The Allure of Celebrity

Diana Christensen (Tatiana Maslany) watching Howard Beale (Bryan Cranston) in Network.

There are those individuals among us who, despite looking similar to us and speaking in languages known to us, they nevertheless seem to occupy a different realm of existence. There are many who can be said to fit this description, but perhaps none seem more suited to this perception than film and television actors. For the majority of us, these exalted individuals only appear to us within the frame of the tv and movie screen or the cover of some glossy entertainment magazine and therefore they tend to take on a glorified and almost superhuman air. If we’re ever so lucky as to see one of our favorite stars in the flesh, it’s usually met with shock and disbelief, primarily at the juxtaposition of seeing such an illustrious figure out in the real world, walking the streets, talking to people, breathing the same air as the rest of us. It’s all too easy to forget that at their core, they’re just human beings.

On several occasions, I’ve had the immense fortune of meeting some of my favorite stars. I’ve stood for hours in winding lines for an autograph or photo or just to catch a glimpse of them. With each encounter, I’m always struck by the all consuming fascination we have for these people whose work is seen and enjoyed by millions upon millions of strangers around the world, most of whom they’ll never meet. At first glance, it’s easy to see why we’re so enamored and drawn to these people; through their characters, we see them act out so many of our deepest desires, rage against our most bitter frustrations and confront our most dreadful fears and insecurities. We can identify so strongly with favorite characters and be darkly drawn to those we seemingly have nothing in common with. These performers end up becoming so inexorably bonded to our favorite characters that that’s who we inevitably see in their place, that’s who we end up wanting to meet. That’s how we come to “know” them, through the characters they inhabit.

Just recently I traveled to NYC to see the Broadway play, Network, starring the formidable Bryan Cranston alongside several other venerable actors of film, theater and tv. Aside from the thrill of seeing Cranston in action (he’s one of my all time favorites), I was even more excited to see the supremely talented Tatiana Maslany (the brilliant actress of, among other things, perhaps my favorite show, Orphan Black, in which she plays, with unparalleled skill and passion, upwards of ten uniquely individualistic clones). Since getting into the series, I’ve been avidly following her career and watching with joy as she begins to get the accolades she so richly deserves (such as her 2016 Emmy win for Orphan Black) and yet, probably rightfully so, always brushes off in her tremendously humble way.

I arrived hours before the 7pm performance at the Belasco Theater, but during my somewhat aimless wanderings around the fringes of Broadway, I kept passing the theater in hopes of catching a glimpse of her outside, but no dice. Come showtime, we filed into the intimate little theater and an usher showed me to my seat; front row Orchestra right with a partial view, which I took to mean my vision of the far right of the stage would be obstructed, no issue when I saw that the only thing I’d be missing was a small group of people who’d paid to sit at tables onstage. My chief concern became how close my seat was to the stage, a stage which rose up almost four feet high and cut off a decent portion of my lower view. I became concerned I’d miss out on key moments, but I could do nothing other than bundle up my thick wool coat and sit on it to prop myself up.

I got up to use the bathroom and upon returning, saw a group of actors spread across the stage on Yoga mats, presumably warming up. As I neared my seat, I saw a woman who struck me as looking like Tatiana as I’d recently seen her, with her bountiful, dark brown curls cropped into a tight bob more suited to the all business Diana Christensen, the ratings-obsessed tv executive she plays in the show. I crept back to my seat, my eyes glued to her as she sat stretching on her mat, ear buds in, and smiling up at some of her co-stars. It’s one thing to know intellectually that you’re gonna see one of your favorites on stage; it’s another thing to actually see them right there.

I soaked in the every moment of the scene, careful not to come across like some leering weirdo, but it proved impossible to look away; there she was, a woman I’d only ever seen through a screen, now suddenly sitting not twenty feet ahead of me, in the same room, breathing the same air. As I watched, I caught some quick flashes of some of the clones she played so perfectly on Orphan Black; a wily and playful role of the tongue like Helena, Allison’s preparatory stretches to get in character, Cosima’s wonderfully emphatic hand gestures when she got up and chatted excitedly with her costars. No matter how long my eyes lingered, my brain still didn’t register that she was right there, no longer an apparition on my tv screen.

