At the costume fitting, I discovered I was to be wearing what amounted to little more than a long scarf. A strip of flimsy fabric reaching mid-calf, with an opening at the neck. Nothing on the sides. No sleeves. No socks. Leather sandals. I was not comfortable wearing something so revealing, but as I walked to my car that day, I thought “At least the job will be indoors. They wouldn’t expect us to work outside in February wearing such skimpy costumes.”
I was wrong. Not only would this commercial be filming outdoors, but the holding area was also outdoors. When I showed up for the five AM call, I was shocked to see chairs set up under folding canopies. Not even tents. According to my smart phone, the temperature was 37 degrees. It would hit 60 during the afternoon, but that was hours away, and it was sure to be a long day of shooting.
What was puzzling was that we were on a studio lot. Within walking distance of an airplane hangar sized soundstage. Lots of them, in fact. Why couldn’t they have put the holding area indoors, knowing how cold it was, how early the call was, and how we would all be dressed?
They rushed us through wardrobe, as they always do, as if they needed us on set immediately. Which never happens. Four hours later, we were still huddled, shivering on plastic folding chairs, blowing into cups of hot tea for the illusion of warmth. Not only that, but they did not have breakfast for us. On a morning call, they normally give you something hot to eat. Most production companies are pretty good about that. Sometimes, however, you get boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and little else. This was one of those times.
I’ve never understood the allure of the Krispy Kreme. There is nothing of nutritional value in that box, and quite a lot that is not good for you. So, naturally, everyone loves them. Except me. I bundled myself in my winter coat and woolen socks and hunted out the crew craft service, where there was an impressive breakfast spread. I kept my head down while filling a plate with piping hot, healthy food. No one said a word. Maybe I was the only one to think of that, or maybe the caterer had sympathy for the poor extras who were certainly freezing in the chilly morning.
When we finally starting working, there were flaming torches placed randomly around the set. They were powered by gas, and were turned on when the cameras rolled. It was a large street market scene, so I positioned myself deep in the background, under one of the flaming torches. We were told we could not have our coats on set, and I was not about to freeze for twelve hours. I decided my character was interested in the carpets on display in one of the nearby booths, and hovered beneath the blessed torch, doing my best to keep warm.
At one point later in the day, I was plucked out of the crowd and told to stand at the top of the steps which led to a large, official looking building. I wasn’t sure why I was supposed to stand there, since I was all by myself. It must have looked strange to have one guy standing all alone on top of the steps. Which looked familiar. The steps. Where had I seen this before?
After a few minutes, I realized that Charlton Heston had stood right there for the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech when he played Marc Antony. This set was used in the film. I’ve played Marc Antony in a touring production of Julius Caesar, and remembered having to do that speech once on a local tv station during the morning weather report. Somewhere down South. It was surreal.
“It will be warm and sunny today, and now, here’s an actor doing a famous monologue from Shakespeare.”
So, standing on the same set as Charlton, I passed the time between takes trying to recall the speech. While working as an extra. On a commercial. More surreal.
The audition was for a big budget science fiction movie. Weeks of work dangling ahead. A bright orange carrot. In order to attend the open call, according to the casting notice, you had to register with the casting agency in advance. No problem. I had not heard of this particular agency, but with a little research, I learned that they have done a number of big budget films, and was happy to fill out the necessary information online.
The audition itself was at a charming little studio in Burbank. I was handed a form to fill out. With the same exact questions I had already answered online. So, I guess they were not enforcing the part of the casting notice which required advance registration. No problem. It cost me nothing to answer them again.
On a table by the sign-in sheet, there was a flyer advertising a one-week free membership. Membership where? Hadn’t I already registered? Was this studio connected in some way to the agency holding the audition? It seems the one-week free trial was for an online listing service for background. They charged a steep monthly fee. Strange. I approached the attractive girl who appeared to work for either one or the other company.
“Is this studio affiliated with the casting agency?”
“No, we’re just using this space for the audition.”
We’re? So she works for the casting agency, not the studio.
“Do you know anything about this free trial?”
“Would you like to sign up?”
“Well, I don’t know. What’s it for?”
