Hollywood critics agree. Joss Byrd is "fiercely emotional," a young actress with "complete conviction," and a "powerhouse."
Joss Byrd is America's most celebrated young actress, but on the set of her latest project, a gritty indie film called The Locals, Joss's life is far from glamorous. While struggling with her mother's expectations, a crush on her movie brother, and a secret that could end her career, Joss must pull off a performance worthy of a star. When her renowned, charismatic director demands more than she is ready to deliver, Joss must go off-script to stay true to herself.
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Unscripted Joss Byrd
By Lygia Day Peñaflor
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2016 Lygia Day Szelwach
All rights reserved.
Viva, my mother, is kneading Jergens lotion into her skin until it soaks through her pores. The cream turns from white to clear as she works it into her heels. She pumps the bottle with a squish and rubs her elbows and hands, her neck, and the parts of her back she can reach under her T-shirt. "Beauty depends upon a strict routine," she sighs, patting a potion from a dark purple jar under her eyes. "Men will never know all we go through." Then she swipes Vaseline over her lips before reaching for her bedtime cigarette.
"Okay." She drops the script beside me on her way out the door. "We'll do it again when I get back."
Every night we run the dialogue for the next day. My mother does the boys' parts in quick bursts, the way Chris and Jericho would say them, while I try to squeeze the right words from my brain. Tonight it's scene 15: me and the boys build a crow's nest.
In the next room, there are little kids — it sounds like three brothers — wrestling. Each time they thud against our wall they yell, "Off the ropes!" I've always wanted a big brother — the kind who would pull our dog in a red wagon and stick up for me against bullies on the playground. I get to have a big brother in this script. Chris Tate plays TJ, and I play Norah. TJ sticks up for Norah against our stepdad, but we don't get a dog or a wagon.
Other than the thin walls, the Beachcomber Resort is pretty nice. The doors open up to the outside landing. My mother likes to watch TV sets flicker in the rooms across the pool while she smokes. She says she likes to guess at what people are watching. I might have a good ten minutes to close my eyes.
The door clicks, waking me from a shallow sleep. My mother shakes her smoky hair into the room. "Ready?"
I lift my head and turn a page in my yellow script to make her think I've been practicing. On the nightstand, pink and blue scripts with ripped and curled corners lie under Viva's coffee cups. It's hard for me to learn script changes. Thankfully we've been filming the yellow version for weeks, so I'm finally all right with it. For the most part.
"You'd better get all the way through this time. No stopping," Viva says.
I flip the bedsheets over my legs.
"Seriously, Joss." She nudges me with her knee and picks up the script. "Let's do this before you fall asleep. You haven't even brushed your teeth yet."
I force my tired self to sit up. Filming three scenes today wasn't exactly a day at the beach, even though we are at the beach. I couldn't wait to get here to shoot outdoors. Filming for two months inside a dark studio in Brooklyn gave me cabin fever, as Viva said. But we've been in Montauk for a week now, and I haven't played in the water once. I've barely dipped my toes in it. And I haven't been to Montauk Lighthouse even though Terrance, my director, promised to take me there. If I buy a postcard of Montauk Point for a keepsake, it'll be a lie because all the postcards are pictures of the lighthouse.
"Okay." Viva holds the script and clears her throat. "All we'll have to do is climb up here every morning, and we'll be able to see right away how the waves are," she reads Chris's line. "No more trekking our boards all the way down to the beach at six in the morning when the water's flat."
"We'll never have to walk down to the shore again," I say my line and yawn. "Can we please finish this in the morning?" I ask my mother. "I'm so done right now."
"You have five days left on this shoot, and then you'll be done."
I lie down and curl into a little ball.
"Sit up." Viva catches my ankle, but I kick away and grab at the sheets to cover myself.
"I don't want to do it anymore." I clutch my head. I'll focus better in the morning.
She slams the script on the desk. "You don't wanna do it anymore?"
I shouldn't push my luck, but my crankiness is taking over. "No!"
"No?" She pulls my blankets off, leaving me cold. "Why are we here, then, huh? If you don't wanna do it anymore?" She swings around the room, pulls my suitcase off the dresser, and throws it onto the bed.
"What are you doing?" I sit up against the headboard.
She's grabbing pajamas off the bed, snatching sneakers up from the floor and dirty clothes off a chair.
"Pack your things!" Viva yells as she throws everything into the bag. "You don't wanna do it anymore? So don't."
I shield myself with the pillow. "That's not what I meant!"
"You think I do this for me? You think I enjoy sitting around all day long watching everybody treat you like you're Shirley Temple? You don't think I have better things to do with my life?" She runs to the kitchenette and pulls the cereal boxes, chips, and canned soup off the counter. "I could be developing my business idea right now and selling it to stores all over the country. Nobody else is making dancewear that doubles as shapewear." She shoves the groceries into the suitcase on top of underwear and magazines. "But no. I'm here securing a future for you, and you don't wanna do it anymore?"
I groan into my pillow. "I just want to go to sleep!"
