James Leary shares how an extraordinary stage experience helped him fight battles against a condition that causes James to body shame himself.
I was in a bed wearing very comfy flannel pajamas in the midst of a brutal pillow fight with Lou Diamond Phillips…
I was planning on writing a post about London Comic Con and then… Scott Weiland died.
My mother was sitting next to me, beaming with pride. I tried with all my might NOT to vomit in her lap.
I was wearing nothing but a Speedo, a cowboy hat and a pair of ill-fitting pointy toed cowboy boots, surrounded by bronzed, oiled-up, male bodybuilders who were square dancing. I had no idea what I was doing here.
There’s a reason bars in normal cities close at 2 a.m. Nothing good happens between 2 and 4 a.m.!
I must be dreaming, I thought. Because WHY THE HECK WAS I NAKED IN A HOTEL HALLWAY!?
Hello. My name is James C. Leary and chances are, if you are not a fan of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (specifically seasons 6 and 7), were part of my college improv troupe, or gave me a hand job in the back seat of a 1983 Oldsmobile Delta in the summer of 1990 then you have no freaking clue who the hell I am.
I am what I like to call a G-List Celebrity and I arrived in the City of Angels in the summer of 1998.
I was 24 years old, fresh off a successful two years in Chicago studying improv with the likes of Eric Stonestreet and Seth Myers (buckle up, ’cause I’m gonna’ drop a ton of names); full of hope, wide-eyed naiveté, and visions of Tinsel Town Stardom dancing in my brain. Twelve years later I fled the city with an 1100 square foot, half a million dollar house in foreclosure, a crumbling marriage, and a healthy addiction to copious amounts of alcohol. But fear not, this is not a tale of woe (well, maybe parts of it will be) but one of perseverance, what NOT to do, some of the crazy shit I saw (and did) and maybe, if I’m lucky, a smidge of redemption and catharsis.
Sound like fun? Great! Off we go…
Where to begin? There are so many tales to tell. Like the time I saw Sean Young hop on a vanity, hike up her floral dress and pee in the bathroom sink at a wrap party, or the time I went to a “Gentleman’s Club” outside the Detroit airport (called the Landing Strip) with Lorenzo Llamas, his second ex-wife (who showed me HER boobs at said club – they were nice), his third ex-wife and Vicky from the Love Boat, or the time I got shit-faced on High ABV Canadian beer and somehow ended up naked on a couch between Darth Maul and the Soup Nazi…
Wait. I got ahead of myself…
Most stories start at the beginning, but I’m a child of the 70’s who came of ‘cinematic age’ during the reign of the mighty Quentin Tarantino, so this story is going to bounce all over the fucking place during the upcoming weeks. For this first post though, I think we should start at the end…
Itching. I remember itching. My hands. My lower back. My belly. They all itched like crazy, which is what, I guess, brought me back to some form of consciousness. My first thought was – “why do I taste dirt?” followed quickly by “why is my pillow made of grass?” As I slowly peeled my eyes open, the lids scraping across my dried out eyeballs like coarse sandpaper, I realized I was lying in a field.
Funny, cause I don’t normally sleep in fields.
The itching soon took a back burner to the sudden flood of “Where the FUCK am I?” I slowly got to my knees and looked around. It was still dark, but the sky was getting that pre-dawn purple hue it gets about a half an hour before the sun comes up. I was in a small field next to where they were building a brand new Top Golf – about 300 yards from my office and about three quarters of a mile from my small apartment. I dusted off the dirt and grass as best I could, blearily glanced at my watch (which read 5:30 in the a.m.), and started the long, hot walk to my apartment. Hot because it was August in Texas and even at 5:30 in the morning, it was still 90 damn degrees and humid as hell. My only thought was “get home – get home – get home – get home – get home.” I didn’t want to think about how I got in the field (later, I would piece together, much later, that I had gone to the hotel bar across from my office after work and proceeded to drink myself stupid for the next 7 hours until they asked me to leave); which is when I decided I could “walk” home. The “walk” was only about a mile and half away (I should be totally fine… drunk logic at its finest). I also didn’t want to think about why my hand and stomach burned and itched – or think about the steely spike of a hang-over headache slowly inching its pointed tip into my brain. No, I just had to get home to a bed, which, as far as I can recall, I did. I woke up 5 hours later, completely disoriented with the hang over spike buried to the hilt in my head, a mouth as dry as the Sahara, and a rush of total panic – WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO LAST NIGHT?!
