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The Untitled Gary Hilborn Project - A Blog

Nana and the Stories

My Nana sipping coffee in her kitchen and me around the time she let me ruin her coffee table with Lemon Pledge

I started watching the soaps with my Nana. That's my mom's mom, and it’s important to me that you understand the pronunciation of her name. It's Nah-Nah with an emphasis on both syllables - not Nan-uh, as is sometimes heard. She’s going to come up a lot, and I want you to have the correct sounds imprinted when you run across her name. Well, her name was actually Annie Beatrice Bridges Mercer, and most people called her Bea. But to me, she was only Nana.

I was her first grandchild, and I coined that name. As the legend goes: I just came out with it when I first began to speak. My mom insists it was a mispronunciation of "Mama" because I was around them both so often in my early years I didn't quite know who was who. I don't ever remember confusing Nana with my mother, but who knows. Either way, it stuck. When my cousin, Carrie, came along the next year, she was her Nana, too. My brother picked up the baton the following year, and every subsequent cousin thereafter stuck with the Nana name.

In fact, my brother's kids now call our mom Nana. And my cousin, Jamie's, granddaughter does the same for her. I feel very honored to have begun this particular tradition, so I hope you'll understand why I have a keen interest in making sure you pronounce the name correctly should we ever run into one another on a sidewalk. And for the record: I'd love to talk to you about my Nana - anytime, anywhere. I have a million stories about her, and this is but one.

When we were young, my brother and I stayed with Nana a lot. Dad was moving up the ranks as an officer in the military, and he and mom often had to travel to various conventions and functions around the country. On such occasions, we would stay at Nana's house. We loved staying at Nana's house. We never wanted to leave. She kept a big box of Froot Loops cereal for us in her bottom cabinet - next to the pots and pans, so we could grab it whenever we felt the urge. In the mornings, she'd give us "brown coffee" (mostly milk with a drop of café to add some color) in little plastic cups reserved solely for my brother and me; mine was yellow, and his was orange. She'd make the best homemade sausage biscuits for us, and we'd sit at her dining table in the kitchen and devour as many as we could. No place was more comforting than Nana's kitchen. There was always something cooking on the stove and a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge.

I especially loved staying with Nana during school breaks because that meant I could watch her stories with her. She was a CBS fan through and through. The daily line-up was Young and the Restless, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light. For five years, Capitol popped up after the mid-day local news, and then The Bold and the Beautiful took its place when I was twelve years old. But those two don't hold quite the same space in my heart as our original big three.

Truth be told, Guiding Light was our favorite. That's the one Nana could always keep up with, no matter her work schedule. She was a dietician in the public schools after my grandfather passed away, which is why she was free to help take care of us during holidays and summer break. And while she wasn't always able to watch the soaps that aired during the earlier part of the day, you better believe she was in her living room with the television tuned to KNOE (the CBS affiliate of the ArkLaMiss) every afternoon at 2 p.m.

I'd help her fold clothes or dust the living room furniture while Reva and Josh fell in and out of love, and Alan Spaulding schemed with and against his family. All the citizens of Springfield kept us on the edge of our seat with their love triangles and business deals. The show was in fine form during the 1980s, and we fell hook, line, and sinker for those classic storylines.

As my brother and I got older, my parents didn't need to rely on Nana's babysitting as much. We still loved to visit, though. We never outgrew our love for her or her home. Whenever I knew I'd be seeing her, I'd make a special point of catching up on Guiding Light a few days in advance. That was our thing, and I wanted to discuss the plot points with her and get her opinions on all the shenanigans about town. And, boy, did she have opinions about those folks!

In 2001, at the age of twenty-five, I moved to New York City to further pursue my acting career. I'd studied and trained and worked in Louisiana since the age of twelve, but it was time to see if I could take it to the next level. I'd had several friends move to New York ahead of me. Some had stayed, and some had returned home because it's just so damned hard to exist in this metropolis. Listen, I never try to talk anyone into staying in New York if they feel it's their time to go. If you're not madly in love with this city or (at least) in love with what it may offer you one day (no guarantees), there's no reason to stay here. No reason at all.

But I arrived with a plan to not dive into the auditions and the career pursuits straightaway. I decided to put all my early efforts into stabilizing myself with a job and an apartment. I'd learned from my friends that you can't rely on the booking of acting work to pay your bills right out of the gate. (That's, honestly, what we all thought we'd be able to do.) I'm so grateful for those who came before me and freely shared that knowledge...and their sofas. (Hi Morgan and Steven. Hi Wendy and Blake.)

