“It’s about time they announced it.”
Yolanda’s hot breath tickled as she whispered in my ear. I suppressed a smile as we stood in one of the large meeting rooms at Carvajal Studios, doing my best to ignore her impatience. It was already a warm day, and the mass of bodies in the space made me feel slightly suffocated.
I looked up at the ducted air conditioning unit in the ceiling. For a moment, I thought perhaps it wasn’t on. But one of the fan blades slowly rotated, indicating it was, in fact, on. I uncrossed my arms and shifted on my feet, my eyes sweeping the room.
The cast and crew for Leon Carvajal’s latest Netflix series, RUN, had been announced months ago. That was, except for one. It had been grating on me for weeks, as we sat through rehearsals and table reads, that one of the five lead cast members had not yet been chosen. Leon assured us at every chance that he had someone in mind, but reiterated the fact that it was complicated, so we continued on what felt like a half-assed attempt to prepare for shooting.
The whole cast and some of the crew had been called in for final fittings that morning. Yolanda and I arrived on site promptly at 9am, and it was immediately obvious there was something going on. We were quickly ushered into one of Leon’s enormous boardrooms along with almost everyone else, and as I looked around to the people I would be working with over the course of the next few months, I could feel the excited humm permeate the room. This time, it was not due to the anticipation of finally starting filming in two weeks after a relatively long pre-production process. That morning, Leon was set to announce the fifth and final lead of the show, and as far as I knew, it was a complete surprise. Of course, there were rumours flying around about who would fill in the last lead role, but I tried not to buy too much into set gossip.
“Who’s your money on?” Yolanda whispered, once again invading my personal space.
I rolled my eyes and turned to look at her. She was smirking at me, an expectant look on her face. But instead of making the typical snarky remark about boundaries and her crazy ability to constantly push them, I leaned in even closer.
“For them to keep it under wraps for this long, it’ll be someone big. I’m guessing Gina Rodriguez.”
Yolanda’s eyebrows raised in surprise for a moment. I wasn’t sure if it was because I gave her a legitimate answer or because I was so close to her. But that surprise quickly transformed into one of mirth as she realised I was playing along.
“Juli, that is a bold guess.”
“Well, I stand by it.” I said with a firm shrug of my shoulders.
“Okay. You’re on. It won’t be her. She’s too old to play a 19 year old.”
She held out her hand between us, offering it as if we were making a bet. I raised one brow at her quizzically.
“I’m not shaking until you tell me who your money is on.”
Yolanda smiled widely at me but kept her hand outstretched.
“I’ve heard Eiza Gonzalez is a safe bet. The reason it’s taken Leon so long is because she was booked on another project, but it finished up just in time to skip onto this one.”
I scoffed in amusement and took Yolanda’s hand. Generally speaking, Yolanda kept her ear close to the ground. She was fluent in gossip around the set and what was going on in the industry in general. But I didn’t let that deter me.
“Now who’s making the bold guess? What’s the bet? $50?”
Yolanda blinked at me plainly, almost as if I'd offended her by the offer.
“I can’t believe you thought we’d bet money on this.”
I frowned and waited for Yolanda to elaborate.
“If I win, you clean my room.” She stated with a cheeky grin and a light squeeze of my hand.
I immediately scrunched up my face at the thought.
“Yo, that’s not cool. Your room is disgusting.”
Yolanda was practically vibrating with glee as she leaned in.
“Yep. I’ve misplaced last weeks pizza in there so I really need it cleaned up.”
I scowled at her immaturity and squeezed her hand harder in mine. She winced as I rubbed her knuckles together.
“That’s repulsive. I can’t believe I live with you.”
Yolanda didn’t flinch. She just kept staring at me in amusement and with an annoying hint of confidence. But I wasn’t one to back down once I'd committed.
“I’m pretty certain it’s not going to be Eiza, so I'm in.” I declared confidently. “And if I win, you’re buying me dinner for a week. My choice.”
I released Yolanda’s hand and she grumbled beside me.
“But you eat sushi and that other disgusting seafood at that damn expensive restaurant.”
I laughed and shrugged my shoulders.
“You wanted to make the bet. Let’s hope you don’t lose.” I said with a wink over my shoulder, a little chuffed at my counter-offer. But before I could get too cocky, another thought dawned on me. “Wait, what happens if neither of us are right?”
Yolanda pressed her lips together in thought. As I waited for her answer, the room hushed around us. My attention left Yolanda and refocused on the front of the room.
Leon Carvajal and his son, Guille Carvajal, strode into the large room with purpose. They smiled and nodded their heads at their colleagues as they quickly found their place at the head of the table. The executive producers and other big wigs running the show were all sitting around the large rectangular table in the middle of the room, deep in their own apparently important conversations. As soon as Leon and Guille entered, they swivelled their chairs to face the head of the production company with haste.
With the look of serious anticipation on their faces at the impending announcement, I wondered just how secret Leon had kept this from everyone involved in the project.