Thankfully, nothing too bad (not like the time I got arrested for a DUI for falling asleep at a stop light… at 3:30… in the afternoon… on a Thursday), I had just passed out in a field, gotten attacked by fire ants and almost lost a backpack with my son’s new computer in it. You know, no big deal.
Later that afternoon I remember sitting in my living room trying to muscle down a few beers to quiet my thudding head, rolling stomach, and utterly, completely, totally, unequivocally demoralized soul. I didn’t want the fucking beers. They tasted like shit and I was having a hard time not throwing them right back up. But… I also couldn’t imagine NOT drinking them. I was terrified. I wanted to stop but didn’t know how. Things went on like that for another few weeks until after a particularly awful pre-divorce hearing – I went on a final bender, called someone to stay with me, and had what I hope will forever be my last drink on August 30th, 2013.
Now, I start with this to give some context to my state of mind. That was the culmination of practically a decade of slow burning self-loathing, doubt, fear, sadness and anger that got its start while I was struggling to be a working actor in Hollywood (I’m not saying Hollywood made me an alcoholic – it’s not as simple as that – but it certainly didn’t fucking help). I was 24 years old when I got to La La Land and surprisingly I did a few things right… and then a whole hell of a lot wrong… that ultimately led to me being 39 years old face down in an Austin, Texas field covered in ant bites. It took a long while to get from A to B and it wasn’t until I was a good year sober that I was able to start looking at things objectively. Hence… this column.
So… let’s go to the beginning now.
In the late summer of 2001 I got booked for a five line part on the cult smash TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was HUGE for me. I was a very big fan of the show. I loved it and had been trying hard for 3 years to get on it. I had met the casting associate at a casting workshop (we’ll go over those in another post – basically it’s where you pay to audition – I had, and still have, mixed feelings about them. They are technically illegal. But without them, I NEVER would have gotten the audition for Buffy) and she called me to read for producers for the character of “Loose Skinned Demon” for the fifth episode of season six.
I was STOKED.
Having been a fan of the show, I knew the tone and decided to play it for as much humor as I could – forgetting the fact that I was supposed to be a demon and… I got the part. I was in heaven. In my head, this was it. My big Hollywood break. This was going to launch my career in full force. No more commercials or Spanish Language sit-coms for me (again, a tale for another post). I showed up on set at 6am, spent 4 hours in makeup and almost bounded on to set I was so giddy. And the day was awesome. I got to work with Sarah Michelle Gellar and James Marsters. I saw Emma Caulfield (who I had a huge crush on) and stood next to Anthony Stewart Head while stuffing my latex covered pie-hole full of Red Vines and pineapple. James and I had a talk about acting, realizing we’d both spent time in the Chicago theater scene, and at the end of the day when I was saying my goodbyes and it-was-great-working-with-you’s, James said “Oh, trust me, you’re funny. You’ll be back.” I thought yeah, he says that to everyone, went home, had victory-on-being-a-working-actor sex with my wife and figured that was that.
Well, much to my surprise I got a call from my agent a few months later after the episode aired saying they wanted me back for another episode. For a FULL WEEKS WORTH OF SHOOTING. Again, I was thrilled and had an amazing time working with most of the main cast. My character even got a name – CLEM. Getting to meet a few of the writers, going to the Christmas party and having the thrill of hearing Allison Hannigan say “Oh, you’re cute!” after showing up on set without makeup on my last day of shooting (none of the cast knew what I looked like ’cause I got to set for makeup super early and usually rolled out after everyone else was gone) was particularly awesome.
This happened four more times that season and when all was said and done I did six glorious episodes providing some much needed comedic relief in a very dark season. I was officially a “recurring character.” My agent had gotten fan mail. It was awesome. And then… I got invited to start doing conventions… and they were… A-FUCKING-MAZING. My first one ever was San Diego Comic Con in 2002 which was kind of like losing your virginity to a porn star. People actually paid money for my autograph. They wanted pictures with me. I got… attention. For the shy, chubby kid that got picked on, beat up, and laughed at by middle school girls… it was a drug like no other.
Then I started doing strictly Buffy-themed conventions. Spending three days with 1000 adoring fans who treated me like a motherfucking rock star?! Are you kidding me? I was in heaven. Pure bliss. But… it is also where things started to go so very, very wrong for me. Because like a drug, it was great until it wasn’t. The three day parties turned into me needing to drink during the week because why the fuck was I still waiting tables at fucking Bucca Di Beppo? Two days previous, people were buying me drinks and paying for my picture! Being an agreeable attention hungry party guy led to… drinking way too much and making some very bad decisions…
Booze + Pretty Girls + Marital Troubles = Me fucking fans.
