I agreed to work as a background actor (hereafter BA) — extra, that is — for Monday and Tuesday of this past week on NBC’s hit series SMASH. I didn’t go back on Tuesday at 3, our scheduled call time. In fact, I didn’t make it through Monday’s shoot. I escaped around 4:45 pm, and when I use the word escape, I mean it. I won’t get paid the $85 (for 10 hours) they pay you for a full day’s work, which I was told by the other BA’s is more often than not about twelve to sixteen hours (the two to four hours are overtime — what this amounts to in dollars and cents, I do not know). I did this for the experience, to gain some insight for a novel I’m currently writing, and because I’m a huge fan of the show.
Background actors will have my eternal respect. I will never look at another show or film and not be aware of their presence. They are the backbone of every production. They work hard, and often under difficult, tedious, or just plain terrible circumstances. For some, it is a rite of passage, and here is where you earn your dues — and I don’t mean the whopping $3000 you now have to part with to join the newly merged acting unions now known as SAG-AFTRA — but working through the mire that is background acting.
Let me begin with my arrival at the Roseland Ballroom at 7:30 am. When not gussied up for a concert or a special event, this famous NYC landmark, where couples, dancers, and music lovers gathered, many of whom were my relatives of generations past, is in desperate need of refurbishment. It is dark, dank, and when you have to spend the day there, depressing. I arrived at my call time in my carefully chosen outfit: a Norma Kamali for Walmart dress in sapphire blue — my research informed me that blue shows up well on film and flatters everyone, a fabulous c1934 Art Deco Coro Duette white and green rhinestone brooch pinned to one side of the collar, high heeled black boots, and a beige and gold-flecked brocade coat with a fur collar. I thought it was a glam look for an “upscale theater goer” and so did the show’s costume designer/stylist. When I stood in front of her for review she said, “Very nice,” and nodded with approval. I also had to have my make up ok’d and the lovely guy who assessed the job I did at home added a few necessary touches like powder and a bit more blush. There wasn’t much they could do with my very boyish hair and I thought that the woman who looked me over was disappointed. I started to apologize and out of her lips came an enthusiastic, “You look fantastic.” Wow…ok…great! So all in all, my measured considerations (that I spent all weekend mulling over) were well received. That was the easy part.
What wasn’t easy was navigating among the production assistants (hereafter PA) and other egos. At first introduction the PA’s are nice, friendly even, however their genial attitude diminishes with every inquiry, especially from a novice. I was on the line to have my I-9 signed — this document verifies your citizenship to work in the USA — and one PA was ok’ing the wardrobe of a few people who were queued up behind me. When I asked her about mine, she replied, “You have to stand on the line over there, like everyone else.” Oh, ok, sure. So I did. While on line, a woman, a BA, and somewhat younger than myself asked me which one I was on. “For clothes,” I answered with a smile. “You mean wardrobe,” she replied haughtily. I assumed she was SAG — and trying too hard with a plunging neckline and bimbo bling (excuse me, but what goes around…). Before we got to set we were told that the production was several blocks away and was being moved to where we were, and craft services (food) would be provided to all of us. There was no water or coffee when I walked into the ballroom and the SAG-AFTRA BA’s whose call time was 7am had been asking, and apparently all union actors are entitled to food and drink. I heard one PA wearily ask another if she could please, please get some bottles of water asap. Eventually a six pack of small bottles of Poland Spring landed on a table nearby — by that time there were two hundred extras in room. Those who could, pounced. More water was supplied later for everyone.
We were escorted to the set and walked by the bounty offered by craft services. A sign hung over the kiosk that was printed, “For the crew” and added in handwritten thin marker it read ” + SAG.” We were given our places, I was paired off with a very dignified gentlemen name Joe. We were to play a couple at the bar getting drinks before the show. We were given plastic glasses filled with liquid: his was supposed to be scotch neat, and mine was champagne. In reality, they were, respectively, coke, and ginger ale. For the next two and a half hours we stood there pretending to be a couple, smiling, miming a conversation because you aren’t supposed to whisper for fear that the microphone will pick up the sound. There were no bathroom breaks or sips of water, or soda: I was told not to actually drink my drink. We stood for literally two and a half hours.
Joe had been working as a BA for a while, prior to that he was a policeman and house builder, and wanted to take his acting career to the next level. He gave me a crash course, detailing all the things you should do. While he was very kind and solicitous, it was a rather long list. Everyone I met that day was friendly, patient (you have to be), and considerate. The guy I shared a table with back in what they call holding — the recesses of the ballroom — also told me what it was like to work as a background actor and how many times he has appeared on camera and how many seasons of shows he’s been in. He made it sound as though he was a cast member. At one point in the day, he even showed me pictures of himself on various shoots. As he shared each cellphone portrait he would then look at it again and smile before moving on to the next image. A retired couple sat across from our table. They had been doing this twice a week for more than four years. The gentleman explained to me that being a BA was not such a bad deal because, as he put it, “We do two things: we walk and we sit. Who else is going to pay you for that?” He also reveled in the details of the catering services he enjoyed at previous shoots. He seemed quite irritated later on when the PA announced our “walkaway (get it yourself) lunch.”
