Wait. Did I just read my email correctly?
“Hey Sharisse, would you be interested in being an extra on a SyFy television action-drama about zombies?”
I’m a 44-year-old mom of four who doesn’t spend much time in the gym and mostly favors non-confrontational entertainment. The last email I’d expect was an offer to play a look-alike stand-in for Kellita Smith, the female “shero” of “Z Nation,” an up–and-coming cable show with a cult following.
Sure, I’d been fortunate to book a few online commercials and modeling jobs in the time our family was stationed in Seattle. Still, I hadn’t thought about rebooting my old dream of an acting career.
“I’m too old to start acting now,” I’d say to myself. “I have too much responsibility and way too many things to juggle.
I’d heard actors say auditioning was hell. I have a young son with special needs and our military family moves every few years. My real life already has enough drama.
But when the casting director said I was a perfect fit to stand in for the lead actress, I surprised myself and said yes. Actually, what I mouthed silently into the phone was “Hell, yes!”
To my further astonishment, my entire family agreed it was a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.
Then panic set it.
“I can’t be on a zombie show,” I said to my 71-year-old mother who lives with us. “I’m afraid of my own shadow.”
As for “standing in” for Kellita Smith, she was an ex-super model! I’d been a fan of hers when she co-starred on The Bernie Mac Show.
Of course, I Googled her most recent pictures. No way was I ever going to look that gorgeous and fit. But a stylist who’d worked with me on another project had recommended me. Maybe she knew something I didn’t.
Despite being armed with detailed directions from the casting director, a GPS in my car and Google maps on my iPhone4, I managed to get lost on the day of the shoot. Before I could break down and wail like a homeless zombie, I made a Hail Mary turn and saw a big sign that said Base Camp.
I stumbled gratefully out of my car and headed for a cluster of white trailers surrounded by an array of torn and dusty clothes hung from silver garment racks.
A confident strawberry-blonde woman strode confidently in my direction. I guessed she was Jen, the generous casting director I’d spoken to on the phone. She guided me to the trailer that would be my home away from home for the day.
Some of the nearby trailers had names written on the doors. The trailer right next to mine said “10-K”—the name of one of the show’s main characters. I didn’t see Kellita’s name but I didn’t walk further than the bathroom trailer.
Jen scribbled “double” on a piece on paper and taped it to my trailer. A trifle anonymous? Sure. But a trailer of my own? Yesss! I did the only possible thing. I took a load of selfies of me and the door. It was corny but I didn’t care.
When the wardrobe was delivered, I stared at it for a few minutes. It was a rare moment when the word surreal was appropriate. Fitted Army green pants that looked intimidating on the hanger, an orange thermal top I was certain I’d worn the wrong bra for, a charcoal gray leather jacket that had no hope of ever being closed around my breasts, black awkward toe boots that might scare off some zombies and a multi functional braided utility belt that looped in places a girl shouldn’t need things held up.
Before getting dressed, I said a short prayer of thanks. I was both grateful for the opportunity and begging that the outfit would fit. It did, barely, but I was terrified of being remembered as the extra who stretched out Kellita Smith’s costume.
My first encounter as I stepped from the trailer was with a guy in denim shorts who called out in a friendly voice, “Hey, I thought you were gone.”
When I gave him a puzzled look, he shook his head and said, “I’m so sorry, you look just like her.” Has anyone ever paid me a nicer compliment? Prayers answered!
I couldn’t even have tried to wipe the smile from my face as I proceeded to Hair and Makeup.
“Your hair is perfect,” said the stylist, whose sunny disposition matched her own curly blonde ringlets. We clicked because that’s how I was feeling. We discussed black hair care, show business insider stuff (of which I knew nothing) and how much I reminded her of Ms. Smith in ways that had nothing to do with my physical appearance.
Three zombies introduced themselves to me on the seven-minute van ride over to the set. Their faces were painted the same Army-green color, with varying details of all-too-realistic blood, wounds and scars.
I knew they were fellow-actors, but my silly heart began pounding in an instinctive flight-or-fight response. To short-circuit the fear, I thought of the Three Stooges. That helped a little.
A female zombie with bold white teeth put me at ease with a friendly, “You will do fine. Everyone is really nice here.” I nicknamed her Colgate zombie.
I took a deep breath and followed my vanmates into a shabby room in an abandoned hotel on a busy downtown street. The room held enough canopy chairs for all of us, a basket of snacks and a cooler full of bottled water.
An actor whose deep dimples showed through his green and blood-red makeup extended his hand to me. His head almost touched the ceiling. Naming him Skyscraper zombie in my mind helped allay my anxiety.
Finally, I got the call. My assignment was to run and jump around a parking lot outside the hotel, looking like a badass, machete-waving, two-gun-toting zombie- slayer. All eyes were on me.
Instead of being nervous, I felt bubbling-over happy to be on camera for real. But that was actually a problem. At one point, the director told me to “Get mad!” as he handed me an impressive gun almost as tall as I was. I struggled to do as he said.
I had to remember that I’d been hired not just to look like Kellita Smith’s character, but to act like her. To channel my anger, I thought about all those zombies messing with my family. With my mother. With my kids. I got angry. I wielded my weapons. I was in character!
By the end of my day, I’d shot multiple action scenes, survived a wardrobe malfunction (when my Indiana-Jones-style utility belt broke, catapulting my badass weapons all over the parking lot) and received a compliment for my look-alike appearance from the show’s producer. I was a happy girl.
When it came time to turn in my machete, I didn’t want to be de-propped. I’d become accustomed to the extra hardware on my belt. But the blade and guns were only mine on loan. My real life wasn’t likely to require the same kind of action.
In the event that it ever does, it’s nice to know that I will be prepared to channel my anger, having survived one zombie apocalypse and my own fears of acting out my long-cherished dream.