In LA parking articulates power: the powerful have their own spaces or don’t even park. They pay someone, probably a struggling actor, to park for them. When actors try to park their own cars they are often turned away.
Most new actors in town will pass through Central Casting, the background pimp, and when they visit Central Casting, they find that the parking lot is labeled, “Not for Extras.” This is strange considering Central Casting essentially makes money off of extras. We are their customers, but instead of expecting to be treated like we’re always right, we expect abuse and even look forward to it, all in the name of paying our dues. This makes us the perfect marks, and we are very profitable.
I just spent forty-three dollars on envelopes—special ones with a clear plastic front, but still envelopes. These envelopes describe themselves as a self-promotion tool for the ambitious actor. The idea is that when you send a hundred headshots and resumes out to agents, casting directors, and managers they will see your picture immediately and gasp with delight. If they had to go through the process of actually opening the envelope, they might be so worn out that they wouldn’t notice the special glimmer, the one you’ve been practicing in the mirror since age ten, in your eye.
Maybe the envelopes are vital, but they are an investment that doesn’t pay off in the immediate future or necessarily ever. If I’m tremendously lucky my headshot will land me an interview with an agent, and if I’m even luckier, he might decide to work with me. Then I pray I book a job, so it could be a year before I see that forty three dollars again. This is the panic of the unemployed complaining.
Being unemployed has forced me to live the life of a senior citizen at age twenty-three. I lunch, read, watch TV, shop in the middle of the day, miss people I’ve lost touch with, and attend matinees, flashing an old student ID to get that precious dollar discount. Soon I’ll just give in, start wearing house slippers around town and discussing regularity with Marge in the laxatives aisle.
One of the few perks of unemployment is that Planned Parenthood gives you the pill for free, probably because they’re like “these are the people we really don’t want to reproduce.” When you call Planned Parenthood you get this recording that says, “Press one for directions. Press two for hours and locations. Press three if you’ve had unprotected sex.” What’s next? Press five if there’s a smell down there. Press six if you’re totally fucked—I mean you think you’re an actor. To avoid having to hear this message, I’m determined to find a job that will at least pay for my birth control. Being an extra fits this small bill. Working as an extra may also get me enough SAG vouchers to get around the cache 22 that is the union: you need a union card to get decent jobs, but you can’t get a card without union jobs.
Central Casting registration was supposed to start at 10:30, but Christina didn’t start registration until 11:00, ironically beginning her “Things You Should Know” speech with, “Never be late.” Deborah, the appointed extra know it all, who cut in line in front of me (after all, she was just updating a photo), groaned when Christina said this. “Hypocrites,” she muttered. She explained with glee to the twenty-something boys behind me that everything they tell you at Central Casting is bullshit. Central promises to answer an emergency hotline and guide you to your job if you’re lost. “They never pick up!” said Deborah with a thick New York accent. Even though she was complaining, she was excited, like she was advertising extra abuse as a quirky, lovable feature of this product that extras consume. Deborah was in her late fifties and heavyset, she continued to talk over my head to the boys behind me. “You have to do everything by spec.”
Her sidekick, a man also there to update his photo, agreed. “Yes, everything’s by spec.” The sidekick was 5’3” with long thin, greasy hair that he combed nervously. He was tiny in everything but nose, determination, and despair. His tropical-colored button down was tucked into his high waist jeans, and I wondered who would ever want him in the background. Scenes would grind to a halt as audiences turned to each other in horror and pity. “Did you see that hobbity looking fellow next to Chandler?” The hobbit sidekick watched the boys behind me to see if they knew what spec was, and they didn’t.
Deborah seized the opportunity. “You call the number, press 310. They’re going to give you all the information like you’ve been booked. You show up before the call and you wait. I always make a spec sign in list. Write your name at the top and hand it to the AD or whoever’s in charge, say ‘I’m speking today and introduce yourself. Then you wait to see who doesn’t show up. Now, some casting directors, like Mary Ellen, oh she’s wonderful, if people are one minute late, then they take from spec.”
“Never be late,” added Sidekick.
“Oh, never be late,” reiterated Deborah. “Of course some casting directors will wait longer. The other day I was on Angels of Hell just because it happened to be shooting in my neighborhood. I waited two hours before they finally took me, but what would you have been doing with that two hours otherwise? Sitting at home, no job.” Frighteningly, she was describing my life, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy her solution. This was not a young woman talking. She was a career extra, which is sort of like saying a career time-eater.
