In all the years that I’ve been working as an actor in Los Angeles, I can honestly say that I’ve never witnessed one of those unpleasant scenes that sometimes show up on youtube. Secretly recorded video footage of some movie star flipping out and screaming at the crew. Yes, I know there are plenty of stories of that sort of thing happening, and those stories might create the false impression that outbursts from movie stars are a common occurrence, but it just has not been my experience. Not until this past week.
Granted, movie stars are not always the nicest people. Many of them are lacking in basic social skills, and one or two are certifiably looney tunes, but for the most part, the famous actors you meet on set are not unlike the non-famous ones. With a few exceptions, of course.
There was one guy on a tv show set in the wild west. It was my steady gig for a couple of years. I was just background, but the work was fairly consistent, and we were treated well. (…and fed well!)
Anyway, this actor in question was playing one of the main characters. He was not really a big star, but I guess he felt he was. He had a loud voice, and would sit in his chair and bellow into the air every time his cigar was burning down too low.
“I NEED A NEW CIGAR!”
His concern was valid, because at the start of the scene the cigar would be a certain length, but as he smoked it during each take, it would get shorter. So yes, he would need a new cigar when that happened.
However, there are people on sets who pay attention to details. It’s their job. They look for continuity from shot to shot, making sure the props are in the right place, and so are the actors, as well as the background. They know what they are doing, and even if one of them had forgotten to pay attention to the cigar ash, well, it is not this actor’s place to shout it out for everyone to hear.
There are ways of handling things nicely. Kindly. Professionally. In a way that shows you understand another person’s job, and that you are capable of, and interested in, treating them with respect, or at the very least, with decency. With civility.
For example, I worked as an extra in a small scene in a big budget movie with the actor Harvey Keitel. He was fascinating to watch. Before each take, he made sure his chair was on the mark. He would look down at the little pieces of colored tape that had been placed there for that purpose, and check in with the crew member who had put them there.
He would then ask the camera man about the eyeglasses he was toying with as he read his lines. Was the glare hitting the lens? Should he keep the glasses on, instead of toying with them? Would that be better? His attention to detail showed that he understood how important everyone’s contribution was to the finished product, and that they mattered. In other words, he was a decent man.
Back to the bellowing westerner. On that show, there was a policy regarding cell phones. Normally, cell phones are discouraged on sets, for obvious reasons. Background actors snap photos and post them online. They get distracted and don’t pay attention to instructions. Cell phones did not exist in period pieces. Oh… and cell phones ring.
So the policy on the western was that anyone whose phone rang on set would be fined twenty dollars. Crew as well as background. It happened more often than you might imagine. People forget to turn off their phones, and a ringing cell phone ruins a shot.
“TURN OFF YOUR DAMN CELL PHONES, PEOPLE!”
This coming from the bellowing man. At the top of his loud voice. As if everyone did not immediately realize that someone was just fined twenty dollars. There wasn’t a person on that set who was unfamiliar with the policy, and it was not the place of this actor to embarrass the owner of the ringing phone. In short, there was no need to be a jerk.
That was about the worst I’d seen, which is really saying a lot. Until the other night, when I was standing just a few feet away from one of those youtube videos in the making.
Normally, a shot in a film is set up using what is called second team. That means the stand-ins. Their job is to take the place of the main actors while the lights are being focused, and the camera angles worked out, or the blocking arranged. Then, once everything is ready to go, they call for first team. Which means the main actors.
This is the standard procedure, but there can be some flexibility, depending on the size of the budget, the complexity of the shot, or the personality of the actors. Some are perfectly easygoing and professional. Others are less so, on both counts.
Now, anyone who as ever been on a set knows that delays are to be expected. At any moment, at all moments. This camera needs a new battery. That dog is not listening to its trainer. There is an airplane flying overhead, interfering with the sound. The joke is always, “Rush to wait.”
Things are being worked out behind the camera, so we wait. Simple. That’s what we were doing when an angry person began screaming:
“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? I’M STANDING HERE AND NO ONE IS TELLING ME WHAT IS HAPPENING! DON’T BRING ME OUT HERE UNTIL YOU ARE READY! WHY AM I STANDING HERE WAITING?”
We all froze. His outburst was shocking, to the background. None of us had seen anything like it before. The director rushed in to calm the man down, and they quickly got on with the shot. It was over after just a few uncomfortable seconds.
I looked around at the crew. They took it in stride. Perhaps they were accustomed to this behavior from him.
I looked at his co-star. He had the good sense to take a couple of steps away and look down at the ground.
What was apparent to everyone was how unnecessary this was. Whatever the reason for the delay, it couldn’t have taken long to resolve. Someone was on it. Someone was aware that everyone was waiting on them, and so they would hustle. There was no need to scream and carry on and create so much pressure.
During the next break, I asked the friendly production assistant if the movie star was joking or serious. He chuckled and said that no, he was serious.
Calling him a movie star is a bit of a stretch. Technically, he is a movie star, since he starred in a movie, back in the 1980s. It was a big blockbuster hit, but I have no idea what he has done since, nor did I know who he was when I saw him. It was the same friendly production assistant who told me.
Like the bellowing westerner, he must have the impression of himself as a much bigger star than he is.