Diary of a Background Artist
Without Deborah’s blessings or guidance, I was able to book my first job. You call a recorded line that lists available jobs. From there, if you fit the description of what they’re looking for, you try to get through to the casting director. This is practically impossible. For one prospective job, I sat with the phone dialing and redialing for two hours, but I kept getting the busy signal. When I finally got through, they told me the job was already booked. The third day of trying this, I declared I was never going to get a job, but I’d try one more time before going “spec” and becoming Deborah. I got through. The casting director answered the phone by asking for my social security number. I gave it to her, and she looked my picture up in her computer. I have no idea what the picture they took of me during registration looks like. The picture taking process was exactly like at the DMV. They tell you to stand on a line and take the picture before you’re ready. The difference is no one tries to get a job based on their driver’s license photo. She didn’t hesitate, however, and immediately booked me for Samantha Who.
I was nervous, causing me to watch the show for hours to determine what clothing was acceptable. We were told to wear bright colors and dress for the fall in Chicago. Despite the eighty-degree fall in LA weather, I wore a sweater and boots and made my way to the ABC lot in Studio city. I was two hours early and burned time by reading in my car outside of the lot, embarrassed to let the security guards know how early I was. They would have known that being an extra was all I had to do. They might have thought I was a career extra, someone who never emerges from the background. Once I checked in and made it through costumes and the friendly conversations with the other extras, “Have you worked this show before?,” I settled in to “holding.” Extras are livestock. We are kept in our pen for hours, never allowed to wander or move more than a couple feet (you could be called to the set at any moment) and encouraged to graze on the ample craft services table. Once on set, you are pocked and prodded into position and forced to follow precise instructions.
Inside your pen, the livestock is always a little rabid. Men circle around the fertile females, complimenting their smiles and asking for phone numbers. A woman dressed entirely in leather (her idea of fall clothing) cornered me in the bathroom and accused me of staring at her while we sat in holding. I apologized, thinking I may have accidentally stared at her while I was staring into space, trying not to fall asleep, imagining hooks were holding up my eyelids. You can’t fall asleep in holding, because the wranglers will get angry. I simultaneously live in fear and dream of being noticed by the assistant directors and their assistants who are in charge of us.
Not all extras have this reverence for the people in charge. On Samantha Who an extra unplugged the coffee machine so that he could charge his cell phone. When our handler discovered this crime he shouted towards his flock, “Who’s this?” holding up the cellular device. I would have stayed quiet, disowning the cell phone and accepting that I would have to buy a new one, but this extra shouted that it was his. Our handler said, “Next time you ask before you plug something in.”
I took mental note, beginning to chant “ask before you plug,” but the cell phone charging extra asked our handler, “What’s your name?”
“Phil, can I plug my cell phone in?”
My fellow sheep and I were shocked. This extra would obviously never work in Hollywood again. Phillip was going to leave holding and walk right towards a big red telephone, dial a confidential number, and blacklist him. The cell phone charging maniac would have to return to his hometown, adopt five cats, and become a librarian.
I avoid conflict by following directions without question (stand with my arms in the air for a half hour, sure no problem) and staying awake by drinking lots of tea. Unfortunately, this leads to frequent bathroom visits, always nerve-racking. Most extras tell the person next to them when they’re going to the bathroom, just in case they are needed while they are gone. This attitude of constant anxiety is ironic considering the wranglers essentially don’t care which extras they use. They tend to call more people than they actually need, and they usually hire a group of people that is interchangeable, but all extras cling to their individuality, dedicating themselves to perfecting their makeup and keeping their outfits wrinkle free (I’ve seen people stand for hours rather than risk sitting).
Despite all evidence to the contrary, we treat this as a moment in the spotlight. I even approached my second extra job like I would an acting role, finding a costume for my professional, take-charge government employee on My Own Worst Enemy and imagining what “her” life was like. I naively said something about my character to the helpful extra, who was showing me where we checked in, and he stopped me. “That’s where you’ve got it wrong. We’re not characters, we’re movable props.” He’s a career extra, easily recognizable by his fold up, beach chair. Comfort comes first to career extras. They’ve worked the fourteen-hour shoots. I wanted to ask him how he tolerates this crazy job, how he can stand sitting for hours in a room with twenty or so unhinged, frustrated actors or worse, people who are just desperate. He seems levelheaded, leaning back in his beach chair sipping a toxic cleanse shake. He used to be a professional ball player, but now he’s an extra, not an actor, an extra. You’re supposed to try and rise above this position as soon as possible, but maybe he thinks about it differently. He might have it all figured out (he certainly knows a lot about toxic cleanses, “Completely removes the toxins from your fat cells!”), but I don’t ask him.
On My Own Worst Enemy, we were huddled in the shell of a room I recognized from the pilot that I watched while trying to determine what to wear. It was dark and freezing and one of the walls was covered in blood. Because I’d seen the pilot, the bloodstain did not disturb me. It was just the mess made after Christian Slater’s character’s split personality post-coitally shot a Russian seductress/spy in the head, so it was unthreatening in the real world, but the girl next to me pointed to it and frowned. “They put us in a dark room with bloodstains and a noose?!” There was also a giant rope hanging from the Sistine chapel-high ceiling. They used it for keeping scenery standing up or something else technical and important that I didn’t understand (I’m just an extra, after all), but to all the extras it looked like a tempting noose, hanging in the center of our temporary home.
After huddling in the freezing cold you really feel like doing any sort of movement, so when the Phillip of My Own Worst Enemy, Tom?, came to pick people for the shot, everyone rose in anticipation. I was picked, so TV audiences might eventually see me through a window pretending to enter data into a computer.
Once you make it to the set where they’re actually shooting, you have more waiting to do. Smart extras bring books with them, but I was too afraid of having my personal belongings caught by the shot; besides my character wasn’t reading what I was reading. While waiting for the director to call action, I got really into typing. I was recording data from the near by computer screens, showing finger print analysis. The real actors ran through their lines and the episode’s plot became part of my character’s. I was analyzing the fingerprint of an important terrorist suspect. It was amazing no one noticed what important work I was doing.
Grips, I assume, had noticed my other attractive extras. One guy kept walking by and asking if we were having a slumber party back there. I guess we looked relaxed to him, who was busy carrying coils of wire. The musical theater actress/extra, who had been driving me crazy all morning by singing Disney tunes and discussing her conservative politics, responded coyly, “Yeah, we’re going to have a pillow fight.”
This drove the grip crazy, “Where are your pajamas?” he asked.
“Good question,” I thought.
Tom? came over to us and gave us some blocking. He addressed us as “Extras,” and musical theater said, “We’re background artists.” I started laughing, but then realized she wasn’t joking.
Tom? took her statement in his stride and tried addressing everyone as “Actors.” Musical theater seemed placated, until it was lunchtime and she discovered craft services didn’t have fat free salad dressing.
“Unacceptable,” she muttered. “Even theater has fat free.”
She confirmed my theory that craft services entertains the wannabe starlet extras, providing something to think about in the form of a constant battle against the desire to snack. Underpay, boredom, and free food is a deadly combination, especially when you equate success with a 20” inch waistline. I ate the fat-full dressing and felt simultaneously insecure and superior, a sensation I’m becoming very familiar with.