I met Michelle Gardner when she walked into Theatre of NOTE to audition for a play I was directing for their company. Everyone “in the know” had been telling me I would definitely want to meet her for this role, and she did not disappoint. I happily cast her and just as happily spent the next couple of months working with her. Among Michelle’s many wonderful talents is her ability to create characters who are simultaneously “tough” and “nurturing.” And. Not but. There is a difference, and I’ve experienced very few actresses who instinctively navigate that difference. (And of course, props here to the play’s writer, Sean Christopher Lewis, for creating that potential on the page.)
But enough of my “girl power” moment. Let’s get into Michelle’s car. . .
Me: My standard first question is, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you clean up your car for me before taking these photos. But, already having some insight into your “system,” I feel like this question actually doesn’t apply for you the way it might for others!
Michelle: It’s funny you ask me this because I get teased a lot by friends for over-achieving in cleanliness. I can’t help it. Apparently this is a large trait of my Virgo birth sign—cleanliness and organization—but all I know for certain is that I’m not one of those folks who can function well in mess. I need organization. So the answer would be 1. Not at all.
Me: How much time do you spend in your car each day, on average?
Michelle: I spend more time in my car than I ever wanted to—and I’ve got the miles to prove it! I have a survival job three days a week up in Woodland Hills. And I live in West Hollywood. So 40 miles a day, 3 days a week makes 120 miles per week. I’ve done the math—because this particular job is accounting, so I have to do the math—and each year I’ve worked this freelance gig, I’ve placed 5,700 miles on my poor little Toyota. And God Bless her, she’s still holding up strong.
Me: A nice little plug for underdog Toyota there. How long does your 20 miles each way commute take?
Michelle: An hour each way. I’m usually on the phone while doing it. Don’t worry, I’ve got ear buds for my iPhone and I never drive without them! I think what we as Los Angeleans have learned about traffic and traveling in our cars is: This is where we stay connected. When I talk to my folks back home, or friends in other, smaller cities they don’t often understand this logic. But really, why not? You’re not moving. You’ll only frustrate the hell out of yourself by thinking about the fact that “if you were home now, you could be doing this or that” so why not make the most of your time sitting in a traffic jam and get some business done.
Me: I love that you’ve just said that commuting in L.A. can be a form of staying connected. Because this morning on Larry Mantle’s “Air Talk” on KPCC, he was interviewing David Brooks about Brooks’ new book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.” The book is about the way we—meaning, human beings—form connections. And the research shows that the number one activity that makes us unhappy as human beings is commuting. The reason given is that commuting inherently lacks connection. So your attitude really turns that on its ear. I’m also going to theorize here that your opportunity to see that time as connection might be related to your talents and experience as an actress. Thoughts?
Michelle: Well, first off—thanks. That’s a nice way to put it, but I think you may be giving me a little too much credit! I would venture to say that talking on the phone with people isn’t exactly the greatest form of connecting. I would much rather be sitting in your living room, catching up over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. It’s just that life here in L.A. doesn’t usually afford us that luxury. So the best substitute I have found is chatting over the phone. And it isn’t always about “Hey how are you? How are the kids?”—more often than not it’s business. The theater. The film I just wrapped. A problem at the building. A call time. . . It’s an uninterrupted moment of privacy. Because whenever I get to the next stop, I probably won’t have that. I guess a better word to categorize this “car chat” would be multi-tasking.
Me: Speaking of “multi-tasking,” I’m in awe of the four neatly packed bags surrounding your front seat. When you took these photos for me, you also mentioned that everything we see in your front seat is part of your “typical” day. What does that mean?
Michelle: Ha! There’s that organization again. A typical day for me starts really early, usually around 5AM.
Me: Holy crap! Really?
Michelle: I like to get up and have a cup of coffee, check the emails and news. Listen to a little Howard Stern—diehard fan. Then I’m off to the gym or to the park for boot camp. From there, I head up to Woodland Hills, or back to the building, or off to run errands, and then after work I head home. Unless I’ve got something with the theatre—and often times I do. I’ve been on the Board of Directors at Theatre of NOTE for the past three years now, so I have a couple meetings each month, as well as other events. Or sometimes I’ll stay up in the North Valley to meet friends for dinner—and avoid that dreaded traffic—or even just have dinner by myself and read a book. So all in all, each day I usually wear a ton of different hats and I’ve got to pack them all to be ready to wear them.
Me: So what specifically is in each of the four bags?
Michelle: Well, the first one is obvious. It’s my purse. All the basic girly stuff, wallet, phone, necessities. The second is my work bag. And that’s for all my work. So while I may have reports for one job, or a contact list for the building I help manage, or the agenda for the upcoming NOTE Board meeting, I also have headshots, resumes, a reel or two, postcards and plenty of writing and highlighting instruments. The third bag is my change of clothes. I’ve been pretty devoted the past year or so to working out each day. Most days it’s boot camp, others it’s boxing. But I get my work out done early because I’ve never been able to get motivated to go to the gym at the end of my day. So I pack a change of clothes, along with other toiletries, so I can change once I finish. The last bag is my lunch. I usually pack that in advance the night before. Boot camp starts at 6:30, after all! I’ve stopped eating out each day and have been able to save a tremendous amount. And my waist size isn’t complaining either.
Me: I can attest that since you’ve been on this boot camp and boxing regimen, you look like a rock star—literally. And you mention your headshots being in your “work bag.” That’s the other universal question I’m curious about from the actors I know. In this day and age, how often do you use “hard copies” of your headshots?
Michelle: I don’t draw upon them as much as I like, I can tell you that. And so many things are done electronically that you don’t often have a request for them. Sometimes you’re asked to bring a hard copy, but in other arenas, like commercial casting, they’ve almost eliminated the need for a headshot entirely. You walk in, scan your barcode and they’ve got everything right there. Paper-free.
Me: A bar code? Wow. I didn’t know that. That feels creepily sci-fi to me. Like, the uneasy marriage of a sci-fi thriller and a commercial selling laundry detergent or something. Sort of speaking of which—What about the clothes hanging in your back seat?
Michelle: They were wardrobe I was asked to bring in to a shoot. I was cast for a day on a new MTV series and they asked me to bring in some options “just in case.” That usually happens when you’re only working a day. They don’t have the luxury of paying you to come in for a wardrobe fitting—or they don’t have a budget to costume everyone! You’re asked to bring in a few things to help bridge the gap. The day I took this picture, I was playing a suburban housewife, so I had a lot of sweaters and slacks. “Colors please. No black, no white and nothing with stripes.”
Me: Well I know first-hand that you can play a kick-ass suburban housewife. Next time we work together, I want you to be playing a rock star!