Leon dropped a large folder he was holding onto the oak tabletop and clapped his hands in front of him, his face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning. Guille stood beside him, looking more like a nervous teenager than Leon’s second in charge.
“Good morning, everyone.” He beamed. “Thank you all for meeting this morning on such short notice. I know some of you had to be here today anyway for final fittings, but I appreciate it all the same.”
Leon’s boyish smile and typical charismatic charm captivated the room. I was constantly impressed by the man's people skills. He was very well known in the industry as always getting what he wants, and many were envious of his ability to capture people’s attention and hold it as if he were the epicentre of the universe. It was easy to see why he was so successful in such a competitive environment.
“It’s been a long time coming, but we are here to finally release our fifth and final leading role for our upcoming NETFLIX production, RUN. She will be leading alongside Lucho, Sergio, Anna and Juliana.”
Leon’s arm gestured to the four other leads, and I plastered on a happy smile as all eyes turned to look at us.
Lucho stood on the opposite side of the room, his own wide smile practically blinding as he soaked up any attention sent his way. The boy was well put-together, I had to give him that. He was young and broody, and his tall frame and thick hair certainly helped him to become one of the rising stars of the industry. But after spending a bit of time with Lucho these past few weeks, it was obvious the boy didn’t have any brains or social awareness. Aside from that, he was funny and generally harmless, and he was fairly painless to be around. I really hoped our easy going friendship continued through filming.
Beside him stood Sergio, a shorter and stockier version of his friend. He had a pretty consistent reputation around town as a womanizer and I didn’t doubt it. He held himself with a certain kind of confidence that many women would surely melt for. The stubble that grazed along his chin and the way he puffed out his chest made him look older than his 21 years. We got along just fine, and in fact, I enjoyed watching Sergio and Lucho interact. Their boisterous energy and friendly banter was entertaining and I often found myself enjoying their company. The only problem I could detect with Sergio is him potentially hitting on me at some point. I already caught him staring at me at rehearsal a few times, and I hoped I didn’t have to reject him at some point.
Anna stood only a couple metres to my right. She was my age, with long brown hair and a complexion a few shades darker than me. Few freckles dotted her nose and her thick eyebrows perfectly outlined her stunning green eyes. She was a natural beauty, a rarity in the industry.
Anna and I had never worked together before, which wasn’t unusual considering our pretty short list of appearances. I was pleasantly surprised when Anna reached out to me and invited me to coffee just days after our roles were announced. We’d both made the effort to catch up for regular coffee dates since, to get to know one another before filming began. Anna was easy to talk to, and we fell into a pretty comfortable friendship quite quickly. She was vivacious and passionate about environmental issues and the gender pay gap. We spoke at length about beauty products and how crazy our experience has been in the industry so far.
During rehearsals and table reads, it was easy to see our dynamic was strong. We just clicked, and that apparently transferred through our performance. I still remember Leon’s eyes sparkle when he walked in on a workshop when Anna and I were arguing in character. He stepped between us, concerned, and couldn’t understand why we burst out laughing at his reaction. When he discovered it, he basically patted himself on the back with his discovery of the two of us.
Like me, Anna was pulled from obscurity in what felt like overnight, and turned into an up-and-coming, must-have actress. She was all those things, but when all eyes moved to her, she squirmed under the attention. For someone so beautiful, she still didn’t know how to handle herself. It was an endearing quality, and I hoped the business never sucked that tiny piece of innocence or naivety out of her.
Leon’s excited voice continued, and my gaze left Anna and slid back to the man who was running things.
“So, without dragging this on any longer, please let me introduce our Jessica.”
Leon raised his arm in the direction of the door in which he had entered only moments before, and it felt like everyone in the room collectively held their breath.
I nudged Yolanda in the ribs and wiggled my eyebrows, confident in myself and our bet.
“I can’t wait for some of that sushi.” I whispered with an elaborate lick of my lips.
Yolanda rolled her eyes and refused to respond. She looked past me, eager to see who was about to walk through the door.
“Please make her feel welcome. Our Jessica is my own daughter, Valentina Carvajal.” Leon announced proudly.
The cast and crew erupted into a rowdy applause, interspersed with gasps of shock and murmurs of disbelief.
My mouth fell open as I watched Leon’s youngest daughter step into the room. A myriad of thoughts raced through my mind as the woman who I would be sharing a starring role with, in what was to be the biggest break of my life, joined her father at the head of the table.
One of my greatest pet peeves is when people wear sunglasses indoors. Aside from it being completely unnecessary, it hindered one of the most important aspects of communication. The eyes always tell a lot about a person, and I was immediately frustrated that I couldn’t see hers.
While my brain was processing its annoyance of the sunglasses issue, I was immediately taken aback by the choice for the role.
I knew Valentina Carvajal. Everyone knew Valentina Carvajal. She had long been a top model for some of the most prestigious fashion houses across the globe. Aside from her being of Carvajal lineage, she’d garnered respect for having carved her own way in the fashion world.
That was until she’d forged a new, more recent reputation as the resident bad girl of modelling.
