Friday, September 24, 2010

The Girl Who Fell Off Bikes

When I was about 4 years old, my mother put me in tumbling classes and I loved it. What was not to love about rolling your body all around the floor? Those were the good old days - having my feet and body firmly planted on the ground.

When I graduated from tumbling however, the class that was the next level up was gymnastics, and I will never forget that first day.

A giant balance beam stood before me and all the other little girls were doing it. The instructor took each girl by the hand and walked them across the beam. I cringed a little, but I wanted to try. I wanted to fit in.

When it came time for me, I got on the beam and immediately became dizzy. As the teacher walked me across, step by step, I could not stop shaking. I thought I was going to fall off at any point. It became apparent to all those involved that I was not going to become the next Mary Lou Retton and I quit gymnastics immediately.

When I was 6 years old, like all little boys and girls, I got my first bike with training wheels. But unlike most little boys and girls, I could not ride the bike without the extra set of wheels. I kept falling over. This was a traumatic experience. I could overhear the other girls in my first grade class exclaiming, “Theresa Donahoe does not know how to ride a bike!” It was humiliating.

During one hot summer day when I was 11 years old, a friend of mine brought over a couple of bikes. I don’t know where I got the courage, but with nothing but my one piece swimsuit on my body, I decided to jump on a bike and take a spin. Next thing I knew, I was doing it! I was really doing it! I was riding a bike! I felt like I was flying like a bird in the street! Yipeeeeeee!! But with my new found courage I got a little over confident and hit a curb. The bike went flying off my body and I landed flat on my back on the hot sidewalk cement. My back was now bloody, black and blue. My new injury came just in time for summer camp that year, which was the following week. I still went to camp, but I did not get back on a bike for a really long time.

I didn’t need to. As I got older, bikes soon were replaced with cars and the social stigma of being “the girl who fell off bikes” had been lifted from me.

Or so I thought.

Fast forward to age 26 when I got a call one Friday from a casting assistant named Nicole, to do some photo-double work for actress Juliette Lewis on a movie called “The Other Sister” filming in San Francisco. I had done photo double work before and it had always been easy so I said yes.

(An example of a photo double is someone who is in a movie and is usually filmed “from behind with a wig on” or “filmed from a distance with a wig on” and looks close enough to the principal actor. Photo doubles are used because they cost less to employ for small scenes that require little of the actual actor).

I arrived to set that one rainy day at the Palace of Fine Arts with a cold, but I was determined to work. No cold was going to ruin my day. Turns out a cold would be the least of my problems.

As I sat in a chair inside the Make Up and Hair trailer, waiting for my wig to be put on, I noticed an older woman sitting in the chair to my right, with rollers in her hair and her face buried in a magazine. She looked familiar and I stared at her until I realized she was Diane Keaton and then I immediately looked away. I wanted to play it cool. After I got my wig on, Juliette Lewis walked in to the trailer, saw me, and said in her laid back voice, “oh cool, a double” and then walked out.

As a photo double, I would be working with the “2nd Unit” crew. (Some movie sets have more than one camera unit so they can film scenes simultaneously at different locations to save money and time) I worked the first half of the day sitting on a park bench overlooking a pond with my back turned away from the camera that was shooting from several feet away. In the scene with me was another actor, who at the time, I thought might also be a photo double. He stood up and fed the ducks in the pond and talked to me like a little boy. I thought maybe he was mentally challenged or something, because if he was acting, he never broke character. In his little boy voice, he asked me if I was an actress and I said yes. He kept rambling on and on while continuing to feed the ducks until the crew got their shot.

(Some time later I was watching television and recognized this same actor as being the guy who plays Phoebe’s brother on the TV show FRIENDS. It turned out to be Giovanni Ribisi, and no, he is not really retarded).

The second half of that day the crew moved up North to Marin County to film more scenes in a suburban neighborhood. Giovanni’s photo double arrived and he and I hung out in a car waiting for the crew to call us.

One of the crew members peeked his head in to our car and asked:

“You two know how to ride bikes, right?”

The other double nodded. I sat there for a second, and then, like a little girl wanting to just fit in all over again, I nodded too. What was I gonna do? Tell them no?

I was scared, but I did remember that I did once jump on a bike back when I was 11 years old and I was able to do it for a little while. “I can do this,” I thought, “Theresa, face your fears!”

Two bikes were brought out and the other double immediately hopped on his and took it for a spin. I just stared at mine.

