When we lived on Cape Cod, the PBS Show Zoom had open auditions at GBH Studios in Boston during the long Martin Luther King Weekend. Parents could call to schedule a time and youngsters 8-13 were asked to prepare a short piece. Kids were invited into the studio, and cast members were on hand to say hello.
Our eldest, Fiona, was 8 and in third grade, and she prepared to recite a poem for them about Betty Botter, whose butter was bitter. Fiona’s goal was to make at least one call-back, so we were elated when it happened. When she made the next round, we started to think, wow, this might be real! The last, agonizing round would determine who was on the next season. During her audition, someone mentioned how she was reminded him of Caroline, who was already on the show and didn’t plan to leave. Zoom! was committed to diversity, and although they looked nothing alike, their personalities were similar. Fiona did not get that job, but she was pleased that she had surpassed her goal.
She did get an agent, however, after that, and PBS called her for a commercial she made for Arthur. She also went on a number of auditions and seemed to get more than she didn’t, including a national commercial for the Hartford Insurance, with her two sisters. Boston does not have a large market, so she felt like a big fish in a small pond. I do want to mention that the only photos she had were ones we did ourselves, and that the agent was paid by the jobs. There are a lot of predatory practices to avoid.
Although we moved to New Jersey the summer before her fifth grade, two years later her Boston-based agent called to say a television show was filming a pilot in Rhode Island, and in need of three sisters the ages of our girls. Since it was summer and none of us were missing any school, we drove up to Rhode Island, and by the end of the day, our other two girls were cut, and Fiona had made one of the audition team tear up during her improv. She got the gig, and as a result, she started school a few days late because she was filming the pilot for Brotherhood, which was Showtime’s attempt to compete with Sopranos. Although we had told the school, and she had told her closest friends, she opted not to tell others. Her attitude was that she didn’t really want friends just for that reason. Jason Isaacs, even then infamous among tweens for his role as Lucius Malfoy, played her uncle, and while she could have used this to garner attention, she didn’t.
The pilot was received well, but it was almost two years before it was picked up, scripts were written, and they were ready to film season 1, and at that point, Fiona was heading into 9th grade. Each season luckily filmed in the summer, overlapping some into the spring and fall. When the girls were on set, there was a tutor, so they had all their academic challenges met. The show was about two brothers, one who was in the mob (played by Isaacs) and one who was a state Congressman. Fiona played his eldest daughter, and so Jason Clark (now of much more renown than then) and AnnaBeth Gish (whom I adored as far back as Mystic Pizza) became her TV parents, and she also acquired two TV sisters, a grandmother (Fionula Flanagan), and the beloved aunt/uncle (Kerry O’Malley and Bates Wilder). Because a lot of the show was about sex, drugs, and politics, Fiona was not allowed to watch the show, and days when the family filmed rarely overlapped with the full cast.
We often cruised the periphery, hanging out more with the crew than the cast. Regulars from the show don’t really mingle with the extras, so unless there was a scene involving some kids hired to play her friends, we mostly got to know the tutor, the other parents, and the crew who were doing amazing things, like staging the house or placing microphones. The kind craft services folks were always eager to make Fiona a sandwich or coffee, and the props people made sure that the hotdog Fiona had to eat in a scene was a vegetarian one. There is not a lot of consistent work in New England for the crew, so they were coming from as far as New Hampshire or New York for this work.
This lifestyle is quite stressful. There were crewmembers on our show whose wives were back home, extremely pregnant, and while they went home for the weekends, during the week it was infeasible. The union has regulations involving food and rest, so that if a crew is working more than a full day, they must provide a “fourth meal” and when they do wrap for the day, the crew and cast are required a certain amount of hours before they can be called to work again. So, the whole thing is carefully orchestrated. You might need one of the hair/makeup people on site for filming, but if it’s late, the rest will be sent home so that they can start the next day as early as possible. The whole week will be arranged based on what sites might be needed and what kind of lighting is needed. Some people on the crew would be working odd or even episodes, as they were preparing sites and schedules for the next episode while the other team was filming this one. And while all these schedules were planned, so many variables, like weather, and how complex one day’s filming was, would change things. Often, it would be 11 PM, and we would not yet have a call telling us when she was due the next day. At the time, Fiona had incredibly long hair, and we would need to arrange for her to wash it with enough time to dry before she went to bed, or the next morning, the hair team would complain about her still-wet hair. The feeling of being on call creates a special kind of tension that takes time to cultivate.
Mostly, during filming season, we would stay in Rhode Island, which is a nice place to spend one’s summers, and we were close to the East Providence studio or any location in the state. We were able to join the YMCA (where Jason Isaacs also had joined, so we saw him Hokey Pokey with his young daughter), and we rode the bike path, kayaked, attended Bristol’s historic July 4th parade, yard sale shopped, and had our toes done. At a time when many teens pull away from their mothers, I was all Fiona had, and so we grew a lot closer. We also had a game where we would try to say as little as possible about what we were doing there. Usually we could get away with saying we were just “spending the summer there” and maybe for a work project. Discussing the show got involved, complicated, and awkward.
Fiona missed the chance to do all the summer plays in her hometown with her friends. She missed the family trip to England and Ireland. For a while, I was worried that she might have her first kiss as part of a plot line, but instead of romance, her character got into marijuana and joy-riding. It was actually funny because she was underage, and Showtime’s conservative policies didn’t even want her behind the wheel of a car that was running, so she had a stand in for that, but she was behind the wheel and moving on a dolly that dragged her around while filming her from that truck
I can’t say that we look at television the same way, either. We pay more attention to how many angles a scene was shot from, and whether the actors are eating, or playing with their mashed potatoes. We look at how new all the clothes look, and how the clutter is staged to look realistic. We look at the extras to see if there are people we know, especially if a car drives by because we might know the Production Assistant who is driving it. We look for clues that the clothing being worn is not in keeping with the season when it’s being shot. We watch for cast members to disappear or be replaced, hide maternity, signs of aging in flashbacks, or even how much the cast changes from pilot to episode 2.
While the income helped to finance Fiona’s education at American University, and she still gets residuals which she saves for her European adventures that she takes once a year (maybe still making up for missing our family trip?), Fiona has moved along to other pursuits. She studied communications and marketing in college and converted an internship into a job in content marketing, now working with the data analytics aspect.