“Here, we just bought these tuna fish sandwiches, so feel free to eat them in the scene.”
Every actor who is a vegetarian has this scenario in the back of their mind. At some point during their career, they will be asked to eat something on camera, something that is not vegetarian. Like a tuna fish sandwich.
For the most part, it’s easy to avoid. Many jobs that might require you to eat meat, let’s say for something like a fast food commercial, will let you know in the casting notice. So you don’t submit for those jobs.
This was different. I was only working background, on a movie.
If they put food in front of you when you are working background, they usually tell you not to eat the food. It’s just a prop that has been prepared hours earlier, and is probably not safe to eat. Either that, or they are worried about matching the shots, and replenishing the food can take time, and drive up the budget. Something they would prefer to avoid.
So I was a little surprised by the unusual instruction that I should feel free to eat the tuna fish sandwich.
It was not the only surprise. When I was booked on this job, I was told it was a small budget affair. There were only four of us working background, which would make sense for a small budget affair. The leading man? Yeah, he was not small budget. He was one of those Oscar nominated guys. Not sure if he’s ever won one, but if he hasn’t, he will.
The director? He’s already got two.
It gets more surprising. Turns out I was picture picked, by this two time Academy Award winning director, to sit at this bus stop and eat a tuna fish sandwich out of a brown paper lunch bag.
“Christopher? That was great, but this time, go ahead and take a bite out of the sandwich. You’re right on camera at the start of the scene, and we’d really like to see you eating.”
Wait. I’m sitting at a bus stop, clear across the street from where the leading man is sitting. You’re telling me that right now, this big time movie director is focusing his camera on me? Long enough to watch me eating? Tight enough to see that I’m not? This is not how it normally works.
Back when I was a regular townsperson on the show Deadwood, they would often have the background eating. So many scenes were set in the saloon, or the hotel restaurant, or we’d be gathered around a campsite in the street. The food had been prepared by the caterers right there and then. It was safe to eat. Avoiding meat was never a problem. Even though they would probably give you pork and beans, with a few slices of bacon, there would always be biscuits on the plate.
You can fill a lot of time with a biscuit. Tear one in half. Pretend to sop up imaginary gravy. Pick up a knife and pretend to spread butter on it. Or just eat one, which really means eat several, since they would bring you a new one for each take. That’s what I would do. (I was usually hungry, and those biscuits were really good.)
On another job, set in a diner in the 1920s, I was siting at the counter. The camera was also at the counter. It was a foreground shot. There was a plate full of food in front of me, and they wanted me to be eating.
Now, at a diner in the 1920s, it wasn’t likely that you’d be served a kale salad with quinoa. So they had given me a burger. I could have just spoken up about it, but then they would most likely have taken me out of the shot, and used someone else. Luckily, the burger came with fries.
Like biscuits, you can do a lot with french fries. Reach for the salt shaker. Dip them in ketchup. I was glad there were enough of them to last through several takes.
While working background once on Big Bang Theory, I was seated at one of the tables in the lunch room. That show films in front of a studio audience, with only a couple of takes for each scene. During the rehearsal, the prop guy walked over and gave me a giant slab of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting. I’m going to say that again. He gave me a giant slab of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.
I didn’t hear a word he said about whether or not I could eat it. I didn’t hear a word the AD said about whether or not we should actually be eating. There was no way in hell I was not going to devour this giant slab of red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting the second the cameras starting rolling.
Here at this bus stop, I’ve got another option. In the brown paper lunch bag, there is a red delicious apple. The background actor seated next to me agrees to eat the tuna fish sandwich. Thank goodness. On the next “Action!” I bite into the apple.
It’s perfect. Crisp, and juicy, and very sweet. If the camera is framed on me as closely as I’m told it is, then the big time director will be satisfied by how realistically I am enjoying this apple.