“I’m not sure it’s a great idea, Mr Carvajal.”
Leon’s reassuring smile did nothing to calm the panic that was currently storming inside me. I knew being called into Leon’s office was either going to be good or bad, but I had no idea just how bad.
“Look, I know you have a lot on your plate right now with filming starting next week. Just think of it as a favour to me. Please?”
I pulled at the fingers in my lap nervously as I scrambled to find a way out of my current predicament. But instead of saying anything remotely helpful, I just stared at Leon dumbly.
“She’ll be here any minute. I promise, she’ll be on her best behaviour. She just needs a little push in the right direction.” Leon pressed.
I ground my teeth together as my window for escape was closing quicker by the second. I had to come up with something. The shirt I was wearing was suddenly very sticky and I pulled at my collar in an attempt to move some air around. Leon was watching me with such blind hope that I couldn’t think properly. Before I could formulate anything, Leon took advantage and continued with his persuasive efforts.
“I chose you because I knew you could handle her. She can be a little much sometimes, I know that. But I know she’ll listen to you.”
Listen to me? I’ve never even met the girl. As that thought finally landed, my brain clicked in.
“Leon, I'm just not sure I can really help. I have -”
I was in the middle of mumbling around an excuse I hadn’t yet constructed when the door to Leon’s spacious office banged open.
In breezed Valentina as if she regularly walked through closed doors without a single thought as to what was going on behind them. But two steps into the office and as a breathless “why am I here?” left her lips, she stopped in her tracks.
I turned to look at her and felt the temperature rise another few degrees.
She was wearing a white tank top, the cut in a crop style, allowing a perfectly tanned abdomen to be exposed above a light pair of jeans. She wore white Nike Air Max sneakers, two gold necklaces around her neck, and the same dark Wayfarer sunglasses from the first time I laid eyes on her.
She looked to me, then to her father on the other side of the desk, twice. It was almost comical, how her neck swiveled in a double take.
“Am I interrupting something?” She directed the question to her father, an annoyed rasp on the edge of her tone. “You called me here, so here I am.”
“Valentina.” Leon gushed, his arms opening wide as he stood from his expensive, high backed office chair and approached his daughter. “Thank you for coming in.”
Although the sunglasses covered her face, I could tell the woman was frowning. She stood still as Leon wrapped her in a quick hug. It was awkward as Valentina’s arms hung limp by her sides, making no attempt to return the gesture. I desperately wanted to turn away, and it took all my might to gather my bag that I'd dumped on the floor beside the chair, and stand.
I immediately picked up on the underlying tension between father and daughter. Valentina was clearly holding back, trying not to be outwardly rude to her father in front of me, but not doing a great job at disguising her agitation at the situation either. Leon was almost too over-the-top, which, from what I knew, was quite unlike him. He was generally very cool, calm and collected, but at that moment, he seemed bizarrely nervous. I briefly wondered what the hell was going on between them, and then realised I didn’t care.
I thought back to the party from last weekend and remembered a similar feeling observed between Valentina and her brother. It seemed as though the woman had issues with all of her family members. And I was damned if I was about to get in the middle of it.
“Sorry, Mr Carvajal, but I think I should go.” I muttered as eloquently as I could, avoiding Valentina all together.
“No, no. Juliana, please. Look, come and sit here. Both of you.”
Leon released another nervous chuckle and pointed to the couches on the other side of his desk. Without knowing what else to do, I complied with his request. I randomly chose one of the two couches and sank into it ungracefully. They were upholstered with a patterned red, and I realised as I sat in one, also very comfortable. Leon had his hands on Valentina’s shoulders, guiding her as if he were worried she’d turn and run. Valentina was placed on the couch opposite me as Leon sat close beside her.
Valentina threw her iPhone carelessly onto the table between us. The loud clatter made me jump slightly and I watched as Valentina crossed her arms across her chest and leant back into the full cushions. She released a deep sigh and made it outwardly obvious how utterly unimpressed she was.
“What am I doing here, Leon?”
I struggled to hide my surprise at the woman using her fathers first name to address him. My eyes bounced between father and daughter, my hands gripping my bag strap tighter in case I needed to make a quick escape. I looked at Leon, but he seemed unperturbed.
“I’ve asked Juliana here today to give you a hand, honey.”
One eyebrow shot up from beneath the sunglasses and I shifted uncomfortably. The soft fabric of the couch began to scratch the bare skin on my legs and I could feel the sweat begin to bead along my hairline. The office was well air-conditioned, but it felt astoundingly suffocating.
