During the production of my most recent television series, I took the star out to dinner. We had a lot to celebrate, I told him – our audience numbers were solid, and the network was already preparing to order more episodes – and it was a good opportunity for the two of us to go out and splurge on an expensive dinner. Executive producers are supposed to do things like this with the stars of their shows.
We went to the priciest, most high-end steakhouse in Beverly Hills. The restaurant is called Cut and it’s run by master chef (and a celebrity in his own right) Wolfgang Puck. The steaks are delicious, as is everything on the menu, but the real fun of the place is the buzzing, see-and-be-seen atmosphere.
We were right in the middle of the dining room surrounded by Hollywood’s most famous and powerful.
“I’ll have the rib-eye steak,” the actor told the waiter, “and the soufflés potatoes. Oh, and the creamed spinach.”
I cleared my throat. “Actually,” I said, “he’ll have the small fillet mignon, steamed spinach, and no potatoes. And please take the bread basket away from the table.”
There was an awkward pause. But I had used my do-not-mess-with-me tone of voice – something that every effective Hollywood producer has, or should have, at his disposal – so it lasted barely a moment. The waiter wrote down what I told him.
“And I’ll have the rib-eye, the potatoes, and the creamed spinach,” I said.
When the waiter left, the star leaned in. “Are you trying to say that I’m fat?”
“I’m not trying to say it,” I said. “I am saying it.”
He protested. He weighed himself daily, he told me, and he had barely gained one kilogram since the beginning of production. Did I know how hard it was to keep trim on a television set?
Of course I did, I told him. And he’s right: it’s almost impossible to keep the weight off when you’re in production. Each set has something called a “craft services” table – a continuously replenished buffet of all kinds of snacks, sweets and fattening treats. It’s actually in entertainment industry labour union contracts that such a table be available at all times, groaning under the weight of unlimited snack foods. There’s even a contract-stipulated person responsible for the bounty, called the “craft services supervisor”. So, yes, obviously, it’s hard to stay slim during production.
“You look like you’ve gained a bit yourself,” he said to me.
I shrugged. “I have,” I said. “But then, I’m not on screen. I can be as fat as I like. You can’t. And don’t forget: the camera adds at least 10 kilograms.”
I thought of that dinner when I read that Amy Schumer, the profane and hilarious comic actress, was furious with Glamour magazine for categorising her as a "plus-sized" actress.
The magazine’s latest issue features female performers known for their full figures. Schumer is profiled along with actress Melissa McCarthy, singer Adele and supermodel Ashley Graham. The idea behind the issue, apparently, is to show strong and successful women who don’t fit into the prevailing rail-thin aesthetic of modern fashion.
Schumer took issue with her inclusion, not because she thinks she’s skinny but because she thinks she’s normal. She took to social media to make the point. Her clothing size, she says, is right in the “average” category – neither slender nor what is euphemised as “plus-sized”. Women, she pointed out, have a hard enough time with body-size insecurity.
She makes a fair point, of course. But all of us in the entertainment business are slaves – whether we want to be or not – to the expectations and tastes of the audience. If audiences see Schumer as plus-sized and love her for it, it’s hard for her to get them to think of her any other way. And they won’t be able to adjust to a slimmer and fitter Schumer. They like her the way she is.
It’s not a uniquely female struggle. Jonah Hill, the extra-plus-sized comic actor, has struggled with this issue too. When he recently dropped a lot of weight, audiences had a hard time seeing him the same way. His face was leaner and narrower. His smile wasn’t quite so cherubic. He was just different, somehow, on screen. Not as funny. Not as likeable.
The star of my show, though, had a different problem. He started the series as a slender and trim young man. That’s the person I cast in the role and that’s who audiences expected to see each week. So it may have been disconcerting to him for me to call him fat, and it may have hurt his feelings when I told him that he needed to hit the gym more often, hire a trainer and stop grazing on the craft services table, but he understood the point.
And, naturally, it was easier for me to have that conversation with a man rather than a woman. I probably wouldn’t have been able to be so blunt had my star been an actress. I’d have been more sensitive and thoughtful, and I wouldn’t have eaten the chocolate ice cream for dessert.
Well, maybe I would have. I’m a writer, after all. I can be as fat as I like.
Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood