“All we want you to do is talk about yourself for two minutes,” says this smiling stranger with her Japanese accent. “We’ll turn on the video camera. You sit right here and tell us everything you can think of about yourself.”
Wow, this will be easier than I thought. No tough questions. No script to read. Just me, talking about what I should know best. I think I can do this. One minute in, however, my eleven year old self has exhausted all the pertinent information I can think of — my dog, my school, my status as an only child, my hobbies, my favourite food, favourite colour, favourite animal. I start grasping, scraping the bottom of the barrel of uninteresting facts of my very normal life. Finally, the never-ending two minutes are up. I leave the audition thinking there is absolutely no way I will get the part of Anne, or any other part for that matter.
A Japanese film crew had come to Prince Edward Island to film the story of Anne of Green Gables along with a documentary on the life of its author, Lucy Maud Montgomery. They were looking for local actors, and when my Mom heard about it through a friend and pitched the idea to me, I was game to give it a try.
I guess the audition must not have gone as badly as I thought it did, however. Not long after that uncomfortable evening, the call came with the exhilarating news that I had been chosen for the part of Anne. It was an eleven year old girl’s dream come true. I think I may have floated across the room to hang up the telephone that night. What an experience for a small town girl.
I had the freckles, but my hair wasn’t quite red enough. A wig was needed. How I hated that unnatural looking wig. I always thought that my own reddish brown hair would have done the trick, braided.
“Carrots!” Gilbert whispers as he pulls one of the braids. The wig comes loose and goes completely lopsided on my head.
“Cut!” someone calls out.
We are filming in a one room schoolhouse at Orwell Corner Historic Village. “Not so hard next time!” I giggle, my cheeks colouring to match my red wig as someone rushes to reposition it on my head and secure it with a few more bobby pins. I resume staring out the window, pretending to daydream, as we embark on take two.
Another day we travel to a historic train station turned museum to film the scene where Matthew is late coming to fetch Anne. I sit on the edge of the platform, a carpet bag on my lap. Matthew appears from around the corner, and I spring to my feet. I recite Anne’s monologue, detailing all I had planned to do if he hadn’t come, pointing down the tracks to an imaginary cherry tree that I would have curled up in for the night.
The whole movie would eventually be dubbed over in Japanese. “You can talk about anything you want to,” our director would say. “Anything except lobster. That will make me hungry!” But I was so keen, I memorized entire scenes from the book. I remember poring over the pages, committing every detail to memory, as we drove to each day’s location. There was no need for this. Except that there was. I needed to be Anne. I needed to understand what she was thinking and why she was saying and doing the things she was.
The horse and buggy ride home from the train station is filmed on a different day altogether, in an entirely different county on the Island. I think the local farmer hired to play the part of Matthew was even quieter than his character in the book. I chatter his ear off — until my sneezing sets in. I am allergic to horses. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Here we are, on a red dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, with not a Kleenex in sight. Eventually I grow so desperate that I resort to pulling leaves off bushes in the ditch nearby to blow my nose.
The day we film Anne’s first morning at Green Gables, the breakfast table is laden with deliciousness — a huge slab of butter, gorgeous sky-high homemade bread, and locally made preserves. The director and cameraman spend a long time debating which angle to capture the scene from in that tiny, country kitchen. Meanwhile, I eye the spread, nearly drooling in anticipation. Finally they decide the only possible way to encompass everything they want to in the shot is for the cameraman to climb behind the antique cast iron stove. Only a matchstick could fit back there, I think to myself. We wait again while they squeeze him and his equipment into the corner. Finally, Marilla and Matthew and I sit down at the table. I am happily enjoying bites of bread and jam between our pretend conversation when the director interjects, “You’ll have to just pretend to eat or else we’ll run out of food before we’re pleased with the shot.” How disappointing for my tastebuds, not to mention embarrassing.
There are other opportunities to eat though. Everyday, the Delta Hotel sends boxed lunches for the actors and crew members. My favourite boxes are the ones with the ham sandwiches — ham and cheese on white bread with a crisp leaf of iceberg lettuce and a generous dollop of mayonnaise. Thus began my lasting love affair with the perfect ham and cheese sandwich.
Speaking of lasting love, what is Anne without her kindred spirit Diana? The Island girl chosen for this part looked every inch a Diana with her shy, quiet smile and long, dark locks. We have to switch boots though because mine have a bit of a heel on them, and I am already much taller than she is. The day we film the bosom buddy scene, pledging our undying friendship, we kneel in a flower garden, holding hands. Kneeling helps to eliminate the obvious height difference. Another day we dance in an apple orchard. A crew member climbs a tree and shakes its limbs as Diana and I twirl and laugh in the falling blossoms below. It feels magical.