As she outlines what the online service is about, she is filling out a form with my name and information, which she takes off the form I have submitted for the audition. I explain that I would rather take the flyer home and do a little research before signing up for anything, but she tells me she has already done it for me. She’s a bit pushy. Like a salesman.
“When you get home, just key in this password, create your profile, and you can start submitting yourself for jobs.”
So, wait, she does work for the studio. Now I’m confused. I ask again if there is a connection between the casting agency holding the audition and the studio offering the free trial. She tells me again that there is not. Although I am not happy about her signing me up so quickly, I remind myself that I am at an audition, and want to create a good impression. Besides, I can always delete the profile before the free trial is over. I am certainly not going to pay for this service. I shrug and smile politely while thanking her for her help.
When I get home, there are 26 spam emails in my inbox. Now, I never get spam in my email. I have a separate account which I use for online shopping, or whenever I suspect the email address I provide will be sold to spammers. Supermarket club cards. Group mailing lists. Any online interaction with commercial sites. The junk mail goes into that account. My real email address is only used for business or for personal correspondence. Twenty six spam emails never happens.
Incensed, I reply to each one, demanding that they remove my information from their databases. Then I block each address. Most of my emails come back undeliverable, but a few have links where I can unsubscribe. It takes me a few days of vigilance and tenacity, but I manage to get the spam down to three or four a day. I’ll keep at it until it stops entirely.
Two days go by before I get around to visiting the online listing site for background work. As the home page is loading, I gasp out loud. There are photos of four “Featured Actors” on the front page. One of them is me!
I am absolutely stunned. I have not given them permission to use my likeness on their site. They have not asked. Heck, I do not even have a profile there. They have used the photo from the audition. Not a professional headshot. Not a photo I have even seen until that moment. They have posted my legal name, instead of my stage name. (I use my legal name for background, so legitimate casting people don’t find out that I work as an extra.) What’s more, when you click on my unapproved photo, you are taken to a page where my email address and my phone number are published!
That explains the spam. I search the site for a way to delete my account, but cannot find that option. Instead, in the facts section, I read a lengthy explanation about how they don’t delete accounts, even after a person chooses to no longer use the site.
“How else are casting people supposed to find you?”
More like “How else are our advertisers supposed to find you?”
It turns out the woman who runs the casting agency also created the online background service. If nothing shady was taking place, why would the attractive girl lie to me? Why would they find it necessary to try to hook unsuspecting actors into paying for a service that is not needed in order to book the job?
I write them a very polite note, thanking them for the free trial, but explaining that I have decided not to fill out a profile after all. Could they please cancel my account? Then I snoop around the site. Using fictitious information to answer only the questions marked with a red star, I was granted enough access to remove the photo, phone number, and email address. So, now I appear on the site as Robert Grantham, residing at One Penny Lane in Newcastle.
As for the big budget movie, the calls have gone out for the costume fittings. I was not called. Perhaps my turning down the service has cost me the job, but there is no guarantee that they would have hired me anyway, and at least I avoided a potential scam.
The call was for five hundred extras. The scene takes place in a beautiful, old Vaudeville style theatre. Knowing that such a large call would involve a hectic sign-in process, I got there forty-five minutes early. On the shuttle from the parking lot to the set, there were a dozen others. Know who shows up forty-five minutes early? The blue hair set. Me and twelve elderly citizens, who mostly do background as an alternative to bingo.
They began yelling at us before we even got off the bus. The crew. Yelling. Okay, it was going to be a long day with a very large call, and they have been working on this film for weeks, so it is understandable that they might be burnt out and are anticipating some difficulties in dealing with so many extras. Still, do they need to start the day off by yelling at us? The ones who are forty-five minutes early and could be content to stay home watching The Golden Girls?
The bus pulled up too close to the curb. Not our fault. The PAs were not ready to sign us in. Not our fault. The line they asked us to form was going in the wrong direction. Not our fault. Why are they yelling?
An unhappy crew starts from the top and works its way down. It sets an unhappy tone across the board. Unfortunately, the background often bears the brunt of the bad moods, and the weary and over it workers.
