I’m getting the sense that readers are missing Barbara’s Hollywood anecdotes. I’ve heard your cries and would love to share some insight from my former acting career...
Every year in Hollywood, John Goodman gets a new show. And every year, hundreds of people are paid minimum wage to stand in the background and pretend not to notice him. These people are called extras. It’s their duty to fill in the background, to make a scene look realistic, to pantomime and simulate conversation, to try not to stare at his waistline while cameras roll. From the moment I became aware of this career opportunity, every random person in L.A. seemed to have a story about it. It’s like when you learn a new word like “perspicacious” and suddenly you hear everyone using it. My barber told me he could currently be seen at the movies, eating soup over Kelly Preston’s shoulder. He was out of focus in the scene, but I’d surely spot him wearing a blue vest.
I moved to L.A. in ’01 after taking Act One in '99. The plan was to definitely pursue sitcom writing. But before becoming a writer, I first needed to taste the limelight (as I would never again experience).
What a hopeful, affirming word: extra. Webster’s Dictionary describes the word as something additional--an add-on, a supplement. Who doesn’t love extra credit? Who besides Muslims, Orthodox Jews, Hindus, and vegetarians wouldn’t want an extra sausage? Who doesn’t love Mark McGrath on Extra?
One brisk January morning, I looked up CASTING in the yellow pages and started alphabetically. AAA&AA Casting had a recorded message: “We are hiring extras for several high-profile films currently in production. On Wednesday we will hold an open-call at our offices on Melrose and La Brea.” Oh baby. This was the break for which I was waiting. It didn’t matter what they were casting, high-profile or low-profile. Weekend at Bernies 4: Still A Waste of Time, I would be there.
I had no idea what to expect. Would I be auditioning at the office? Should I have prepared a scene? Would one of the film’s stars be on hand to run scenes with us extras?
My friend graciously loaned me his SUV for the trip to the casting office. I hopped in and switched to Hot 104.3 where Enrique Iglesis was singing through his mole. He sang about wanting to "be with me" and man, I could feel his presence.
I was second in line at the casting office. For half an hour I chatted it up with other hopefuls. Some of them were showbiz vets, having been in the background of hundreds of films. At 2 0’clock, a woman named Jelani Sanders came outside with a notepad in hand and a bra strap that refused to do its job. She was accompanied by a skinny guy clasping a Polaroid camera. “Who can work Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and possibly Monday?” she asked bluntly, not bothering to crack a smirk across her weathered face. It took half a second to flip through my mental calendar before realizing every square was blank. “I can!” I raised my hand in earnest.
“Fine,” said Jelani, giving a tug on her rebellious strap. “You’re playing busboy number one. Can you go to a wardrobe fitting this afternoon?”
“That’s what I’m asking,” she snapped, missing the point. “Take his picture.” Skinny guy aimed the camera at me and snapped a photo of my giddy face.
Within the hour, I found myself in a fitting room. It felt sensational. “What’s your inseam, sugar plum?” asked Bobbi Jasmine, a wardrobe lady with a Southern accent and a presumed heart of gold. I had never measured my inseam. Up to this point my wardrobe fittings involved the mirror of the men’s dressing room at Target. If they buttoned properly and didn’t make my butt fan out like a dead pigeon, I’d buy ‘em.
“I have no idea. I’m sorry,” I apologized.
She ran that measuring tape up my body -- from ankle to calf, past the inner thigh, until she hit home. I tried not to squawk. “You’re a 32, precious.”
She found a white jacket, black pants, and shiny shoes for me to wear. “OK, busboy number one, you’re set,” she said as she finished putting together my ensemb. She wrote my name on a strip of masking tape and wrapped it around the hanger. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to be in a major motion picture. I had a costume to wear and in essence, a character to portray.
As a way of expressing thanks, I whipped out one of my new 8x10s and autographed it: “To Bobbi Jasmine, thanks for making me look so good. See you at the movies!” On my way out, I caught her tossing it in the garbage.
I went back to the casting office and they handed me a couple pages of instruction. On page two, something caught my eye. The names “Julia” and “Catherine” appeared in a sentence. “I’m sorry,” I bothered Jelani Sanders, “Are these the names of the actors who will be appearing in our scene?”
“Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta Jones, yes,” she replied.
I was awestruck. Julia Roberts? The actress whose political statements made me wretch but whose movies made me tingle? The pretty woman? Erin Brokevich? Tinkerbell? Julia Roberts is the reason I wanted to become an actor in the first place, I told myself, disregarding the fact that I had never actually wanted to become an actor in the first place.
It didn’t matter. I was in a giddy frame of mind. I think I literally skipped down the sidewalk. The only thing the moment missed was an oversized lollipop. One week in L.A. and I was co-starring in a major motion picture with Julia Freaking Roberts.
Life was good. Too bad that adjective wouldn’t aptly describe the movie that would become America’s Sweethearts…