"Well, good. Now you can sleep all you want. At home." She slaps the suitcase shut. "And you can go to sixth grade and sit in the Reading Resource Room for the whole year if that's what you want."
I stare at her, shocked. That's the meanest thing she can say to me without flat-out calling me dumb. I wait for her to apologize and take it back. But her hard eyes are miles and miles away from being sorry. The thought of the Reading Resource Room makes me sick — those faded cartoon wall signs of kids reading under blankets, at picnics, at the beach — BOOKS ARE FUN!
Viva straightens her shoulders and shoves the suitcase toward me. "Pack!" She grabs her purse and keys off the dresser and storms out of Beachcomber room 204 and down the wooden stairs.
When my mother acts crazy, I do as she says. Crazy beats cranky any night. I kneel on the bed and stuff my bags with Cap'n Crunch and string cheese, jeans and sweatpants. Two loud honks snap me to my feet. The suitcase, with shirtsleeves and a cheddar popcorn bag sticking out, can only zip so far, so I lug the sloppy bag out the door and down the steps in my bare feet, leaving the script behind.
I cross in front of our truck. The heat from its headlights feels like movie lights. I stop and soak up the warmth for a second, and the lines I'd been memorizing tumble from my lips. "All's we need now is a pair of binoculars. Then we can see clear through to the lighthouse. Don't you think?" I whisper and wait for Viva to turn the engine off.
"Let's go!" my mother yells. The horn shakes my whole body and vibrates in my chest.
I hurl my suitcase into the truck, and then I push empty water bottles and burger wrappers aside in the passenger seat. With pebbles and sand stuck to the soles of my feet, we pull out in silence toward the road, where two guys from our movie crew are walking up from the beach.
"Well, if it isn't Viva and Joss Byrd. Where are you two going at this hour?" one of them asks, but my mother only looks forward and drives ahead.
Six ... seven ... eight ... nine ... I measure our distance from the resort by counting the streetlamps. Viva is playing chicken, and I don't know how to win. Am I supposed to jump out? Or pretend not to care and let her drive into the night until she decides enough is enough? I'll be sleepwalking on set tomorrow. She'll blame me even though it'll be her fault.
Thirteen ... fourteen ... fifteen ... sixteen ... We pass stables and motels, a gas station, a diner, froufrou-la-di-da Long Island houses with glass walls that face the ocean, and driveways behind vine-covered gates. Maybe she means it, and we're really going home. Maybe she wants to remind me of what it's like to be a nobody just to teach me a lesson. If I don't show up to work in the morning no one will ever hire me again.
Viva wouldn't dare. She wouldn't dare.
Twenty-two ... twenty-three ... When I was six, my mother decided to chase a hunch and took us on a car trip. In every way, that drive was the exact opposite of this one.
Thirty ... thirty-one ...
* * *
"I can feel it, Joss. It's a sign. A sign. Untitled Feature Film: Open Call for Girls, Ages 5–7." My mother tears the ad from the newspaper and slaps it on the kitchen table.
"What are the odds I'd see this today? I mean, when do I ever actually read the newspaper, right?" She crouches as if she's about to tell me a secret. "I only buy it for the coupons."
She circles the bottom of the ad while dialing the phone. "Hey, Viva here. Sorry, but I'm not coming in today. Yeah ... my kid's sick." She winks at me. We're in cahoots. But I'm not sure what for. "I don't know. Som1ething with a lot of mucus."
I make a face.
Viva sticks out her tongue. "I should probably take her to the doctor."
The ad has a drawing of a movie camera in the middle. I look it over as my mother pretends to write down the number for a doctor.
"Take the books out of your backpack and put some snacks in," she says, hanging up the phone.
"Why?" I ask, already smiling. "I'm not going to school?"
"No. We're driving to New York. You're gonna audition for this movie. And you're gonna get it, too. Don't you feel it?" my mother says, searching the kitchen for her keys.
For some reason I picture myself singing and dancing with a cane. "Okay!" Skipping school is all right by me. I empty my bag down to the last dirty penny and shove my whole box of Lucky Charms inside it.
"You didn't drink anything yet, did you?" She shuffles me out the door. "'Cause we're not stopping till we get there, baby!"
At the Lobster Roll, my mother pulls into the parking lot; late-night diners are stepping out of the restaurant patting their bellies. There must be chowder and oyster crackers in there. I imagine Terrance Rivenbach and Peter Bustamante, my director and executive producer, sitting inside with bibs on. I want to run in and tell them that Viva's kidnapping me, that it isn't my idea to go. I imagine them sending my mother away but letting me stay. The waiter would give me a bib, and Terrance and Peter and me would clink lobster claws together as Viva drove away. I'd stay in the hotel room by myself and go to the set alone and shoot my scenes without her watching me. I could breathe without her telling me the right way to do it.
My mother pulls a cigarette from the sun visor and lights it in her mouth, so I roll my window down and stick my head out. I can see all the stars I rarely ever looked at until we came to Montauk Point. I see you now, stars. Do you see me? I was a nobody. But I've been working so hard, so hard, to be one of you.