Our 2nd unit director Scotty Marshall, the son of Gary Marshall (who was director of the 1st unit camera crew and also movies such as Pretty Woman and the TV show “Happy Days”) was ready to do a rehearsal.

“Alright,” he said, “let’s do a test run with the bikes. And ….ACTION!”

I jumped on my bike and started pedaling down the street. It wasn’t long though until I started to feel dizzy and then I started to wobble, and then I knew I was headed for a crash landing.

BAM!! I fell over to my right side, totally banging up my thigh, as the left handle bar went flying off into the street.

The set medic came rushing up to me.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” I was so embarrassed.

“It’s not your fault, alright? That bike was totally defective,” he said while showing me the missing handle bar.

The medic walked me off set and had me fill out some worker’s compensation forms. I was wondering why people were being so nice to me about the fall and then I realized, they just didn’t want me to sue them.

With a huge bruise on my right thigh, I was done for the day. I got in a crew van and was sent home.

Turns out, good news travels fast. That following Monday, all day long amongst show-biz friends, I heard jabs like, “hey, we heard you couldn’t ride a bike!” and “oh, that’s easy, it’s just like riding a...…do’h!”

Ha ha. It’s like I was 6 and 11 years old all over again.

Thinking the worst was behind me, I brushed it off, I mean, what are the odds of that happening again?


Two years later I got a call from Michelle from the same casting office asking if I wanted to do some photo double work on the movie, “The Princess Diaries”. I said yes and then she asked me one question.

“You know how to ride a razor scooter right?”

Razor scooters had just come out that year and were all the rage with little kids. I mean, how hard could it be?

“Sure,” I said.

I arrived on the set of  The Princess Diaries ready to work. I was put in a private school outfit and wig. I would be doubling for Heather Matarzzo who played the best friend of the lead actress’s character, played by Anne Hathaway.


Anne Hathaway’s photo double and I were given a scene where we had to ride razor scooters side by side, downhill on a street in San Francisco. Panic started to set in.

“It’s all about balance,” the other double told me.

“Uh huh,” I said.

I hopped on my scooter, but could not get the hang of it. I tried and tried and then finally, the stunt-coordinator came over to me.

“It’s easy,” he said as he started walking along side me holding my scooter. Then he would let go and I would tip over.

“Try it again,” he said as he walked me through it a second time.

I tipped again.

“It’s not hard,” he insisted as he started to get impatient with me. I still couldn’t do it.

“Wow,” he said, “you are really having a hard time with this.” He looked at me intensely and then his eyes widened as realized:

“Hey, did you work on “The Other Sister??”

I wanted to die.

I looked up at the camera crew and locked eyes with yet, again, Scotty Marshall. What were the odds I would be working with the same freaking director two years later?? I couldn’t believe it. Mr. Marshall must have thought, “HER AGAIN? Is she the only double that we can get in San Francisco?”

I turned to the stunt-coordinator and fired myself.

“I am just gonna get in the van.”

I got out of my double’s clothes and into a crew van. Once inside I called the casting office.

“Hey Michelle, it’s me. Yeah, turns out I couldn’t ride the scooter. You know this isn’t the first time this has happened. I once fell off a bike on another movie set.”

“That was YOU?” She asked.

Turns out, in Bay Area film circles, I had gained a reputation. Michelle hadn’t worked on the previous movie and didn’t realize I was “the girl who couldn’t ride a bike”. Had she known, perhaps she wouldn’t have sent me to set.

She said she heard that through the grapevine, that after my first incident, crew had made sarcastic comments to casting like, “hey, next time make sure you send someone who can walk- okay?”

In 2009 I was doing stand-in work on the television show “Parenthood” that was filming in Berkeley. The girl I was standing in for was portraying a high school senior and everything was going smoothly until I saw her rehearse a scene where she got on a bike and rode away.

This time I acted quickly.

I grabbed one of the production assistants and gave her a warning, “I am not too good on bikes if they expect me to ride one during a rehearsal.” She calmly responded back, “don’t worry, I will do it for you if they really need to see that blocking.”

Turns out they didn’t and I learned a lesson that day. From now on I would speak up more on sets, and in life, and not be ashamed of having been the girl who fell off bikes.


2 comments:

Katherine said...

I LOVE your stories! You are a great writer <3

Karen Peterson said...

Oh that is just hilarious!

I've never been more grateful NOT to have a reputation!