It was a fourteen-hour day. Well-fed, sore feet, often bored to death, sometimes in the middle of the magic, and occasionally treated like the delicate flower that I know myself to be. Such was my experience as a background actor. Aka, an extra.
My call time was Tuesday at 9A. I was hired a day or two before, cast as PEDESTRIAN. He’s a serious man with a hint of bad boy and a love of fruited desserts. Hey, every character needs a backstory. The only other information I got was wardrobe and appearance. Bring autumn colors and a suit, if you have one.
I learned quickly from a previous extra experience, if you wanted camera time, you needed to set yourself apart from other extras. This didn’t mean a rainbow afro wig. It meant, listen to their instructions. “If you have a suit, bring it.” I knew most men wouldn’t want to wear a suit on a warm day. When I arrived on set, I showed Wardrobe my clothes and she said, “Wear the suit.” Once my omelet was ready and I sat down to eat, I saw I was the only man in a suit.
“Did he say omelet?” said you. Yes, breakfast catering included an omelet bar, in a parking lot. A large tent was set up. Food at these things was superb. Gourmet superb. From extras to actors, everyone eats the same stuff. Granted, something tells me that Leo gets whatever he wants, cooked by someone who only cooks for Leo, served in his trailer.
My time in makeup involved sunscreening my shaved head and straightening some edges at my neckline, in case they used me as a cop later. I’m nothing, if not known for my range.
As I finished breakfast a production assistant (PA) grabbed me, some basketball players, and a few fake cops. From this point forward, you can assume anyone I mention (cop, medical, military) is pretend. Everyone is pretend except for crew.
We walked a few blocks to set. It’s set, not the set. A parking lot at the Atlanta Police Department. The scene was…well… actually, you often don’t know what’s going on in a scene. You’re told who you are and what you’re doing.
I was a lawyer walking across the parking lot into a building corridor to visit a client. I was given a briefcase, a to-go coffee (empty), and an assistant. The scene was… ”you’re a lawyer (a bad boy, of course) walking in to see a client…exchange words with your assistant as you walk…glance over at the pick-up basketball going on in the corner of the parking lot…chuckle…walk into the building.
As lawyer and assistant hit their halfway point, one of the show’s stars crossed behind us. My moment. That camera pointed right at me as I walked past. I knew my noggin’ would be fully featured on primetime network television. Well, The CW in 2016.
I mentioned basketball players as extras. I sat with these men. They were all former D1 starters. They were Atlanta cops playing pickup basketball at lunch. 3-on-3, shirts and skins. Never in the history of Atlanta law enforcement has a pickup game like this been played. Great play after great play, not to mention the player’s physique and conditioning. I’d challenge anyone to find ANY six Atlanta cops that were that fit!
Being featured like that was just the start. My part took a few hours on a sunny day. That’s a good amount of standing around. Suddenly, umbrellas appeared. As I waited for the next take, a young lady asked, “Sir, would you like an umbrella?” “Sure.” Rather than hand me an umbrella, she stood next to me, and held it over my head, shielding the Delicate Flower (my new SAG name).
Reverence met my expectations.
Besides being repeatedly asked if I had on sunscreen, there was a rotation of crew who “umbrella’d” me. At one point, a white-haired gentleman took his turn protecting said talent. Since I was curious about a crew career, I asked questions…brief questions as there’s not a lot of chat time. Mostly, “so what do you do?” I came across a lot of PA’s. It’s where you start. A gopher.
I knew the white-haired, umbrella man was not a PA. “I’m head of hair and makeup.” Interesting. Seems people just stepping up to keep me from wilting.
Figure 1 The Lawyer Scene (Suncreened lawyer with Assistant(left) from news story I happened to see about Atlanta film industry)
My run ended and I was told most
unlikely I’d be done for the day. I was closeup
on camera a lot and they wouldn’t want me recognized later in the episode. “Hey, that’s the guy from the parking
lot.” However, they didn’t cut me loose
because they never know if they might just need you again, and the budget had
my $10/hr wage covered.
That was fine. It was lunchtime and I knew what awaited. Filet mignon, shrimp scampi, perfectly prepared veggies, bombastic salads, vegan-gluten free-all kosher everything, fresh baked goods, and desserts that would make an Italian wedding reception envious.
Again…served in a tented parking lot.
The thing is these are always 12-hour days, five days a week. Cast and crew…feed them well and keep them healthy. I never saw a French fry. Except for the perpetual snack table on set, I never saw a processed, labeled food. The snack table offered your Cheez-Its and Oreos, but also granola bars and fruit. Stuff to keep everyone going well after midnight.
