This week’s question is from reader Erik Helin:
Recently I found myself on Sam Shepard’s Wikipedia page, which is full of fascinating footnotes and accomplishments. As I read it I thought, this guy has/had a pretty great life, drifting through scenes that a lot of people fetishize, doing cool stuff in just about every decade. What famous person’s life would you want based on time, place, accomplishments, etc.?
I don’t know if this is necessarily owing to “time, place, or accomplishments,” but I would love to be Kanye West. Not for any of the surface reasons like the money or the fame or the beautiful wife. Not because I want to have been responsible for some of my favorite songs of the last 10 years. Not even in an effort to be happy—because I don’t think, on the whole, that Kanye West is an especially happy person. But Kanye is the man of the 21st century, the guy with the “equation of the zeitgeist,” as he put it in a recent interview. A man who calls himself a genius, and then, when the entire world makes fun of him for it, just goes right on calling himself a genius. You can decry it as arrogance, but if you did, he’d likely ask you what the benefit is to being humble. Simultaneously brash and introspective, thoughtful and deeply immature, Kanye West seems to be living his life a hell of a lot harder than I’m living mine. I want in.
Since I’m mostly interested in the opportunities and experiences afforded by the body-swap scenario, let’s choose someone who has had crazy experiences with just about everyone interesting: Lorne Michaels. The SNL Svengali built a comedy empire, and in doing so, attained a rare position of celebrity, in which basically every famous person of note over the past 40 years befriended him at some point. He’s had lost weekends with Paul McCartney, Caribbean vacations with Eddie Murphy, all-night conversations with Patti Smith… If you want to hang with someone incredibly talented and/or notorious, Michaels probably already has. Plus, he has largely stayed out of the press, and seems to value the cocoon of privacy he’s made of his career and personal life, so you wouldn’t be in the spotlight. Also, going to work every day with John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, on down through the years to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler? Live from New York, it’s an awesome life.
The problem with switching lives with a celebrity is I’m looking to achieve greater peace in my life. And contentment appears to be an elusive quality among the famous. The stories that make the most intriguing narrative hooks rarely come from a place of grounded self-actualization. As much as I love thinking about Gibby Haines of the Butthole Surfers naked and avoiding the police at a Swedish music festival by yelling, “I’m allergic to pain!,” that’s not what I really want for my life. But if switching lives with a celebrity is to embrace the sturm und drang of a tumultuous lifestyle, I’d have to pick Carrie Fisher. She’s funny, she’s smart, and she’s Princess Leia. She’s the daughter of celebrity royalty that defined old-school Hollywood, whose breakout role was in Star Wars, which began a new era of blockbuster cinema. This transition between generations is exemplified by a famous phone call Fisher had with Cary Grant, who warned her against not taking so much acid. Fisher, a fantastic writer, has devoted at least one memoir to her struggle with mental health and substance abuse, as plenty of the latter occurred during the filming of A New Hope. While my current drug lifestyle of a glass of wine and Advil makes wandering the Death Star in a cocaine haze seem extremely intense, sneaking behind an X-Wing to smoke some of Harrison Ford’s weed sounds pretty chill. Mark Hamill can come to if he can just be cool.
Look, I think we all know what the “correct” answer is here: Tom Hanks. Sure, you’d have to deal with that one son that no one (besides his family) seems to sympathize with all that much, but that career! That sense of humor! The seemingly limitless ability to get a table anywhere and a seat on any talk show! Dude’s legit, coming up from selling hot dogs at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to doing local theater to plugging away on silly sitcoms, and now he gets to punch his own ticket in whatever he does. And because he’s Tom Hanks, we love him for it. He could be a guest on The Price Is Right, and we wouldn’t think it was weird or below him. We’d be like “Hey, that Tom Hanks is pretty funny. That’s a guy with a sense of humor about himself and a real zest, a real joie de vive.” And, frankly, that’s the life I want to live.
