strong in?” was the first thing she ever said to me.I stood there, stunned, not knowing how to respond. Instead I licked my lips in nervous concentration, a habit I was known for. After not responding for what seemed an eternity, Dottie straightened her kerchief and left me alone to my mute self, moving on, walking down the hill to her girlfriends. That she didn’t push the envelope to get me to speak made me love her more.It might be hard to imagine how one can navigate through a two-week camp setting, with its bonfires and marshmallow roasts, and never have one formal introduction, but that’s exactly what I did. I had never been away from my mother and had no social skills whatsoever. Other than the necessity of “yes” and “no,” I didn’t say much. Looking back, I see that if I had started talking, I might never have stopped.The day of the Big Bear Olympics arrived.Having the athletic ability of a throw pillow, any mention of sports sends me running—well, actually walking—for cover. I have never understood this country’s zealous addiction to sports. When I watch the news, I resent those ten minutes of annoying scores and what seem to me to be the same clip of the same person catching the same ball over and over again.Having no idea what I could contribute athletically to my team, I stood on the sidelines while my other teammates jumped over poles and raced each other in potato sacks. My team was doing exceedingly badly, in desperate need of a gold medal to tip the scales.Just then, what looked like a gigantic metallic boulder began rolling down the path towards us. It was a huge silver ball, quite durable and thick-skinned, yet essentially a big balloon. This challenge seemed to be the most difficult and right out of a science-fiction movie. Each child would, while the clock timed them, balance on the large globe. The one who remained on the ball the longest would win the coveted gold “medal.”One after the other, campers would climb aboard the ball, only to immediately go careening over the other side. This went on and on, with each member of my team undulating and tipping this way and that.Suddenly something struck me. It was one of those moments of clarity I’ve read about in books endorsed by The Oprah Winfrey Show. I had no idea how I knew this, but I approached Dottie and actually spoke to her for the first time.“I can do that,” I said.Everyone looked at me.“Are you sure?” she said, hands on hips in worried consternation.I approached Bob, the macho tattooed camp counselor I feared. Bob was a reformed Hell’s Angel who had found Jesus and was now paying penance for the many children he had most certainly killed in his heyday. Surprised at my determination to climb on board, he grabbed my little hips and lifted me up, up, up until I perched atop the shining metallic ball six feet in the air.And there I stayed—on hands and knees, perfectly centered and able. Through my navel ran an imaginary thread connecting me to the center of the earth. The minutes ticked on. There was a crisp, prolonged silence as Bob watched the hands on his watch. After five minutes, he called it a game. By this point I knew that I could balance on that ball till summer passed, the leaves buried me in fall, and the snow fashioned the globe and me into a perfectly proportioned snowman.I climbed off the silver balloon as the entire camp—men, women, and children—cheered and clapped. Dottie came over, beaming.“Oh my gosh!” She threw her arms around me. “You are so—swell!”With that, a gold plaster-of-paris medal was wrapped around my neck and I was literally carried away by the crowd. I heard Dottie laughing her high-pitched laugh. Mission accomplished.From that point on, I tagged along with Dottie everywhere. She told me everything about her life, her dreams, how she had kissed a boy in the woods. I mostly listened, nodding along supportively and conspiratorially. However, we never actually talked about me. I never even told her my name; I just glommed on to her, basked in her persona, and felt quite pleased with myself.Near the end of summer camp I found my voice. Steve, the dreamboat camp counselor, asked me to go with him to fetch extra Bunsen burners for a cookout. Crossing through a thick, wooded forest, we walked for a good ten minutes back to a portion of the camp stocked with supplies and broken-down bunk beds. After loading up the bag of goods, we headed back to the campground in silence, through the thicket as the sun began to set.As I walked with Steve, I felt strange. I had never been alone before with a grown man other than my father. Steve was beautiful and healthy and warm. He spoke to me with an inherent respect usually denied children by adults, and in my mind I saw him and me running off together, getting married, and watching him sleep on our honeymoon, all tan against the whiteness of our pristine sheets—sheets offered as a wedding present from my beaming parents. I never thought of Steve sexually per se, but my first gay feelings revolved around falling in love, cherishing someone, as opposed to sticking something into a hole. I forgot that I felt this way for many years, distracted as most gay men are when in their prime, but like most of childhood’s lessons, I’ve returned to what I first knew.Just inside the jungle of pine trees, we crunched on their needles until suddenly I noticed only the crunch of my own steps. I turned back to see Steve, as pale now as he had been tan only minutes before, clutching his arm in pain. He then clutched his chest, looked at me with a strange pleading look I had never seen before, or since, and fell onto the blanket of pine, in the throes of a full-fledged heart attack. I ran to him. His eyes seemed dark, self-possessed to the point of blindness. I stood alone in the woods.Terrified, and not knowing what to do, I dropped my bag and ran. I ran and ran and ran—my own heart in my throat—gasping for air and yelling, screaming, begging for my legs to move faster.As I approached the clearing that comprised the campground, I could feel myself flying. I am certain to this day that I actually left the ground for a minute—the same way I had balanced on that ball for five. I saw all the children sitting at a picnic table. Bob, the Hell’s Angel, hovered over them.