So here I am, face-to-face with a glowering John Malkovich (the dangerous Teddy KGB from Rounders, not the sweet Mr. Will from Places in the Heart) on a set constructed in the bowels of Churchill Downs for the motion picture Secretariat. Malkovich is playing Big Red's trainer, Lucien Laurin, and I, in a brilliant casting move certain to test my acting chops, am playing a sportswriter at a press conference. Hundreds of crew, cast and extras are waiting for me to deliver my one line in the movie, a simple question directed at Malkovich (which he is scripted to ignore).
Words begin spilling from my mouth, but not the words that director Randall Wallace wrote for me. They might not even be English words. The words end, and then resume, without connection. The set grows quiet. People are watching me. Costar Kevin Connolly (Entourage) is sitting next to me, watching. Diane Lane, who owns the movie as Secretariat's housewife owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, is watching. Malkovich—Malkovich!—is watching. I hate Malkovich.
This predicament began when I was invited to portray a horse racing journalist in the movie, an invitation I accepted because it sounded like a bucket-list sort of thing to do: 42) Appear in a major motion picture. Check. Show up and look sportswriterly. I could handle that. I do it all the time.
First stop: wardrobe trailer. Secretariat takes place in 1973, so actors (and extras) must dress accordingly. A young woman asks my sizes and then offers me a beige sport coat and plaid pants, which seem fine. "Or," she says, raising her eyebrows, "you could go all out." She brandishes a rust-colored, three-piece polyester suit and wildly patterned silk shirt. Pure disco. Why not? In for a dime, in for a dollar. Fully dressed, I look like an extra from Saturday Night Fever, minus the dance moves. (Friends have accused me of pulling this getup out of my own closet. Stop it. I was 17 years old in 1973; my wardrobe consisted of jeans, gray T-shirts and my prized Walt Frazier jersey.)
On set the room is filled with extras posing as journalists. They all look disturbingly authentic. I am "placed" in a prime seat next to Connolly, who portrays my former SI colleague Bill Nack, whose book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion "suggested" the story (according to the credits). In a trippy twist, the real Nack is also in the scene, portraying another reporter.
Wallace kneels beside me, holding a wrinkled piece of paper. "I have a line for you," he says. "You say, 'Lucien, there are rumors your horse is hurt. Any comment?' Do you want to write that down?" Nope, I tell him, I've got it. Wallace tells me to repeat the line, which I do. Piece of cake.
The press conference scene will last a couple of minutes in Secretariat (which opens on Oct. 8). It takes three hours to film, with at least four repetitions shot from the front and four from the back. Between takes Wallace stands in front of the horde of extras, exhorting and praising. It occurs to me that he is like a coach or a preacher. It's impressive, and keeps a room full of tired extras fully engaged. Then again, Wallace also directed We Were Soldiers, a Vietnam War movie with many more extras than Secretariat.
On one break there is some designated celebrity interaction. Lane is charming and convinces sportswriter extras that she's genuinely interested in conversation. Her yellow dress and '70s hairdo look better than my ridiculous suit. Connolly is very much a regular guy and appropriately thankful for the underdog success of Entourage. "We caught lightning in a bottle," he says. Malkovich stands off to the side, checking his phone. He's bigger and more intimidating than I might have expected, and he might as well have STAY AWAY tattooed on his forehead.
Through several takes I deliver my line serviceably. Later I will ask Wallace why he gave me a line. "I was looking for a certain authenticity, a certain edge, in that scene," he says. "You're a journalist. You've been in noisy press conferences. I knew it would feel real."
Real is a relative term. This press conference feels more staged and chaotic than any I encounter in my day job, yet Wallace is correct in one regard: I am accustomed to sitting in a noisy room, asking questions out loud.