The Background Actor’s Lament


I had a background acting gig to go to yesterday morning at 7:45, so instead of going to the bar like I do every Tuesday night, I stayed home and drank a bottle of dark beer. I thought it would help me get to sleep, but there was to be no sleeping on this beer or this night. I was wide awake for hours after my head hit the pillow, my mind going in circles about needing just 6 hours of sleep, then 5 was acceptable, then 4, then 3, then anything. It was like trying to fall asleep with a pistol to your head. I talked to someone later who had the same problem that night and said the full moon had something to do with it. Anyway, by 3 a.m. my thoughts had grown murderous. I thought about taking my rage out on the mattress. I probably would’ve if Erica wasn’t sleeping next to me. I threw the blankets around, kept changing positions. Finally, about an hour before I had to wake up, I nodded off. It wasn’t a deep sleep. I dreamt about people from my long-distant past. People who brought me much pain way back when but now seem more like figments of my imagination. Did they even exist in the first place?

I rode my bicycle to the address where the filming was supposed to take place. I say supposed to intentionally. They’d given us the wrong address. We’d been sent to some random apartment building in Friedrichshain, and before we found out we’d been misdirected, we stood around in a circle scratching our asses. There were about 10 of us, and one of the extras, it turned out, was from Titusville, Florida. Have you ever been to Titusville? I haven’t. Do you know anything about it? I don’t (even AFTER looking at its Wiki page). Its representative was about 50, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap with a dark hoodie pulled over it and a few long clumps of gray hair sticking out the sides. He was talking to another extra when I first overheard him, saying something about how 6 years ago he’d gotten a German woman pregnant at a commune in Nicaragua, and that’s why he was in Germany. He said he worked here as an office masseuse, i.e. he showed up at offices and gave people massages – he didn’t massage the offices themselves, as far as I know. He talked like one of those white guys who wants to sound ghetto but can’t pull it off. No, it wasn’t looking good for Titusville…

After standing around for about 20 minutes, we got the address where the filming actually took place. It was about 20 minutes away by bicycle. I rode alongside three other extras, and we got there at about 8:30 a.m. The role I was to play was a patron at a Karaoke bar, and I brought along two sets of clothes for the casting people to choose from. Easy. It’s always good when you get to wear your own clothes as opposed to some of the god-awful clown suits they throw at you. They’re always ill-fitting. The shoes pinch, the trousers grab wrong about the ass and crotch, the shirts are stitched together cattywampus so that one sleeve’s a good inch longer than the other and the neck chokes like a hangman’s noose. And if that’s not enough, they epoxy your lip and stick a fake mustache to it that falls off whenever you smile. That’s  my experience anyway.

After changing in the costume trailer, I got a double espresso at the other trailer, where the breakfast food was being served. Then I found out that trailer wasn’t for us extras. We had our own trailer and there was coffee in it… if you want to call it coffee. I sat on the curb outside of it and sipped my espresso, waiting for something to happen. I didn’t have to wait long. With the morning sun at his back and a long shadow in front of him, here came my Titusville buddy. He was no longer wearing his Unibomber disguise. He’d let his hair down and was donning (not wearing – some things you can only don) a black t-shirt with a Greywolf screen-printed on the front of it. The shirt looked like something they sell among cases of Monster energy drink and used razor blades at some backalley Slavakian bazaar. The shirt was his, not the casting people’s. It was his idea.

“Where’d you get the coffee?” he asked.
I pointed to the trailer, but said it was a mistake. I said the coffee for the extras is in the extra trailer.
“We get the mud,” he said, bitterly. “They don’t care about us.”
He lit a crooked cigarette.
He continued: “They treat us like dawgs, that’s what it is.”
I sipped my espresso and sat there in the morning sun. A few minutes later, they called us all into the bar.
He was still complaining. “Daawgs they treat us like, that’s what it is right there.”
I told him he should’ve worn a shirt with a dog on it instead of a wolf, it would‘ve been perfect.
He didn’t laugh.

The shooting only lasted a few hours. It was cake. All I did was stand at the bar, drink beer from a bottle and watch the stage, clapping when prompted. Then, in the end, we were served lunch. Pasta with no meat or vegetables, just the sauce. And you know my Titusville friend had to register some complaints. I was waiting for it.

“It’s daaaaaaawgs they treat us like,” he kept saying.
But he did go back for seconds.


29 thoughts on “The Background Actor’s Lament

  1. I was a singing extra once, for a film shot in Montreal. Guess they had more of a budget than what you describe. Victorian costumery. Really nice catering meals. $300 per day. Interesting thing though was getting a glimpse at the inner workings of film production. And why a scene needs a new take, why not, etc. There were odd characters, too. People who attempted to make a living off of the Montreal film extra business. Casters, actors, pseudo-actors, technicians. Was amazed how calm the director always seemed, while having to monitor the whole can of soup while remaining within some budget. A friend told me afterwards he would have done it for two days for free — just to see the behind the scenes workings. Merci for the story.

    • You seem to have lived quite the colorful life, Sir. Much respect. $300 is crazy money, but I have heard that Hollywood extras make a lot more than what we do. We get minimum wage, and the food varies. Sometimes on small productions it’s pretty amazing, but that a rarity. It’s usually slop. I don’t mind though. It’s not like the work’s difficult. There’s a lot of down time which I usually spend reading or talking to other extras, some of whom are quite fascinating.

      • I just fell into that extra role because the girlfriend of the casting guy saw myself and a few friends playing music in a pub. As it was explained to me, they jump you to a higher scale of extra pay as soon as you have to utter one word — even if it is singing. (we had to play Christmas carollers.) This also necessitated us joining the ACTRA union on the fly. I think MTL is something of a hub for film making.

      • You are right. Anytime you’re something more than a mute human prop the pay grade rises. I have yet to elevate… though I don’t aspire to be an actor. I’m just there for the money.

    • 300? They gave 100 in Toronto and people were over the moon. To my disappointment, they didn’t pick me…and I needed that damn money. Years later, to my astonishment, I did perform on a stage (as part of a job stage project in Munich) in German. Go figure. Theater gave me more than I ever bargained for. And all along, I thought it was the movies.

      Thanks for sharing, M. Great read. I love your stories. I always feel like being a character in your book.

  2. Titusville? Ugly name!
    I am sure that when I worked as an extra, if there was anyone else from Arta or around, they would be the worst specimen. A nd would of course want to chat with me — because we’d be able to connect, ha!

    How do you don clothes instead of wearing them?

  3. Amusing story, you have a great eye for detail…..”The shirt looked like something they sell among cases of Monster energy drink and used razor blades at some dim-lit Slavakian bazaar”….says everything about the guy.

  4. This is amazing! It’s like you pay attention to every little thing.
    I generally find people like your Titusville buddy quite amusing. He quickly turned me off of ever wanting to look into Titusville, complained about the food & went back for more. Classic. Sounds like my sister. Looking forward to reading more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s