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Maralee Lowder

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The Actress
By Maralee Lowder
Wednesday, March 07, 2012

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What happens to an actor who goes too deeply into a role?





If you‟re one of those people who enjoy reading tabloids, you probably think you know all there is to know about Willow Jacobson, but you‟re wrong. The Willow you know is the one fed to you by her publicists, the studio execs and especially by her mother, Esther Jacobson. The Willow they picture bear very little resemblance to the Will I know, and I know her very well. Willow is my sister.

The best way to describe her would be to say she was born to act. I swear, the moment she entered this world she took center stage and never once relinquished it. I‟ll always remember watching her when she was just a tiny girl, playing with her dolls, making up stories, using different voices and mannerisms for each of the dolls. Even in those early years she made it all too easy to forget reality and join her in her imaginary world.

Mama wasn‟t about to let her daughter‟s talent go to waste. When Willow was only four years old Mama began taking her to every try-out the local theater group put on. With Willow‟s talent, you could count on her being picked for any part there might be for a little girl. There was never a shadow of a doubt that that kid could act and she was a whiz at learning her lines. Many times she knew her lines better than the adult actors knew theirs.

You might think my brother, Dean, and I wouod be jealous of all the attention Willow received. But, as for me, I was glad it was her and not me. Mama had always expected her children to be "special", pushing my brother and myself to do things we didn‟t want to do. So Willow pretty much took the pressure off of us. After Willow came along Mama was too preoccupied with her career to pay much attention to us, which left me with plenty of time to do whatever I wanted.

Dean, on the other hand, missed being in the spotlight. He even took a stab at acting for a while but decided it was more work than fun, so he quit. Then he tried putting together a neighborhood garage band with a few of his friends. He was sure they were going to be instant rock stars. But all they ever did was argue about who would be the lead singer. So that little endeavor went down the tubes too.

As the years went by Willow became something of a celebrity in our small, Midwestern town. People from miles around knew her and took pride in her budding career. Believe me she deserved every bit of praise she received. She was so good it was kind‟a scary.

To no one‟s surprise, after my sister graduated from high school Mama decided her baby girl was ready to take on Hollywood. I suppose the only shock came when my father refused to quit his job, sell the house, and head out to the West Coast. He dug in his heels and flat out refused to go. The upshot of that was, Mama filed for divorce and left him behind to fend for himself.

"Rebecca, there‟s nothing out there for me," he told me when I called him from college just before the end of the school year. "Your mother may want to ride on her daughter‟s shirt tails, but I‟ll be damned if I‟m going to. Hollywood is no place for either of them, if you ask me. But then, as usual, no one‟s asked my opinion.

I shouldn‟t have been shocked by his reaction. I had known for years there was little left between my parents. Mama had poured all of her love and energy into Willow, leaving very little left over for the rest of us, even Daddy.

I was feeling a bit apprehensive about the Hollywood venture myself. On my last visit home I‟d noticed something strange going on with my sister that really had me worried. I‟d come home for Spring break, which coincided perfectly with Willow‟s senior play. I was pleased I‟d be able to see her perform as Emily in Our Town.

Sitting in the front row of the nearly empty theater during the final rehearsal, I was thrilled to watch her flawless performance. Though I had known how talented my sister was, I was still not prepared for such perfection. Up on that stage Willow ceased to exist. There was only Emily, so young and so innocent.

As we drove home after the rehearsal I noted that Willow continued to speak in the same tone of voice she had used as Emily. The words she spoke weren‟t words from her own vocabulary—they were from Emily‟s. While I marveled at the intensity Willow brought to her work, somewhere deep inside myself I was concerned. As days went by Emily stayed where Willow should have been. Eventually I developed an eerie feeling that Willow had been totally replaced by the Thornton Wilder character.

Before I returned to college I took my mother aside to discuss my concerns, asking her if she didn‟t think it was unnatural the way Willow stayed in character day after day. I had taken just enough psychology in college to suspect she might be submerging too much of herself in her role.