I also met a couple of twenty-somethings who were looking for their big break. One was SAG-eligible but couldn’t afford the dues yet. She was beautiful, wearing a fashionably soft green beaded dress and heels. A triple-threat dancer, singer, and actor she kept asking me who the principals of the show were. I asked her if she watched the show and she shook her head no. In fact, there wasn’t a single BA I spoke to that day who who watched SMASH or even knew what the show was about. I pointed out Katherine McPhee, Christian Borle, and Jack Davenport to her. She thought the Brit, Davenport, “very cute.” As she spoke she kept looking around the room. When I asked her what she was looking for she replied with a smile, “the camera, because you want to get in front of it as much as possible.” But I thought the point of being a BA is to be in the background and not right in action? No, wrong. The universal objective among the BA’s I met that day was this: you want to be seen by the camera. It was a game where winning wasn’t negotiable. Well, that did explain the jockeying of position everyone was doing when we were asked to get on line. The ones in front got a better crack at it, better that is, to be picked up by the camera. Resting my aching feet at home on Tuesday, I watched the 2007 documentary Strictly Background. The film follows ten background actors for a year, and offers an unvarnished look at an industry where getting work is iffy at best, highly competitive at worst, and disheartening much of the time. All of the actors in the film regaled their successes in getting on camera, For them it validated their struggle and justified their reasoning to pursue their peripatetic careers. The film makes you wonder about the kind of steel it takes to succeed in this business, let alone earn enough money to live on.
After our first scene was finished, about 12:30 pm, we were taken back to holding, the ballroom. When we got back we found, yay, food. I stood in line with about thirty people in front of me. By the time I got up to the table, it was all gone. Then I looked at the trays. There were remnants of danish, bagels,and some bread and peanut butter. This was breakfast. It was served while we were on set, apparently to the SAG BA’s who had arrived earlier and we, nonunion, were already on set. I asked if they were serving more food, because by this time I was getting a headache from not having had anything to eat. I’d left the house at 6:15 am (awakened at 5:30 to get ready) for a 6:37 train. The PA told me, more impatiently than not, “We are trying to get more food for you. We are trying. You know there are two hundred of you here.” I nodded silently to acknowledge the facts as they were handed to me. I said nothing but was thinking, “I’m sorry, was this a surprise? Did you forget to count?” Then I asked her if I could just go out, get some lunch, and come back. She said no because, “They might still need you on set. You will get a lunch break,” she assured. I don’t know about you, but at my age and stage of life, food is important to my well being and vital to my patience. And of course she couldn’t have known that I was once an attorney, and that keeping people confined against their will, depending on the severity of the circumstances, could be actionable. My husband, who is a practicing attorney, laughed at what was left of my legal acumen.
Finally, we were given our marching orders: one hour for lunch. When I came back I went to the ladies room. It was busy. Women were applying make-up, brushing their teeth, and combing their hair. It felt like summer camp where we would all get ready for the day by squeezing into this tiny space to groom ourselves. Except at summer camp, our counselor always made sure each stall was well equipped. Nothing worse than using a commode and there is no tp in the stall. Sorry if this bit of my day is TMI, however this was the straw that broke the BA’s back for me. There was no tp, and I overheard that it was missing in other stalls. Ok, I can buy my own lunch, I can wait for water, I can stand on my own two feet for hours for art’s sake, I’m willing to work for minimum wage for a new, exciting experience, I can mime till the muscles in my face begin to cramp, but I need a fully functioning ladies room. Period. Earlier in the day I saw a PA carrying four small rolls of tp to the bathroom. We were 200 (I’m not spelling it out) extras, you do the math.
And after our break, back we went to set. My job was to be escorted up two flights of stairs by a guy who was at least 6 foot 2. Just fyi: I’m 5’2″ and came up to his waist. Kind of funny. He, too, was kind and made polite conversation. I climbed up and down those stairs with my partner for roughly two hours in my high heeled boots. Thinking that they wouldn’t be seen on camera, most of the women around me removed their heels. It was suggested that, for continuity, I should keep my boots on because I actually might be on camera. I listened to their advice even though my legs were wobbling like Jello. All I know is that by the last half hour, I was leaning on the railing so that I wouldn’t slide down the stairs or trip and embarrass myself. I ran into the retired couple who sat across from me earlier back in holding: they looked tired. They weren’t just walking and sitting today. This was a workout, and we weren’t at Equinox, Toto.
Eventually we were told that they needed fresh faces for the next scene and we could go into the theater to sit down and relax. As I sat there I looked around. People were on their cell phones trying to take care of personal business, others were sleeping or reading. Every time someone called out, “rolling” that meant we couldn’t speak aloud or make any noise. One woman was on her cell phone and didn’t hear the notice. She was just being herself, talking aloud to the person at the other end of the phone. She was tapped by an assistant director and told to end her call…now. Life on a set isn’t your own. And seemingly unending. So I rose from my seat, excused my way across the other BA’s and left the theater. On my way out, I saw the cast sitting in their designated chairs in the vestibule. They have my deepest respect for their dedication to their craft, and I do enjoy their work. Very much. I wondered if they knew how the other half lives on the same set. Some famous actors do, and some show their appreciation. They should, because without background actors, there is no context to the story they are trying to tell. I pushed the door to the theater outward. The warm, early October air was welcoming. I walked back to holding and packed up. The PA there asked the small group of us if we were there for a “loo stop.” The others nodded, and she looked at me as I zipped up the jacket I had worn in the morning. When she looked away, I made my exit…escape rather. I walked to the back of the room and pushed open the emergency door. I heard it slam behind me. I don’t think I’ll ever say this again: I was happy to be out on the street.