I got called to be an extra for a TV show shooting here in town!
I stepped out the back door of my house and walked through the rain the five blocks to the crew holding area at the local Catholic Church. The directions from the producers were perfect, so I found my way to the small church hall where the staff were organizing and orienting the day’s extras. When I walked in I passed by to the end of a line of very nice looking people. Right away I sensed I was in introvert heaven as practically everyone seemed to be very self-conscious and no one was smiling or making eye contact. Heaven for them, that is, because I am the opposite of introverted, falling on the far end of the raging extravert continuum. Anyway, rather than a line of people wiggling, chatting, and otherwise waiting eagerly to be on TV, they seemed more like a line of people waiting to have their fingerprints taken.
I smiled at the tallish, slender young woman behind me, though, and we struck up a conversation. This was the first time as an extra for both of us. We were both excited and eager to see how the whole process worked. OK I’ll stop talking now.
As we stood in line the manager, Zach, gave us instructions about how to and not to fill out the employment forms we were waiting to receive. The young man was obviously stressed, talking to himself a lot, but also cracking dry jokes constantly. I hope he noticed at least me smirking, because I thought he was very funny and was trying have fun and get us to have fun too. But it was a tough line. I guess most felt a little shy and nervous.
As I got up to the desk to get my forms he asked me, as he did the people before me, my name and role. He was looking up names on his little phone screen while also talking on a squawking radio to others outside and on set. I told him my name was hyphenated, which helped him find me quickly . . . he had already opined that whoever it was sent him the list didn’t put us in alphabetical order. Since I was probably the oldest person there (most of the extras were students and young adults, with a few 30 & 40 year olds thrown in) he pegged me right away for one of the “Professors”. I quickly took my papers and backtracked through the line to the prep room. I guess I was a little nervous too, because I almost walked into the women’s rest room by mistake.
So I got my forms filled out; had to wrangle (silently) for a chair and a spot at a table. Folks were still seeming quiet, nervous, and self-absorbed; but the staff, including an extra herder, wardrobe, and makeup people, kept their eyes bright and smiles close to their lips. I filled out my forms, left my bags and coat in a pile on the floor, and got back in line. It didn’t take too long to show my ID and head back for wardrobe and makeup. I got pulled from the wardrobe line as that one was slow & a chair was open. I sat in a folding chair of the kind you always see on TV in the make up room, introduced myself to the makeup gal, who gave me a little pat of something on my forehead to keep me from shining & that was it, then back in line.
Most of the extras had followed instructions and brought several “looks” in the preppy casual style. I was surprised at how particular and also how kind the wardrobe lady was, a young woman with a perpetual smile and endless affirmations about how good we all looked, with questions about how we felt looking how we looked. So people were unpacking backs with blouses, blazers, sweaters and the like and comparing combinations. That part was great because I felt like even the extras mattered because how we looked mattered, too.
When it was my turn the wardrobe person looked at me and said “Professor!” I had come in my tweedish sport coat, brown Vans, black shirt and pants, and my felt fedora. I said, “What do you think? I brought a few options, too.” She said, “Are you happy?” “Sure!” “Great. You nailed it!” So quick as that I was professorial and done and set to waiting around for further instructions.
As I hung about watching people get dressed and made up I became aware how very good looking everyone in the room was. Yes, the roomed teemed with only beautiful people, some who knew it and others who didn’t know it. We were chosen, I realized, because of how we looked and might look on camera. It didn’t occur to me to wonder which kind I was, one who knew or didn’t know about my looks. Anyway now I suppose I know. And here I thought my eye-candy days were long gone!
All this took about an hour, which seemed longer for all the waiting involved; also because people didn’t know each other and weren’t gabbing. Eventually we were called to attention and given instructions prior to getting shuttled to the “shoot”. So if you ever get to do this here is how it goes: “You will get instructions on what to do as BG (background) when you get there. DO NOT TALK ON THE SET AND DO NOT TALK TO THE ACTORS (so they can focus, which is fair). Your cue to do what you are instructed to do is BACKGROUND. When you hear BACKGROUND start moving immediately. When you hear RESET go back to your starting position and listen again for your cue. ACTION is for the actors/stars! Oh, and did I say DO NOT TALK ON THE SET. Just be quiet! You are furniture and potted plants!” No, he didn’t really say that last part.
So then we lined up and waited for several white Ford vans to pull up for us. We piled in. The fellow next to me said howdy and we exchanged names. I’m keeping track! Now I have met Tyler in the van and Hannah in line and Oh yes Ron who finally couldn’t stand it in the waiting room before and told me about his wife and family and moving several times and how long he had lived in Portland and what a clown he is and how hard it was not to start goofing around. Anyway now I know three people! No, four! The wisecracking manager guy is Zach. Not a bad start. The wardrobe lady (don’t know her name) sat up in front with the driver (whose name she knew) and chatted happily while the rest of us made like potted plants and didn’t talk or move. Well, I fidgeted a bit and kept trying to make eye contact with SOMEONE. No luck.
It took just a couple of minutes to haul us downtown to the alleyway back entrance to a rented hall off main street. I’d been in there several times; the high school holds their annual auction/dance/fundraiser there, and the local Latina empowerment group hosts Day of the Dead celebration there. Most folks came from out of town; so I had a little advantage in orientation and comfort level. We started settling in the main floor; a buffet was set out and the room smelled great. But before too long our handlers hollered for us to go upstairs (there is a balcony above the main floor) because BG holding is up there, not down here, which is obviously for the real actors/stars. It was kind of funny; lights and warmth and food on the main floor, hard chairs and darkness (no lights upstairs) and no goodies for BG.