Naturally, I got absolutely nowhere with Mama. She bristled up like I was talking treason, accusing me of being jealous of Willow‟s great talent. Willow would be a star someday and stars weren‟t like other people. No one but her own mother could possibly understand her, and I was not to put strange ideas into my sister‟s head.

The message was quite clear—butt out! Although I was still uneasy, I knew in my heart there was nothing I could do to change my mother‟s mind.

Mother had made a few contacts in the theater business through Willow‟s amateur theater years, and quickly found an agent to represent her daughter in Hollywood. If you‟ve read any of those sleazy screen magazines, you know she was only in town for a couple of weeks before Willow received a screen test and was hired practically on the spot. As wonderful as she was on stage, she was even more exciting on film. It took only one year for Willow Jacobson to become famous. Her fame spread at an astonishing rate. Each of her films was better than the one before.

At each new film‟s release, I made a sort of pilgrimage to the movie theater, anxious to see my sister. But my sweet little Willow was never up on those screens. Not one shred of the sister I knew existed in those darkened theaters. Not so much as one facial expression was hers. She spoke in unfamiliar tones; her eyes mirrored the thoughts of people I had never known. I began to wonder if my sister had ever existed.

After being separated from my family for over three years, I was transferred from my job in Chicago to Los Angeles. To tell the truth, I had mixed emotions when I called my mother and told her I would be coming out to the West Coast to live. I looked forward to being with Mom, Willow and my brother Dean again, but would they still feel like family? Our separation had been more than just physical. I‟d never completely forgiven Mom for leaving Dad for Hollywood‟s bright lights.

The one thing I had going for me was the fact that my plans did not include living with them. I had been on my own for far too many years to move back in with mother. In fact, I had found an apartment in Santa Monica and moved in before I even contacted Mom to tell her about my transfer.

Dean met me at the door when I finally got up the nerve to pay them a visit. He gave me a big hug and then dragged me into the house and gave me the grand tour. You could tell he was very proud of the living arrangement they had, and I can‟t say that I blamed him.

It was a beautiful home. Huge, of course, as befitting my sister‟s standing in her profession. Unfortunately, Mom had done the decorating (she has always been partial to cheap glitter), but Dean thought it looked great. I got the impression that of the three, Willow was the least impressed with their surroundings.

After the tour, Dean took me to Willow‟s room and left the two of us alone so we could have a real sister-to-sister gab fest. Everything about her looked perfect: her hair, her make-up, and her obviously expensive silk lounging pajamas. I was thrilled to see her until I noted her vacant smile. Her beautiful eyes, so expressive on the silver screen, appeared more dead than alive.

As we sat talking, a creeping sense of depression overcame me. She looked like Willow. To the casual observer, she would have sounded like Willow. But deep down in my gut, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the woman I was talking to was not my sister.

Oh, I‟m not suggesting that Mother and Dean had brought in someone to play the part of my glamorous sister. No one but Willow was that great an actress. But the true substance of my sister was missing. The girl who sat before me bore all the physical traits of my sister, but her personality, her expressions and movements were those of a stranger. What had become of her glowing vitality? She answered my questions with a dull, flat voice, offering nothing to the conversation. She appeared to be a beautiful doll, waiting for someone to come along and give her a voice—to make her come alive.

We talked for awhile then I excused myself and went looking for my mother. "What have they done to her?" were the first words out of my mouth. Mother looked at me with a defiant, "Don‟t interfere!" look I had learned to hate.

"Don‟t you dare come here and cause trouble", she said in a voice cold enough to chill the Sahara. "Nothing‟s wrong with my Willow and you‟re not going to come around and start trouble for us with you accusations." The vehemence in her voice was ugly. No greetings to a daughter she had not seen in years. Not a glimmer of love shown in her eyes, only a fierce determination that I was not to damage her comfortable, satisfying life.

