One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is in Jaws, when Quint, Hooper and Chief Brody (no relation) are sitting below decks in an old boat, comparing their scars. A very similar scene is regularly played out among actors in green rooms, backstage hallways, and post-show parties throughout show business. Subject: the jobs that left scars; and we’ve all had ‘em.
There are a few types of jobs that, actors uniformly agree, cut the deepest. They either embarrass or degrade; they stoop, are dangerous or simply artless. You do them because they pay well, or you think they’ll be fun, or they offer travel, or you owe someone a favor, or – most often – you have no idea how painful it’s going to be until you show up. The job selling tampons, for example; or a voiceover for politics you may or may not support; kids’ parties, animal antics, terrible locations etc.
When comparing scars and trumping one another’s’ worst experiences, revered is the actor who has done what we affectionately call “pod jobs.”
A pod job describes work done in a pod costume – like cartoon characters and sport mascots. They vary a lot from character to character but usually include a large headpiece, from which you look out one of the characters’ orifices – usually their mouth. The body is some combination of a fuzzy fabric, wire and mesh. Your feet are affixed into enormous foam shoes, your hands in proportionately enormous foam gloves. It is, in many ways, an adorable coffin.
Among my first performing jobs ever, in fact, was a pod job when I was about 14. A friend of my mother helped to book touring entertainers in my tiny Wisconsin hometown and she once had a family-friendly band on the docket whose namesake was a giant, dancing Panda Bear. They gave me $30 to wear the pod and dance and crowd-please throughout the show. It was the hottest, pukiest, scariest job I’d ever had and I almost died.
When in a pod costume, you can neither fully see nor feel the world around you. You can neither see nor hear the little darling who was just dared to knock your big head around backwards. You can not escape, and the sweat that is rolling down your face and into your eyes and mouth is not just your own, but the condensed sweat of many strangers who wore this head before you.
To be fair, pod jobs are not always that terrible. Responsible organizations ensure that actors only work in 15-20 minute increments and have handlers to both help them move around and deflect the public. When the primary discomforts of pod jobs are alleviated by responsible practices, one is still left with the sheer absurdity of it.
Particularly absurd was a pod job I had in 2003, when, for one day, I was none other than the Easter Bunny for Macy’s on the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis. The usual bunny needed a last-minute replacement, and I was exactly her size, to the inch. And as pod-pros will tell you, being the right size is really job-one for employment.
I was quickly instructed on how to move realistically like a cartoon. They showed me how, in the pod, to appear as if I was giggling, blowing kisses, or looking shy. It was demonstrated that what was my waist was the Bunny’s leg. What was my ear, was the Bunny’s neck, etc.
Above all, I was told, the pod actor must never speak. I don’t know what the Easter Bunny sounds like any more than the next guy, but the children certainly know it isn’t my Joan Jett of a voice.
“They cry less when you don’t speak.” I was told.
But the absurdity didn’t stop there. At the time, a block away, I was performing eight shows a week in Hey City Theater’s production of Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding. Several other actors from my cast were also working in pods at Macy’s that day. The money was good, many of us had the same agent, and there were daytime hours available before the show.
There can be only one Easter Bunny at a time (same rules as Santa) and others were all playing a variety of barnyard and forest animals - the presumed buddies of the Bunny. The woman playing Tina in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, for example – who was on billboards and skyway posters around the state, who would in only a matter of hours be wearing a full wedding gown and entertaining hundreds – was a squirrel. The guy playing Barry, the best man in the wedding, was a moose on roller-skates. I would have had no way of recognizing who they were, of course, were it not for the frequent intervals in which we all sat in the warehouse break room toweling off, guzzling water, and holding our enormous heads in our laps.
At the climax of the day, The Easter Bunny and all of her animal colleagues emerge from Macy’s onto Nicollet Mall – which has been covered in real grass – for the Easter egg roll. Through two square-shaped holes, I suddenly found myself hugging the mayor, and blowing kisses (from my forehead) to thousands of people. And then a horn blew and I’m suddenly among my very talented friends and approximately 100 children, pushing eggs through tall grass, unable to hear, see or feel the world around me Was that an eight year-old’s leg I just stepped on, or a piece of electric cord under tape? No way to know. Were they screaming in delight or terror? Hard to say.
What felt like an eternity later, my two handlers clutched my giant foam fingers and hefted me through the adoring crowd and back to the concrete slab and chicken wire break room I had grown to love.
That night I drove home soaked with sweat and feeling a bit like Hunter S. Thompson. The job paid a lot and now I understood why. It sucked a lot. I knew this too: this is probably what the pros call “your dues” and I was glad to pay them.
What I didn’t know was that it was far from the last time I would pay my rent as an actor by doing something utterly absurd. Like the time I stood next to a urine-caked snow bank for two hours in 20 degree weather dressed as the Statue of Liberty and waving at traffic… But that’s another story.