I was staring intently at the girl sitting in half profile in front and to the right of me. The girl was beautiful all right, but that is not what struck me at first. I was wondering what Heather Tom was doing at that place! Well, actually, she had as much right as anyone present, probably more than them, to be there at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), London, UK. After all, she was an actress, from the USA, and RADA was catered primarily for would-be actors and actresses from the UK and the rest of the globe. And it was quite possible that many nationalities from around the world had been represented at one time or the other at that august institution.
But Heather Tom? I was soon going to get acquainted with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was going to gain fame in 2009 as an Academy Award nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Crazy Heart, and for many film credits over the years, but in 1996, when at RADA, she was not yet out of her teens, and definitely a neophyte of sorts, in spite of the fact that her parents were both filmmakers. Heather Tom, though, then closing in on 21 years in age, was already a young veteran of the audio-visual medium, a popular subject of the news media in the US, particularly those of the popular kind, and had begun to make a name for herself in the daytime soap opera, The Young and the Restless. What was she doing with the Summer programme at RADA, anyway?
To briefly recap my own stint at RADA, I was in the 1996 Summer programme there, learning primarily to act in William Shakespeare's plays from my trainee group's principal instructor, Peter Oyston. There were other groups, but ours was made up of trainees with at least some professional background in acting. In the introductory session of the opening day, all the trainees were gathered in a large hall, squatting down on the (if I remember correctly after all these years) stone floor and listening to the Principal, Nick Barter, telling us pretty much what principals of institutions tend to say to students in an inaugural session. I only knew Brett Bailey, who was a member of the theater group from Boston, USA, and who had also enrolled in the RADA Summer session. In fact, such was the variety of the one hundred or so trainees in terms of their countries and hometowns that hardly anyone knew more than one or two upon their arrival at RADA, if that. Of course, the scenario was to change drastically by the time the term ended.
I will admit that I was taken in by the young woman I had taken for being Heather Tom. The dizzying pace at which the first day went by precluded me from seeing her once the inaugural session was over, but I continued to persist in believing that she was the rising soap star in person. Maybe she had come to RADA to hone her skills at acting Shakespeare. After all, though popular with certain sections of the population, soap operas are hardly the cup of tea of a sizable segment of the American population. Daytime soaps generally are aired from just after noon to afternoon and go on and on and on for year after year after year. You might find an actor/actress starting off as a young hunk or beautiful leading lady (usually the vast majority of actors and actresses are more noticeable for their great looks than for any great acting ability), age on the show down the years, and end up as a grandfather or grandmother. Not many make a successful transition (not for any lack of trying, though) to the primetime TV dramas or quality Hollywood movies. The soap stories follow a similar pattern of the rich and powerful interacting with each other in their pursuit of maintaining, or enhancing, their wealth and power. The actors and actresses gain limited fame, steady income, and are also quickly forgotten once they fade out of the limelight.
Back to the inaugural day and the supposed Heather Tom! I saw, from the profile an energetic-looking and lively-acting individual with thick blond hair braided and hanging down to just below the nape of her neck. At one point we had a quick exchange of glances, enough time to reveal blue eyes (hopefully natural) that fleetingly seemed to twinkle. Then back to looking forward and taking in the fag end of Nick Barter's rather lengthy speech. Then she got lost in the chaos of everyone getting up at the end of the ceremony and figuring out the next steps in the process of orientation.
And then we met a couple or so days later, during lunchtime with the food that came with our fees (breakfast and afternoon tea, too). We just happened to sit at the same table, me with some of my newly-acquainted group mates, she with hers, including my old buddy Brett Bailey. As it happened, she was sitting to the right across me. I found out she was a California girl, born and brought up in Los Angeles, and educated in Dramatic Arts at one of the University of California campuses. She was born to be in the performing arts, I mused in silence. At one point, I blurted out, “You know, you look so much like Heather Tom. You're not her, are you?”
She burst out laughing and said, “No I'm not, but I've briefly met her. By the way, other people have also mistaken me for her.”
“You don't say! You're a dead ringer for her.”
“You seem to really like her. Are you a soap fan? Do you watch it a lot?”
“No, I don't and I'm not, honestly; but I've seen her pictures and read stories about her in the papers. She's beautiful.”
Then I realized where the two would immediately exhibit their differences if they stood next to each other. From the pictures I had seen of her, I would say the soap star would be a few inches taller than my new acquaintance. I looked closely at her. She was beautiful, warm, bubbly with sparkling eyes, and sensuous ruby-red full lips breaking into vivacious smiles every once in a while, revealing dazzling white teeth, and her entire deportment reflected California sunshine and Los Angeles pizzazz. The lunch was coming to an end all too soon (or so it seemed to me) when her words broke into my thoughts: “My name's also Heather, but it's Heather Ryon.”
Man, oh man! This was extraordinary. I had to know her better.
Shahid Alam is a thespian, and Professor, Media and Communication Department, IUB.