Breaking away from her for a second, I saw Bryan Cranston himself behind her in hair and makeup and tried to glean even a shadow of the imposing countenance of Heisenberg as he chatted happily with his makeup team. I took in as much of these scenes as I could before the lights died and the show started. My worries about my somewhat limited view were erased right away; they were both right there before me, often coming right to the edge of center stage, or in Tatiana’s case, even materializing right above me on stage. For two hours I was wholly mesmerized, not only by Tatiana and Bryan, but the entire cast and the intense and deeply thought prodding show they put on.

Soon it was all over and the cast lined up and gave their individual and collective bows to rapturous applause. Upon emerging outside, I broke away from the crowd and tried to determine which of the two side exits the cast might be utilizing. As it turns out, I picked the wrong one, but soon joined the crowd of fans gathered around the correct one as the cast emerged one by one. A cheer came up and I caught a glimpse of Tatiana, already posing for selfies and signing playbills. I maneuvered my way into the press of people, just trying to catch a glimpse and then moved around to the other side of the flock in hopes of getting closer. Somehow I did and found myself in a line of people down which she was slowly making her way. Having already taken out my phone to try and snap a few pics, I frantically tried with shaking hands to set it to selfie mode (a mode I never use), so as to be ready when she got in front of me. I tried to get my knees to stop shaking, but to no avail as she inched her way closer and closer. Finally, she stopped at the girl to my right and posed for a selfie and I thought, “This is it, I’m next, just a few more seconds.” I prepared to show her my Orphan Black shirt as proof of my Clone Club status and readied the camera and then, within the space of one of those seconds, some other cast or crew member grabbed her attention and she suddenly moved past me down the street.

I stood there stunned and just staring at her back as she disappeared into the anonymity of the dark street. Just like that, I’d missed my window. It had closed shut on me. Once again, she would only exist for me behind that screen. As I stood there, enveloped in that press of people still waiting for the man himself, Bryan Cranston, to emerge — which he finally did, generously giving much of his time to meeting fans — I got to thinking, as I always do in the midst of surreal circumstances, of the strangeness of this whole affair. Here we were, total strangers huddled together on the street just waiting to see other strangers, famous and more familiar strangers perhaps, but strangers none the less. Of course, those of us waiting were obviously fans of their work, followed their careers and perhaps even learned tidbits about their personal lives from articles, interviews or even memoirs.

Still, none of us standing there really knows these people…all we know of them is their public persona, the image offered up to us through the media, a core theme, incidentally, of Network. Even in the cases of Mr. Cranston and Miss Maslany, both of whom come across as genuinely kind and caring people — and what little I saw of both reinforces this — the truth is, as with any person, this is not the totality of their beings. As people, they’re as beautifully complex and messy as any of us, full of as many flaws and contradictions as talents and skills. It is precisely the messy depths of the human heart and soul which they probe and explore in their art. Just as any one of us can’t truly know how we’d act or what we might become under unimaginable circumstances, so to we can’t possibly hope to know these people. All we can “know” is what we’re presented with. The rest will always be a mystery and mystery’s essential to what drives these performers as well as our fascination with them.

As an ardent fan of Tatiana Maslany, both her immense talent as well as what I perceive to be her genuine humanity and decency, I’m of course bummed that I didn’t get to take a photo with her or even just tell her how wonderful I think she is (same goes for Mr. Cranston, with whom I also was unable to get a photo). However, I deeply appreciate the fact that these performers were so generous with fans after the show when they probably just wanted to relax back at their hotel. Furthermore, as an appreciator of these two artists and the passionate work they create, I feel lucky just to be able to peer into that captivating and awe-inspiring realm, whether film, theater or tv, where all the cavernous depths of the human heart are explored and the infinite colors of the spirit are on full display. It is in this realm where we first become acquainted with these artists and their power to move and inspire us. Maybe that’s all any of us really needs.