Agnes nods and heads back into the house. I watch her retreat, sort of wishing I could follow her.
“So isn’t that wild? Does that sound wild to you?” he asks, grinning at me as he runs his hand through his hair, and the way he says wild makes me feel embarrassed for him.
“It does sound . . . wild,” I say, thanking Agnes for the can of La Croix she has brought out and poured over ice for me. “There was some talk of a feminist angle. Where is that?”
The drink crackles as I wait for John’s response. He doesn’t answer my question until Agnes has gone back inside.
“Sorry, I don’t like talking about work in front of the staff. You never know who they’re talking to, you know? Everyone in this town is working on a fucking script.”
“Mmm . . .” I say lightly, hoping Agnes doesn’t have to stay in this job for too long. “So the feminism?”
“The feminism is all in the way your character—that’s Sienna of Euron—how she’s this badass ruler of this entire planet, you know? But she never really wanted any of it, she nearly gives it all up for this Neutron guy, even kind of loses it for a while after he dies in battle, but it ends up being this fury that propels her to beat the other planets. When she emerges as the victor, you think the movie is over, but the real ending will totally destroy you. It makes the hair on my arms stand up just thinking about it,” he says, and he pauses to show me his large arm. I try to appear impressed, even though I can’t see anything happening in his follicles.
“Once she’s won, Sienna destroys the entire galaxy because it’s become so corrupt, and greedy, you know. She literally kills everyone, including herself, leaving only this one couple and their dog, who are left with the entire future of civilization in their hands. It’s this incredibly important comment on what we’re doing to the planet, but you don’t realize that until this shot at the very end of the movie. I’m telling you—it’s subtle, but it’s brutal. Nobody is going to forget how it made them feel. It’s going to be one of those. Like Titanic.”
I find myself nodding along with him, and by the time he’s finished talking and said the word Titanic, I realize that I actually want to be in this stupid movie. I want to be Queen Sienna of Euron. I know that, as dumb as it is, it’s the exact kind of thing I would need to seal my freedom from Able. I sit up straighter in an attempt to appear more regal.
“That sounds amazing. Inspiring. I’m very into the environment too—saving the dolphins and whales,” I say, nodding seriously. John seems pleased, waiting for me to elaborate. Ugh, Grace, why haven’t you done anything good in your entire life?
“I actually volunteered at the sea-life center near my parents’ place when I was home this year,” I say, willing him not to ask me where they live. If he does, by my count, it would only be the third question he’s asked me after “How much weight have you put on?” and “Are you single?”
“That sounds great, Grace,” he says, clearly thinking about something else. He taps his fingers on his knee before leaning forward. “Do you know what? I’m doing some reshoots over the next few days on location downtown. Could you drop by tomorrow to screen-test?”
I pause. “Screen-test tomorrow?”
“Sure. You’re okay with that, right? It’s an insurance thing, everyone we cast had to do it,” John says, and I feel weirdly grateful to him for lying to me.
“Sure, okay,” I say, trying to smile in the way that doesn’t weaken my jawline.
“How about I also take you out for dinner tonight? To talk about the project some more?” he asks, pursing his lips as if to show me how serious he’s being.
“Why don’t we get the screen test out of the way first,” I say smoothly. “Then we can go for dinner with Nathan and Kit in the New Year.”
“Sounds great, Grace,” John says good-naturedly, and I’m sickeningly relieved that he’s not going to make a big deal about being turned down. He stands up, stretching a little.
“So I’ll get Nathan to email you later about the screen test?” I ask as he walks me through the house, and I try not to notice that he moves like a man who is used to people getting out of his way. I repeat my question again in my head, without the question mark, for next time.
“Sure, we’ll get it booked in for the morning. I assume I’ll also be seeing you at the Globes?”
“Undecided,” I say vaguely, because I haven’t been invited. “I usually only go when I’m nominated. And sometimes not even then.”
John laughs as he opens the front door for me. He kisses me good-bye on the cheek, leaving a warm, wet residue that I have to resist the urge to wipe.
“I’m excited about the project,” I say, one more time, before I leave.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Grace. Send my regards to Emilia if you speak to her.” John leans in again, this time to speak quietly in my ear. “Paparazzo by the black Jaguar.”
I nod and walk down the steps, holding my head up high so the photographer catches me sliding gracefully into my car and driving away.
I ring the doorbell of the peach house, and the twins answer it together. They seem disappointed when they see that it’s me, and I figure I should bring them a present next time, since that seems to be what sustains them.
“That was a great play the other day,” I say, smiling. “Hands down the two best menorah candles I’ve ever seen.”
Silver ignores me but Ophelia smiles back at me shyly. Emilia walks into the hallway to greet me, wearing a pair of glasses I didn’t know she needed.
“Darling, thank you for coming! Come on in,” she says, wiping her hands on her jeans.
I follow her into the kitchen and take a seat at the table. Emilia immediately puts a plate of shortbread in front of me.
“Sorry about the mess,” Emilia says, gesturing to three shopping bags sitting in the corner of the room. “I’m so pleased that you’re here. Girls, do you want to move into the playroom?”
The twins, who are playing a game on their phones, ignore her. They chat loudly and unselfconsciously, telling each other what they have achieved in terms of gold rings or makeover points in their game. Emilia raps her knuckles on the table, and Silver stands up and runs out of the kitchen in one movement while Ophelia hangs back.
Emilia puts her arm around her. “Can you make sure your sister doesn’t get too worked up? You know what she’s like.”
Ophelia nods and follows Silver out of the kitchen. Emilia pulls up a seat opposite me, tilting her head to one side as she watches me.
“Tell me everything,” she says, leaning toward me, and for a moment I forget that she’s asking about my meeting with John.
“It went well . . . I think, although obviously you never really know,” I say, choosing my words carefully. “John seems like a very interesting man.”
Emilia lets out a loud peal of laughter and she claps her hands together as if I’ve just said something utterly charming, as opposed to paying her dear friend a disingenuous compliment.
“He’s not as bad as he seems, I promise,” she says. “We all know that there’s worse out there, particularly in this industry.”
I take a bite of shortbread so that I don’t have to comment, but my stomach turns when I realize it’s the exact same kind that Able used to give me when I was younger.
“I have to audition for the part,” I say. “It’s been a while.”
“Oh no, I think that’s perfect,” Emilia says, sounding pleased. “It means that you’ll be able to silence all the people saying you’re not up to it, in one go. Nobody can deny that you earned the role.”
My discomfort at her words must be obvious, because Emilia immediately puts her hand over mine.
“I just meant . . . Look, try to think about it this way . . . At the moment, however brave they think you are, however much they respect what you said in the interview, however much they may like you, they are still just waiting for you to slip up again, because that’s how it works. They don’t want you to win. And I don’t just mean John, I’m talking about the industry as a whole, the press, even the public. But what you’re going to do is take that negativity and turn it into something you can use, let it become the thing that fuels you. And if you do that, then you’re not only going to win the part, but you’re going to win everyone’s hearts by the time this movie is finished. You’re going to be America’s sweetheart, darling.” Emilia says the last sentence in a Katharine Hepburn mid-Atlantic accent, satisfied that she has put my mind at rest. I struggle to swallow the lump of shortbread still in my mouth.
“That reminds me, actually, we need to talk about the IFAs,” Emilia says as she pushes her glass of water across the table to me. “I meant to ask you about your decision the other day, but it must have slipped my mind somewhere during the story of the Maccabees, as told through interpretive dance.”