On a film set, the boss is the director. Beneath him or her are actors, producers, and the like. The technical crew is primarily made up of men who wear sweat-stained T-shirts from other movies they’ve worked on and cargo shorts filled with emergency items like lighting accessories, electrical tape, and pot. The rest of the set is filled with people who have funny names for themselves—grips (people who grip stuff), craft services (people who do crafts), gaffes (people who gaff), and best boys (boys, presumably the best).
Wardrobe departments are made up of elderly flamboyant men who snap when you return a borrowed outfit without the original hanger and women who have their long, gray hair done in a French braid. They always have a tape measure draped over their shoulders like an honor cord wrapped around a proud valedictorian.
Assistant directors (heretofore called A.D.s) take all the heat from the higher-ups. It’s understandable why they would be irritable. Their walkie-talkies crackle with stern commands like, “Ms. Reid has a tickle in her throat. Get her a lozenge immediately.”
My biggest dustup with an A.D. happened on The Majestic. Two hundred extras were dressed in 1950’s attire at the Mann’s Chinese Theater and I was one of the lucky ones positioned in the shot. As the camera brushed past my shoulder, I would move into my seat following my date. I was facing the camera, so I had to be sure not to look in its' direction or my expression would be caught in a close-up.
During the first take, I felt the camera crew sweep past me. I started to move in, but my date's hoop skirt blocked my path. I stepped back for a moment and bumped into, presumably the crew. Again, I wasn't looking because I was following strict orders.
The first A.D. came over and screamed at me in hushed tones. “DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU JUST DID?” she harped. “Be careful, idiot, or I send you home.” I barely brushed anyone, what was the big deal? Then a weirder thing happened. Jim Carrey himself walked up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Hey.” That's it. Just "hey." I said "hey" back. He walked away. All two hundred extras stared at me with jealousy in their eyes. It was like I was being blessed by the comic pope.
Turns out I had bumped into Jim, prompting him to spill a bit of popcorn and soda. Even better, Jim liked “our bit” and wanted me to do it every time. The A.D. came back in a much different tone and said, “Do it again. But be careful, idiot.” That bit of clumsiness resulted in an unforgettable moment in a completely forgettable film.
Extras -- soon to be mocked in brilliant Ricky Gervais' new HBO comedy Extras -- come from everywhere, even the slammer. Sounds like I’m joking, but I’m not. When California inmates have paid their debt to society and are released on probation, they are promptly given the phone number of Central Casting. After all, it’s the one job that demands no skill or job training whatsoever. These embezzlers, thieves and molesters are now well-muscled members of society who exist to scare the crap out of females on set.
Most extras want to be actors one day, and they love to sit around and talk about how their manager warned them not to be “pigeon-holed” as background talent. Most of this sad bunch will never reach the level of getting an actual audition, yet everyone has an 8x10 headshot and resume filled with more lies and falsehoods than a hot tub party hosted by Bill Maher.
Let’s trace my history in the shadow of the spotlight. Again, this was 2001 so stretch your minds to remember this far back --
The Practice – My thoughts: Dylan McDermott wears waaaay too much pancake make-up and it looks as if he uses black shoe polish to darken his hair. In person, it looked like Desi Arnez’s helmet.
Family Law – Man, Tony Danza is shorter than me. I wonder if I should point that out to him. Oh wait, no. He’s a tattooed boxer.
Ally McBeal – They made me take off my shirt. "I'm playing the towel boy," I petitioned. "Where will we put my nametag?" The production assistant snapped: "Pin it on your trunks. Just be glad we approve of your body." I'm serious. She said that.
National Lampoon’s Van Wilder – Awful experience. Locked the keys in my car and had to call a Beverly Hills tow truck, which cost more than my day rate. I played an Orthodox Jew and had those curls glued onto my sideburns. It was never my dream of working in a Tara Reid flick. Every extra I worked with seemed under the age of 22. I remember it was the week leading up to Easter and someone was joking about an encounter between Jesus and “that hooker Mary Magdalene.” I wasn’t amused.
