There’s a passage in Kevin Brownlow’s biography of David Lean that describes Trevor Howard’s response to a poignant scene in Brief Encounter, the Rachmaninoff-saturated classic of repressed British love: “They know jolly well this chap’s borrowed a flat, they know exactly why she’s coming back to him, why doesn’t he fuck her? All this talk about the wood being damp and that sort of stuff.”

Lean struggled to explain his vision.

Howard: “Oh God, you are a funny chap.”

Lean: “Funny chap or not, that’s the way we’re doing the scene. Now come on.”

Not long after reading this exchange in a review, I saw Hugh Grant’s cameo in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks. Allen, reputedly a morose workaholic, had built a career on the shtick of likable Jewish bumbler; it was as if he’d looked at Grant’s shtick of likable English bumbler, seen through to something cold and calculating and clever behind it, and come up with the space for this astonishing performance. Grant laid bare something shocking: not just the skill that goes into playing a likable bumbler, but whatever it is in an audience that finds bumblers likable.

If only Grant had had more parts like that! If only Howard had had a part that put on display the cognitive dissonance of this argument with Lean!

So I had a brilliant idea for a book about an actor. I had thought of only one line for the character (Frankly, my dear, I think you are being a cunt), but I knew it was a work of genius in the making. A book can show something a movie can’t, the actual text of actual contracts, the paper prisons that cage actors before they’re players; I needed to know more about the biz.

People in the biz won’t normally waste their time on writers. Even if you have a movie deal on the table and your very own personal agent or your very own personal lawyer, they are not going to waste their time explaining the biz; they want to get paid and move on. But I knew a player.

The player wanted me to sign a contract. He was happy to help. We met at a diner. He had brought an actor’s contract, and he started to talk, and for two hours I said nothing but WOW. WOW. WOW.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Helen DeWitt

Helen DeWitt is a novelist. Op. 101, The Last Samurai, was published as a “first novel” in 2000. An excerpt from Your Name Here, a collaboration with Ilya Gridneff, appeared recently in n+1. She is now working on two books begun during a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006‒07. She lives in Berlin.

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