by Bette Hawkins
Rebellious film director Andie McKenzie is offered career redemption when her father hands off his latest big-budget action movie to her. There’s just one catch—the film has already been cast, and Andie is less than impressed with the film’s leading lady.
Down-to-earth actress Skye Buckley is thrilled to have landed the role of her dreams, even if she’s heard some not-so-great gossip about the new director. Knowing this movie could be her big break, Skye’s trying her hardest to ignore the friction that seems present in all her encounters with the confident, artistic Andie McKenzie.
Secluded from the world while on the location shoot, Andie and Skye soon realize their initial friction has given way to something else. But with personal and professional obstacles thrown up at every turn, they’ll soon discover whether love is more important than their careers.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"A juicy enemies-to-lovers story set on an island paradise, a fun movie-making plot, and two characters I was in love with as soon as I conceived them. This group of ideas inspired me to write Leading Lady after a pandemic-related creative drought. I had more fun working on this than anything I’ve ever done—it was an absolute blast."
The Lesbian Review
Leading Lady by Bette Hawkins is a celebrity, age-gap romance set on location on a remote Fijian island. Skye and Andie are lovely women who are supported by dynamic supporting characters. I enjoyed the setting, slow burn, and dialogue. This is a perfect vacation read. So grab a copy of this book, snag a lounge chair and a mojito, and enjoy this delightful book!
Alicja M. - I was honestly completely surprised by the sheer quality of writing in Leading Lady. Judging only by the title, what I was expecting was a simple story with little depth. I was astonished to find an elegant story which didn’t fall for most (if any) tired tropes. The writing itself was serene and the plot compelling. I found myself caring not only about the main relationship, but also about the progress of moviemaking and the injustices women faced (and are still facing) in the film industry. It was also an interesting choice for the plot to be set in the 90s, though it only added to the specific mood it conveyed. To sum up, Leading Lady is a poster example for all the reasons you should not be judging a book by its cover.
Patricia B. - Really good book. Loved the main characters of Andie and Skye. Their relationship was really well written and the pacing of them becoming more than director and actor, to lovers was so refreshing… I can't say enough great things about this book without giving spoilers here. I would definitely recommend this book to my friends and family, and I look forward to what's next from this author.
Andie checked her watch, jogging her leg under the table. Her father had told her to bring her A-game to this meeting, yet she was waiting for him like when she was a kid ready to be picked up from her mom’s.
She went to the bathroom to kill a few minutes, glancing around as she crossed the room. He always wanted to meet here. The restaurant was a converted dining car with crisp white tablecloths, and served the best steak in town. It was the kind of place where celebrities rubbed shoulders with bankers and lawyers, but she didn’t recognize anyone in the lunchtime crowd.
Even after meeting so many famous people over the years, she wasn’t above getting starstruck. When you loved cinema as much as she did, it was inevitable.
After washing her hands, she smoothed down her dark curly hair in front of the mirror. Her dad was going to hate this outfit. The black T-shirt, jeans, and boots were like a uniform for her, and he’d never been a fan of her punk-tinged style. At thirty-nine years old, she’d stopped trying to please him, at least when it came to her clothes.
When she pushed the door open, she left a sweaty handprint. It might have helped her nerves if he had told her what this meeting was about. He was bringing his producer, long-time friend and ally, Ben Haynes, which indicated something business-related, but she had no idea of the details.
A few years ago, she would have been more excited than anxious about a meeting like this. Back then, she had the luxury of picking and choosing her projects. She’d directed four features in a decade, and the first three were modest hits that the critics loved. She became one of the hottest directors of the ’80s, and journalists had plenty of hooks on which to hang their stories.
She was Doug McKenzie’s daughter, and a wunderkind.
Then, three years ago, her last movie tanked. It looked like the ’90s wouldn’t be so kind to her. The adoring critics turned, labelling the film a turkey. When the phone stopped ringing, it proved that in Hollywood you were only as good as your last hit.
She spotted her father and Ben settling into their chairs across the room. As she approached, she pulled her shoulders back.
“Hey, how are you doing?” her dad said.
Half the restaurant patrons were watching by now. They might not have clocked her, but they recognized one of the directors who spearheaded the New Hollywood movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Her father looked the part, handsome and tanned in a leisure suit with sneakers. His black hair and long sideburns were shot through with silver.