These early summer days are filled with so many magical moments. Sometimes they catch me by surprise. One evening we all pile into the big vans to take us back to the city. The crew has been lamenting that they can’t find a field of daisies anywhere. They really want to capture Anne frolicking in a field of knee-high daisies. But it just isn’t the right season for daisies. It does happen to be the height of dandelion season, however, and on the way home that evening we drive by a field covered in them. They ask permission from a nearby farmer, and I hop out of the van to enjoy a solitary sunset stroll across his field. The gorgeous yellow globes bob around me almost as far as my eyes can see. Usually these flowers are thought of as annoying weeds; yet in that moment, this vibrant yellow field is a million times better than the white one we have been scouring the countryside for. Sometimes “making do” turns out to be the unexpected blessing of a better solution when we are brave enough to open our eyes to what lies outside the boxes of our own ideas.
I saw my Island through different eyes that summer. I was given the gift of seeing it from the perspective of the visiting film crew, who were enchanted with this place. And I beheld its beauty through the character of Anne too. I’ve always had a heightened imagination, and for that summer I really felt like Anne. I was able to sit on furniture, pretend to sleep in beds, and eat with utensils that usually sit behind ropes, for display purposes only. I lived behind the scenes of multiple museums. I visited out of the way places that most locals wouldn’t take the time to.
A character that many Islanders have grown apathetic toward, perhaps wearying of her commercialization, has continued to be a foundational and inspirational part of my life. I identify with Anne. I was an only child with more imaginary friends than real ones. I wasn’t an orphan, but my home broke at the age of five. I knew what it was to feel the need for a Matthew in my life. I excelled academically. I had lots of acquaintances but only one best friend, a true kindred spirit. I even had my Gilbert, a guy I dated briefly but with whom I shared a love-hate relationship during the rest of our high school years. Mostly hate, as we competed for top spot in our very own version of the one room schoolhouse — a small private Christian school.
My summer as Anne would become one of the defining experiences of my life. It was my claim to fame. It was the one thing people told other people about me before they introduced us. Before I met my husband’s extended family and friends, I was already known as “the girl who played Anne.” It was an honour, but I think it somehow contributed to the many masks I learned to wear. Yes, I was in a movie. My face was even in a book and on a matching bookmark. But I was just a small town girl, hired because they wanted local actors. The dubbed part I played required no real talent. In reality, I was a nobody. I was a fraud.
Regardless, I wore that Anne badge proudly, hoping no one would ever actually ask to see the film. You see, there’s one curious thing about this movie. The Japanese revere Anne so much that they didn’t want to show my face too clearly. Anne’s image was supposed to be dreamy and ill-defined. In fact, this 1989 film is called “Dream Journey”, and the whole screen is blurred around the edges to make it look even more dreamlike. There’s really only a few snatches of video where you can discern the features of my face. So I was no real star. I was a placeholder. I was a shell.
Now, more than thirty years later, I think I’m ready to go back to this experience and see it for what it was. It may not have launched me on a career in film like my eleven year old self may or may not have wished for at the time. Yet, I can still accept that it was a pretty cool opportunity. I don’t feel the need to pretend that it was either more or less than it really was. I’m willing to just accept it and cherish the one of a kind memories it gave me. I don’t need to inflate it or belittle it. I can watch it with my children, poking fun at the cheesy 80s Japanese pop music, pausing it at opportune moments when my face isn’t so fuzzy to prove to my kids that it’s really their mommy on screen. I can take the lessons learned, make my kids killer ham and cheese sandwiches, and teach them how to make do with dandelions too. Because the blessings and better gifts bobbing all around me can only be discerned when I let go of the preconceived ideals that blind me to them.
This is a piece I wrote for a class I am currently taking called “Your Story Matters.” It was really fun to work on. It feels a bit rambling and not as polished as I’d like, but it’s the kind of story where I wanted to capture all the little nuggets I could remember and get them down in print. Our instructor encourages “word seeking” to help discover the inner story behind our outer story. I really had no idea what the inner story was around this experience, but it came flowing out of me while I was free writing and took me completely by surprise…as if I had tapped into some deeper root that had been flowing all along. A bit emotional but so revelatory when I think about how it connects to other strands in my life. Writing is a powerful and healing process! I highly recommend Leslie Leyland Fields’ book “Your Story Matters.”