Alcohol. Drugs. Women. All were frequent guests in her life.
Come to think of it, maybe that explained the wearing of sunglasses indoors. I took in the crumpled white t-shirt and faded denim jeans the woman seemed to wear so effortlessly, and wondered how big the hangover was that she was nursing.
As Leon continued to introduce a somewhat disinterested Valentina to the cast and crew, I could feel my face heat up in frustration.
This woman got this role because of who she is. From what little knowledge I had on the model, I knew she had never acted in her life. Which meant she was handed this huge role on a silver platter, just because of who her father is. My fingernails dug into the skin of my palm as Leon’s continued introduction faded into the background. All I could think about was how hard I worked to get to this point, the sacrifices I made, the hoops I had to jump through, and here this privileged woman stood, clearly hungover and aloof, so obviously not taking this seriously.
It was so unfair I could feel the tension in my jaw as my teeth ground together.
After another round of applause in which I did not participate in, Leon dismissed the room. The people erupted in chatter, while small groups split away and dawdled off to begin their jobs for the day, gossiping about the most recent addition to the cast. I watched as Sergio and Lucho made a beeline for the model, their noses immediately sniffing out the fresh meat.
Another knock to my ribs pulled me from my staring.
“That’s insane. Can you believe it? Valentina Carvajal! You’re going to be working with Valentina Carvajal.”
Yolanda’s voice sounded dreamlike. I turned to see her eyes wide and full of admiration as she continued to stare in the direction of the model.
“Are you serious, Yo?” I snapped.
Yolanda’s face moved almost as if in slow motion as she registered my tone. She frowned as she turned to look at me.
“What’s your problem?”
“My problem is that this chick has no acting experience whatsoever, and just because her last name is Carvajal, she gets handed a job?” I ranted. “And not just any job, Yo. This kind of role could be the turning point of my career. Being involved in something like this is the kind of shit I dreamed about, and worked hard for, my whole life. And then she wanders in, clearly hungover, and has absolutely no idea what she’s doing.”
I surprised myself at the venom in my voice, and by the look on Yolanda’s face, so was she. She blinked at me slowly as I tried to compose myself. I hadn’t noticed the onlookers standing not too far away as the room slowly cleared out.
“Geez, Juli. You need to get a grip.” Yolanda whispered through a nervous smile. “She’s a model, so she must know something.”
“What? Are you hearing yourself?”
Yolanda shrugged her shoulders as if she, in fact, was not hearing herself. Her attempt at placating me had the opposite effect.
“Just because she’s a model doesn’t mean she knows anything about acting, Yo. It’s more the fact that daddy has just given her this role that bothers me more than anything. What I have had to do to get to this point doesn’t mean anything when people like that just sail on through life, getting whatever they want handed to them. I bet she wouldn’t even know what hard work and sacrifice looked like if it slapped her in the face.”
Yolanda raised an eyebrow at me, a mix of disapproval and serious concern evident in her gaze. She slung an arm around my shoulder and I closed my eyes as I allowed her to half wrap me up in her warmth.
When I moved in with my aunt at 16, she was the first to actually search for help when she lived through the wrath that was my unpredictable temper. My parents never really bore the brunt of my anger, mostly due to them never being around to see it. Which was ironic considering that exact fact was often the source of my anger. Perlita stumbled upon some research on the power of breathwork for calming the mind and reducing stress and anxiety.
I talked myself through the simple triangular breathing technique I learned as a teenager and felt my body physically calm down.
“I think you should give her a chance. She might surprise you.” I heard Yolanda whisper close to my ear.
I grabbed her hand that was hanging over my shoulder and swung my other arm around her waist. I opened my eyes and took one more sneaky look at the model.
There were still plenty of people milling about, drooling at the chance to get closer to the girl. With her long, chestnut hair and enticingly slim figure, it was easy to see what all the fuss was about. But there was something else entirely that made my breath catch in my chest.
Perhaps it was the jut of her chin, or the tilt of her head, but even as her expensive Ray Ban Wayfarers sat high on her nose, I could sense she was looking straight at me. My skin prickled as I felt her gaze, hidden behind polarised darkness, sweep across my figure. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, and I couldn’t determine whether I was intimidated under the intensity of her gaze, or flattered by it.
After my momentary lapse in concentration, I straightened up and stared right back at her. The woman didn’t flinch, but kept her full attention on me. She had people clamouring at her feet, yet her eyes never deviated from me.
I felt a quiet sense of satisfaction at the idea of holding her attention for as long as I had. But I had no desire to give her the wrong idea. I wholeheartedly disagreed with her being here, and I was not about to pretend to like her.
I sucked in a trembling breath, my heart beating erratically at the unexpected moment, and tightened my grip on my best friend.
“We’ll see.” I murmured, stepping away and leading Yolanda out of the room without another look. I took one deep, steadying breath and got a hold of myself. “Let’s not think about that anymore. We’ve got a final fitting to get done.”
Yolanda’s breathy chuckle beside me reinstated the wide smile that had been plastered on my face ever since I landed the role.