I’m not complaining, just observing. Some of the staff obviously treated us like real people with feelings; the invisible producers and, apparently, another layer of the production really probably did see us just as drivers of cars, wearers of hats, leafy ferns, ficuses, and a cacti or three. Just part of the experience and seeing how it works. Fascinating!
Two other “Professors” sat at the same table with me upstairs as we waited for mobilization to the shoot. Aha! I’m not the only extravert after all. They seemed relieved to be able to chat. The fun part is neither one cared what anyone did for their real job. I didn’t have to ruin the conversation by confessing about my job. We just talked about how the day was going, if we had done this before (they both had, a lot), etc. The funny thing I wondered if Scott was a pastor because he kind of acted like one. Hey, now I know five people!
After another half hour or so Zach the wisecracker came upstairs and started picking people to follow him onto the set, which was the sidewalk outside the building. He took a few at a time; at one point he beckoned to some young women “Follow me!” and then muttered as he passed by me, “if you want to live.” Smirk! Well at least I got it. The girls tailed him timidly downstairs as if their lives depended on it and on out the door.
Eventually we all made it to the street, which was set up to look like a main street with shops in a small town. Amazing what they did with that. But details matter; cars had fake Oregon license plates on them (no free advertising for Ron Tonkin), fresh old leaves were being scattered on the sidewalk, even fresh branches with fall leaves attached to the bare ones still budding. One of my new professor friends sat at a cafe table with a “student” and were given muffins as props. I was seated sort of under a portico and given an empty coffee cup and plate with a dirty crumpled napkin and several blueberries. The professor grinned at me. Smirk! The prop guy helped himself to one of my blueberries. Smirk!
That was fine except anyone who really knows me knows I always fold my napkins after I use them. No one will recognize me! Or it will seem fake because I NEVER wad up my napkin and I ALWAYS eat all my blueberries! Focus.
I got instructions first from Zach, who wanted me to read a book then get up and walk away (no book yet) on a cue. Then I got other instructions from the other herder, nice lady, to move to sit at the other side of the table and chat with HEY I KNOW YOU WE MET IN LINE a young lady, Hannah in real life, while other people interacted with us. The cold steel chair shivered my timbers; a staffer at least came by and cheerfully wiped off the seat with a damp towel, better than nothing. All around us gaffers and camera people and set people in safety vests bustled around with their equipment. We all waited in our start spots and DID NOT TALK. Of course everyone else around us was talking so why couldn’t we talk?
All of sudden everything went quiet and we heard BACKGROUND! Our cue! Start pretending to talk! “Oh wow, that’s great! When did you get the news? That’s fantastic! You’ve been waiting all your life for this! Good for you! No thanks, we’re good, don’t need more invisible coffee. Amazing! Ha hahahahaha! What are you saying? I don’t understand a word you are pretending to say! Ha hahahaha! Isn’t this great!” Then the background noise starts up again & some bustling happens and some people getting new instructions and Hannah and I are sitting on our cold chairs with invisible coffee in 40 degrees without mittens and beginning to shiver, which gets worse as we do this over and over again for about an hour . . .
Did you know, if you are cold, that if you smile and pretend to have a wonderful conversation you will not feel cold as you are doing that?
During this time I caught a glimpse of two of the STARS. They walked right by me! I could tell they were stars because of their terrific make up and top shelf wardrobe. Very nice looking young ladies. I did not try to talk to them. One glanced at me and I felt . . . plant like. Perhaps she thought “Hm, It’s a cactus, wearing a fedora.”
It’s a wrap! Finally! It’s a good thing because the producers had to unblock main street at a certain time. Now regular people are coming and going, acting completely natural in the most easy way, which was so very hard for us to do on cue because we are BG for a television show. Real Life leaks back in to main street with people walking too fast, dodging each other, and sounds of real traffic. For us BGs it’s time to go back inside and upstairs to the holding balcony.
I have much more I can say and describe. The experience went on for another hour and a half of waiting, chatting, listening, sitting, and wondering what would happen next. We had to wait until production was done with us; we might have needed to stay for another number of hours for reshoots or additional BG needs. As it turned out they only needed 8 students and recruited them to stay on until who knows when long into the night. The rest of us were “released”, how’s that for a cue!
I chatted with my “Professor” friends (never knew why we were called that as we actually were just older BGs) while in line waiting to get my voucher signed. I will get paid for 5 hours of Bacdgrounding at minimum wage. My new friends do this a lot; apparently once you are “in” you get called for various things. They had done Portlandia and a show called “American Vandal”, some kind of mocumentary detective show, among other things. Sometimes they hung around for as long as 12 hours for shoots. Once one of them got offered a line to say, but since he wasn’t really a Jewish dad he couldn’t pronounce the Hebrew needed at the wedding. Anyway they are BG junkies or something, kind of like a hobby. So they will be back. I think if you study backgrounds of television shows and commercials filmed in Portland you’ll see them regularly.
I told the nice lady who signed my voucher that I had a good time. Thanks! And if anyone asks me, I would definitely do it again.
You may be wondering what the TV show is that we might be in. I can’t tell you that as it is a pilot and not officially picked up yet. Also, even though I know the name of the program I can’t tell you a thing about it because it’s not the kind of thing I watch anyway.
But yeehoo I’m gonna be on TV! I believe this is my sister’s doing, but that is another story for another time.