I hadn’t realised Leon sprung this on me without even consulting Valentina first. A feeling of dread seeped into my awareness as it quickly dawned on me that this was not going to end well.
“What do you mean ‘give me a hand’?” Valentina mocked.
Leon threw me a nervous smile, as if telling me to wait, and looked back at his daughter.
“I know you were struggling a little with your lines, so I’ve asked Juliana here to run through some with you.”
I could see the flex in Valentina’s jaw as she understood what Leon had done. She looked to me, then back to Leon, her hands pulling into fists before she sat up.
Her sunglasses were ripped from her face and joined her iPhone in a move I didn’t see coming. Her hands pulled back into fists and sat against her knees as she faced her father.
“You didn’t think to speak to me about this prior to arranging it?” Valentina spoke through gritted teeth.
In all honesty, I thought she looked like a petulant child who was being forced to do something against her will. Which, in fairness, was exactly what seemed to be happening.
“Juliana is very good at what she does. She can help you.”
I could tell Leon was trying to soothe, but his tone sounded more condescending than helpful. Valentina threw her hands up and then sunk back into the couch.
“Do I have a choice?”
Not if I had any say in it, I thought.
It was enough to be dropped into this by Leon, but it was another to sit here as if I was also willing to go along with the plan, all while this woman with zero acting experience was making it quite obvious that she didn’t want my help to begin with.
I wanted to grab my things and run more than anything in my life. And considering the shit I had to endure to get here, that’s really saying something. But just as I was thinking that this couldn’t get any more awkward, Leon used a tone I had never heard him use before.
“You will stay in here with Juliana and you will run through your lines. You might even learn something, if you bother to try.”
Even I straightened up with the ferocity and acidity in which Leon spoke to his daughter. It was borderline harsh, and it left no room for negotiation. It brought back harrowing memories of my own past, and those demons that I'd done well to push away threatened to come loose. I held my breath as the exchange took place.
Valentina closed her eyes and ducked her head as if she were a scolded child, her shoulders rounding in a protective move.
Without looking at me, Leon stood from the couch and left his office, closing the door firmly behind him.
My eyes adjusted from the back of the office door to the slumped figure sitting opposite me on the couch. Her eyes were still closed and I could almost feel the despair and anger radiating from her.
I wanted to ask if she was okay, to reach out and unfurl the fists that still sat tight against her knees. But I reminded myself that I didn’t care about this woman or whatever else was going on, and refrained.
It was awkward as we sat in a strange kind of silence. The air conditioner clicked and the slight whoosh of air could be heard, along with the gentle ticking of a clock. In the distance, phones rang and footsteps could be heard outside the office. Aside from that, we were very obviously alone.
I couldn’t sit in this purgatory any longer. So I cleared my throat and spoke.
“I’m Juliana, by the way.”
This seemed to get Valentina’s attention. She opened her eyes and looked at me, square and steady in the face. And for the second time, I wondered how this woman could so blatantly hold a stranger's eye contact with such confidence. And for the second time, I held it just as firmly as she did, even with my pulse hammering away in my chest.
Eventually, Valentina took a deep breath and broke away, running her hand through her long, chestnut hair.
“I’m sorry about all this. I suppose he dragged you into it.” Valentina replied as she shifted on the couch, sitting more upright.
The anger had dropped from her tone, her features relaxing in Leon’s absence. I wondered again just what caused the clear animosity Valentina held for her father. I thought back to Yolanda’s explanation of Valentina’s past, and assumed there was more to the story than even Yolanda knew.
“Well, yeah, I guess he did.” I replied dryly.
Valentina looked up at me again, but this time her eyes wandered. She observed my green Vans, white socks and bare legs. Her eyes hovered over my short denim shorts, then up over my tucked in band tee. I copied her earlier move of running my hand through my hair, and was secretly delighted when she closely watched the action. When I realised my train of thought, I dropped my hand back into my lap, entirely unhappy with myself.
“I like your shirt.”
I nodded dismissively at the compliment and reached forward. I’d noticed earlier that two copies of the script for the first episode were already sitting on the table. Leon was clearly prepared and thought this through. I wasn’t sure if I admired him for that, or despised him for throwing me in this.
“Let’s get to it, then.” I asserted, unwilling to engage in small talk with the woman. “We have dialogue in the first episode, so flip to page 14.”
My fingers ran along the edge of the bound script. Maybe a papercut would be less painful than this experience. But I was here and it didn’t seem like I had a choice. The quicker we got started, the quicker I could get out of this stuffy room.
