'Would you like to play yourself in a movie?'

A writer studies hard for her five-word part - and watches Julia Roberts from behind a potted palm

It was 6:30 a.m. and Catherine Zeta-Jones was sitting in the makeup trailer. Her hair was in large rollers, and she was having the last dabble of powder applied to her flawless face.

Sitting in the chair beside Ms. Zeta-Jones, I noticed a dozen color photos taped to the mirror. "This," she said, sweeping her hand across the snaps, "is my shrine - photos of my baby, Dylan."

"That's one handsome son," I agreed, as the makeup woman started applying foundation to my face.

Director Joe Roth was directing "America's Sweethearts," his first movie in 11 years. The intervening time had been spent as head of 20th Century Fox and then of Walt Disney Studios. Two weeks previously, his office had phoned me. "Would you like to be in this movie?" Cautiously, I answered, "What would I have to do?"

"Play a journalist," was the answer. We laughed. "I've been rehearsing that job since high school," I replied.

So that's what found me on this rainy Monday morning sitting next to Zeta-Jones. Pointing out her son's dimpled chin, she said, "Just like grandpa's [Kirk Douglas]." Before my "role" was completed, I did see the baby and his dad, Michael Douglas. Mr. Douglas never came on the set, though. He was much too professional for that.

The makeup trailer was about a block from a Los Angeles restaurant that was doubling as the dining room of a Las Vegas hotel. Later, long after my footage was in "the can" the company would relocate in Las Vegas.

My hair was a little damp from the rain, since I drove myself to the set and walked to the makeup trailer. I learned later that that was a boo-boo. The next day a chauffeur-driven limo pulled up to my house, filling up half thedriveway, and whisked me to the location.

A knock at the trailer door informed us that both Zeta-Jones and I were needed on the set. The first scene was a snap. I sat behind a potted palm and watched Julia Roberts walk into the restaurant, see John Cusack, and go to his table. She looked perfect in a V-necked figure-hugging dress. What shattered the illusion was a furry pair of boots. (I told you it was raining, and her feet didn't show in the scene.)

Billy Crystal, who cowrote the screenplay, took me aside to rehearse. The studio had sent the script a week in advance. I knew my two scenes as if I were on cruise control. Mr. Crystal complimented me: "That's funny the way you said that line." I replied: "You write funny dialogue."

He said to relax and they'd call me. I went back to my dressing room - yes, I had one. An hour later, I was on the set. My big scene was minutes away. The hairstylist poked a three-pronged steel comb in my hair to lift it where the rain had sagged it. The makeup man used a king-size brush to fleck powder on my shiny face, and the wardrobe woman pulled out a baby wipe to rub away some makeup on my suit.

When I saw Crystal again, he said with a warm and friendly smile, "I've made a few changes. As we went over the scene, I saw he'd taken all my funny lines for himself. I wound up with five words.

"This is a great restaurant. Like the liver?" he rehearsed. "Best I've had since 'Hannibal,' " I replied.

"Cut," said director Roth. "Lunch," called the AD (assistant director). Ms. Roberts was munching on a barbecue sandwich and licked her fingers so we could shake hands. Maybe she sensed I was a little down, for she said, "You're in another scene, aren't you?"

With that I perked up, and joined the principal players in a tent for lunch. The rain had stopped, and the sun was shining.Later, I'd have a chance to talk with some of the "day players" who had lunch in a separate tent.

OK, I reasoned, the camera is on me for a long time while Billy's talking. The relatives back East and the 50 people I told about my part will still see me.

I knew the story concerned two sisters, Zeta-Jones, the movie star, and Roberts, her doormat sister.

In the movie, John Cusack had been briefly married to Zeta-Jones, but that ended when he tried to run down her new Latin boyfriend, played by Hank Azaria.The studio premieres the movie with Zeta-Jones and Cusack in Las Vegas. Crystal, as the publicity head of the studio, has his hands full. They don't have a finished print of the movie, and the press is gathering for the premiere. Also, Zeta-Jones's and Cusack's characters, still legally married, haven't talked for months. The studio wants them to appear civil to each other until the movie is released because they both need a hit.

When my 15 minutes of fame was over, I waited five months for the sneak preview.Earlier, my hopes fluttered when James Newton Howard, who scored the music for "America's Sweethearts," told me, "You have one of the funniest lines in the movie. I wrote a special riff when you say: 'Not since 'Hannibal.' " He might as well have said I'd won an Oscar!

Finally, I saw "America's Sweethearts" in a theater at a sneak preview. Just as I got my popcorn, the film's head of publicity said, "You and me were cut out."

"My five words are out?" I asked. Just then Mr. Roth came by.

"I'm sorry," he said. "It was so funny, and it was the last thing I cut. But don't worry, it'll be in the DVD."

Sure it will!

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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