Enter the wardrobe, hair and make-up people. None of them happy. None of them caring to speak politely. We have signed in at eight, but it is not yet seven-thirty. Even so, they herd us through with undisguised animosity. As if they are already behind schedule and cannot cope with any further annoyances.
A second bus load of background has joined us. Thirty or forty more theatre goers. The wardrobe lady yells at someone for not bringing the right clothes. The hair lady yells at an old man for not using hair spray. The makeup lady yells at a girl for not wearing makeup.
The girl says that she does not wear makeup in real life, so she did not wear makeup to the set. The girl is wrong.
The makeup lady explains that she is supposed to show up on set camera ready. The makeup lady is right.
What does not make sense is why she is yelling. Why she is rude. Why she has so much contempt directed toward the girl. Even if the girl is wrong.
Now, I have nothing to fear when approaching wardrobe, hair, or makeup. I am the guy who returns all his costumes on the hangers, exactly they way they were presented. I re-attach the tags, having saved them for that purpose. I pay attention to which of my clothes are preferred by costumers, and I bring those options the next time round. Wardrobe people can tell that I care. Same with the hair department. As for makeup, for heaven’s sake, I’m a professional clown! I’ve been doing my own makeup since the age of fourteen. When I talk to these artists, I make sure to be polite and friendly, letting them know that I realize their job is to make me look good.
Having said as much, I was confident, even on this day with tempers flying about unchecked, that I could breeze through the various departments smiling and cheerful. That I could show them that I’m the guy who usually gets the gold star.
First up, wardrobe. She was a bit testy when she asked what else I had brought, but relaxed the moment she saw the purple button-down everyone always oohs and aahs over. Within three sentences, she was smiling and winking at me.
Next up, hair. She barely even glanced at me before pronouncing me perfect.
Finally, makeup. I was standing behind the girl who was not wearing any. I heard the entire exchange. This makeup lady was a heavyset older woman in a blue denim shirt. She wore glasses with one of those chains attached. She was not at all interested in being nice. In fact, she was extremely bitchy. When she finished yelling at the girl, she looked at me.
Then she looked at the guy next to me.
Then once more.
“You’re both fine.”
As we walked away, the guy laughed and joked that we had been spared the riot act. One of the blue haired ladies from the bus told us we had to go through hair as well. (Earlier, they were screaming at us about how we needed to make separate lines for hair and makeup.) I smiled and thanked her, but said that we had already been approved for both. We had.
Not five minutes later, as I was getting breakfast, the makeup lady came over and starting yelling at the people on the breakfast line. She accused us all of not having been approved by hair and makeup. She yelled at us that she was more important than breakfast. Those were her words. There was a PA standing opposite me. He asked if I had been approved. I smiled and said yes, I had.
The makeup lady yelled at me from about twenty feet away. “Have you been approved by hair and makeup?”
The PA was still standing right there. I was still smiling. “Yes, I have.” I had.
She yelled again “By BOTH hair AND makeup?”
I smiled and said “Yes.” It was true. I had.
She wasn’t giving up. “Were you approved by ME?”
Now I wasn’t sure. She seemed certain I hadn’t been. She was so insistent. Maybe I was wrong? Wouldn’t she remember if she approved me just minutes ago? I smiled and said I’d be happy to go through the line again.
She was not satisfied and kept yelling at me. From twenty feet away. With a PA standing there, now looking at me like I was some deadbeat extra who was stealing food from the breakfast table, even though I had signed in half an hour early and had followed all the rules and was still on my own time.
I quickly said ‘Okay, I’ll be right there.” Twice.
Not good enough for her. She glared at me like I was a criminal. I stashed away my breakfast in the trailer where I had found a seat in a quiet corner and hurried back to the hair and makeup lines, where I was instantly approved by the hair lady. Who had already approved me.
When I got to the makeup lady, she was ready with a lecture she had been preparing. She was up at arms and was determined to reprimand me for attempting to dodge her. Her snap judgment had been made. She was convinced she had been slighted and was talking down to me like I was a high school kid who had been caught skipping class. I immediately clicked into acquiescent mode, letting her know that I was on her side. That I agreed with her. That I was not the enemy she imagined me to be.
“I understand,” I kept repeating as she carped on and on about how hair and makeup are two different things. As if I was not a classically trained stage actor, who knew more about hair and makeup than most men.
