There can be some overlapping between jobs that are background, and jobs that are more than background. It is becoming increasingly common to get booked on a film or tv show, and find yourself all alone in the frame, or playing a scene with a movie star, or taking direction from the man two feet away on the other side of the camera, all for a regular day’s rate as a background actor.
It’s understandable why this is happening. Production companies like to cut costs where they can, and they know they can get actors who work background to do almost anything for the same amount of money they would get for sitting in a cafe across the street, or walking through an office, or browsing the shelves in a book store.
The text came in late last night, for what I thought would be a background job. Strangely, they did not have a call time for me, nor would they until morning. This is highly unusual, and so I set my alarm for 9:30, figuring they would have the call times by then. It would probably be an evening shoot.
Of course, I could not sleep, worried that the call might come early in the morning, and I had no idea what I would be playing. Was this a skilled talent job? Would I need my stilts, my unicycle, my mime gear? How much time would I be given to prepare? After closing my eyes for maybe two hours, I awoke at 7:30. Better not fall back to sleep, or I might miss the text from casting.
It came at 8:30. When I called the number provided, I discovered I was the only background person working today. Odd. I cannot remember that ever happening before. They asked for a specific wardrobe look. Clean cut, upscale. They even provided a brand name they would like me to wear. Fortunately, I have a favorite blazer which fit the bill perfectly, but also brought another outfit, just in case.
When I got to set, I was treated like a principal actor. They gave me my own mini dressing room in one of the trailers. Everyone came over to introduce themselves, shaking my hand while telling me their names. Some of those were not names. One guy was called Sprint. Another guy was called Tundra. The director was called Wire. I tried to remember who was what, and attached mental Post-it notes to each person, but then was afraid I might call one of them Post-it.
The scene was explained to me. I was playing something like a secret service agent. Standing outside the door of the apartment of the leading man. He looks through the peephole at me, then climbs out the window on to the ledge of the building to escape. The lead actor is a movie star, the kind of movie star one would expect to see in an action film. Or at least, a comic action film.
For my first shot, the point of view is through the peephole. I am standing in the hallway with a camera ten inches from my face. They are filming me in an extremely tight close up with a fish eye lens. I am wishing I had gotten more than two hours of sleep.
Wire comes over and thanks me profusely for “Agreeing to do this.”
Hmmmm. So he knows they have hired me only as background. He calls direction to me as we film, and we get the scene in one take. Everyone is ridiculously nice. I am having fun, grateful to be working as an actor on a movie set, no matter what the pay.
In the next scene, I am still standing outside the door, but through a window behind me, you can see the leading man sneaking past. Outside, on the ledge. We are two floors up, so he has crew people out there with him, and scaffolding rigged, so he is in no danger at all.
Now, the joke is that he creeps past, and then I turn to look out the window. Just missing him. Then I look back at the door, wondering if maybe I saw something, but am not sure. It’s a sight gag, and my part is a simple take. Something I can do in my sleep. I am a clown, after all. Physical comedy is what I do.
At this point, I’m kind of excited to have a cute bit in this film. When you have the camera on you, on only you, there is always the chance that something funny will happen that they will keep in.
Since I cannot see what is going on outside the window, a crew person is hiding behind a door, giving me a cue. Which is my name. Christopher. Another crew person tells me I am to look quickly, almost as an afterthought, and then look quickly back.
On the first take, the guy sneaks past the window. I hear my name.
I turn and look, quickly. Then I hear, from down the hallway where the camera is located, a whisper.
“Should he look the wrong way?”
This was brilliant. A very funny idea. Which I should have done instantly. While the camera was still filming. The director might have liked it, when he saw how funny it was. Since I was just a background actor, however, I didn’t feel free enough to go for it. I was too busy thinking I am invisible, and don’t want to get in trouble for doing anything wrong.
Wire walks over to me and says, “When you look at the window, don’t look so quickly. Make it more subtle.”
Okay, I was told to look quickly, but of course I am not going to argue, or say anything at all other than, “Sure.” I know how valuable the director’s attention is, and how expensive every minute of filming can be.
Here is where things start to go terribly adrift. The next few takes are done in one continuous shot, giving the famous movie star outside the window the chance to try several different ways of creeping past comically. I hear the director whisper from down the hallway where the camera is located. He does not want anyone calling action. Or cut.
I’ve seen some directors use this approach, and it can work well in certain situations. However, once we start filming, I do not hear my name. No cue. No “Christopher.”
Naturally, I cannot speak. I cannot break character. We are filming, and I have no idea what the famous movie star is doing outside on that ledge. Is he still there? Has he cleared the frame?
From down the hallway where the camera is located I hear another whisper. “Look.”
Is that for me? Or is that someone whispering into a headset, telling the crew person hiding behind the door to give me my cue?
No cue comes. Dammit. Was I supposed to look just then? I turn to the window in time to catch the famous movie star sneaking past on the ledge. Oh, great, I’ve just ruined the shot. We are still filming. Okay. I wait a while, hoping for a cue. None comes. Using my peripheral vision, I can sort of see a shadow moving past, then no motion. Okay, that must be it. I turn to see the leading man doing a funny deer in the headlights impression, looking right at me. It would have been hysterical, had I not turned when I did, ruining the shot again. Oh, for Pete’s sake, I am trapped in a nightmare. It’s a simple comic take, I want to tell this director that I understand the joke perfectly, but could I please have a cue so I could show him how funny I can be? I try one more turn and ruin the shot one more time.
“THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T DO THIS!”
From down the hallway where the camera is located. Not whispered.
What he means is this is why we cannot hire background actors as real actors. What he means is that he is convinced that I am not a real actor. That I cannot perform a simple take. That it will not work. That he will have to scrap the bit.
“DON’T LOOK ANY MORE!”
Yelling. Full volume. Full anger. I wish my cue to look had been as clear. I want to speak, but I don’t dare. I don’t react. I look straight ahead as the camera films. No time to deal with anger from a shouting director. Just stay focused on the scene and try not to mess up again. From my peripheral vision, I can see some kind of movement out the window, and from the sound of laughter coming from down the hallway where the camera is located, I can tell that the leading man is doing something funny out there.
Palpable relief from Wire. He’s happy to keep the focus on the professional actor who is famous, and rightly so, and off the talentless extra who cannot grasp basic comedy and who does not know how to take a cue that was not given.
When I am wrapped, the crew comes over to pat my shoulder and tell me how well I did. Wire, back to ridiculously nice. Tundra. Sprint. A bunch of others. They seem genuinely pleased, but I am crushed. My bit will be cut, and I will be demoted to extra in the foreground. Which I suppose is fair, since that is what I was hired to be, after all.
It wouldn’t have been so disappointing if they hadn’t asked me to be anything more.