For the first three years of my life in Manhattan, I didn't audition for anything. I didn't look for an agent. I didn't attend even one open call. I focused on my day job in real estate, and I settled into my life far from home. I don't know how, but I trusted that the work would be there for me when the time was right. And that time came in early 2004.

In those days, there were still four soap operas shooting in New York - All My Children, One Life to Live, As the World Turns, and Guiding Light. The need for new actors on daytime dramas was so great that you could pretty easily get in front of the casting directors without an agent. In Backstage, the mailing addresses for each of the shows was readily available. I sent all of them my headshot and resume, and (wouldn't you know it) the first bite was from Melanie Haseltine - a Casting Associate at Guiding Light.

She called me in for a general meeting on a warm, spring day. Their offices and studios were located near Grand Central Station at that time, and I wasn't all that familiar with the area. I remember being completely turned around and more than a little nervous I'd be late. Was I wearing the right thing? Was I going to have do I monologue? Cold-read a scene? I had no representation and therefore no one to answer these questions in advance.

Sitting in the reception area and seeing the actors I'd grown up watching in Nana's living room come in and out in their civilian clothes was almost too much for my brain to comprehend. I distinctly remember overhearing Robert Newman joke that he was grateful to be "punching out" early enough to make his tee time that afternoon. Crystal Chappell breezed through looking even more radiant in person. My insides were full of butterflies just sitting outside the casting office. How would I ever be able to keep it together in the room?

But I suppose I managed because Melanie seemed to really like me. We chatted about my training, and I remember her being particularly complimentary of my long list of theatre credits. I was careful to not reveal too much of my inner fanboy, as I didn't want her to needlessly fear for the safety of the contract players. She had me read a scene, and then we discussed the speed at which production moved.

"Do you think you can keep up?" she asked.

"Absolutely," I replied.

She said she'd keep me in mind for future roles, and that was that. I made my way to the lobby of the building feeling equal parts sweaty and excited.

The first person - the only person - I phoned with the news of this meeting was Nana. Being in that building felt like a dream come true, and to share it with her would make that dream truly real. On that phone call to her from the street, I worked very hard to manage expectations - hers and mine.

"Nana, this was just a meeting," I said. "I don't even know if anything will come of it, but I couldn't wait to tell you." Feeling guilty about getting our hopes up, I went on to say, "This was only an audition. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, Son. I know, and my fingers are crossed." She then proceeded to list all the characters she considered me perfect to play.

A few weeks later, Melanie called to book me on the show. I was to play a clerk at the Beacon Hotel opposite Grant Aleksander and Daniel Cosgrove. I had exactly one line, and I was over the moon! Of course, I immediately phoned Nana with the good news and then again as soon as I'd wrapped taping the next day. I told her about everything - from the demeanor of the security guard at the elevator (very nice) to the type of fabric in my costume (very itchy). No detail was too small for Nana. I wanted us to experience this together, and, looking back, I'm so glad I did.

My episode aired on June 15, 2004, and Nana passed away on September 11th of that same year. She had been strong as an ox her entire life, but in her last few months, she faced multiple diagnoses related to some late-stage cancer and a very weak heart. Nana was not one for regular medical checkups.

In what would be my last phone call to her (to tell her about booking my first New York play), she expressed how poorly she was feeling. I had no idea it was coming. Nana never complained - at least, not to me. She said she had had some doctor's appointments, and there were more coming up. Maybe she was trying to break some news I wasn't quite ready to hear.

"Nana, they're going to fix you up, and you'll be out doing somersaults in the front yard in no time," I said.

She didn't press the issue. She just replied, "I don't think so, Son."

Maybe it was also news she wasn't quite ready to give.

Over the next five years, I'd parlay my work on Guiding Light into stints on the three other New York soaps - most notably, a four-year, recurring role on All My Children. In total, I appeared in some twenty-six episodes of Guiding Light between 2004 and 2008. Sometimes I had lines, and sometimes I didn't. The size of the role didn't much matter to me when it came to that, particular, show. Every call from them was a gift. Standing on those sets I'd come to know so well as a little boy in Louisiana felt like going home to me. Whenever Guiding Light called, I showed up. I was miles away from Louisiana and awfully home-sick at times, but for those twenty-six days of shooting, I got to go back to Nana's living room and be with her for awhile. There was nothing better than that.


featured photo: A) Nana sipping coffee in her kitchen at the age she's forever frozen in my memory. B) Me around the time she let me ruin her coffee table with Lemon Pledge.

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