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I just drank 10 rounds of shots with Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon.
It’s not what you think: I wasn’t at some red carpet gala or the Vanity Fair Oscar party. I wasn’t getting liquored up at one of their private retreats in Beverly Hills or the Pacific Palisades. I was an extra, or background actor, in their new movie, “Tammy.”
I’ve been doing extras work off and on since I moved to Los Angeles over a decade ago. All in all, it is a great job for a writer: flexible, easy, and fun. Don’t get me wrong –- extras work can be taxing. But, more often than not, it is comprised of waiting, waiting, and more waiting to be utilized, which gives one time to read and write in a way other jobs would never allow.
An “extra” (or “background actor” as they prefer to be called) are those people who you see in the background of movies and TV shows -– they are mingling in the neighborhood block party behind Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell of Modern Family; they are the doctors and nurses walking briskly down hallways as Patrick Dempsey delivers his speech. These are people who have registered with background agencies and have spent their day waiting to walk briskly down those hallways, for 30 seconds worth of a scene. It takes hours to capture those 30 seconds from all the right camera angles.
For a better sense of the day in the life of the extra, let me give you the rundown, based on my day on the set of “Tammy.”
6pm Get text in the middle of dinner, that I am booked to work the tomorrow. Confirm. (I could reject the gig, but they would probably never call me again.)
7pm Cancel all plans I had for tomorrow: scramble around rearranging my schedule– ixnay on the doctor’s appointment, forget that chunk of solid writing time, reschedule meeting with the guy at the bank. No Pilates. Make sure someone can walk the dog if it turns out to be longer than a 12 hour day.
9pm Call the “details hotline” to get info on what project I am are booked for and who I will be playing (often these are given in generalizations like “parents of snooty private school students” or “teachers at a rural Texas high school.” Wardrobe and color guidelines are given: they prefer you to come with three “looks” from your own closet, but it is not required if you are in the Screen Actors’ Guild. Usually, they say to come “hair and make-up ready” meaning the hair and make-up people have better things to do than YOUR hair and make-up.
On this hotline call, I am excited to learn it’s a Melissa McCarthy feature –- and doubly excited I will be playing one of 17 Midwestern women dancing and cheering on a male stripper. YES. It’s going to be a fun one, I suspect, then quickly “ugh” out loud when I hear my call time is 6:30am.
11pm Call the details hotline again before bed, as per instruction on the last call, hoping my call time has been changed to more a reasonable hour. No luck on that front today. These changes happen frequently, based on how late the production ran the night before. Shows and movies are trying to avoid giving the crew turnaround pay, where crew must be paid double time if they are given less than a certain number of hours between shifts.
11:30pm Fall asleep hoping it’s either a super short day or really long one where I’ll get kickass overtime. The lamest thing that can happen is getting a basic eight hour day, because even if they use you less than eight hours they are still required to pay you for the full eight hours. It protects the security of a daily wage, and this is why you pay your union dues! (It’s very rare that you have a short day…they like to keep around the extras just in case.)
5am Call hotline again and find out that call time has been changed to 8am. Coulda slept but I’m up now. Damn it!
7am Drive to Azusa, CA, about 40 minutes from Los Angeles. Park in church parking lot by famous yellow “crew parking signs.” Survey the van that drives me to the “holding area” for people I’ve worked with before. I don’t recognize anyone, but I spot a girl with a Vera Bradley bag and strike up a conversation about the discontinued pink elephants line. It’s clear: We are going to be buddies for the day.
8am Get officially checked in. Go to holding and feel great relief that it is indoors on this brisk day, not an outdoor tent with poor heating. Eat a hot breakfast at the craft services area (stuffing granola bars in my bag for the drive home) until I’m called to wardrobe.
9am Put on clothes I brought, and cross my fingers the wardrobe ladies like them. Otherwise, they will outfit me with their ensembles and hold my check-out paperwork hostage until I bring back their clothes. This is undesirable because it can take forever to get through the line up to return the clothes when, at the end of a long day, ya just want to get home already.
10am Wait. Read latest issue of “Marie Claire.”
11am Wait. Start to write xoJane article. Stop because I can’t focus with all these people around. Pay bills via smartphone. Reschedule doctor appointment.
1pm Wait. Actually start to get antsy: I want to get up and work at this point. Back is aching from chairs with poor back support. Pace.
2pm Lunch. Get shuttled to outdoor lunch set up. Crew eats before background. I feel like new kid in school. I look for the girl with the Vera Bradley bag and sit next to her.
5pm Finally we get shuttled to the production site, a seventies looking bar in Montrose. We’re all psyched when you realize it’s a small scene in a small space because this means it’s going to be an intimate set, as opposed to a big call on a massive soundstage, which can suck because you actually feel like herded like livestock around the studio (and are sometimes treated as such).
7pm Head from the secondary holding area to the bar. Walk in and try to hide my reaction when I glimpse the back of their heads, these two iconic women that I admire. After a few minutes, realize that I’ve been ogling not the actresses themselves but their stand-ins. My new friend squeezes my knee and nods her head indicating that Melissa McCarthy is directly behind me. I spot Susan Sarandon in a booth with her little dog. Awesome.