“You DON’T understand,” she snapped, “or you would have known there were two separate lines for hair and makeup.”
When I started to speak, she yelled “Don’t interrupt me!”
Don’t interrupt me? Now I don’t even have the right to speak? This astonishingly rude lady was pushing buttons. I knew better than to react, but being accused of doing something wrong when I have not is a trigger point. So is being treated as if I am a youngster.
When I had a job in customer service and had to deal with irate people, I used to imagine a golden chalice in my heart chakra. I would picture golden light of pure love and compassion being poured from that chalice onto the hostile person. I would look at them with kindness and gentleness in my eyes. I would wish them well, giving them nothing to use to feed their anger.
Wanting to convince this woman that she did not need to spend so much energy being combative when I presented no threat, I instinctively reached out my hand and placed it on hers.
She stopped ranting at once, raised her eyebrows, and glowered at me. She looked down at my hand as if I had physically assaulted her. I took a step back right away, and accepted that there was no communicating with her. If this woman could not see me for who I am, then she was unbalanced. The only course of action was to smile and gaze lovingly at her while she continued to spew her bile at me. Outlast her. Stay centered until she was finished and then walk away.
Which is what I did, knowing that she had an unfair advantage. She could get me fired if I said or did anything to justify her ill formed impression of me. I won, by acknowledging that it was her problem and not mine, but the ordeal lent a miserable pallor to the long and unpleasant day.
It was only later that I remembered the confrontation she had with the girl who wore no makeup. The guy who joked that we had been spared the riot act. So I really had been approved. Twice. By the same nasty woman. She did not remember me, but that was not my fault. What is it in my nature that made me think she must be right? That I had been mistaken? Why was I so ready to accept that it was my error, when it was not?
As I sat in my quiet corner in the trailer, one of the PAs came in and yelled at those of us who had not worked the day before. Apparently, this trailer was only for people who had worked yesterday, not for the people who were new to this film. He shouted that we were supposed to be in trailers three, four, or five. Not in trailers one or two. This was trailer two, he yelled.
I turned to the pretty girl seated next to me. “Did he make that announcement earlier?”
She smiled sweetly. “No.”
“Then why is he yelling at us as if this is something we should already know?” Wouldn’t it be better to give us instructions first, before getting angry with us for not following directions we have not been given? More senseless anger. This was a very unhappy set.
By now, trailers three, four, and five were already filled. A little quick math proved why. Each trailer contained 80 seats, with room for 5 more along the end wall. That’s a total of 425 seats, meaning 75 of us had no where to go. Frustrated, people were taking chairs and sitting outside in the parking lot. A security man appeared, marching up and down, screaming at us like a drill sergeant. We were not allowed to sit in the parking lot, he bellowed.
This was to be a four-day call, but the instant one PA barked that there was little chance we would be recalled, I checked my email and saw that my favorite casting agency had a job for me the next day. I immediately called my service and said that I was unavailable for work the rest of the week. Then took the other job. There was no way I was coming back to this unhappy set.
When we got into the theatre, I made sure to sit in the back row. Well away from the cameras. I wanted there to be no chance of getting placed in a shot which would have to be matched on another day. In addition to the five hundred extras, there were a few hundred dummies arranged toward the back of the house. I found a seat among them, glad that I’ve never been one of those people who fidget. I can sit motionless for hours. As people walked by, they were startled to realize I was person and not a mannequin. Some of those startled people belonged to the unhappy crew. Lower members on the totem pole, with the same idea I had. Keep a low profile. Stay out of the line of fire. They came and sat among the dummies, too.
Shot after shot, I kept still. Safe in the back row of the beautiful old theatre. If the crew noticed at all, they let me be, and for that, I was grateful.
The sky was clear and bright blue. The weather perfect. The drive was long, but I was happy to be out of Los Angeles for a day. Somewhere green and hilly, peaceful and calm. The call was again at eight, and I was half an hour early. Good thing, too, because the parking had not been arranged properly.
