Sunday, February 19, 2012

Extra, Extra...

Riddle me this: If you are an actor in Deming and you get a call to do a non-speaking part in a TV show filming in Albuquerque, do you go?
Considerations: Extra work, or "background" as it is called, doesn't make good resume material. Actors with a few film or television credits don't typically go out for this work.
On the other hand, I've been out of a job for half a year, and this was the first time aside from my acting classes that anyone has offered to pay me for any kind of work -- an hourly rate comparable to an office temp job. My agent said, Why not? There's even a chance you can get upgraded to a speaking role -- that happens sometimes. And you should get on a professional set and learn the atmosphere. Go.
So I drove to Albuquerque with the only suit I own and a fresh haircut, assigned to play a non-speaking FBI agent.
The show, by the way, is In Plain Sight, a USA Network drama currently filming its fifth and final season in Albuquerque. The fourth episode of the season was being filmed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. At 6:30 AM, when I showed up, the west side parking lot had been completely taken over by the production company, where a small city of trucks and trailers and an open catering area had been set up.
More extras reported for duty and I began what was to be a long day of getting acquainted with an interesting subculture in the industry: the extras. I did not meet a single aspiring actor among them (see above.) The people I met were retirees, housewives, people taking a day off work, and vacationers. Vacationers! Yes! People from out of town coming in to do a day or two of extra work on a major TV show. People who enjoy being around a set, who get to appear on a popular show, who might get a glimpse of well-known actors they admire. Extras get a lot of time to wait and mingle, make new friends, network. There is usually food, sometimes good food; there is also pay.
The very first shot of the morning was a dolly shot in the lobby of the hotel. The staff of the hotel were amazing -- the place was still conducting business while the set occupied their lobby. One of the hotel's cleaning staff looked on in amusement at an extra who had been costumed as hotel cleaning staff. The episode's director was a sweet-tempered man clearly working, and thinking, very fast, as he arranged people all over the lobby to compose a complicated shot. He positioned me with two young guys and went on his way, whereupon a prop person equipped me with a prop gun, an FBI medallion, and pad and pen. An assistant director explained the situation to me, that I would be questioning two men. Pieces of colorful tape were placed where I stood with two stand-ins.
Suddenly, the stand-ins vanished almost into thin air, and two of the episode's stars took their place. (It's not bad being in SAG.) Brady and Andy introduced themselves and there was even time to flash a couple of baby pictures (one of the men just became a father) before it was time to roll. Since I was supposed to be interviewing them about some Awful Event that takes place in the episode, we softly improvised questions and answers. I have to wonder if the boom microphone captured any of our chatter -- we were a bit lewd. You put three cut-ups together, that's what happens.
Three takes of that, and the "background" performers were taken back to our "holding area" (mooooo.....!) for a ten minute break. The ten minute break stretched into an hour, two, three, and more. Things change on the fly. The crew managed to be as polite as they were busy, and informed us that the FBI Agents would be needed in another shot later. It was Valentine's Day, and many of them had adorned their faces with heart-shaped stickers; one man had even dressed himself up as Cupid, and walked about "blessing" people with little swats of his bow and arrow. I never figured out what his job was.
Meanwhile, extras costumed as hotel guests were taken in and out. The day passed. A long Texas Hold'em tournament took place. Others read or did things on their personal electronic devices. I think a young man and woman met and made a date. We were invited to have a late lunch -- and were treated to a delicious buffet. (On this particular show, everyone gets the same high-quality food, from the show's stars to the members of the crew to the extras. That's not always the case.) After that, more waiting.
At 7:00 PM, never having gone back for the other shot, the FBI Agents were wrapped, and within minutes our vouchers (for our pay) had been signed, our props turned in, and we were sent on our way.
My friends and family were a little more excited about this than they needed to be. I had been paid to be in one shot and to read my book -- a biography of Rosa Luxemburg -- for the rest of the day.
Riddle me this: How is it that a man with a master's degree and over a decade of good executive/administrative work experience, plus a few years teaching public school, can't get a job mowing lawns -- but he can get paid a day's wages to sit around a hotel reading a book?

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