Orange County – I remember walking into a darkened school around 2 a.m. and finding Kevin Kline alone, stretching his back against the stairs. I asked him where the rest room was and he was kind enough to answer.
The Wallflowers music video – Sat in the audience and watched the same song performed for twelve hours.
The Parkers – I was the campus honky.
7-Up commercial – This is the one where the 7-Up dude got dragged through a busy street hanging onto a giant blimp. I remember hiding somewhere in-between takes and making calls on my cell.
Mazda – Apparently Asians loves their Caucasians out-of-shape because I got cast as a model for a Mazda print ad. The photographer and crew were Japanese and no one spoke a lick of English, except for the set translator. This one was actually fun because there were only four of us in front of the camera. It’s the one and only time in life I’ve been paid to pose for a picture.
J. Lo video “I’m Real” - Danced in a field and collected briars in my socks. Stood at the foot of the stage and watched Jennifer make out with husband (#2?) Chris Judd when the cameras weren’t rolling. Quite the exhibitionist. Her love really don’t cost a thing.
Oceans 11 – To avoid getting yelled at, as I did in The Majestic I purposely stepped out of Brad Pitt’s way during a take. My intentions backfired and the A.D. yelled at me for looking unnatural. “If someone were about to bump into you on the street would you get out of the way?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Should I get someone else to do your job?” he snapped.
I insisted that I could handle it. For the next seven takes, I body-checked Brad Pitt.
e.r. – Maura Tierney had a horrible cold. She was wheezing and couching, but it still “worked” for her. Nothing makes her unappealing.
Arli$$ - As boring on the set as it is on TV. I did, however, get to wear a designer pin-striped suit. The wardrobe person warned me: “Be careful. This suit is worth more to the world than the value of your life."
Six Feet Under – Danced in a club scene with Keith and David. Well, not "with Keith and David." Let me rephrase - danced in a club scene that also included dialogue between the characters Keith and David. Had I known this would become one of the most innovative and thought-provoking series in TV history I would have cared more.
Gilmore Girls – Also did this show before I was a huge fan. Now I think it’s amazing I was ever in Stars Hollow.
Strong Medicine – I don’t even remember being on this set, but I was.
National Security – Martin Lawrence wasn’t on set this particular day, for which I was thankful. I was dressed as a cop for an outdoor military funeral in a cemetery under controlled Hollywood rain. The wool uniform started smelling like a wet dog. (Don’t call PETA.)
And last but not least... Yes, Sarah and Justine, I made you wait for this one...
America’s Sweethearts – I took a risk that could have certainly gotten me fired from this four-day job. But we’re only talking about $200 bucks, tops, so it was worth it. On the end of day one as the extras were being herded off set I lagged behind in the shadows. There she was, Julia Roberts. I’d already missed my chance to steal her used Starbucks cup from the trash and sell it on EBAY. (Another extra beat me to it.) I was going to seize the day, as Julia had taught me to do in so many of her films.
I was holding a pitcher of ice water as a prop. It made perfect sense. All I had to do was work up the nerve to approach the pretty woman. If I was caught, I’d be sent home on the spot.
“Excuse me, Julia, would you like some water?” I found myself saying.
“Sure, thanks,” she said flashing the smile valued around $20 million.
Nervously I poured the water as she spoke to her make-up woman. When she turned back, I was standing there with a glass of water, holding it in front of her face as if I was waiting to pour the water down her throat. “You can set it down,” she said with a smirk. It was almost as if she’d had encounters with giddy fans prior to this moment. I set the glass down and mumbled “congratulations on winning the Golden Globe,” something that had happened three days prior. “Thank you, thank you very much!” she replied as if I were the first person to give her a Job Well Done.
It's what I do -- make the stars feel loved. I think it's what they need most.