We were filming at a very posh high school. Really more like a college campus. Orange cones had been placed along an entire street. For us. The only problem was that it was illegal to park before nine o’clock, and we were sure to be ticketed. No wrangler or PA had arrived to sign us in. The only person who was there seemed to be somebody’s mom. A soccer mom. The mother of one of the teenage actors? She had a list of names and phone numbers of the extras, but nothing else. No vouchers. No instructions.
It was decided we could park in the second level student lot, way up on the hill behind the school. Then wait for a shuttle to come and take us to holding. No problem. We were early, most of us, having anticipated a much longer commute with much heavier traffic. The drive was a breeze. Not to worry. Minor mistakes on the production side were easily overlooked on a day like today.
Two hours later, we were still in our cars. No word from production. Just our soccer mom with her list of forty names. All present and accounted for. After another half an hour, a lazy sort of careless guy showed up and delivered a half hearted sort of speech about how we were accidentally called at eight, instead of nine.
His exact words were, “I know some of you got here at eight… or whatever.”
Then he sort of apologized for the disorganization, citing a list of factors, including being short staffed. With regard to missing breakfast due to our having been forgotten up on this side of the mountain, he suggested that since he’d already apologized, we should “put the morning behind us and get over it.”
He assured us a shuttle was on its way. Then he disappeared. Another hour went by and the coffee drinkers in the bunch were noticeably on edge. The rest of us were not. We leisurely enjoyed the pastoral view. Not a bad deal at all, being paid to relax in the comfort of our heated cars, while admiring the scenery on such a beautiful day.
When the shuttles finally arrived to transport us to the set, it became obvious that we could have simply walked down a series of stairs, had we known which building was being used for the location. The coffee drinkers made a mad dash to the nearest pot of black liquid. I opted instead for the mango nectar, and filled my travel mug, moments before one of the crew brusquely closed the side of the craft service truck. Heaven forbid an extra should steal a glass of juice.
The holding area was outside, in the full sunlight. Even with sunscreen, I had no wish to spend hours sitting in the sun, so I found a place alongside the building, with a few feet of shade. About half an hour before lunch was to be served, we were informed that the crew needed to use these tables, so we would have to grab our things and move over to the set.
Out of nowhere, tents were erected over the tables where we had just been sitting. In the sun. Which means they had tents all along, but did not think it necessary to waste them on mere background players.
After the crew finished eating, we were allowed to get in line at the caterer’s truck. Lunch was half an hour. I was at the end of the line. By the time I got to the front of the line, we were called back to set. I had to wolf down the rice and veggies on my plate as I hustled over to the gymnasium, where we were playing sports fans at a college basketball game.
We only had the gym until two o’clock, and it was now half past twelve. Which meant there was no time to waste. Not to worry, the PA giving us directions was a firecracker. He was from Majorca, and he did look and sound rather like Rafael Nadal. His accent was charming, and his instructions to us were clear and concise. He said please and thank you. He gave cues along with hand signals. Unlike the rest of the production team, there was nothing vague or disorganized about him. He kept things moving smoothly, and we were wrapped at two on the dot.
Or at least the cameras were. The entire crew was out of there in minutes. As for us, we were left at the mercy of another clueless careless guy, perhaps the brother of the half hearted apology guy we met that morning on the mountainside.
Since we had not been signed in properly, vouchers were not prepared. Photos had not been taken. Now this inept fellow was sort of attempting to do all of that himself. He had us line up to take photos, but he only had a little digital camera, which must not have belonged to him. At least not for very long. Not long enough to learn how it works. He kept wandering away for several minutes at a time, without explanation. Battery not charged? Memory card full? Auto focus off? Who knows.
There was only one eraser board and only one marker, which was out of ink. Each person was to write their name and number on the board, before posing for their photo. One at a time. Slowly and slowly and… oops. There he goes, wandering off again.
When he reappears, he hands out a stack of vouchers to half the group, the ones who got tired of waiting on the pointless line and were now seated in the bleachers and laughing at the mindlessness. Others had picked up a basketball and were shooting hoops. The vouchers were not in order. Not only crumpled and messy, but also out of sequence. The papers were arranged neither alphabetically nor numerically. They were hurriedly tossed together, upside down, backwards, any which way.