Andie had grown up on his movie sets, a precocious kid more at home around adults than people her own age. A famous shot showed her at seven years old sitting on his lap, each of them staring thoughtfully at storyboards. Following in his footsteps was as natural as breathing.
They pulled their chairs into the table, and the waiter returned. Ben and Doug exchanged a look as she ordered a club soda.
“No, I’m still not drinking. If that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Are you in the program? I’ve wanted to ask you that for a while now. Nothing to be ashamed of. I have so many friends in the program. They swear by it. It’s a great thing,” Ben said, his brown eyes dancing under bushy white brows. He leaned forward excitedly like they were talking about something other than AA. He was in his late seventies, but her father’s oldest friend was like an oversized kid.
“Nothing against it, but no, I didn’t feel like I needed that kind of help. Once I made the decision, it was easy for me. I’m happier this way.”
“Good to hear you’re sticking with it,” her dad said.
They all knew how Andie’s early success had spoiled her. She’d never been a saint when it came to women or partying. Her mistake was letting her messy personal life spill onto the set. After her movie failed, she took a long look at herself and decided it was time to grow up.
“So, Ben, tell me about this Michael Spencer movie you’re working on. Dad said it was shooting now.”
“Oh, yes. It’s going great. Michael is a great guy, the best.”
Ben had produced almost all her father’s films and none of Andie’s, but he’d always been around to give filmmaking advice. In some ways, he’d influenced her style as much as her father. She loved hearing him talk about his work.
By the time their steaks arrived, Andie was dying for them to get to the point. She hoped they were offering her a script-doctoring job. Rewriting had always been a lucrative side gig for her. She’d never scripted original stories but had a talent for refining others’ work. It was satisfying to put the finishing touches on scripts as they went into production—her directing experience had honed her instincts about what would work best on set. She knew which project they were working on together, and she wanted in, but was too proud to ask.
There weren’t many roles that she’d turn down. The well of inspiration had gone dry, she had nothing in the pipeline, and the cure was work.
“I’ve withdrawn from Creature Island,” Doug said.
Andie tried to cover her surprise. Nothing was ever a done deal in this town, and last-minute changes happened often. Still, she’d been so excited when her dad bought the rights to that book, because of its great female protagonist. That was years ago now, but she got her hands on a copy when the screenplay was done.
It captured the subversive, fun tone of the cult novel on which it was based. Creature Island was one of those books that its fans loved hard. It was science fiction packed with horror and action, a character study, and a deeply political work about mistrusting authority. There had been talk for years about a movie adaptation.
“What happened? I thought you were in preproduction?”
“We are. Everyone’s been working double time to get the location ready. It’s a little spot in Fiji. Mermaid Island,” Ben said.
“Then why did you back out?”
“I fell out of love with it. I don’t think this kind of high-concept movie is for me. I want to go back to my roots. We’re developing a good script for a gangster film,” he said, gesturing toward Ben with his fork.
“That’s right. Doug wants to put a lot of energy into getting that together. A big production like Creature would tie him up for the next year.”
She was trying to keep up. So, she might get to work on a serious gangster drama. It didn’t excite her as much as the crazy premise underpinning Creature Island, but her father had made his name with mobster movies. Whatever he did in that genre would be an instant classic.
“That sounds great. People will be so excited you’re doing that.”
“So, we need someone to step in on Creature. We know how much you loved the script. We want you to do it, and I’ll stay on as producer along with Ben. That way, we can still be involved, but we can fly back and forth when we need to work on the gangster flick.”
It took a while for the words to land. But, as soon as they did, Andie’s heart thumped madly. Never in her wildest fantasies could she have imagined this. “That’s…I’ve never done anything on that scale, with that many big set pieces. The budget must be way beyond anything I’ve ever worked with. I don’t know if I could do that.”
The men looked at one another, her dad smirking. “That’s what I said when I signed on for War Stories. Right?”
“And we won an Oscar for it. Close your mouth, kid. You look like a goldfish.”
“I’m just a little shocked. You don’t usually get handed a big movie like this when your last one bombed.”
