It was October 1990 and my dad was on location in Wilmington, North Carolina, working as a second assistant director on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze. My mother, who was hanging out on the set with my dad, had contractions two weeks ahead of schedule. Despite the hurricane watch outside the windows of the hospital, out I came. Born October 12, 1990, I was a Ninja Turtles baby.
Having a dad in “the industry,” as it’s called, added excitement to what was otherwise a pretty normal childhood. My grandpa directed the NBC Nightly News for a short time, and even though he’s in his late 70s, he still writes screenplays. My dad got into the business when he was young. It’s the only thing he’s ever done. He has worked his way up from office PA to producer of one of the most successful shows on television, Grey’s Anatomy.
As laid-back as San Diegans claim to be, the Hollywood stuff is exciting to people. Who doesn’t like hearing the inside scoop on McDreamy’s hair or what really happened when they shot that controversial scene on last week’s episode? Is McSteamy really as hot as he looks on television?
Nothing beats the reaction I get locally when my family comes up in conversation.
“So, Hayley, what do your parents do for a living?”
“My mom is a preschool teacher, and my dad is in the television industry.”
It is not the details of early childhood education that everybody wants to hear about.
“Oh? What does he do?”
“He’s actually working on Grey’s Anatomy right now.”
Then they ask if my dad has worked on other shows they might know.
“He worked on a season of CSI: NY. He also did Fried Green Tomatoes and The Big Lebowski.”
I visited the Lebowski set when I was seven. I remember going to the wardrobe trailer and getting a pair of black ratty sweats and an oversize gray T-shirt. My ten-year-old brother Andrew was getting the same outfit. My dad was on the second unit, already on location at a park in Santa Monica. We spent an afternoon posing for a picture: short kids on the bottom, tall kids at the top. It was much like a class portrait until a PA rolled out a wheelchair and placed it directly to my left. I was down in front. Then an older character actor sat down. Twenty extras joined us. All of a sudden, my dad put bunny ears on the still photographer. I muffled my laughter by biting my lip and bringing my hands up to my stomach. My dad walked up to retrieve us, laughing.
“But, Dad!” I yelled. “They have to retake it. You made me laugh. I probably look so dumb!”
That picture is in The Big Lebowski. And when the camera zooms in close, I look like a little mouse with my arms scrunched up and my face squished.
My brother and I got paid $75 each. We went to Disneyland the next day and spent it all.
In January 2010, my friend Serina and I went to a midnight showing of The Big Lebowski at the Ken Cinema in Kensington.
A guy dressed as Walter — John Goodman’s character — was walking through the crowd, asking people to sign up for the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers mailing list. It’s part of a gag from the movie. As a seven-year-old, I had posed as one of the achievers.
“Good evening, ladies,” said the man in the Walter costume. “Would you like to join the mailing list? We’ll let you know about all the meet-ups and events we do in the area.”
We obliged, and Serina piped up. “You know, Hayley here is an actual Lebowski achiever.”
The guy looked at her. “You mean she’s already signed up?”
“No, no,” Serina said, laughing.
I don’t really like the attention, so I didn’t say anything. But secretly I crave it, so I didn’t stop her.
“She is in the movie. Her dad worked on it, and when they do the shot of the picture, you can see her in the front row.” Serina told this story with great enthusiasm. She was proud to show me off.
“Shut the hell up!”
The Walter look-alike was loving it. He looked at me for confirmation.
“Yep,” I replied, feigning modesty.
He called to his friend. “Jason! Get over here.”
Walter gushed, “Dude, this girl is in the movie! She’s in the picture of the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. Her dad worked on the movie.”
Jason stared at me. “Dude. You’re a celebrity! Can we honor you?”
“What do you mean?” I was shocked that this was such a huge deal.
“At the next event we have,” Walter said, “if we can’t get Tara Reid [a Lebowski actress] to come out, would you be willing to be our guest of honor?”
Serina and I were having a hard time keeping straight faces.
I smiled and curtsied. “I would be glad to.”
Walter and Jason high-fived, and Walter said, “Or better yet, would you be willing to get in a boxing match with Tara Reid?”
I had a slight panic attack over how hard I was laughing.
“I don’t know about that.”
Walter had no shame. “Come on! She probably won’t even show up.”
He promised he would email me to work out details. I never heard from him.
While we were watching the movie, during the part where the picture comes on and you can see me, Walter stood up and shouted, “Haaayyyyyllllleeeeyyyyy!”
∗ ∗ ∗
Trips to the set to visit Dad were a constant in my childhood. I have cloudy memories of meeting Tracey Ullman on the set of Tracey Takes On…. My dad reminds me of our Christmas in 1993 when he was working on Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid. The set was in New Mexico, where we went skiing and had the traditional Christmas dinner of KFC.
