In the Background

They make you sign a confidentiality agreement now. Even for background work. Many of the tv shows currently filming are worried about plot points being leaked online before the episodes air. Hard to blame them. With everyone carrying around smart phones which allow a person to clandestinely record entire scenes, take photos of the sets and send instant messages out into the blogosphere, it does seem as if there is no other way to protect an intellectual property.

With that in mind, I will try to write about a series of events which took place on the set of one of these shows while I was working background, without revealing any details. It’s a show that has hired me four times in the past couple of months. I’m usually just a guy walking through a park, or sitting at the bar in a club, or waiting in a lobby.

I’ve enjoyed being on this particular set each of the four times. They treat the background actors well, the show is funny, and it feels nice to work on the set of a successful sitcom at a time when television is drowning in reality programming.

One of the actors is a famous heartthrob from the 1980s. I’ve had the chance to stand next to him several times. It’s a bit odd to see a big movie star up close. His face was plastered all over the newsstands in the supermarket where I worked as a teenager myself. Now here he is, in person. He still looks good. If he had any of the drug and alcohol problems most teen stars have had, there is no trace of it on his face. He appears much younger than I know him to be. Fit, healthy, attractive. Good for him.

The fourth of my days working on this show was the most interesting. It began with a ride in the van heading from the holding area to the set. There were too many of us to fit on the bus, so four or five of us were kept behind to ride with some of the crew in a smaller passenger van. It gave me a wonderful chance to listen in on their shop talk.

All the workshops I’ve taken and all the knowledge I’ve managed to accumulate over the years are really worth very little when compared to hearing industry people speak candidly with other industry people. There is no effort to candy coat or shield or sell. They are simply talking about what they know with people who know the same things. Sharing information about the shows they are working on right now, and the backstage goings on at the various studios.  It was fascinating.

At least it was to me. I cannot imagine how it could not have been equally fascinating to the other background actors fortunate enough to be in that van, but one guy somehow managed not to pay attention, and did his best to distract. He was jabbering away loudly into his cell phone. Speaking in full voice, with no apparent awareness that there were others present. Worse yet, it became clear that this background actor was a talent manager, or at least he was presenting himself as one. There he sat in the back of the van, spouting off nonsense to his client on the other end of the phone call. Talking through his hat, pretending to be more important than he was, all the while surrounded by production assistants working on a hit tv show!

It says so much about LA. Shady managers who are really only background performers with a cell phone and a loud mouth.

The main scene being filmed took place in a meeting hall. We were townsfolk gathered to discuss a matter of local interest. Scattered in and among the background were actors who had been cast to play bit parts in this one scene. It was encouraging to see actors like me, who were probably thrilled to be called in to read for those roles. With only one glaring exception, each of these actors had been perfectly cast. They were exactly what was required. It provided hope that there really is work for unknown actors. That writers do indeed create scenes with smaller characters, and that it’s just a matter of time before I am the one who is just right for that walk-on role.

It was nice to watch these actors do a good job. I was cheering for them, and was happy for each one.

(The exception, by the way, was a blonde who was positioned in the center of the front row. Clearly not an actress, she read her lines adequately, but it was fairly obvious that she was someone’s girlfriend who wanted to be on the show.)

What was most impressive was the behavior of the leading lady. A comedienne who used to be on one of those sketch comedy shows. I had not really been a fan of hers, but certainly am now. She was so generous with every actor who stood to deliver their lines to her. She played the person running the meeting, and gave her full attention to each unknown actor.

One lady, talented and funny herself, got nervous when it was her time to stand up and perform in front of celebrities and producers, and who can blame her? It can be an unsettling thing in the first few moments. She accidentally stepped on the lines of the leading actress, who did not even blink. She carried on as if nothing had happened and kept looking right into the lady’s eyes. When the director asked this unknown actress to improvise some dialogue, the leading lady played right along, treating her as a complete equal.

The funniest moment in the scene involved an elderly gentleman who was given the two funniest lines. In fact, we all ruined the first take by laughing out loud, it was that funny. He was so perfect, this old fellow.

After that funny first take, the director or writer or someone approached him with a slip of paper and explained that they would shoot this new bit of dialogue later on. This was badly timed. The guy should have waited until after the older actor had finished his scene. It was very clear in the next few takes that he had been thrown off by looking at the new lines. He kept messing up his original two lines.

We could all feel his frustration, and his fear that people might think him senile, and I (for one) was furious with the director or writer or whoever it was who handed him that slip of paper. This older actor was trying so hard, and had been so funny, and we could all see that he had it in him to get it right.

Then the director asked if he needed a minute to go over his lines. Before he could answer, the leading actress spoke up and joked that she could use that minute herself, as she wasn’t sure of her lines either. Exactly the right thing to say, since it took all the pressure off the old guy. Now, everyone was looking at her instead of him, pulling out her script and quickly studying her lines (which she most likely knew.) It was such a graceful thing to do, and make me like her very much.

Aside from what I learned watching these actors work, there were two things I noticed about the other people working background. Well, maybe more than just that. About people in general.

The first had to do with these single-serving-sized water bottles which were handed out during breaks. As an environmentally aware person, I cannot imagine how anyone could even consider wasting that much plastic for so small an amount of water. I have always known that my beliefs and my politics are not commonly shared, but this makes no sense to me at all. If I can sit for a couple hours without drinking or eating, then why can’t others? Why are all these people so quick to snatch up an environmentally unfriendly container of overpriced water? If they really cannot bear to go without hydration for such an unreasonable period of time, then why didn’t they bring along a travel mug, which they can use for years, and which will save them from having to add countless plastic bottles to the already unforgivable amount of trash we as a society produce every day?

How is this not common knowledge?

The other thing I noticed was perhaps even more puzzling. A rather large cockroach had crawled under the rows of chairs. The girl sitting next to me was the first to notice it. We were seated in the back. She reacted by pulling up her feet and pointing without words.

During the next take, with the cameras rolling, the rather large cockroach had made its way to the center of the chairs and was detected by several girls. Several screaming frantically girls. Girls screaming so loudly, and with such drama, that the crew did not even try to maintain order. They stood bemused, wondering what was going on.

It wasn’t long before it was understood that a cockroach was crawling around on the floor. Sure enough, and it would have to be a guy with muscles who was the one to do it, some big lug jumped out of his seat with glee and stomped on the poor cockroach.

What was most disturbing was what happened next. The room full of background performers cheered. Cheered. Applauded. An innocent creature was mindlessly killed and everyone cheered.

Another instance of my beliefs and my politics not being commonly shared. How do we even begin to try to solve major problems in this world when we are still a people who think nothing of killing? Worse than that, we actually cheer? How does that insect not have a right to be where it was? Why was the impulse of the muscle headed guy who leapt out of his seat not to save it and carry it outside? Would that not have provided as much glee? Would he not be viewed as more of a hero for saving the innocent life, rather than ending it?

How is that not common knowledge?

Other that those two asides, working on that show was a pleasure. Even if I was just a guy at at town meeting, sitting in the back row.


About anunperfectactor

Actor performer storyteller.
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