“You made one bomb, so what? Who hasn’t? This will help you get back on your feet. And you can learn some new skills. You’ve always made great use of your budgets. This won’t be any different.”
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you thinking of me for this, Dad, but I need a minute. This would be a lot to take on.”
“We don’t have a minute. We don’t want to let it go, but we don’t want to hire one of those music-video directors who’ll make it look like every other action movie. We want someone with a vision,” Ben said.
Andie’s mind raced, the possibilities taking hold. The script was excellent and while reading it, she’d visualized whole sequences, clear as a bell. She never thought she’d have the opportunity to make those images a reality.
“We’ll be there to help, and there would be a fantastic team around you. We’ve already cleared it with the studio. We rewatched all four of your features, and we know you can do it,” Doug said, looking her dead in the eye.
That was all it took. If they believed that she could do it, then she had to. She couldn’t afford to sit around and wait for her confidence to come back. She had to build it up again, brick by brick. She’d be crazy to turn this down, anyway. They must have lobbied the studio so hard to get the green light to hire her.
She took a deep breath, then stood and shook their hands, Ben slapping her on the back.
“This is going to be amazing. Doug would have done a stellar job, but this feels like destiny. And your sister has a part too.”
“I know. It’s hard to believe Cary and I have never worked together before. That’ll be fun.”
“You’ll have a blast. A real family affair, this picture. Plus, it’s going to be great to have a woman directing.”
“You’re good with actresses,” Doug added.
Andie flushed with pride. From him, compliments were rare.
“Wait, who do you like for the lead?” she asked, sure that the role hadn’t been cast. She would’ve heard about it, but they must be close. Her older sister was formally offered her role weeks ago.
A top part for a woman in an action film was unheard of. Actresses were starved for good roles, so it was heavily sought after. With their budget, they could have their pick.
“We’re about to lock down our leading lady. They’re calling her agent this afternoon to offer her the part,” Ben said, reaching down to his briefcase then sliding a glossy headshot across the table.
She studied the face smiling back at her. Everyone knew who Skye Buckley was. There was no need to show her the picture, but Ben could be theatrical when he wanted to get his point across. He was encouraging Andie to look at that face and see Skye as her lead.
She ran a hand through her hair, trying to not react too strongly. But really, were they kidding with this? “It’s such an interesting choice.”
“When she came in to read, she blew us away. We weren’t expecting it. We had her in a few times after that, and she knocked our socks off every single time. And that face? Tremendous.”
Andie stared at the picture again. Blond hair, soulful blue eyes, and a quality that was hard to put your finger on. Skye Buckley glowed. Her eyes and lips stood out, her features unique and exciting.
It added up to breathtaking beauty, but she didn’t fit the vision of the Dr. Jessica Foster that had already formed in her mind. It was too important to keep quiet about. She pushed the picture back across the table.
“I just don’t see it. Can we consider other options?”
Another one of those private looks passed between the two men. It was starting to irritate her.
“If you’d been in the room when she came in, you’d be on board. We’ll set up a meeting with the two of you, and you’ll see,” Ben said, waving a hand.
“You guys know what you’re doing, and if you saw something special, I’m sure she is. I’d still like to look at some other actresses.”
“Trust us. You’ll see,” Doug said.
He nodded once and went back to his steak, signaling that the matter was closed.
After the meeting, Andie drove to her big sister’s house in Malibu, singing along to the radio all the way. She loved this crazy-ass industry, how you could wake up at the bottom of the heap and be back on top by the afternoon. This movie would open so many doors and restore her reputation.
It would be like the last miserable few years never happened.
She pulled up at Cary’s triple-story place, set back from the beach and surrounded by palms. Andie jumped out of her car and waved up to her. Cary stood barefoot on her deck in her silk paisley robe. Her dark hair was as hard to tame as Andie’s, and it blew around her face in the wind.
“I have big news,” announced Andie.
“Come on up. I’m having breakfast.”
Unless she was working, Cary never went to bed before midnight. She’d probably been up half the night with her musician neighbors. Andie went in through the unlocked front door, and by the time she got to the deck, a cup of coffee awaited her. A half-eaten croissant and a grapefruit sat on the table.
They hugged hello, and Andie sat down, sipping her drink.
“Well, I thought I was the dramatic one, but you’re really milking the suspense. Aren’t you going to tell me your big news?”