My dad was the first assistant director on Lebowski, and I remember walking into a big warehouse where they were filming a fantastical dream sequence. Leggy girls with headdresses made of bowling pins stood in a line, and the cameraman lay on a skateboard, rolling between the girls’ legs and shooting upward. So this is what my dad does all day long. I remember feeling small. Very small.
I remember crazy parrots flying around the set of Paulie. My dad introduced me to the stars: Jay Mohr, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, and Cheech Marin. Then I hung out in the shadows and watched them make movies. Hallie Kate, who was younger than I was, sat nearby reciting lines and making best friends with her costar, a green parrot. I had to leave by 5:00 p.m. to do my homework.
My dad ventured back into television with Chicago Hope, the medical drama. Pretty soon, Adam Arkin was starting to know my name. His daughter and I became friends. One day, Hector Elizondo bought the coffee truck for the day, and drinks were on him. My dad couldn’t step away from the set, so Hector walked with me to the truck for a hot chocolate. Walking around the Fox lot with a TV star was pretty cool. I was ten. It was awesome. Mandy Patinkin was also on Hope. He was nice, but the coolest part of my dad working on that show was getting a LaserDisc copy of The Princess Bride signed by Inigo Montoya himself.
One morning I met Sally Field. She was so little. All I could think was, Oh, my God. I am shaking hands with Forrest Gump’s mom! When I met Gary Sinise, I had a little déjà vu: Oh, my God. I am shaking Lieutenant Dan’s hand.
After a while, they just become people. Meeting celebrities is still cool, but when your dad is kind of a big shot on set, you learn to control your excitement.
∗ ∗ ∗
The first time I went to Pacific Beach, I fell in love. I walked up and down Garnet Avenue and couldn’t believe this was where I wound up. Why didn’t I do this sooner?
L.A. is too Hollywood and too fast paced. San Diego is our escape from the gross city. We find relief on the beautiful beaches.
Los Angeles is full of small-town transplants who come looking for a flashy role on the big screen. They have high hopes of something fabulous. They buy their first pair of heels, their first pair of designer sunglasses; they get a fresh haircut and take some headshots. They’re ready to be famous. Growing up in Los Angeles, you know that doesn’t happen.
On set with my dad, I’ve watched the extras do their thing. They sit in the baking sun, waiting for the PA to tell them to line up and walk 12 feet across the shot and get paid 80 bucks. That’s their big break. So, they call their family and best friends and tell them to make sure they tune in to Grey’s Anatomy to see their big break, only to find out their scene has been cut. Or that guy in the red shirt with his back to the camera is what they got out of it.
I could have started as a PA, making photocopies. I could have spent my days living in the shadow of my father and grandfather. I could have been running around making sandwiches with the crusts cut off for the latest TV star and going to get Pinkberry for the next big name.
But I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to make my own mark in the world. I wanted to stand alone and not be successful just because of my last name.
Working in the industry wasn’t for me. I needed something new.
Where L.A. is full of new arrivals with high hopes of stardom, San Diego is full of new arrivals with high hopes of big surf. People are here to relax. They want to smoke some reefer and chill. L.A. is so not-chill. L.A. is full of busybodies and Bluetooths.
∗ ∗ ∗
When I was old enough to spend the entire day on set with my dad, he was at the Los Angeles Police Academy, next to Dodger Stadium. It was the breeding ground for L.A.’s finest, and he was there filming. My dad had introduced me to Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson earlier in the day. I wasn’t too familiar with Donnie, but when I met Mykelti, all I could think was, Oh, my God, I am shaking Bubba’s hand from Forrest Gump! His bottom lip even jutted out a bit from all those months of playing Bubba.
While the crew was setting the next scene, Donnie and Mykelti were standing around. Donnie walked over to me and took my hand.
“What was your name again, sweetie?”
“Hayley,” I replied coyly.
My cheeks flushed because, well, let’s face it, those Wahlbergs are an attractive bunch.
He took me in his arms and started twirling me around. We were ballroom dancing in the middle of a shooting range. He was singing “Hayyyyyley, Hayyyyyleyyy” as we spun in circles. The crew watched, smiling and laughing. I was getting dizzy, but I didn’t mind because I was in the arms of a handsome man. I tried not to think about my lack of ballroom attire: tan Dickies, a purple tee, and an ugly sweatshirt I loved at the time.
When we finally stopped spinning, Bubba was there to catch me. I was in a celebrity sandwich. And as if they’d planned this all along, the wardrobe guy snapped a Polaroid of Donnie, me, and Bubba with huge smiles on our faces. Everyone cheered. They both hugged me. And then they went back to play kick-ass L.A. cops. Like that was normal.
