weetheart, one day I'm going to be a star -- a heavenly body, a celestial tabloid nightmare, a shining asteroid shimmering across the silver screen. I just know it.
But you want fame? Fame costs. And right here is where you start paying. In sour cream 'n' onion chips.
Because that's all they gave me to eat back when I was a movie extra this summer, but I got by. And honey, you, too, will suffer -- suffer -- for your art.
What? Everyone has to start somewhere. You never know what could happen.
And with over 550 film and TV productions shooting in Toronto this summer, there's never been a better time to take those first baby steps toward a life of glamour eternal.
Besides, there's that famous story of the assessment of Fred Astaire's first screen test: "Can't sing, can't act. Can dance. A little." Mine might read, "Can't do anything. Anything at all. No, really."
I realize this is even truer than I suspected when I go to register at an extras agency.
Prostitute clothesAfter my new agent spins me around and takes all my measurements in case I need to be sold as a horse, I have to fill out a form checking off all my special skills. I can't rightly fill in that I can "fence," "drive a forklift" or do "horse training." The only thing I can check is "typing."
You also get to list any special outfits you have (some of the more popular categories are nurse, prostitute and vagrant). I shrug and check off prostitute.
"Oooo!" my new agent trills. "We should get a picture of you in your hooker clothes."
Extras are sometimes referred to, my agent tells me, as "the talent."
I giggle. He rolls his eyes. "Yes, you. The gifted," he smirks.
I am gifted. He just can't see my potential.
My first (gifted) job is to portray an audience member in a movie about a scandal-ridden presidential debate.
I follow the signs to "extras holding." (Please note: to protest loudly that you are not cattle but, as one of my cohorts put it bitterly, at the very least "a human prop" will do little to bolster your position on a film set.)
Extras are not only the bottom-feeders on any set, but there are also several categories of extras -- ACTRA members and the rest of us losers. ACTRA members get paid a lot more ($18.50 to $20 an hour) and get to eat the yummy food from the crew/ACTRA table. The cash extras ($7 an hour, same job) get special food all their own, with the standard seeming to involve some lethal combination of white bread, peanut butter, chips and beef patties.
"Are you ACTRA?" the food people will ask, walking by with trays of fruit. "No? Sorry." And they walk away. And you cry.
(This snack fascism is just one of the reasons a union called PACT has formed to try to improve conditions for cash extras.)
After I'm dressed for my inaugural role as a genteel southerner, the hair guy tortures my silken locks into what can only be described as the Good Housekeeping Helmet.
"There you go!" he says cheerily. "Magic! Mother of two with a mini-van."
Nine hours after I arrive, I finally get to go to the set for my moment in the sun. Lucky, lucky girl, I get to be on the side of the room supporting the presidential candidate who is losing, which means we have to expend a lot of precious energy being upset.
"Make some noise!" screams the extras boss. "You're mad! You love your candidate! Louder! Louder!!!!"
He whips the extras into a frenzy. Good god, I think -- these people are, like, acting! They scream scandalous epithets like "That's not a debate!!" and hiss and boo and sputter all manner of outrage. I start to get all riled up, and shriek suddenly above the din, "Are we Republicans or Democrats?!"
Silence. The camera clicks off.
"What?" I say meekly. "I think it's important for my character."
"Tomorrow I get to be a concentration camp victim again," sighs a guy named Carmen. "I'm always a concentration camp victim."
Carmen, several other illustrious background performers and I are on a school bus being dragged up to some god-forsaken place to shoot a film that is, I believe, a punk rock musical about a transsexual who actually has no genitals (in which case he is not really a transsexual but perhaps just a bit bored). But I can't be sure. Nobody tells me anything. I'm just here to look weird.
"This set is cool because they went out of their way to get freaks. This is the freak shoot," a theatre grad student by day and extra by night tells me.
"I got cast as Normal Guy," sighs Carmen again.
"Just think," flounces a little queen named Ryan sarcastically, "this is what you went to theatre school for four years for."
(OK, I did go to theatre school. Who told him?!!)
But if you think filming is sexy, darling, let me disabuse you. A movie or TV set, never mind a movie set about a genital-free warbling transsexual, is probably one of the most surreal yet crushingly boring 16 hours you will ever spend in your life.
Punk trannie"Everything on set is fantasy. Nothing seems real," muses the grad student, filling me in on some of the "nutbar" potential of my fellow extras. "I'm a freak magnet, so I just try and read a lot."
Instant alliances and intimate confessions are shared in dank cafeterias. You sit nonchalantly in full costume for a punk rock trannie's dream sequence and ponder the nature of a slow death by crossword puzzles.
"Every time I leave a set, I've made a new friend," says Debbie, a flight attendant (who, if you must know, once got to be the body double for the woman who caught the gun that killed Chucky in The Bride Of Chucky.) "Not on purpose," she adds quickly. "It's just like prison -- movie prison."
