Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Atmospheric Artistry

A few weeks ago, I did something I swore never to do again.  I've made that promise to myself before, but every few years, I renege on it.  I spent two very long days displaying my atmospheric artistry. 
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?
I worked as an extra.  We don't really call it that anymore, it is commonly known these days as "background work,"  though filmmakers sometimes simply call it "atmosphere." 
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. 
I love this story about Hollywood extras.  In 1974's The Towering Inferno, dozens of party-goers are trapped on a top floor of a skyscraper on fire.  There was to be weeks and weeks of work for these background players.  In the early days of shooting, the director needed a handful of extras to walk into the elevator.  Hoping for some dynamic close-ups, several amateurs volunteered.  Yes, they were shot going into the elevator, after which the shaft exploded and they were burned beyond recognition.  The less-eager but smarter background actors who had held back remained on the set for the duration of the shoot, and probably bought boats with their overtime.
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.
Contact, starring Jodie Foster and directed by Robert Zemeckis, spent many weeks in DC in 1996.  Big budget movies love to film in front of the national monuments of the capital.  The biggest background shoot I have ever worked was on this picture, which took place on a wintry day, outside.  Literally hundreds of extras shivered all day in sub-freezing temps while Jodie and Matt McConaughey walked up and down the steps of the Capitol building.  Once again, I swore never to work background again.
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. 
Wayne Knight, so effective in Seinfeld and 3rd Rock From the Sun, disappointed me greatly when I worked background on For Richer or Poorer.  I sat in the climactic courtroom as he was dragged in to wrap up the plot.  The monologue he was supposed to deliver was clearly hilarious, but he had not learned it.  Take after take, he continued to cut the text until only a few lines remained.  It was my first indication that the screenplay of a film is nothing like the script of a play;  the dialogue in a screenplay is treated as merely a suggestion.
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.
I have not seen this HBO series, but was impressed with the recurring cast, most of whom were on set during the two day shoot.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her costars were encouraged to improvise around the scripted dialogue, and they were all pretty good at it. Louis-Dreyfus won the Emmy as Best Comedy Actress for Veep's first season.
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. 
I played a lab tech in Michelle Forbes's morgue on
Homicide. She struggled with the word
"toxicology."  She insisted it was "taxicology."
When proved wrong, she demanded to know what
"taxicology" was. I piped up "it's the study of cabs."
I was not hired again on Homicide.

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.
As the lights and such were being set, my co-star, Allison Janney, fiddled with index cards which contained her lines.  She would use them as props in the scene as well.  While we waited for things to get going, a crusty old grip approached her.  "We worked together before!" he announced.  "I worked on Chicago Hope!"  Allison dryly replied, "That was Christine Lahti."
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.

I've had some lousy background experiences, but this one was the worst.  The film was Species 2, and I was booked for two days.  The above scene was shot the first day; we spent many hours in this banquet hall. You'll never find me in this shot, but I am there.  This scene remains in my memory solely because the guy at the podium, giving a lengthy speech, is James Cromwell.  He delivered this monologue, letter perfect, over and over again.  His stage credentials were showing.  The date was July 2, my birthday.  We were called back the next night for an outdoor scene.  In July.  In DC.  In tuxedos.  Hour after hour we stood in the summer air, with temps in the 80s and humidity at 90%.  I've never been that wet except on purpose.  The film employed dozens of non-union extras, and had advertised for them.  So we had many civilians who thought being in a movie would be fun, but who got very bored and unruly after a few hours.  Our overtime extended into the 4th of July holiday, so the paycheck was substantial.  I needed it to be.  During the shoot, my backpack was stolen.  Wallet, phone, eye glasses, radio, keys, all gone.  Yet again, I swore never to work background.
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 actually had a very small recurring role (2 episodes is enough to "recur," right?) on The Wire, so I never worked background on it, though it spent 5 or so years filming in Baltimore.  Homicide was also filmed in Baltimore; they both employed a dozen or so background actors as regulars in the squad room.  See all those people in the background?  They worked several days a week all through production.  They are probably the only SAG actors in the DC area to earn enough to qualify for union health care.
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.