There it is. Blunt as you can get. No punches pulled. I. Fucked. Fans. And… I was married. And… I hated myself for it. The morning after was always awash in red faced shame and a loathing so deep it was like a kick in the balls. But… I kept doing it. I would swear I wouldn’t – then the first cocktail party would happen and a few beers later my “fuck it” switch would get flipped and I would go looking for that hit of sweet, sweet adoration. I’d usually find it and the effects would be fleeting. I’d go home with cash in my pocket and shame in my heart. That shame followed me around, wrapped in it like a guilt woven wooby until I started to drink during the week, at lunch, before auditions – and especially at night at home. It’s no wonder I couldn’t book jobs. That I had an air of desperation wafting off me like day old sweat. That my marriage, already strained, fractured even more. On the flip side – I got to travel the world, meet fans, and make friendships that have lasted to this day (Love you Clare!).
I also got to see a lot of crazy shit. Share a ton of laughs – witnessing Andy Hallett and Mark Lutz do battling Paul Linde impressions brings a smile to my face even to this day, or auctioning off a 10 second grope of Anthony Stewart Head’s ass for charity “It’s for the children!!” Hearing the stories from fans about how the show helped them through tough times and how much it meant to them. Seeing the joy that this silly show has given people. Makes me think that it’s all been worth it. That I had to go through all the pain, all the pleasure, all the fear and heartache to get to this point so that I could truly understand that what I do matters. That even though I may only be a G-List Celebrity, who probably did more to fuck up his career then he ever did to further it, that it wasn’t all in vain.
I really don’t know how to end this rambling so I’ll end with what I hope is a funny story. I recently attended Dragon Con for the first time since 2007 (the last time I was there it was a debauched mess where I learned never to try and keep pace drinking with Canadians from hugely popular Sci-Fi shows – they will WRECK YOU).
I was very excited to be there, to still be on this crazy convention train years after I thought the wheels would have come flying off in flames – this time sober, present, and ready to experience the madness in all its glory. A chance to truly make it about the fans – ’cause that is who it is all about anyway – them. Not me. Do I get something out of it? Hell yeah I do. Only this time the high I get isn’t so fleeting or toxic.
It’s no secret that I have a huge man crush on Stephen Amell from the TV show Arrow. Sure, he’s dreamy and a good actor, but I LOVE the way he interacts with his fans and has built a Facebook presence unlike any I’ve seen – and how much he truly seems to love what he is doing, how appreciative he is for the opportunity and privilege to get to do what he does.
After having spent a decade on the circuit with actors from the past 40 years of genre film and TV and experienced more than a fair share of bitterness and anger from actors who felt above the roles they played, this is a refreshing breath of fresh air. Mr. Amell, being a huge star was obviously very busy for the 4 days of the convention (in fact I think he was only there for 2 or 3 days), and was even in his own special autograph room. Well, I know the gentleman who does the photo ops for Dragon Con pretty well (he may or may not have had something to do with the high ABV Canadian beer I mentioned at the beginning) and found out when Stephen was doing his photo ops and planned to sneak into the line to meet him and get one.
I arrived early, looking very dapper if I do say so myself, entered through the special “celebrity” photo op green room and hopped into line… and there he was – Oliver Queen himself (still wish he’d do the goatee). Let me preface this next bit by saying I’ve met, and been very cool and collected around, a lot of celebrities. A. Lot. People I look up to and admire. Hell, I sat in a Vegas bar with Billy fucking Joel drinking scotch and water and fending off end-of-shift hookers after doing a live stage show for Toyota. So, I’m no stranger (see what I did there? With the Billy Joel joke? The Stranger is his fifth album… Jokes are better when explained) to meeting famous people. But here is what happened as I walked up to all six feet one inches of blue eyed dream boat-ness that is Stephen Amell – I shook his hand and said “HI MY NAME IS JAMES LEARY, I WAS ON BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER AND I’M YOU’RE BIGGEST FAN!” Very quickly and very loudly. He nodded. Took the picture and subtly pushed me toward the exit. It wasn’t until I was in the green room that I realized what had happened.
Here is the product of that photo op, the look on my face says it all:
And ladies and gentlemen, there it is. Embarrassed? Hell yes. But you know what? That’s me. Just a kid who wanted to be Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones more than anything in the world who got to live his dream for a little bit, and regardless of everything that entailed – the success and failures, the joy and heartache, the stories and scars – I am, and will always and forever be grateful for the journey.
Click on to read Part 2 – ‘Passed Out, Naked, in a Hotel Hallway’
Featured Photo: credit via Karolina King Photography