One hot Los Angeles morning, my dad and I ventured to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where he was on location filming an episode of CSI: NY. Base camp was in the middle of the field. And who was directing this episode? Emilio Estevez. During lunch, he and a couple of crew members were tossing a football back and forth when my dad and I wandered onto the field. As my dad talked to Emilio, someone tossed the ball in Emilio’s direction. He tossed it to me. I tossed it back, saying I wasn’t good at throwing a football.
“Oh, come on, Hayley,” Emilio said. “Here, I’ll teach you.”
He taught me the perfect position for my fingers, and I tossed a perfect spiral to a writer.
Now, I can’t say I’m a professional baller these days, but I can throw a mean pass. And whenever anyone tells me I have a good arm, I say, “Thanks. Emilio Estevez taught me.”
In 2006, when I was 15, my dad got a job as the unit production manager for Grey’s Anatomy. Every time I’d walk on set, the actors would say hello, wish me a good day, and even engage in friendly conversation. My dad was working on a hit show. I was standing next to him and shaking hands with people we all saw on TV every week.
One night, the cast put on a charity show called Good Medicine at UCLA’s Royce Hall. All the big names were there. It was the cast from Grey’s as well as its sister show, Private Practice. But my dad and I walked the red carpet. We snapped photos with Katherine Heigl. Justin Chambers asked me how school was going. Chyler Leigh and Chris Lowell wanted to take a picture, and Taye Diggs was upset when he realized he was too late to get in the shot.
It’s fun to go back and visit. Los Angeles will always be my home. I try to hang out on set with my dad for a while. The stages at Prospect Studios feel like another home to me. Most of the cast recognizes me and says hello.
Most kids receive calls from grandparents, aunts, and uncles on their birthday. In the middle of my 16th-birthday dinner, surrounded by ten of my closest friends, my phone rang and on the other line wasn’t Aunty Becky from Texas but two stars from Grey’s wishing me a happy birthday. My normal was not normal.
I don’t even get annoyed when people ask me for signed merchandise or if they can come visit the set with me.
One Monday, Lost was filmed in Los Angeles, instead of its usual location in Hawaii, and needed a hospital set. My dad is old friends with the executive producer of Lost, so they arranged for the small unit to use the Grey’s set. I am a Lost nerd. It’s my favorite show of all time. My dad let me skip school that day to go hang out. I was so excited. But I made him promise me that somehow, some way, I would get to meet Matthew Fox. Aptly named, he is one of the most attractive men I have ever laid eyes upon.
We were nearing the end of the day and still no introduction. I met Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the creators of Lost, and was unfazed. But when Matthew Fox walked over, my legs got wobbly and I giggled like a schoolgirl.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Hayley.”
He said my name!
I opened my mouth to respond, something simple, maybe “Nice to meet you too.” But nothing came out. Like an idiot, I smiled and giggled.
But Matthew Fox was so nice. He simply apologized, saying that he had to get back to work.
My dad made fun of me all the way home.
My job at the Mission Valley mall has strict rules on employee fraternization. When we’re at work, it needs to be all-business. There’s no room for cross talk at the registers about the party one of us threw the night before.
We’re not even allowed to go out for a drink after work. Sometimes it feels as if the company we work for is afraid we’d waste our coworker chemistry and hate each other the next day.
But my dad’s job has been a hot topic. Every time a new episode airs, a few coworkers who are fans of Grey’s will gush about the plot twists.
“Ugh, Hayley, tell your dad I’m so not okay with the way that whole thing went down…”
“Hayley, we need to talk about the backdrop they used in the fishing episode. That totally didn’t even look real. You need to tell your dad. Immediately.”
Once, I brought in a list of my requested hours on a sheet of old Grey’s stationery. Ever since then, another coworker always asks to visit the set.
“Too bad about the employee fraternization rule or I’d totally ask to go,” she tells me.
One night after a particularly juicy episode of Grey’s, we were cleaning the store. She turned to me and said, “Seriously! I just wanna go on set!”
I laughed and rolled my eyes because this was not the first time I’d had this conversation with her. “You’re the one who is so strict about these rules. I don’t care. Let’s go right now.”
“But we can’t! It’s just not allowed.”
“Okay, I’ve got it!” She jumped up and down. “You quit. Then we go. Then I rehire you.”
I stopped sweeping and looked at her.
She wasn’t finished. “I’m serious! I just wanna go. I promise it’ll be no big deal to get you back in the system. It won’t even be long enough for you to be out of the system, anyways.”
“Um, how about you quit your job, and then we’ll go?”
“Honestly, that’s ridiculous just to go to Grey’s Anatomy. It would be way harder for me to quit and get rehired. Plus, I was just kidding.” She walked away.
She isn’t fooling me. I know she is as serious as the deranged gunman at the end of season six.