They think I’m a sports guy. The casting agency for extras that I recently joined. Background performer, rather. If you care about labels, which I do not. They can call me cardboard prop person number 113 and I wouldn’t mind at all. As long as they pay me, and feed me something healthy.
In the registration photo I paid them thirty dollars to take, I am wearing what I thought would look hip and trendy. (That’s a category they use when booking work. Hip and trendy, upscale professional, midwest small town…) Instead, it looks like I’m hitting the clubs. The shirt is black with vertical stripes in a contrasting black. It has a slight sheen to every other stripe, which does not work well with a white background and a flash. Too shiny. Also, I thought the photographer was a jerk, and I’ve never been able to disguise my thoughts. So, the expression on my face is that of an aristocratic French stereotype. Sneering into the camera. “Stupid Americans, zey are so bourgeois…”
At least that was my appraisal of the unflattering photo. An appraisal which is apparently not shared by the agency. To them, I’m a sports guy. Maybe the striped shirt reads like a soccer jersey, and my French mien makes me look European enough to be castable in the recently discovered market for world cup followers.
Bit puzzling, that. All this fervor for a sport which has previously never warranted even a passing mention by the overly animated six o’clock news sports anchor.
So, now I find myself working as a sports fan type with two hundred other sports fan types on a commercial for a sports cable network. At a sports stadium. An outdoor sports stadium. Dressed in layers of fleece and down. Scarf and gloves. A winter scene. In July. During a heat wave.
Background work entails a lot of waiting around in a holding area, so I am always prepared with a good book with which to pass the time, as well as to avoid unwanted discourse with the often off-balance types who work as extras. Background performers. Cardboard prop persons.
It’s always fascinating (and often puzzling) to make a studied appraisal of the people in the holding area. A holding area which, in this particular case, was air conditioned to a ridiculous extent, making me grateful for my layers of fleece and down. I normally try to find a quiet place away from the crowd. There’s me, sitting in what I thought would be an uninhabited area along the wall. Shivering over my book. Bundled up for the next ice age. Naturally, it did not take long before I was surrounded by other background people, all of whom had the same idea. Or, perhaps they were huddling together for warmth?
Glancing around the room, with my scarf up around my ears, I had no trouble picking out the off-balance ones. The ones with no sense of awareness. Look, there’s the guy dribbling a basketball. That’s right, a basketball. In a crowded room full of people, some of whom might want peace and quiet, and who would perceive the repetitive noise from the bouncing ball echoing off the walls as something along the lines of Chinese water torture. Nevertheless, he keeps bouncing his ball, completely ignorant of the space around him.
There’s the tie dye green haired hippie from the sixties with a child in a stroller. I’m not kidding. A child young enough to be in a stroller. Dragged along for a twelve hour workday. I’d love to hear the conversation with the child’s mother the next day.
There’s the guy playing music. Invariably, it would have to be rap. Collecting daggers from the eyes of the ladies seated nearby. None of whom are willing to be labeled a bitch for telling the guy to turn it off. He actually seems to think he is doing everyone a favor by sharing his musical taste with the entire room. In this day and age of technological wizardry, how is it possible this guy does not have earphones?
There’s the girl who is taking out her mirror and her make-up kit and undoing the period hairstyle the professional Hollywood hairstylist has just given her. She nonchalantly returns her hair to its customary state. Then she applies a thick layer of street-walker black liner to her eyes. As if the professional Hollywood makeup artist who just did her face will not notice this change?
There are the junk food obsessed ones. Constantly eating from the little snack station commonly referred to as the craft service. They are surrounded by the remnants of their junk food binging. Junk food eaters and litterers usually come from the same pool of individuals. Wrappers and containers are scattered about them. Carelessly tossed on the floor, and you can be sure that’s where they’ll remain after the junk food people have gone.
Then there are the loudmouthed non-stop talkers. Perhaps the worst of all. There are always more than one of those, and they always find each other. They cluster together and immediately begin jabbering away at full volume. The conversation is always the same. At the risk of sounding judgmental, these people are never bright. Those of us within earshot (unfortunately, that usually means those of us not down the hall on the other side of a wall with a sound proof door carefully sealed shut) are never treated to a glowing discourse on Quantum Mechanics, or an in-depth analysis of the First Folio of Shakespeare. No. Instead, we hear all about how this or that famous director was so taken by the mere sight of this or that cardboard prop background person, that he or she was immediately promoted to principle status and given a scene with the leading man or lady.
The big time famous celebrity playing the leading man or lady is so impressed with this cardboard prop background person that they ask him or her for advice on how to play the scene. The director, producer, or sometimes the head of the motion picture studio comments on what a valuable asset the cardboard prop background person has been to the entire project. The scene, unfortunately, was cut in post production…
That is not to say celebrities cannot show remarkable courtesy to the background. On one set, I spent an enjoyable evening in a small cargo plane crouching next to a young man I did not even know was famous. He was in the picture, that was obvious, but from the way he was joking with the six background actors, I thought he was just a regular struggling actor who happened to land a role in a movie. It was only when I got home and did a little online research that I learned his name is Thomas Dekker and he is already a star.
It is also not to say that conversation with other background performers should be avoided. There is a big difference between the jarring din of the loud non stop talkers who cluster and the fascinating, quiet, one on one conversations which can be had with the person sitting next to you over in the corner. Braced against the air conditioned frost.
On this shoot at the sports arena, I wound up spending most of the day talking with a sweet natured guy from the Bible belt. He was intelligent, unassuming, and an excellent conversationalist. He asked politely if he could vent about the problems he was having at the restaurant where he worked. I was happy to listen. Sometimes, you find yourself sitting next to your future friends.
Back in the stadium, under the glaring sun and still dressed for winter, we continued our conversation in hushed voices, so as not to be blamed for the racket some of the background performers were making in between takes. It’s amazing how the level of noise grows whenever a crowd of people is gathered. No matter how many times the PA with the headset shouts to keep it down, it seems impossible to control.
Later, as we were losing the light, they turned on the snow machines. Suddenly, the magic of movie making took over. We were transported to Chicago or Philadelphia or some other wintry place back East. In this one section of the stands, doing our best to pretend we cared about whatever sporting event we were supposed to be watching, my friend for the day and I realized we were having fun.