7:30pm Get placed in the scene. I am told to cross over from the corner to a chair at the bar, pretending to see a girlfriend I recognize. No music is actually playing, but we’re supposed to move and dance like there is as a shirtless, Burt Reynolds look-alike gyrates in front of the leads. (Often, one is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but in this case, I was not asked to sign one, which is why I am free at this time to write about this experience).
I’m not usually star-struck on these sets. You get used to seeing famous movie and television stars up close; you are professional and respectful. You never, EVER speak to them (unless they speak to you). Them’s the rules. I’ve been on sets with Jennifer Garner, Alec Baldwin, Greg Kinnear, Clint Eastwood, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Sophia Vergara, Matt LeBlanc, Gina Davis, Jon Lovitz, Charlie Sheen et al, and each set is a little different, with its own energy and pace.
Almost every time I come away with a golden nugget: a good story, a learning experience, or a new friend. I met one of my best friends while shooting “Flags of Our Fathers” in the war bonds rally scene at the Rose Bowl That was a special set because Eastwood is so meticulous that each background actor was specially wardrobed in the days prior to shooting, and we had our own hair and make-up people to make sure that even our make-up details were true to the era (apparently, ladies did with less eye make up than we do today, and more rouge.)
Valerie and I found ourselves sitting next to each other, freezing our buns off on the cold stadium. In our retro duds, we ate our boxed lunches and talked for hours. That was years ago -- this spring, I did a reading at her wedding. All because of Clint Eastwood.
I’m so glad I didn’t listen to the first person I talked to about doing background work, a fellow actor who sneered, “You’re considering doing that? Don’t sink so low! Criminals do background work because it’s work release and that’s the only work they can get.”
That is both ignorant and untrue: I’ve met the most wonderful, diverse population of people doing extras work! In the summer there are loads of teachers there to earn extra money; there are ladies of leisure there for a lark. I’ve spent hours with retired marines and struggling blues musicians –- people I would have never otherwise met. And of course, I meet plenty of actors.
To take on background work when you are yourself pursuing a career in acting is an exercise in letting go of ego, and in humility (I know this because there was a time when I was pursuing acting and doing background work to pay the bills.)
Although there can be a stigma with doing extras work long-term (always the bridesmaid, never the bride) there is another theory that if acting in film and television is what you want to do, get thee to a set any which way you can. As a newbie, you learn a great deal about the production process, so when you are eventually cast in a guest star or co-star role or commercial, you won’t look like an idiot: you’ll know what it means when they say, “hold for sound,” and understand the difference in responsibilities between the first assistant director and the second assistant director, etc. In short, you won’t look, or feel, quite so green.
Sure, in the Hollywood realm, it’s small potatoes, but it sure beats schlepping coffee or working the front desk at some hotel. For me, it’s the perfect side job.
There are people who rely on background work as a sole source of income, which, to me, is unadvisable. You can be on a shoot until 3am, then get called for another job and have to be there by 7am. Not sure how those people manage. And although some days are ridiculously easy, others are not so cushy. Sometimes you are on your feet in heels (sometimes not your own -- ouch) for 13 hours working in cold rain and your holding area is a makeshift tent; other times you have a comfy afternoon of waiting and more waiting inside an actual building (a school, veteran’s center, etc) like I did on my magical Melissa McCarthy day.
9pm: Melissa McCarthy confers with her husband, Ben Falcone, who is also the film’s co-director, then turns around and points to me.
“Would you mind, when Susan goes up there and dances, can you get up and throw dollar bills at her?”
“Sure,” I nod. It is very unusual to be directed by “the talent” or the actual direction (that is the second A.D.s job).
“Sure, I can do that.” I say, and then go about the job of whipping one dollar bills at Susan Sarandon’s hips, praying I don’t screw it up the timing. (I do, the first time. Doh!)
11pm A bunch of us are sent back to the second holding area. I decide to go wander back on set and see if they need anything, but really it’s just an excuse to witness the masters at work as they improvise and alter lines and actions.
It turns out to be good timing, because an assistant nabs me and says, “You. Go stand between Susan and Melissa. You’re are all going to be doing shots together, and Melissa is going to hand you a drink , and everyone gets loaded.” We shoot the scene about 10 times, downing warm iced tea, tequila style. Every time, it feels a little more real and, unlike many stars on other sets, Melissa and Susan are chatty and warm with us.
By the time we wrap, it feels like the end of a play we’ve all done together. Of course, when the wrap bell rings, reality kicks in, and I know my job is to go directly to wardrobe and check out, not to hug and celebrate with the talent and crew. We extras are, after all, sometimes called “living furniture.”
I get my check in the mail a few weeks later, rejoicing at the extra hours and “meal penalties” I received (these are fees the union requires we are paid if they don’t feed us at certain intervals). I’m sure I’ll only be visible in the scene for two seconds, but that’s what 13 hours of background work looks like on the big screen.
In my frame of mind, being on set, in whatever capacity, is special because so few people get to be a part of such a cool process. And when you get a day as fun as my job on “Tammy,” where the day itself is an adventure, and you are surrounded by the energy of people absolutely dedicated to their craft, it makes you grateful for the possibilities of your life. Even if you are “just” an extra.