We were told to find our vouchers and fill them in ourselves. Turns out, not surprisingly, that nothing had been done with them since we handed them in that morning. Which means no copies had been made. Which means we were not going to get a record of the day’s work. People began taking out their cell phones and snapping photos of the half finished vouchers. Just in case a paycheck fails to arrive….
Three o’clock rolls by. We were wrapped an hour ago, but are being held hostage by this fellow who is incapable of devising a proper procedure for signing out a mere forty people. Just as I began to feel sorry for him, (he is clearly overwhelmed,) his brother in apathy arrives from this morning, to lend a careless hand. He set up a second line, for those of us who made it past the photo fiasco and had found their crumpled voucher. He would tackle those while the first guy concentrated on figuring out the camera.
Somehow, the second line was moving even slower than the first. What could possibly be taking him so long to check off a couple of boxes on a single-page form? This really was a comedy. It was three thirty by the time I got out of there. Three and a half hours from arrival to signing in. An hour and a half from being wrapped to signing out. Luckily, it was a beautiful day, and the spot was idyllic. No one really seemed to mind very much at all.
Rush hour call in the heart of Hollywood, but I couldn’t be happier to be booked on the hospital show that I love. Not that I’ve ever seen it. I haven’t. What I love is working on that set. The people are nice. The background calls are usually small, and they treat us well.
When the PA sees me, she remembers my name from last week. She smiles and says good morning, glad you’re back. The wardrobe girl already knows which characters I am to play, and has my costumes ready. Today, I am in pink scrubs for the first scene in the baby ward. Then I change into a doctor for the rest of the day. The prop lady has a broad smile and an even broader accent. She’s a Brit, and I’ve always liked Brits. She shows me how to wear the gadgets a doctor carries around with him. I’m not often a doctor, so this should be fun.
The PA in charge of the extras is beaming. All the time. She clearly enjoys her job. There are only a handful of us, and she already knows our names. We are invited to eat breakfast with the crew. The spread is healthy, with plenty of options. Hot cereals, three versions of eggs, fresh fruit and berries, a juicing machine. No one is yelling at us. No one is shooing us. Everyone is in a good mood. They smile. They laugh easily. They speak softly.
One of the crew mentions that it will be a long day, owing to the three day weekend ahead. That’s fine with me. I’m glad for the overtime, and happy to be spending fourteen or fifteen hours on this job. The holding area is comfortable, usually a spot right on the set that’s not being used in a scene. I’ve brought a good book with which to pass the down time. The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama. Hoping to get lost in there.
The first scene I’m in takes place in the hallway outside the baby room. I’m to make a simple cross during the dialogue. It seems to have been decided in advance which background person will be used in which scene, which is unusual.
“I’m so glad they have you working with the babies,” the beaming PA confides. Meaning that a man is not the obvious choice.
“Me too.” I whisper that I have plenty of experience babysitting.
Since I am the only extra in this scene, I make sure to hit my marks perfectly on each take. I walk lightly. I hold the door as it closes, so it does not make a sound. I want them to see that even if I’m just in the background, I take the job seriously. I don’t say a word between takes. I stay focused and ready to go again until they move on to the next shot and send me back to holding.
Although we are technically on our own for lunch, which they call a walk-away, the beaming PA tells us there are some hot soups in the kitchen. We are welcome. There is also a seven layer chocolate mousse cake, which is getting a lot of attention from the crew. Most of them are joking how they really shouldn’t go near it. I have no reason at all to worry about calories, and help myself to a giant slab of the rich and decadent dessert.
As I am walking down the hall with my plate, the director passes by and laughs.
“Don’t eat the cake!” he says,“ You can look at it, but you can’t eat it.” He is somewhat overweight. I am not.
“Oh, I’m not afraid of chocolate cake.”
He laughs again, as he walks away. The director of the episode. Laughing and joking with an extra. As if I was a real actor. As if I was a real person. As if I had a right to be there. Why should that be so out of the ordinary?
That one crewman’s prediction was accurate. It was late at night when we were wrapped. I got home at one in the morning, made a pot of hot chocolate from scratch, then went to bed and slept until late in the afternoon. Monday afternoon. It had been a long, exhausting week, and I was grateful for the work.