"Mother, something‟s terribly wrong with Willow and you know it. Have you taken her to see a doctor?"

"I told you, there‟s nothing wrong with her. She‟s always like this between films. It‟s just that she loves acting so much she feels lost when she isn‟t working. She‟ll be fine as soon as she gets back to work."

I couldn‟t believe my mother‟s attitude. I was no trained psychologist, but I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my sister desperately needed help.

Before I left that day I took Dean aside and questioned him about Willow‟s strange personality change. He also assured me that when her next film began, Willow would be back to her old self and that I was not to worry about a thing.

Driving back to my apartment, I was deeply troubled by the nagging thought that neither Mom nor Dean had any inclination to help Willow. They were both living quite nicely on her earnings and enjoyed the perks her fame provided. I had to face the fact that they were both too self centered to care whether Willow had problems or not, as long as their comfortable lifestyle was not altered. I finally came to the sad conclusion that there was nothing I could do to help my sweet sister.

I‟m ashamed to admit that I stayed away from my family for several months after that encounter. That first visit had left a sour taste in my mouth. Just thinking of visiting them tied my stomach in knots.

When I finally did return, I immediately noticed a difference in the atmosphere. As I stepped into the foyer I heard Willow‟s voice calling to me. She came running down the stairs, flinging herself into my arms, capturing me in a huge hug.

"Rebecca, where have you been? Why haven‟t you been to see me? When Dean told me you‟d moved to California I was sure you would come right away! What took you so long?

"Oh, isn‟t it a beautiful day? I just love it here in the summer, don‟t you? Did you bring your bathing suit? Never mind, I‟ll lend you one of mine. Oh, I‟m so glad you‟ve finally come, even though I should be furious with you for waiting so long."

I must admit, this new Willow was much easier to take than the last, silent one had been. But still, this delightful creature was no more my sister than the other withdrawn girl had been. Don‟t ask me how I knew, but I was sure the personality I was witnessing was the character she was playing in her newest film. Where was the real Willow? Did she even exist anymore?

Mother and Dean convinced themselves that I would accept the new, more vivacious girl as a completely healthy, happy person. It was obvious that their greed had completely taken over their love for my sister.

"Mother, you‟ve got to get help for her. She can‟t go on like this." Desperation forced me to try once more to reason with my mother.

"She‟s fine, just fine. She‟s completely happy as long as she‟s working, and I make sure that very little time elapses between films."

"Be honest with me, Mom, please. Willow‟s living the lives of the characters she plays, isn‟t she? Tell me how long it‟s been since she‟s been herself."

"But don‟t you see, Rebecca? Willow couldn‟t be happier. You know how she‟s always wanted to act. That‟s all she‟s ever known. So what if she completely immerses herself in her roles? She‟s a genius! No ordinary woman could achieve what she has. She‟s the most famous actress in the world. Every film she makes is better than the last. And do you know why? Because, with each film she goes deeper and deeper into the part. She doesn‟t „act‟ the roles, she lives them"

"But what happens if she gets a role that‟s bad for her? What if she plays a destructive character? If her roles are her reality, couldn‟t the wrong role destroy her?"

"That‟s what Dean and I are here for. We read every script before she ever sees them. We screen everything she reads. Both of us are very aware that she becomes what she reads, so we‟re extremely careful that she never gets her hands on a script we haven‟t already approved. So you see, you‟re worried about nothing!"

I thought about going to Willow‟s studio or talking to her agent, but realized none of those people would do anything to jeopardize their pocketbooks. This was a city run on greed. How could I expect any of them to chance losing such a valuable property? Her sickness was the key to their success. Could I really expect them to care enough about Willow to dare losing the fortunes she was making for them?

I was finally forced to face the fact that there was nothing I could do to help my sister. Because I loved her too much to watch what had become of her, I made no more visits to her home. As each of her films came out I made the pilgrimage to the theater. Only in the darkness of the theater could I force myself to face my failure.