Day became night, and myself and a few other extras stayed in the tent, but were thirsty and hungry. Filming moved indoors by my earlier parking lot, and with them went refreshments. So we followed.
All the action was in a large
conference room, so we found the snacks and the room where extras were
held. Comfortable office chairs, air
conditioning, and new friends: military, police, medical, and a few suited
people for the conference room scene. It
beat the tented parking lot. My day was
over, so I just ate and chatted.
Minding my own business and someone
comes in for some more extras. She asks
for me, so I follow onto set. Again, a
large conference room. Perfectly suited
for a meeting of all the people you’d want in one room to discuss a killer
I was still in my suit. Why change now? Classic two-piece business suit, white shirt, and a tie from wardrobe. I guess my clip-on didn’t cut it. However, I wore the wrong shirt. I had two white shirts. One was too small in the neck. I couldn’t button it, so I faked it. Cinch up the tie so I look like a proper lawyer.
I followed into the room. Equipment everywhere. Twenty extra, various actors, and stars of the show. I was sent to a corner and not really told what to do.
For me it never got that far. An AD (assistant director) came over and told me, as predicted, they couldn’t use me. Too much earlier camera time. No more wonderful words I’ve ever heard. My feet hurt and I’d already had my closeup.
Back into the big, extra waiting area I went. Fine by me. No sooner than I sat down, a woman came in and said, “Sir, they’d like you to come back.” It’s $140 and great food for 12 hours. Sir and Ma’am is nice.
I’m led back, but a woman from Wardrobe stopped in the hallway. “The Director would like your shirt buttoned.” The Director noticed me? When? The first time I came in and wasn’t used because I’d had too much camera time? He noticed my shirt wasn’t buttoned? Do I have a look? Is a star born? At the least, it’s impressive attention to detail.
I told the wardrobe assistant I couldn’t get it buttoned. We went into the conference room and she failed in her first attempt, then pulled out an elastic button extender. I noticed the room was still. Between takes it was always frantic with talking and moving equipment. They’d finished all that.
The production was waiting on The Delicate Flower™ to get his shirt buttoned. With the extender in place, the new issue was the button hole. Years of not buttoning and many dry cleans… and the hole was stiff like cardboard.
Time being money and all, the
director came over and said, “Let me try.”
Three-time Emmy Award winning (Game of Thrones and Band of
Brothers) director David Nutter (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0638354/) has taken it upon himself to dress me.
Things are finally coming together. I’m working on my spinoff’s title.
“Sir, am I hurting you?” “Anything for my craft,” is what I wished I’d
My guess is that Mr. Nutter made my
$140 wage in the a few seconds working on my collar, then seemingly everyone in
the crew said,” Sir, I’ll do it. I’ll do
it.” When the director steps in to dress
an extra, someone better jump in ASAP or hell will most definitely be paid.
Finally, the background actor
formerly known as Pedestrian was ready for his closeup. Actually…pretty much what happened. Mr. Nutter took me by the hand and stood me
with a cop and paramedic. Directly
behind the show’s star. In the end, I
had a few minutes of up-close camera time.
It’s a lot of time for my bulbous noggin’.
For the next two hours, I joked with an actor from LA (fake cop) and a singer (twice solo musical guest on a late-night network show). Much time spent holding back laughing. If you’re going to be stuck in a spot for a few hours, I could’ve done much worse. The singer taught me a great lesson about breaks. We went on her smoke break. A lot of actors smoke, so I got to hang out with the cool kids. Granted, everyone just looked at their phones. I was given a prop phone for the scene, so I pretended to use my 1990’s Blackberry.
I had a few other extra gigs, but
got very little, if any, camera time. I
also didn’t try very hard to get booked.
Being on a production ruined me for TV/movies for a while. Knowing how the sausage is made. That nothing
is real. That decorated military man in
the President’s Situation Room, who never speaks, is an extra. When someone on a sitcom walks into a bedroom
complaining about the rain outside, not only was that person not outside, they
were on the other side of the fake wall waiting for a cue.
In the end, I went from a character
called pedestrian, to who I like to call the bulbous-headed man in
suit. My hair trimmed, head shaded
from the sun, a must for the big conference room scene. A man who held the hand
of the man who’s likely held the hands of Hanks, Clooney, Tony Soprano, and the
guy who flew on the back of the two-headed dragon from the kingdom of G’nip
G’nop (I never watched Game of Thrones).
I did get some good screen time in the conference room, but my outdoor, lawyer walking scene?
And with that, went my Golden Globe.
(Oh…the show? Containment (U.S. version) episode one.)
Figure 2 Our hero-bulbous-headed variety (far right)