* * *
"We're gonna find you the best agent in Hollywood." My mother is talking too loudly for the library. She wants people to hear that I got the part of Tallulah Leigh, and I'm gonna be in a movie. "An agent for real actors, the serious ones — you know, like the Fannings — kids who work with Sandra Bullock and Matt Damon. Not Disney actors." She taps the keys on the computer and scrolls through pictures of kids with tiny words beside them. "We have to find someone big. Big! A real mover and shaker. And then we'll be on our — Bingo!"
She smiles her jackpot smile and starts dialing her cell. It's embarrassing when she turns on the speakerphone. The old man who's reading a newspaper and the lady behind the horseshoe desk are staring at us.
"Creative Team Management."
"May I speak with Doris Cole please?" My mother grabs my arm. "This is Viva Byrd, mother of Joss Byrd." Wink. "She's playing Tallulah Leigh in the film Hit the Road."
My mother whispers, "She's going to make you a star!"
"Ms. Byrd! This is Doris Cole. I've been expecting your call," Doris says, because that's the kind of mover and shaker she is.
* * *
"So?" Viva says now, staring into the window of the Lobster Roll. "Where are we going?"
When I pull my head back inside and stare at my bare feet that don't quite touch the mat, I feel poor — poor and sad and small. "Back to the hotel," I answer, because I don't want to be a nobody again, and if we go back to our apartment in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, I will be.
"And this is what you want?" she asks, exhaling heavy smoke out the window.
I want to feel full and rich inside, the way I feel when the French toast on set is soft and warm, made especially for me, and when a wardrobe girl gives me ankle boots and designer jeans with the tags still on, even when I know they aren't for keeps.
I look back at the road. "Yes."
Viva dangles her cigarette over the steering wheel. "Will I ever have to force you to do the work again?"
I shake my head.
She turns to face me; there are creases around her mouth I never noticed before. "I can't hear you."
She pelts her cigarette like a dart out the window. Dust whirls into the air when she turns the truck around.
Twenty-seven ... twenty-six ... twenty-five ... On the way back to the Beachcomber, I count the lampposts backward and hope that when I get down to zero, this night will subtract into nothing, too.
I remember that first time we spoke with Doris Cole over the speakerphone. She told us that her clients are the "cream of the crop." She said, "No pageant princesses, no jazz hands, just real kids with honest-to-goodness talent." By the end of that first phone call, Viva and Doris and me were all on a first-name basis. "Partners." That's what my mother called us. And I was rising to the top. I just hope that someone lets me know the second I get there because it's gotta be better than this.
* * *
Wouldn't you know that now that I'm in my pajamas, I'm not sleepy anymore. I've already brushed my teeth and washed my face, so now I'm just running the water to sound busy. It's all I can do to get some privacy. The bathroom is the only alone time I get around here. I poke around Viva's makeup bag and use a little bit of her lip balm from a tiny red tin. If there's an expiration date for makeup, it's definitely passed. The blush and eye shadow don't have covers, and her lipsticks have mismatched caps. I don't know why she shaves the pencils into the bag instead of into the trash.
Finally I open the door. Viva pats the space beside her on her bed. "Come." I guess we're cool again; we're back to normal. But I wait for a second. I'm not that easy to win back. "Aw, come on, crawl in," she says.
Even though my mother has brushed her teeth, her whole being still smells like cigarettes. I settle in next to her and think about how she might seem so much younger if she didn't smoke or if she ran errands in workout clothes and a ponytail like some of the other mothers, instead of jeans and high heels and lots of makeup. Sometimes I leave magazine pages around the house with pictures of "On-the-Go Celebrity Moms" who look fit in yoga pants and shop at a store called Whole Foods, but Viva doesn't get the hint.
"Whaddaya say we take our spending money and have ourselves some of that lobster tomorrow night?" she asks in a gravelly voice.
Nodding into her chest, I curl against her shape.
"Didn't that place look yum? We could get dressed up, you could get a Shirley Temple, I could get a nice wine. We can people watch. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
The name Shirley Temple makes me cringe. I don't think my mother even remembers half the things she says when she's angry.
"Oh, I know what else we could do," she says soothingly as she reaches for her laptop. Inside her T-shirt, her heavy, loose boobs fall toward the mattress.
When my first movie came out, critics called me the "next Tatum O'Neal." Since I didn't know who that was, Doris told us to study Tatum O'Neal in a movie called Paper Moon. That's what Doris said — not "watch" but "study." That made it sound real important. Right away, I didn't think I'd like the movie because it was in black and white. But when I took a good look at Tatum mouthing off line after line after line without missing a beat, I could've sworn that she was in color. I've studied Paper Moon so many times that I know all of Tatum's lines. She's the best actor in the movie, even better than her own dad, who's in it, too.
To be honest, I would've been happy to be called just an okay actor instead of the next Tatum O'Neal. Critics really put the pressure on.
Excerpted from Unscripted Joss Byrd by Lygia Day Peñaflor. Copyright © 2016 Lygia Day Szelwach. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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