“I was a regular background actor on ER for two years, but ER’s not shooting anymore, so I’m starting to get worried,” said Deborah.
“Oh, my wife, she was on ER,” said sidekick, fighting for status.
“How long was she on it?”
“Oh, just one time, a couple years ago.”
“I was on it much longer, much longer.”
Hobbit didn’t know what to say to this, so he pulled out his wallet and showed her a picture. “See my daughter,” said the hobbit, thrusting a picture of a beautiful girl with chestnut hair into her face. “She’s twelve and she comes up to here. Put her in heels and she’s taller than me.” I bet he does put her in heels. I bet the whole family waits in offices like this and on sets waiting to mean something other than background.
Deborah didn’t comment on the hobbit’s daughter, maybe she didn’t want to stroke his ego, so she said, even though he already said, “How old is she?”
“My oldest is twenty-five.” Dear lord, that’s close to my age, and I wouldn’t want this woman as my mother. There is something childlike about being an extra that doesn’t lend itself to parenthood.
Central Casting registration is held in what looks like a converted warehouse. The prospective extras funneled into three lines: two for registration and one for photos. A glass wall separated us from the casting directors who would eventually decide if we got jobs. If you had questions you had to shout through a speaker to the other side. I felt like I was in a police station, either as a victim, there to lodge a complaint, or as a usual suspect, rounded up to be photographed and pushed into a lineup. I never know if I’m a criminal, harming my own bright future, or a victim of my own dreams.
The lines for registration were the longest, and they kept growing as people came in. On Central Casting’s website they suggest you “Dress to Impress,” which isn’t very specific, but most men took it to mean business suits. The twenty-something boys looked like they were on their way to an interview; they wouldn’t be cast as the high school students and bar patrons they probably should play. The women knew what to do better, and there were more than several knockouts, all with large breasts and shiny lipgloss. They fiddled with their headshots, something I also didn’t have, as they waited in line.
One older man, all-American handsome, entered and limped towards the front of the lines. No one stopped him because he was clearly disabled. Like the hobbit, his presence would stop any scene from being what it’s supposed to be about. The boys behind me took him in. As if reading my thoughts, one boy said to the other, “He’ll get a job. There’ll be a call for a handsome disabled man.” Although he started genuinely, he realized this sounded ridiculous and started to laugh. Handsome disabled made his way to the photo line, where he took out a mirror and played with his bangs for three minutes. Then he practiced his smiles for five minutes until it was his turn. The registration lines, bored and with nothing else to look at but the people in the photo line, began to giggle. He was a living parody of a bad actor, but at least he knows what to do with his face in front of the camera, I thought.
When told to smile for a camera, I sometimes lose all control of my lips and they make strange, angular shapes. For a good photo smile, someone has to make me laugh. For years school photographs exhibited an identical frozen Mona Lisa smile, a snarl really, that school photographers have tried to melt with various unsuccessful methods. In the third grade it was, “What? Your boyfriend just broke up with you?”
One of the Central Casting employees moved a group of shaved head, tattooed, latino men to the front of the line, and their special treatment seemed to frustrate Deborah. All the men wore shirts that said “Homeboy Industries,” and I knew what that meant from NPR. They were straight out of jail. I had come to apply for the same job as recent inmates. They were fascinating to watch, however: their tattoos, mysterious stories of violent days before this current reformation. I bet they didn’t lose control of their lips when their photos were taken.
Deborah was equally entranced by the homeboys, but not because of their inherent menace. “They moved them to the front because there’s a big call out tomorrow for Sons of Anarchy. It’s a biker show, and they look right with the shaved heads, baggy clothes, and tattoos.” She was careful not to mention race or the fact that they looked like gang members, probably because the boys behind me, who she was talking to, were not white. She was so intent on showing them the ropes, and even though I was glad she wasn’t talking to me, I was a little hurt. Why hadn’t she taken me under her flabby wing? I was the one who let her cut in line? I thought maybe she was jealous of my youth. But the boys she was talking to were also young. When she left I wished her luck, but she didn’t hear me. Instead she said good luck to the boys behind me and left, no doubt walking five blocks to her car.