David Mitchell

The surreal joy of putting words in an actor’s mouth

The surreal joy of putting words in an actor’s mouth
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More than 200 non-US residents stood in the queue ahead of me. A grand total of four Homeland Security officers were on duty in the glass booths. I texted my ride to expect me in Arrivals in an hour, at best, and tried to compose the opener for my Spectator diary. I didn’t get far: after an early start in Cork, my long-haul flight from Heathrow to San Francisco and watching Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, my brain was scrambled eggs. Nearby, an elderly traveller fainted. The well-rehearsed response by the tired-looking staff suggested this is a daily, if not an hourly, occurrence. I read a few chapters of Donal Ryan’s novel All We Shall Know. Public book-reading is becoming a very niche activity.

Finally, I was ushered to a window where I presented my vaccine certificate, my negative test result, my Esta, a locator form and my passport. The officer asked: ‘Why are you here?’ The imp of the perverse suggested an existential quip. I have learned to ignore that imp.

‘To watch a movie.’

‘Uh-huh. What movie’s that now?’

‘The new Matrix film.’

‘Don’t they have movie theatres in Ireland?’

‘The Castro Theatre is showing the premiere on Saturday. I was involved in the production, so the studio invited me.’

‘Then you intend to work?’

‘Um…’ A smattering of media interviews wasn’t work work, was it? There are stories of authors mis-describing what they do on a book tour and being refused entry. My face twitched with Prince Andrew-sized tells.

‘No. No work.’

‘Uh-huh. So you’re an actor?’

‘I’m one of the screenwriters.’

‘May I see your invite to this premiere?’

I went into a tailspin as I explained I didn’t have a physical ticket, but that I would be able to claim one on the night. The officer’s eyes narrowed at his screen; then at me; then at his screen. I thought: ‘What if Google took him to a funny waspish rant about Homeland Security by the comedian David Mitchell?’ But he stamped and returned my passport.

‘Okay… Mr Mitchell, I liked Cloud Atlas. Have a good stay.’

Without asking if he meant the book or the film or both, I mumbled my thanks and made my way to the baggage carousel. The days when an Esta and — dare I say it — a non-Middle Eastern name were all you needed to pass through the gates of the Land of the Free are gone, gone, gone.

My Airbnb was on 18th and Douglass, only two minutes’ walk from the Castro, but the studio sent a car to collect me and my plus one. By ‘car’, I mean a shiny black 4x4 with (I like to think) bulletproof glass and wheels nearly as tall as me. My younger self would have been shivery with impostor syndrome. My older self told me: ‘Look, the gasoline is already burned and we pass this way but once so press record and enjoy the weirdness.’ Twenty slow-moving minutes and several layers of security later, I abseiled down to street-level from the 4x4 into retina-scorching lights, flanks of fans of the actors Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss and director Lana Wachowski; security guys in suits and large screens of dripping Matrix code.

A studio minder united me with my co-writer Aleksandar Hemon. We walked the red carpet — in fact, Kermit green — and were snapped by a gauntlet of photographers keeping their trigger fingers warm for the more saleable subjects. We had one interview with a courteous reporter who asked a few questions which I forgot the instant I answered them, except for: ‘Red pill or blue pill?’ I found myself unable to swear that the red pill wakes you from the Matrix, not the blue one, so I said: ‘One of each, please.’ I was saved by shrieks of ‘KEANU!’ from the street. Our interviewer let us go at the prospect of a far dishier fish. I glimpsed the A-lister in the gaps between the wall of photographers’ backs. He looked like the thoughtful observer of a performance artwork entitled ‘Total Insanity’.

Forty minutes later, I took my seat in the theatre. There’s a surreal joy a writer feels upon watching a skilled actor deliver lines they wrote months ago. The joy contains a puppet-master’s ego — I wrote that, and now this globally recognised face is saying it — but there’s a sense of awe, too, at watching a prismatic vision derived from a few lines of Final Draft, or when an actor inhabits and furnishes a sparse scene, or finds nuances in dialogue you hadn’t noticed. For the next couple of hours, I pulsated with that singular pleasure. I sent a message back to myself in 1999 when, in another cinema on the top floor of a department store in Hiroshima, I had my mind tasered by the first Matrix film. ‘When you meet the Wachowskis,’ I told myself, ‘say yes.’ Maybe I heard.

David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue is out now.