it used to be that in the movie- making industry, extras were referred to as the meat. My friend who works as an actor in commercials assured me on the eve of my latest stint as an extra that this sort of attitude has changed.
I don't know what dream sets she's been working on. Not only are background performers still the meat, but they're now categorized into different cuts.
Union extras are treated better than non-union extras. The former are, say, round steak and the latter rump roast. OK, I don't really know what rump roast is, but you're made to feel like an ass on set.
Not right away, though. The movie I'm working on, called Charms For The Easy Life, is set in the 30s, and I have to arrive at 6:30 am to get into wardrobe. I have an elegant brown suit to wear and a wide-brimmed hat. I get my hair done, then sit sipping coffee and reading as more extras show up and get transformed.
The men get dressed as farmers, rednecks, shopkeepers and gentlemen-about-town. They look charming in their overalls and suits and bomber jackets.
One by one the women get turned into ladies: church ladies, society ladies, all of us wearing gloves and carrying little bags.
Eventually, except for the fluorescent lighting and the styrofoam cups, the room looks like it could be a soup kitchen in the dirty 30s.
What is definitely not charming is the shoes. Oh, they look good, all right, but vintage footwear is painful footwear. My brown pumps pinch and I slip out of them at every opportunity.
One woman is not so lucky. Her shoes have complicated buckles and she can't take them off during the breaks, so by the end of the 12-hour shoot her feet are blistered and bleeding.
At 8 am, 50 or so background players walk out of the holding area and into a small-town square where a shiny black Packard is parked outside the general store and the theatre marquee reads "Gone With The Wind. All seats 15 cents."
It's 1939, when Hattie McDaniel would become the first black actor to win an Academy Award.
Most of us are wearing wool suits and coats on this scorching hot day. At about 10 am, a craft services woman brings two baskets of food for the extras who gather round. I see one guy biting into a huge hot dog as I approach, and since breakfast was small, I'm ravenous.
It turns out the dogs are only for the union extras. The rump roast get patties.
At lunch there's a similar division between the steak and the rump, but I'm too hungry to notice.
As usual, cast and crew (hereafter known as C&C) sit at separate tables with superior food.
Back on the set, the sun beats down as we queue up to see Gone With The Wind. Take after take, we walk into the mock movie theatre, excitedly anticipating our first glimpse of the Civil War epic.
I find a strip of shade cast by a post as we stand in line. Another woman is not so lucky. She's getting dizzy from the blinding sunlight and asks a crew person for some water. The C&C have a craft services table on set, but the extras' food table is back in the building, too far from the set to get to during shooting.
As the woozy woman waits for the water, a guy brings a tray of watermelon around. But it's only for the C&C.
And for the sirloin tip extras. Ah, yes, yet another cut of meat in the world of background players. This class isn't seen often on set, but there are two of them here today. Sirloin tip extras are the relatives of the stars. A mother or a sister who thinks it would be fun to dress up and get on camera. They're treated with kid gloves and, of course, have all the advantages of the C&C.
One star on this shoot makes it all worthwhile for me -- Gena Rowlands. She has no kin appearing in the background, but she's escorted on and off the set by a very attentive and loving man who holds her hand during breaks.
I bask in the presence of this great actor. If I'm not in the shot, I watch her perform, try to study her technique.
But mostly I have my own job to do. As do all the background people.
Our pay reflects our level on the showbiz ladder at any given time, but round or rump, we are all of us necessary. We deserve watermelon, too.
In 1939, Billie Holiday first sang Strange Fruit, that dangerous song about lynching in the South. Contemplating that reality, the charm I saw in the goofy-looking guy in denim overalls and the funny hat starts to evaporate. Carried away by the illusion, I'm actually relieved when later I see him talking and laughing with one of the few black extras hired for the day -- a guy dressed as a bellhop.
Later, as we sit sweating in the sun, the bellhop guy asks a craft services guy if the tray of sealed cups he's carrying is water.
"No," the gofer stutters, "it's for the crew."
In the end, I'm just grateful it's not 1939 and that I don't have to wear those tight shoes and little gloves and call porters "boy."
I'm glad it's now and that I can wear running shoes. But let's have the extras -- union and non -- sit wherever they want to on the bus, OK?