Today I am telling you a story.
About that time I went to Mars.
It was in the middle of a parched summer day during Ramadan last year that I got a slightly cryptic call from a woman asking if I had ever been a stunt or body double before. If not, is that something I could possibly do? This was just a couple hours before the ftour (breaking fast), so my brain was a little slower than usual to process what exactly was being asked. I murmured some kind of “yes I suppose so,” and she went on to explain that they found me through my film portfolio (which I was not aware existed) and apparently I look similar to this German actress so could I please come down to the Sahara for a week to body double for her in a mini-series produced by Nat-Geo called Mars.
Mars? So it takes place in outer space?
And do you mean Nat-Geo, like the National Geographic?
How exactly could I say no to the opportunity to an all-expenses paid trip to the desert, working on a series produced by an internationally known TV channel?
Just a week and a half later, I was on a small bus with three Moroccan guys, traveling 4 hours to Casablanca from Tangier, picking up a handful of other doubles, then completing the 9 hour trek to Erfoud, a city on the edge of the Merzouga desert. Slightly dizzy from the long trip, we arrived at a hotel just outside of town. With a grand riad-style, tiled interior, a terrace, pool and garden out back, complimentary meals and comfortable beds, it was easy to instantly forget that we were there to work. Then came the jarring reminder of our 4:45am wake-up call.
My eyes were just barely open that first morning as we rumbled in our van closer and closer to the film set. We drove first on nicely paved roads through small villages until turning off onto rugged terrain, following a speck of light in the vast distance. By the time we reached the set, the sky was just starting to turn a dusky blue with lavender streaking over the arid mountain-scape. We weren’t in the dunes that day, but the scenery was surreal nevertheless. When you turned away from the tents and trailers where people ate, changed and milled about with floppy safari hats and walkie talkies, it was easy to look out at the nothingness of the rocky scenery and imagine that we were actually on Mars.
The first day was nothing but waiting. Three other doubles and I waited as the early morning chill eased into mild heat and then blazed from about 9am onward. We watched while the actors walked back and forth from set, people running after them with parasols and bottles of ice water. It was just about noon when we finally packed up and headed back to the hotel, where I promptly changed into a swimsuit and spent the rest of the afternoon soaking in the pool.
The next day, it was time to suit up and really get to work. The process of getting dressed began by squeezing your body into an incredibly tight unitard with tubes running through it, used to pump ice water in the very likely case that the desert heat becomes too much for our body temperatures. Over this unitard we pulled on a thick space suit with odd bobbles and wire-y things sticking out all over. Then came an awkward harness, thick socks, too-small boots, a backpack that felt like it truly was carrying whatever gear you need in space, a black neck collar, an incredibly flattering hair net to flatten our heads, and finally a classic astronaut helmet, that pushed back on the neck a little too much for comfort. Before even stepping outside we were already sweating through the first layer.
The two other doubles on duty and I were driven out to a stunning rocky valley nestled in between two cliffs, fully suited up, pumped with some ice water and sent out into the heat. Our job sounded quite simple: walk from the end of the valley towards the camera, slow and steady.
On the first take we tried to walk a bit to the side of the crevice to catch the sunlight, but with each step in those clunky boots our feet slid on the gravel beneath, causing frequent childlike falls and lots of various gloves and pieces detaching from the costumes. Clearly something needed to be changed, so they had us walk directly in the middle of the valley, which was out of the sun to our relief. However, after walking steadily for about 5 minutes, we were already gasping for breath and gushing sweat from our temples. We hoped it was a wrap for the day, only to be told, "you see that cliff on the right here? We would like you to climb all the way to the top please. Up and down, nice and steady."
We all looked at the camera man with vacant expressions that clearly said oh you’ve got to be kidding me. It was no joke, so we began our ascent. I suddenly understood why body doubles are employed in the first place. Before the cameras started rolling, we had to make it to the halfway point of this cliff to get in place. Those 5-7 minutes walking uphill felt like an hour, even though I was aided by a short man lifting the weight of my backpack behind me and another casting director pouring water down my neck every couple minutes. I have never felt that kind of heat and exhaustion in my life. It was as if with each breath, the air was going to explode from my lungs and my whole body would shrivel up in little pile of dust.
However, we had to keep going. The woman pouring water on me saw in my eyes how rough of a time I was having and said “are you okay, can you continue?” I honestly felt like I was about to cry, but instead I grinned bigger than I have ever grinned in my life and said “yes” breath in “yes I’ll be fine” breath out. I have come to realize that under extreme pressure, I quite literally grin and bear it. I was smiling like a downright maniac the entire time we shot the scene (luckily with no close-ups).
We began to plod our way slowly up the side of that cliff. The sun hadn’t quite set on the horizon, so the low beams continued to beat across our exposed faces. I was frantically trying to apply yogi techniques of breathing, but my mind was going blank. Just when I thought I might collapse over sideways, the next couple steps took me up far enough to see the expanding panorama beneath us- a vast glorious wasteland of strewn rocks and the occasional palm, with golden light seeping its way across in long fingers that reached up to the edge of where we stood. Without even thinking, I exhaled out loud "subHanallah" (a frequently used Arabic expression meaning glory be to god). In that instant I became devoutly religious. What religion it was, I’m not sure exactly, but to get me to the very top of that mountain I created my own simple mantra in which I repeated this is beautiful, I am strong, help me whoever you are. With focused determination, I was able to make it to the top, back down, and even up again for a final take.
When we had finished, I pulled off my helmet, ripped away the stifling neck collar, let my mat of dripping hair loose from the net and heaved a giant sigh of relief. One of the camera assistants was alarmed by my bright red face and darted over with a giant junk of ice which she proceeded to rub vigorously around my face and neck. Even though it felt amazing, I just kept saying in half-delirium, “I’m fine I’m fine,” smiling so hard my face hurt.