Monday, June 6, 2011

Extra, Crispy

This is a bus filled with extras for the movie Men in Black III, probably the largest and most expensive major motion picture currently in production. Most of us got up around four am and are trying to sleep.

I'd gotten the call from the casting agency the afternoon before. I'd signed up because a reader of my blog with Backstage tipped me off that with background/extra and stand-in work, you could make $350 a day. So when the agency called me asking if I was available early in the morning, I said, absolutely. Sure I had rehearsal until 10pm, but I could always take a nap after.

Well,the rehearsal was pushed back an hour, so I got out at 11. I got back around midnight. I ate, went to be at 12:30, fell asleep an hour later, and then my alarm woke me at 4:15. I stumbled around, showered, put on the wardrobe the casting call listed (light colored button down, white undershirt, belt, non-blue pants, brown/black lace up shoes, black socks), grabbed my passport to fill out payment forms with, a pen, a few business cards, my phone, my subway card, and keys, and left after a pb&j sandwich breakfast.

I checked in with a couple people with clipboards waiting for the shuttle to pick us up at 36th and 3rd ave. They didn't want my name, they just wanted my registration number, 189. I got in line. We waited. The bus was late, but it came. We got on, and I tried to remember how to sleep on a bus.

We'd been told we were going to a state park. As a Pacific Northwest native, when I hear "state park," I think forest. Not so much. Robert Moses State Park is something between a small island and a massive sandbar off the coast of Long Island. No tree cover. This became a problem, but not until much later.

So we were herded in, handed some papers to sign, including the first indication I had of what we were actually getting paid for this gig as non-union actors: $85 for ten hours of work.

Yes, I was a bit disappointed, but I was there, and I'd get to see what the film set would look like. So I was shuffled through a line in a huge tent, and then sent outside to wardrobe. After getting about halfway through the line there, I was told I was actually in the line for hair and makeup and sent around to the other end of the tent. I went through that line again (women on the left, men on the right), handed over my voucher, gave my number, and then had my measurements taken, glancing over at the uncomfortable looks on the women while they had to publicly answer questions about their measurements. I was handed a jacket, tried it on. The sleeves were halfway up my wrists to my elbows. They took the jacket and asked we to wait to the side.

Ten minutes later, I was in green army pants, a pressed white short sleeved shirt, purple 60s tie, and black shoes. I put my stuff in a hanger back labeled with my name. One of the costumers came over, looked at me critically and declared that I looked great. So I was sent on my merry way.

Back to hair and makeup. Someone combing through the line pulled me out for a futile attempt at another shave. Thick black beard stubble on white skin never really goes away without methods nobody should use on their face. I went back to the end of the line and was sat down to have my hair gelled.

The surprise was when the person mumbled something about my back, pulled out a pair of clippers, and started cutting my hair! Just the nape of my neck, but up past the hairline there. Then the sideburns went, and she cleaned it up around the ears. It actually looked pretty good, but it was a little unexpected. Then came the gel and the severe side part, blown out by hair dryer.

By the time I got back to the big holding tent where we'd done our registration, it was lunch time. Good buffet lunch. Then we were given name tags-- mine was press badge for the Apollo 11 launch, which was what we were supposed to be filming.

We were put on a bus and rolled out to a set of bleachers, with a bunch of 60s style video cameras in front of it, and one modern camera on a huge mobile crane device. I got behind the cameras ion the noontime sunlight, and started chatting with my fellow extras.

We talked politics, we talked about travel in Japan. A couple of them were older, experienced SAG and AFTRA union members, and they told us all about some of the politics within there. They gave us tips on navigating set, pointed out where the nearest snack tables, and noted with hawks' eyes everything that would get them extra pay under their union contracts (shortened lunch period, being asked to smoke, held past eight hours, etc.)

...and that was what we did until 4:30pm. By then I'd noticed that my left forearm was a bit burned, and that everyone around me was starting to look pretty red. Since I'd thought I was going to spending a day in the woods, I didn't have any sunscreen.

There's a word for that kind of choice... what was it again... oh, yeah. "Stupid."

We had to go through wardrobe again, get our stuff, and the wait in the most bizarrely shaped nautilus sort of line I've ever seen form to check out. Then wait for the buses back to the city. In the sun.

I'd left home after three hours of sleep a little before 5am. I got back home at 8:30pm, now realizing just how incredibly sunburned I was, and about ready to collapse. I ate, crashed, got up to let my girlfriend in, who gave me the sunscreen and aloe I'd asked her to grab on her way to my place, and then collapsed again in a stinging stupor. I got up about a dozen times, each time washing a coating of aloe off, put a fresh one on, drink a liter of water. Twice I took a couple aspirin. Three times I realized I had either a tonsil or something similar inside the left side of my neck swollen and screaming at me, so I had to keep getting ice packs from the fridge. By 8am I was trying to figure out if I needed to go the emergency room or just the regular wing of the hospital.

Then I miraculously fell asleep for three more hours, and when I woke up, I was still burnt, but my neck was just fine. No doctors visit needed for me. I had enough to time to look over my script again, eat breakfast, take a very careful shower, slather myself in sunscreen.

I'm not doing that again until I get a union card and actually earn the $350+ instead of $85. It wasn't worth it.


  1. As your uncle would say....experiences that are tuition of life. Hope your sunburn heals well. It was an interesting experience to read about even if not very remunerative for you.

  2. I like the version a friend of mine told me in college: "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." And yeah, I did learn a thing or two.

  3. Here in Detroit, the 'extra' work has been what some people are doing just to get by in this horrible economy. In fact, so many are doing it, they're even starting to go out of state for it, carpooling to share gas costs, sleeping in cars, etc.

    Unfortunately, being SAG here doesn't mean anything since we're a specific market. You can't earn SAG credits as background, either. You have to have a principal role or better. As such, I've been holding off on joining until I have to. I'll soon be a must-join for SAG, though. Here in this market, it just isn't worth it at this point, especially with the changes on the film incentives bringing less work here.

    However, there's a list of stuff I always bring with me onto set. Sunscreen is one of those things! I'm an Irish/English redhead. I burn just looking at a picture of the sun! Also bug spray (you NEVER know), two bottles of water in the bottom of a bag and some snack foods and a notebook and pen. Also because I'm a girl I slip in some girl items just in case and it's come in handy for friends of mine on three occasions so far!

    Glad you're better and hope you've healed up well!