I get a desperate call from my acting teacher in LA about an acting job. Truth be told, it's my first gig ever. I don't know what the job is yet–all I know is that I don't have to audition. So it either has to be an adult gig or a wearing-a-giant-animal-suit-to-sell-something gig. Fine. As long as it's not both.
The next day I’m sitting in a secret back room in the Metreon, a giant new mecca of capitalistic bliss, full of movie theaters and food courts and stores where they sell cologne for young men at the beach. The place smells like popcorn, expensive electronics, and Drakkar Noir. I've been asked to put on a foam suit with a 65″ waist, strap-on boots five times the size of my feet, giant white gloves I have to hold on to by clenching the inside fabric in my fists, and a very large fiberglass head attached to a football helmet, out of which I have about 10% of my normal vision. My "handler" tucks in the character's "neck skin" inside my foam suit.
I am a method actor. That morning, when I learned my assignment, I’d decided to explore my character. Just who is video game character Super Mario? (Strange guy with mustache?) What is he passionate about? (Killing turtles?) What motivates him? (Saving the princess?) WHAT MAKE HIM TICK? (Gold coins?) I am getting in touch with my inner brooklyn Italian plumber (except that I’m on the inside and he’s on the outside–maybe it's more like Mario getting in touch with the Inner Alicia…). But so what does a middle-aged video game plumber say and do and think? On the way in my car I’m trying him out, “I’m a mario! I love-a da princess! Princepessa I’m-a comin! I fix-a you toilet! Just gotta kick a deese turtles and eat-a some magic mushrooms!" (Maybe we have more in common than I thought?) But I’m not allowed to speak, so I figure I’ll channel this character information directly into my body movement.
The event is a ceremony called the Walk of Game. Video game inventors and their characters are receiving lifetime achievement awards. I run into a technology commentator Adam Sessler, who I used to work with at TechTV. Turns out he’s hosting the whole event. "What do you think I am supposed to do, as Mario?" I ask. Sessler bounces his head and says, "Bounce, wave, shrug your shoulders." Ok, that's easy.
Not easy. Once I zip up the 40 pound suit, I can’t reach my feet to put the shoes on. My “handler”, a PR guy from Nintendo who is late and dressed in a brown leather jacket, ties my shoes for me. I am getting paid handsomely for this is a last-minute gig. I have never done anything remotely like this before. Handler dude tells me I need to be very animated and wave a lot. Presumably, because I seem to be quiet and he looks worried. But so we get out in the open and one of the “game girls”, a cute Asian girl in a short, white skirt, is guiding me, holding my “arm”, keeping me from tripping over small children. We line up to receive awards. As we approach the stage, someone shouts, “MARIO’S NOT REAL.” and I throw up my arms in response (I’m contractually obligated not to speak) and get a big pre-show laugh.
A live pianist begins playing the Super Mario theme song. “Dana-nana-nana… dana-nana-nana…” They cue me, and I walk out on stage with my Game Girl. She makes me feel more like Mario. I bounce, wave, and shrug to the music, and the crowd loves me hamming it up. About a hundred cameras (it’s only press people in the audience) are flashing their bulbs. No kidding. Turns out Mario is one of only five people and/or characters being honored in the First Annual Walk of Game ceremony. Mario gets a star on the Metreon Walk of Game.
This suit is hot and heavy inside (does that make me live “action”? ha ha). We walk over to uncover the stars and take photos. People are jumping in, one after another, next to me to take photos. We pose. I put a foot out for style. I shake hands. Just standing in this thing is a chore. We didn’t use the ice packs they recommend. It's getting hotter and hotter inside here. Today we’re serving BAKED ACTOR from the Mario Oven. My sweat. The sweat of previous Marios. The heat from the lights. I’m way above my target heart rate. But the worst part, the velcro from the boots (which are constantly slipping off my feet) is rubbing against my shins, grating my skin, and the raw skin is mixing with the sweat to create a pain of moving I can only be thankful for because it’s distracting me from the weight of the costume.
Despite the impediments, I am actually having a blast. I–which is to say, Mario–am famous. For about an hour. It’s nothing to do with me, but still, I’m making it all happen. I’m dancing, doing all these great moves which I know must be hilarious for people to see Mario do. Moves from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, Eminem videos, my circus show… It’s all fair game. Cameras keep flashing, so I keep posing. I develop a whole repertoire: bounce, disco bounce, hands on head, pat tummy to the beat, raise roof, shake hands, left foot out, arms in circle a la Mr. Sandman backup singers, knee down fist up power chord rock stance, etc… What does Nintendo think of my interpretation of Mario? Will public the conception of disco Mario seep back into the minds of the developers, creating a dialectic whereby the next Mario game has just a little hustle in his bounce?
Sometimes I start giggling to myself about how heavy this costume is and I'm just trying to hold it all together, and I can make out the sea of cameras. It would be so funny if Mario tripped and fell onto Sessler, or started humping the leg of Sonic the Hedgehog or the inventor of Halo, or touched the tit of a Game Girl, or if he hit on Gavin Newsom (our San Francisco Mayor). So at the party afterward gavin takes a picture with mario, and he whispers to me, “you know you and I have spent a lot of time together… indirectly.” Whoa, Gavin. What is it about puppets that make people confess things?
My handler dude sees me start to wobble, and realizes I’m about to pass out after three hours in the MO (Mario Oven). He says I did a great job and he’ll pay me for an extra half hour. I take off my head. The heat wafts up from inside the suit. You could unseal envelopes with the steam floating past my chin. I leave in plain (sweat-soaked) clothes, my face beet-red, walking past the hordes of people who moments before were yelling “my” name. I feel like a superhero after a change in the phone booth. Inside I have this exciting yet totally inconsequential secret, and there's nothing to do with it. People walk past me like I'm just another human. I want to yell, “I WAS THAT GUY YOU LOVED! I was Mario!” But instead, I walk peacefully back to my car. I go home, put some ointment on my shins. And keep my secret (for a little while).
I wonder, once in a while, who else is wandering the street, freshly emancipated from their own Mario.