I pretended to read through the page with interest, but instead watched Valentina peripherally peel herself off the couch and pick up her copy. She thumbed through the pages until she landed on 14. I took about a minute to revise my lines, but I was already pretty confident with what I had to do. I put my script back down on the table, stood up and walked behind the couch I had been occupying.
Valentina looked up at me with questions in her eyes. I refrained from rolling my eyes at her and answered her silent inquiry.
“We should probably be standing when we go through the scene. I find it’s easier to get into the flow of the characters and their dialogue when we can move around.”
“Right. Okay.” Valentina answered and stood. She turned in a quick circle, as if she didn’t quite know what to do next. I bit the inside of my lip to hold back my smirk as the woman eventually decided to stand at the end of her couch, in front of the large mahogany bookshelf that ran along one wall of Leon’s large office. Once she found her place, she looked at me with a hint of uncertainty. “Why aren’t you holding your script?”
I blinked at her and clicked my tongue.
“Because I know my lines.”
Valentina nodded her head almost too enthusiastically and dragged her tongue along her teeth. God, she was gorgeous when she did that.
I shook my head as soon as I registered the thought and cleared my throat.
“Ready?” I prompted.
Valentina just shrugged her shoulders and offered me a lopsided smile in agreement.
I took a deep breath and straightened my shoulders.
EMILIA: What do we do now?
JESSICA: We find shelter, right? I mean…
Valentina stammered and fumbled with the script in her hand. If I weren’t so annoyed with her, I’d find it kind of adorable. I knew her lines, too, but I wasn’t about to step in and help her already. We were a week out from filming and she didn’t even know her lines. It almost seemed like she hadn't even looked at the script yet.
“Sorry.” Valentina mumbled, then straightened and continued.
JESSICA: We find shelter, right? I mean, we can’t stay out here. They could be anywhere.
Valentina read straight from the script like the absolute rookie that she was, with barely any emotion in her voice. I unclenched my jaw and stepped towards her.
EMILIA: Where are we? Do you have any idea?
Valentina’s index finger followed the script.
JESSICA: I think there’s a town up ahead. We could try there?
“Have you looked at the script before today?” I challenged, dropping the pretense. There was no mistaking the frustration in my tone.
Valentina’s head snapped up from the folder in her hand, her eyes darting over my face to detect whether I was joking. When it became blatantly obvious that I was very serious, her eyebrows puckered and she adopted a defensive stance.
I scoffed at her, and felt the heat rising in my face. I never liked arguments, but I somehow always found myself starting them.
“It certainly doesn’t seem like it. You clearly don’t know your lines and you are putting zero effort into your delivery.”
Valentina gaped at me for a moment, as if she were surprised I was speaking to her with such contempt. But she quickly smoothed her features into one of mock disinterest, her hand waving the script into the air.
“I’m not going to stand here with you and perform my lines like I will on the day. What’s the point in that?”
“Is that a serious question?” I asked, the shock clear on my face. When Valentina didn’t respond, I stepped closer to her and crossed my arms over my chest. “What do you think the point of running lines are?”
“To learn the dialogue.” She replied, almost as if it were the most obvious answer in the whole world.
I released a mocking laugh and shook my head in vexation.
“You’ve never done this before, so let me share something with you. Acting isn’t about knowing the words on a page and speaking those words out loud. Anyone can memorise lines and lines of dialogue.” I said as I pointed to the script in her hands, the anger boiling over in my voice. “Acting is about using your imagination. It’s about understanding the life and actions of your character, about asking the how and why questions to really get to know your person. It’s about the subtlety in your physical skills and expressions to portray a story in the most natural sense. It’s about the chemistry between your character and everyone else involved in the story. It’s about a whole lot of things that I don’t think you’ve even begun to consider.”
I was breathing quite hard at the end of my slight rant, and I was somehow standing even closer to the other woman. Valentina just looked at me silently, but instead of that stony faced, uncaring expression, she now looked at me with a hint of astonishment.
I shouldn’t be wasting my time with this woman. She clearly didn’t want to be helped and I could feel my blood pressure rising at the fact that Valentina hadn’t even bothered to respond. I breathed deeply, feeling my hands shake. The last thing I wanted was to explode in this room at this woman and gain myself a bad reputation before filming had even begun. She wasn’t worth it.
I held it together and did something I don’t often do. I picked up my bag and walked to the door. I could feel Valentina’s gaze on me as my hand grasped the handle.
“Above all, Valentina, it’s about giving a shit.”
I walked out of Leon’s office without another look back.