“Help! Help! Help!” I cried.Bob approached me, taken aback and uneasy with the display of my emotion.I struggled for words. I couldn’t speak for lack of air. Finally I burst into a tearful rant, a hysterical, out-of-control, and frenzied rush of information.“Steve had a heart attack! He’s dead! He’s lying in the woods! I saw him die! He looked at me and he fell down in the woods! He’s out there and he’s dea—”Bob shook me. He shook me in that quickly repetitive way that adults shake children. My head snapped back. I swallowed my tongue and I saw the sky, discombobulated.“Stop it! You’re upsetting the other children!” he screamed.Two other counselors sprinted into the woods to assist Steve. I looked around and Bob was right. The other children, who had also put their heads on the twenty-five-year-old Steve’s heart and laughed as it stopped, were now crying. Many of them hugged each other and they looked scared and confused. I had upset the other children, but somehow, affecting them made me feel glad. They should know of such things, I thought. Such things exist.An ambulance arrived an hour later. Steve clung to life and I never saw him again. Bob hated me from that moment on, not because I was upset by what I had experienced, but because I had shared it. I’m sure in his mind, my emotionalism had incriminated me as feminine, expressive in a way that defined me as weak in his macho eyes. But as Bob hated me—a boy, expressing fear—I grew to hate him right back. Because such things do exist and I don’t want to be the only one aware of that fact.Steve survived his heart attack, I found out later. He made a full recovery. But the glory of my gold medal had been quickly cut short by an emotional display that night. The other children resented my alarmism and felt intruded upon. Dottie was the only one who kept me close.“He was so cute. Don’t you think Steve’s cute?” she asked me.I couldn’t believe this question. How could she ask me that? She must know I want to marry him. Not knowing quite how to answer that, I did what most children do when confronted with an uncomfortable issue and ignored it as we went off to play.The last day of camp, all the children were loaded into a yellow school bus and taken on a fifteen-minute journey to a local indoor pool. “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” rang out loudly in the bus, but this time I sang along, comforted and validated by my new best friend Dottie, who had promised me her undying loyalty as friend, soul mate, and ally even after we were returned to our normal, sixth-grade lives. I hugged her gladly and sang along as we bounced over bumps in the dirt road on the way to go swimming.Dottie and I had become great pals, albeit in a rather one-sided relationship. I never got an official introduction into her fold, the glory of the big silver ball being too dramatic a beginning for formal introductions of “Hi, my name is …” Still, ours was a nonverbal, nonprescribed kinship—we were above such mortal customs.Inside the melee of the indoor pool’s building, we were somehow separated. I happily went to the boys’ changing room to get into my bright orange swim trunks with brown trim. When I exited the changing room, I was pleased to find Dottie already in the pool, treading water in a smart flowered swim cap. I jumped in the water to greet her, only to find a mortified Dottie staring back at me as I emerged.“Where’s your top?” she asked, clutching her chest.“What?” I asked, shivering in the cold.“Your top. The top of your bathing suit?”Suddenly it hit me. Dottie had the misfortunate realization that her new best friend was a boy and she screamed as if in some elementary school adaptation of The Crying Game.Stunned, but needing to respond, I quietly murmured, “I’m a boy.”Dottie then grabbed her pansied head and screamed in all her Shirley Feeney glory—at the pansy in front of her with no top.“She’s a boy!” Dottie cried, finger pointed towards my bosom.I’ve often wondered what ever happened to Dottie. I like to imagine that she did go on to find her own Carmine Ragusa and her white picket fence and 2.5 kids.I do know I would like to tell her one thing, though. I have found my top.In fact, I’ve found a lot of them.ACTOR. Copyright © 2003 by Craig Chester. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Meet the Author

Craig Chester has starred in many films, including Swoon, Grief, Frisk, Kiss Me Guido, and I Shot Andy Warhol. He continues to act while also writing screenplays. He lives in New York City.

Craig Chester is an actor/writer. He has starred in Kiss Me Guido, Frisk, Swoon, and I Shot Andy Warhol. He lives in New York, NY.

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