It was a beautiful summer morning, just the sort of day the California Chambers of Commerce loved to brag about. I sat in my favorite restaurant drinking espresso and munching a whole wheat croissant, when I saw Pete Evans, an old acquaintance, come through the door. A huge grin spread across his face when he spotted me. He came bounding across the room and threw himself into the empty chair across the table from me. Pete was a junior accountant in a huge firm in Los Angeles, but had aspirations of becoming a screen writer.

"Well, I‟ve finally done it! I got one of m scripts into your sister‟s hands. I can‟t believe I got it past your mother, the Dragon Lady, but I did. A friend of mine is on the crew of Willow‟s newest film and he managed to sneak it to her.

"I know shell love it. It‟ll be a great part for her. It‟s like nothing she‟s ever done before. They always have her playing the goody-two-shoes roles. Well, this one will really set them on their ears!"

A vague feeling of dread crept over me. What did he mean, "It was like nothing she had ever done before"?

Before I could ask, he babbled on, "It‟s a suspense piece about a serial murderer. Throughout the film it looks as if Willow‟s going to get killed. But at the very end it turns out that she‟s the killer after all. It‟ll be a great change from her saintly roles, don‟t you think?"

"Pete, you don‟t know what you‟ve done. Oh, my God, I‟ve got to get to her before she reads the ending of that script!" I screamed as I dashed out of the restaurant with Pete trailing along behind.

"What‟s wrong?"

I could hear him calling as I raced to my car. Pete jumped into the passenger side as I began to pull out of my parking space.

"Where the hell are you going in such a rush?"

"I‟m going to try to keep Willow from becoming a murderer," I replied, knowing he would think I was insane.

I must have broken a dozen traffic laws as I raced to Willow‟s house. Pulling to a screeching halt on her curing drive, I jumped out of the car before the engine had fully died. As I ran up the path to the front door, I saw Dean‟s dog lying on its side, blood flowing from a gaping wound in her neck. It was then that I knew I was too late.

The front door stood ominously open. Pete and I went into the house, fear gripping us tightly. Off to the left of the entry hall, in the dining room, the housekeeper‟s body sprawled awkwardly on the floor. I couldn‟t bring myself to go in that room. I didn‟t need a close inspection to tell me the poor woman was dead. Somehow I forced myself to continue the search, room after empty room. The whole house was deadly quiet.

The horror of what had happened there intensified as the search continued. I knew she was somewhere in the house, but where? We had searched every room. All that was left was the pool and gardens. My heart pounded so hard I feared I would pass out as we made our way to the pool.

Although I had a premonition of what to expect, nothing could have prepared me for the scene we came upon. The beautiful gardens spread away from the pool. Flowers bloomed, spewing their sweet scent into the air. A light breeze rippled the water of the pool.

What should have been a beautiful, tranquil scene had become the backdrop for horror. Water that had previously been a sparkling aqua, spread red, and then pink, as it radiated away from my brother‟s floating corpse.

My mind shrieked in speechless horror as I looked away from my dead brother. My horror struck eyes found my mother lying back on the gaily colored chaise lounge. Her mouth gaped open. Her eyes seemed to stare in shock as blood poured from a huge wound in her chest.

And there, sitting quietly in the matching chaise, was my beautiful sister. On the table beside her rested two items. The script lay closed, face down. Next to it was the still warm 357 magnum. Ironically, Dean had insisted he needed the gun for Willow‟s protection.

And Willow? She sat calmly, staring vacantly off into space, a faint smile barely touching the corners of her lips. Her role was over now. She would have to wait for the next script to breathe life back into her.


Maralee Lowder

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Reviewed by Kathleen Janz-Anderson 7/25/2012
Nicely written. Interesting story, and probably truer than we know. I'm in the process of reading Mortician's Wife, and am really enjoying it.

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