It's not unusual to arrive on set at 6 am and sit in holding until 9 pm, when you finally get on the actual set. You have to find creative ways to entertain yourself. One woman brings her chain mail costumes to assemble. Another has her slippers and a pillow. People do business on their cellphones. And the guy with the deck of cards is always the most popular kid in the schoolyard.
I do a couple of sit-ups. I tell the theatre grad student that, no, for the last time, I do not want to read his fucking copy of Brecht's The Theatre Of Revolt. I start insulting other people's books and get so bored I even fill in the NOW Readers Poll.
Starving extraI also compile some handy rules to help future extras deal with the army of people who suddenly take on X-Men-like powers when they are The Crew and you are just a starving extra. 1. If they have "walkies" or are wearing headsets, they're always Important, even though you're quite sure they were in York's film school at one point, which makes them people you've probably slept with. But now they're telling you not to be too messy, stay in the corner and shut up (which, in retrospect, is somewhat like sleeping with them).
2. Be sure to ask anyone with the aforementioned headsets or walkies when they think you'll be finished filming for the day. Several times.
3. Complain about your hair. Tell them it doesn't work for your character development.
4. Ask them if you can leave. (They'll probably say no, at which point you remind them about having gone to York film school.)
5. Ask them if you can touch their headset.
6. Start again.
"Excuse me," I say importantly, with a fatigued air. "I must check my call time."
I love telling people I'm checking my "call time" (when you're supposed to be on set). I especially love saying it loudly in public places. It makes me feel like a bored model.
You see, there are perks to this extras business.
Another Sub here You get bragging rights to, for example, having been on set with that old guy from Traders. Twice. (Wanna touch me? Gotta pay.)
Sometimes you get to do fun things -- like getting bumped by movie stars in holdup scenes or shaving someone else's bum (really) or throwing rotten tomatoes.
You also get to know all the gossip -- that Neve Campbell is a bitch (she didn't wave at the extras), that Denzel Washington is a method actor and you're not allowed to talk to him, and that Sigourney Weaver is "crabby."
You also get to bask in star aura.
"Mia Farrow was eight feet away from me," one extra tells me breathlessly. "She put down her water bottle and smiled right at me."
But there are dangers to life in the extras lane.
For one, you become obsessed with watching background performers in movies. You assess the casualness of their walk, the animation of their fake conversation, the timbre of their shock when they're blown up.
You also begin torturing your friends every time you go to a movie by hissing, "See all those people, those refugee camp people? Extras. Even the guards are extras. See that guy? An extra. They're good, eh? Hey, watch the people eating in the restaurant behind the actors. Extras. It would look weird without them, huh? Computer generate that you.... ow! Why did you kick me?"
Finally, the day I've been waiting for arrives -- I get a call for an audition, a real, live audition for a role. With lines and everything. I can't wait! This is it!
I get to the casting room. Little scripts are posted on the wall for commercial shorts starring old men, shallow women and "a not-so-intelligent couple."
Hey, I can do that.
People walk around mumbling their lines. One guy, who I think might be a real actor because his hair is very good, practises enthusiastically in the photocopy room.
When I get into the casting room, I'm asked to do two lines in an Australian accent. I smile beatifically into the camera. And they kick me out in 30 seconds.
They hated me! I know it. For about 10 minutes I obsess about how I could have done those two lines differently, and then I convince myself they were so quick with me because I was so perfect for the part they didn't need a second more.
Glowing fantasy This leads to a glowing fantasy of me being on set and the director seeing that I have that special something that would be perfect for his indie-makes-it-big film and he casts me as the lead.
Ten more minutes later, I'm practising (out loud) the answers for the slews of instant Canadian celebrity interviews I'm suddenly forced to undergo (take that, Sarah Polley), and I even imagine the press release about the lovely story of my unexpected rise to cinematic glory.
The crew on the set of my debut, just in case you were wondering, thought I was really "down-to-earth," "funny" and "charming."
Three days later.
I don't get the part. I don't get to be a star. I am still a writer. I am still a writer writing about being an extra.
Must get drunk.
Someone, call my agent, get me a long cigarette and tickle my boa. I'm done -- done! My days as an extra are over. It's too little, too slow, too many beef patties. I obviously have no choice....
Show me to the casting couch, dammit.
And make sure it matches my outfit.
ESTIMATED NUMBER OF BACKGROUND PERFORMERS IN T.O.: 1,400
Amount of cold, hard cash spent by film and TV production companies so far in 2000: $353 million
Amount spent in 1999: $1.2 billion
Most popular shooting locations: U of T, Metro Hall, Gooderham & Worts, High Park, Nathan Phillips Square, Sunnyside Pavilion, Union Station, Cherry Beach, Allan Gardens, Casa Loma
Source: Toronto Film and Television Office