My career started exactly 20 years ago when I was cast in a pilot for Fox called “The 3rd Degree” with Jensen Ackles and Maggie Lawson. I was almost two years out of college and living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn where I had a unique view of the Twin Towers from my rooftop.
In that pilot, our characters were students at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice and we solved crimes in between classes. It was pitched as “CSI” meets “Scooby Doo.” One scene took place in the six acre plaza of the World Trade Center. The camera focused on the top floors of the South Tower and slowly panned down the face of the building to find us sitting on the Cloud Fortress sculpture by Masayuki Nagare. After work, we went to the top of the South Tower, enjoyed the view and talked about what it’d be like to be stuck on the roof in the case of a fire. We wondered aloud if we could jump across to the North Tower and survive. That was March of 2001. I moved to L.A. on July 4, 2001.
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On Sept. 11, 2001 I actually had two auditions. One was for “Angel,” starring David Boreanaz, and the other was for a show called “That’s Life” created by Diane Ruggiero. I auditioned for both that day and they became the first two jobs I booked in Los Angeles. My career as an L.A. actor officially began on 9/11.
I remember waking up to a phone call from my mom, urging me to turn on the TV. I watched as the second plane crashed into the South Tower through static on CBS. I knew in my gut America was being attacked. I was alone in my apartment on Kling Street in Burbank. Zero planes were flying. I took note of this because my proximity to the Bob Hope Airport meant there was always lots of air traffic. My next stop was my girlfriend’s house; she had cable news on, and it was chaos. I remember Disneyland and some Hollywood studios were fearful of being targeted. I called my agents about whether or not I should go [to the auditions] and they told me I should.
I hopped into my car and turned on NPR and headed towards the Westside. I remember being calmed by the way NPR covered the events as they unfolded — the Pentagon, the plane downed in Somerset County, Penn. By then the Towers had already collapsed. I rolled up to the studio where they filmed “Buffy” and “Angel” in Santa Monica and the casting office was quiet. I wasn’t the only actor there [but] no one knew how to proceed; the day was still in half-motion.
Later, after I learned that I booked the job, I compared my audition to a scene I did in college when I was sick with the flu. In both cases I was so blown asunder that there was only room for the truth, no actorly trickery.
That afternoon I made my way back to the valley to read for a role in “That’s Life” featuring the legendary Ellen Burstyn, Paul Sorvino, Debi Mazar and Heather Dubrow. I later learned that Kevin Dillon, who played Heather’s brother on the show, lost 12 friends on 9/11 — all firefighters. When I got back to Burbank in the afternoon, I looked down Riverside Drive towards Glendale and saw a huge cumulous cloud billowing in the plane-less sky. It looked like the smoke from an explosion. For a moment I was convinced it was.
The events of that day tore open an inter dimensional veil and a new kind of evil entered our world. The 24-hour news cycle, a 20-year war, an opioid crisis, mass shootings which have become normal, riots, race wars, political division, COVID-19. The attack was successful. It’s as if the Twin Towers were the first dominos to fall in a 20 year long chain reaction.
The horror, grief, anger and solemnity we felt are as strong today as they were on that day, but the feeling I miss is the unity we experienced as Americans, for a time, following the day the world stood still.
Kristoffer Polaha is an actor and author, best known for roles in “America’s Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story,” “North Shore,” “Life Unexpected,” “Wonder Woman 1984” and Hallmark’s “Mystery 101” series. He can be seen next in “Jurassic World: Dominion.”
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