“I’m still trying to get used to it, myself. I just had a meeting with Dad and Ben. They’ve offered me Creature Island.”
“You’re directing it?” Cary jumped up and hugged Andie again, coffee sloshing over the side of her cup. “Oops, sorry. I just can’t believe it. Honey, I’m so happy for you. I’ve been worried about you. You’re the type of person that needs to be working. You go a little nuts if you’re not, like me.”
“I know. And I needed something to get me out of my slump. I almost feel guilty about getting handed a dream job on a silver platter like this. I didn’t even have to pitch for it. They’re really saving my ass,” she said, grabbing the pastry from the table.
“Don’t feel guilty. You’ll have to work that ass off. You’ve been brought on very late in the game. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
“I know. It’ll be crazy. I’ve got a list of meetings a mile long.”
“Dad gave me a heads-up that he might be changing his mind about directing it, but I didn’t see this coming,” said Cary. “I’m so happy we get to work together. And this means you’re going to be working with Ben, huh?”
“The one and only. And Dad’s coproducing.”
“What does that mean? Spit it out.”
“Nothing, just that they can be a pair of control freaks, especially when you put them together. I hope you’re ready for that. I bet they’ve negotiated to have final cut with the studio already.”
“Of course,” Andie replied.
It was an afterthought, discussed with Ben and Doug over coffee when they were done with their meal. A director in Andie’s position didn’t stand a chance of determining which version of the film would make it to theaters. Ben and Doug had developed it and brought it to the studio, and the executives held the purse strings. Only directors who’d proven their money-making credentials, like Spielberg, had the authority to take on final cut responsibility.
“Color me totally unsurprised that they made that clear to you from the jump,” Cary said.
“There’ll be friction, but I can live with it. We’ve had our first creative difference already.”
“You’re kidding, already? What is it?” she asked, picking up the pot to refill their cups.
“They want Skye Buckley for the lead. They’re offering it to her today.”
Cary stared past her as though trying to picture Skye in the part. “That’s a curveball.”
“That’s what I think.”
“It’s a great role,” she said, kicking the leg of Andie’s chair. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to start lobbying for it. I know I’m too old.”
Andie knew better than to say anything to an actress about her age. Cary had moved onto character parts in the last few years. In her last movie, she played the mother of an actor who was only a decade younger than her. It was one of the many reasons Andie was glad she’d been bitten by the directing bug instead of wanting to act.
Fifteen years separated her from her sister. They shared their father, but he’d married three women and had children with all of them. Their dad had fathered Cary with his first wife when he was barely out of film school, and Andie with the second.
“You’re right. It is a spectacular part. I guess Skye Buckley is a decent actress, but she doesn’t have the chops. And she’s not tough enough.”
“I know what you mean. I’ve only ever seen her in romantic comedies. And all those ’80s teen movies, of course. Has she ever done a drama or an action film?”
“Not that I know of. I don’t really want my movie to be the one where she’s trying to transition into roles with more gravity.”
“I wonder why they think she’s a good fit?”
“They said she gave a great audition. Maybe she did, but it doesn’t mean she can carry a movie like this. It’s one of those ideas they’ve fallen in love with, though. What do you think I should do?”
Cary set her cup down on the table and stretched her arms over her head. “I think you should put your foot down. You’re the director now. It’s your movie, even if technically they’re the bosses. Don’t back down just because they offered you the job. You’re not some random director for hire.”
Cary’s advice confirmed what Andie had been thinking. If she gave in too quickly on this, they would think they could tell her what to do about everything else. She was more than grateful to them, but she didn’t want to be anyone’s puppet. She had to wield at least some influence.
“You’re right. Fuck it. Can I use your phone?”
Andie went into the kitchen, where a phone sat on the counter. She went through the address book she kept in her bag until she found her casting director’s number. They could throw a few ideas around, and she trusted Ellen’s opinion. Once they’d worked out some strong possibilities, she could go back to her dad and Ben and tell them there was a change of plan.
After she dialed, she stared out the window, thinking about Skye Buckley. She could be being offered the role right now.
It didn’t matter. Until she signed on the dotted line, Andie had time to put a stop to the deal.
It wasn’t personal. It was just how things worked.