Playing a ‘White Guy’: Perils of Prime Time Reality TV

I hadn’t heard from my so-called manager in months, but when he called with an audition for ABC Primetime, all was forgiven. He was my best friend again.

“It’s a reoccurring segment about relationships,” he said. “Real-life stuff, mostly improvised. It’s a two-day shoot. It pays $1,500 a day.”

“O.K.,” I told him, trying to sound like someone who makes $1,500 a day. I didn’t really know what someone who makes $1,500 a day sounds like, so I had to guess. I didn’t want to sound too impressed. I’m an artist. I spell theatre with an “-re.” I’m supposed to be above the temptations of the dollar sign.

But, boy, I was impressed. And I was already spending my $3,000 in my head when my so-called manager said this: “Your segment is called ‘Interracial Fight.’” And then, as if it needed clarification, he summed it up for me: “You’ll be the white guy.”

I hung up the phone, chuckled at the shallow entertainment industry, and spent more money in my head. During my bartending shift that night, two phrases rang in my ears: ABC Primetime and $1,500 a day. I scooped pumpkin purée into a glass for a drink called “The Hot and Bothered Pumpkin.” Some hot and bothered pumpkin got on my shirt. My life was going to change. I could feel it.

Two days later, I gave my name to security in the lobby of ABC’s offices and strolled to the elevator. I was ready. After all, I am a classically trained actor. I’ve played Hamlet. I could do this improvised “white guy” thing in my sleep. I checked my teeth in the elevator’s mirrored door and felt the floor rise beneath me. I was ascending.

In a conference room, I shook hands with a producer and with an actress who was auditioning to play the other half of my “interracial” couple. She was beautiful, but she was also fair-skinned (possibly Italian). Italians checked the “Caucasian” box at the D.M.V. just like me, didn’t they? Or was there a separate box for Italian?

The producer turned on a television with clips from a previous episode. The screen showed a couple in a park. While onlookers gaped, the man grabbed his lover, pulled her hair, choked her and forced her down onto a bench. The two of them shouted stilted dialogue like “Stop it!” and “I said stay there!” These were the actors. This was the gig.

The show was a setup. The crew hides and the poor actors flail at each other in an improvised scene of domestic abuse, hoping to flush out a Good Samaritan, while an off-camera reporter gives a breathless play-by-play. And when someone does step in, everybody comes out and congratulates the bewildered citizen. Then they hide and start the whole thing over. My stomach started to hurt. Angela (not her real name) and I smiled at each other the way chimpanzees smile at each other in the jungle: We showed our fangs.

We watched more clips. One puffed-up Samaritan told the cameras that he was a karate instructor. He’d been waiting for the boyfriend to make one more move before he “did something” to him. “Isn’t this guy great?” the producer, “Dave,” beamed at us. Angela agreed that the karate instructor was great. The two of them shared a laugh. Sure, it was just hilarious for them—neither of them would be risking a roundhouse from a black belt.

Dave said, “We’ve tried this a lot of different ways. We did one episode where the woman beat on the man. Nobody cared about that. This time, we’re going to try mixed-race couples.” Angela and I looked at each other, unsure how we qualified. Of course, television has always represented race poorly. After all, David Carradine played a Chinese monk in Kung Fu—and Bill O’Reilly plays a member of the human race for Fox.

“We’ve already hired your partners,” Dave said. “They did a previous episode—‘Minority Fight.’”

He showed us another clip. This time, we watched an African-American couple fighting in a park. And, at last, I got it: ABC Primetime wanted me to stand around in a public park and beat on a black woman. For two days.

“So,” Dave said with a smile, “why don’t you guys try a scene, just to show what you can do?”

“Just start fighting?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.

And then I said something really dumb. I was still thinking like an actor: “But what’s the scene about?”

Dave shrugged. “Just go for it,” he said.

In all my life, I’ve never been asked to stage a spontaneous, unchoreographed fight. An unchoreographed stage fight isn’t a stage fight at all; it’s a real fight. And only real fighters know about those.

I stood. Dave wanted me to do something that went against all my moral instincts. And to do it in a manner that went against all my acting instincts—not to mention my sense of self-preservation. ABC didn’t need actors for their “interracial fight.” They needed guests from The Jerry Springer Show. I despised Dave, ABC and my so-called manager. Most of all, I despised myself, for wanting so desperately to be on television. I knew what I had to do.

“O.K.,” I heard myself say. “You got it.”

And so I waded into the cold black water of a scene about nothing. “You stay there,” I said. I placed a firm but careful hand on Angela’s shoulder; the plan was that she’d take my cue and act like she’d been forced into a nearby chair. Unfortunately, Angela had a plan, too: She planned to kick my ass. She exploded out from under my grip.

“No!” she bawled at me. “You’re not going to do what you always do at home!”

I cringed. Who says that?

Suddenly Angela was barreling past me. I managed to grab her from behind. And this time I put some muscle into it, so she’d know to stay put. Instead, she threw herself against me like some sort of rabid, manicured monkey, all fingernails and elbows. In her enthusiasm to land the job, Angela had forgotten the entire premise of it. She was supposed to be afraid of me; I was supposed to be the one abusing her. In order to play her abuser, I was going to have to actually abuse her. And I wasn’t willing to do that. I let go.

Dave had seen enough. “You know something,” he told me after he stopped us, “I think she could take you.” I looked at the red welts on my arms and agreed. What else could I do? Real. Pretend. When O.J.’s If I Did It is considered a hypothetical, who can tell the difference?

I’ll save you the suspense: I didn’t get the job. I’m still making “The Hot and Bothered Pumpkin” at the bar. I try not to get it on my shirt. My so-called manager hasn’t called. If he did, I’d have to explain that some things are more important than $1,500 a day—and that, more importantly, even though it may have looked like Angela could take me, Angela most certainly could not take me.

The other day, I Googled the episode. I found it for sale at the ABC store, as part of a series called—no kidding—Ethical Dilemmas. Playing a ‘White Guy’: Perils of Prime Time Reality TV