|This Ricky Gervais series was an absolute scream, but did not really address the abject boredom which accompanies the life of an extra. Who could be bored with Ricky Gervais in the room?|
|My first extras gig was as "deep background"|
on this flick. I turned down an audition in
order to do it, a mistake I would never repeat.
In the old days, extras were considered the lowest rung on the ladder of show business talent. It may still be considered that way in Los Angeles. Certainly when I lived in L.A., no self-respecting actor would ever work as an extra; it was commonly believed that those who had been extras would never be considered for speaking roles.
Back then, extras even had their own union. Eventually, the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) was absorbed by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and much later, they were joined by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), becoming the messy monolith to which union film actors now belong. But I digress.
When I landed in DC, I discovered that there was no stigma attached to working "background." Many professional actors did it to help augment the income. I did my fair share of it (I wrote all about my film career, such as it was at the time, here), and hated every minute of it.
Waiting around wears me out more than doing anything active, and background actors do a hell of a lot of waiting around. In recent years, every single time I work background, I swear I'll never do it again.
Two weeks ago, I received an offer for two days' work on the HBO sitcom Veep.
The show films in Baltimore and the surrounding area, and the casting director, though local, has a national reputation and has won several Emmy awards for her work.
|Tony Hale plays the VP's assistant, and provided much of the|
physical comedy on set. He is an alum of another respected
cult favorite, Arrested Development.
I do not get called by Pat very often, so I do not like to refuse her. I was assured that the shoot would be a small one, including less than 10 or so extras. The smaller the number of extras, you see, the less likely it is that you will be treated like cattle.
I need the money, and I need Pat to be pleased with me, so I agreed to the gig. The shoot was scheduled on a Monday and Tuesday, which fit into my performance schedule of Barefoot in the Park, so I really had no reason to refuse. (You didn't know I was doing Barefoot in the Park? Where have you been?? Go here for that report.) I dutifully set my alarm for 5 friggin' o'clock in the morning, and left the house at 6 AM for the one hour drive to the location. Much of Veep is shot on a sound stage in Columbia, MD, but these two days were to be shot on location in a mansion on the wrong side of Baltimore.
I arrived at Base Camp, the area where all the wardrobe trailers, and those with the actors' dressing rooms, were set up.
|The West Wing visited DC several times a year,|
including this famous 2-parter which traced Bartlett's
relationship with Mrs Landingham. I was in the
background during the Young Jeb flashbacks.
Often, as in this case, Base Camp is several miles away from the actual shooting location. There was much consternation in the wardrobe trailer about my clothes, which were not found acceptable. Background actors, you see, are almost always asked to supply their own wardrobe, and I had done my best to dress as the character I was to portray, a hair/makeup person. I was stripped of my own clothes, and given others which were so similar to the ones I had brought that it was comical. Oh, well.
Vans transported the 10 or so of us to the set at around 8 AM. Background actors are the cheapest of a film's labor force, so they are always the first required on the set, and the last to be released.
It makes for a very long day, but a profitable one. The initial 8 hours of an extra's workday is dirt cheap, even for union actors, hovering around $125 total. But once overtime kicks in (which it usually does), the money starts to ka-ching.
There were two of us slated to play "hair/makeup" artisans for these two days. It turned out that this entire episode of Veep was to take place in the supposed home/office of the Vice President, and would concern an important press interview (thus the need for "hair/makeup" people). Other extras were to portray cameramen, sound guys, grips, and others who perform tasks during TV interviews. Gotta love our profession, which requires that actors portray professionals who are already in the room. Actual cameramen were shooting fake cameramen who were shooting the interview; actual hair and makeup people were touching up fake hair and makeup people who were touching up other actors.
I admit to having some fun with the scene in which I adjusted Allison Janney's hair. She was playing the high-powered journalist conducting the interview, and our big scene included her producer; the scene revealed all the sneaky questions they were going to spring on our heroine, the veep.
|Janney's background is the stage; she|
did her best to keep up with the improvisational
aspect of Veep. She spent years reciting text
written by Aaron Sorkin, whose dialogue did
NOT need improvised improvement.
I was quickly briefed, by REAL hair and makeup, how to futz around with Allison's hair without really messing it up, which must be avoided at all costs. The sequence went well, I think, but who am I to judge, I'm not even sure I was in the camera shot. But the director, a short Brit with a lively sense of humor, encouraged Janney and the actor playing her producer to stray from the script if they liked.
This was to be the most fun, and the most engaged, I was to be for two days. I appeared in one or two more background shots, but spent most of Monday in the holding cell, which really felt like one, as I was trapped with the other extras. Though there were only 10 of us, I was to discover that most of them were righteous bores.
We wrapped the first day of Veep at 9:30 PM, having been on the clock since 7 AM. Ka-ching. I dashed home to hit the hay for the next long day. I was to learn that Veep usually budgets 5-6 days to shoot a complete episode, but in this case, the entire episode was being shot on these two days. Janney had to return to LA Wednesday for another gig. So, concerns about overtime were non-existent; they were determined to get the job done, no matter how long it took. Tuesday was more torturous for me than Monday. We arrived at 9 AM, and I took my seat on the hard, straight-backed chair in the holding area, and waited. I was not called to the set until 11 PM. You read that right: I sat, unused, for 14 hours. We were not released from the set until 1 AM.
I was exhausted and frustrated and determined (yet again) NEVER to work background again. My only consolation was the knowledge that severe overtime and other penalties would result in a substantial paycheck for my two days' work. I did indeed receive nice paychecks in the mail the following week. I also received greetings from both the Maryland and District of Columbia Departments of Transportation. As I was heading out to the gig on Tuesday morning, a traffic camera snapped a lovely picture of my car going over the speed limit.
About 16 hours later, as I returned south from Baltimore to DC at 1:30 in the morning, another camera snapped my car again. In addition to some nice overtime payments for doing Veep, I was awarded $140 worth of speeding tickets.
I swear I'm never working background again.