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be Jack Nicholson. Seeing The Shining for the first time around 7 or 8 years old, I first took appreciation for the acting craft as well as being completely transfixed by a performance. From there I was hooked, not just by his immersion in roles but the entire persona: The shades, the eyebrows, the floor seats at Lakers games. He’s the ultimate Hollywood outsider, playing the game only when necessary. Every Nicholson decade is how I would have liked to experience Hollywood. Starting with the early Corman B-movies, Nicholson seems to have packed the most fun into every important time period, balancing the fine line between hard living while retaining sanity and work ethic. I want to take an easy ride through the late ’60s. I dream about Cuckoo Nest immersion and Oscar gold. Ultimately, beyond the fame, beautiful women, and untold riches, he seems to have always maintained his sense of humor and yen for good natured, bad boy mischief. That’s my American dream.
If I’m going to switch places with a celebrity, I’d want to be a beloved one. And it’s hard to think of a more likeable Hollywood figure than Guillermo Del Toro. That man is just a goddamn delight, whether he’s sharing his ghost stories or calling himself a “weird strange fat motherfucker.” Plus he’s settled into a pretty sweet career pattern in which he alternates his own dark fantasy films with Hollywood action blockbusters that still clearly have his stamp on them. And throughout it all, Del Toro has maintained a perspective on art that’s intellectual without being self-serious. I’d love to spend my days dreaming up weird fantasy imagery, writing cool female leads, and bro-ing out with Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Oh, and hanging out in the second home he’s filled with spooky memorabilia doesn’t sound too bad either.
I would like to trade lives with Tilda Swinton, ’cause girl don’t give a fuck, has never given a fuck, and will probably not give a fuck in the future. And that’s so insanely refreshing. She started as a weirdo punk muse for Derek Jarman, insuring that she would always be a footnote in film history, but then became the unlikeliest of mainstream players: This summer, she was in a top grossing blockbuster, and she earned her Oscar playing against George Clooney. She walks down the red carpet in whatever the hell she wants, appearing like a glorious David Bowie space alien love child, and consistently looks fantastic in pieces that would make anyone else look like an asshole. She’s also incredibly frank in the press, discussing her open relationships with abandon and, once again, giving not a fuck. But above all, she’s a great actress,with strong personality off the screen who completely disappears into roles. How many people left Trainwreck having no idea that they just watched Tilda Swinton? She has an enviable career where she takes the roles she wants, not the ones she has to. If she felt the need to be a Philadelphia-based journalist for awhile (she’d probably be better at that than me, too) I’d be happy to trade places with her.
How cool would it be to have all of Mary Woronov’s memories? She was a central figure in Andy Warhol’s Factory. She was entrenched in the L.A. punk scene (appearing in the Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” video). She was a staple in Roger Corman films like Death Race 2000 before shifting over to Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul. (She asserts that she later turned down the role of Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager alongside Raoul co-star Robert Beltran.) Rock ’N’ Roll High School! Chopping Mall! Heartbeeps! A painter, author, and all-around unaffected badass in her 70s, being in Woronov’s shoes seems like a life well and weirdly lived.
There’s an old saw that comedians all secretly want to be rock stars, and rock musicians want to be comedians. So I feel like it would be a terrific experience to be one of the only people who’s succeeded at both—Carrie Brownstein. After recording numerous life-changing albums with Sleater-Kinney, the band took a break, and within a few years Brownstein co-created Portlandia with BFF Fred Armisen. Then Sleater-Kinney picked up again without missing a step, so now she’s splitting time between what seems like two insanely fun jobs, each beloved by millions, in a veritable chocolate-and-peanut-butter of wish fulfillment. As a bonus, she seems to have had neither the hardscrabble upbringing of most of my musical heroes, or the crippling insecurity that seems to be a prerequisite for a career in comedy.
Honestly, my main priority in life is to live a long time, and, secondarily, writing. So any professional writer who lived to 100 or so would be fine for a life-swap. That said, and with the jury still out on the crucial length of his life, it seems like it would be pretty fun to be Bill Hader. He worked on SNL for a bunch of years, which has always struck me as a fascinating dream job in a field where I have no talent. Since leaving the show, he’s worked on a bunch of cool movies, and he’s apparently a huge movie buff and something of a comics nerd. What I might actually be saying is that Bill Hader seems like he would be really fun to hang out with, but if taking his career meant that I’d also gain a hilarious impression of Jabba The Hutt dying, sounds good to me.