A year or two ago I got a call to work as an “extra” on an overnight shoot for the pilot of the FX show The Americans, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys. “Extras” or “background actors”—euphemisms designed to spare our feelings and place us at least somewhere on the continuum with our colleagues who have dialogue—are the folks that cross the street, ride the elevator, work in the cubicles and are generally peppered about a set or location, providing professional and easily controlled “atmosphere” (another euphemism). As The Americans begins its third season, I’d like to think that I may have contributed in a small way to its success (more on that later*).
Extra work can be easy or hard. Mostly it is just boring. However, my work on The Americans was an overnight shoot so it was, at least, certain to be lucrative. Here is a breakdown of that day and night:
2:00 pm The show is set in 1981 and the agency asked that I bring my own period correct wardrobe. As an avid collector of vintage clothing, I simply went to my closet and chose a suit from 1981 (slight flare in the trouser, thin label, double vent). I put it on for the first time in years. “Gee, these trousers are a bit snug,” I thought, “but I guess I’ll be okay.” Bad decision number one. The first rule of thumb when you are bringing your own wardrobe to set is that the clothing should be comfortable. But you know that phenomena when a garment feels okay when you’re in the house and then doesn’t feel okay later? I had a very bad case of that. Ditto the very stylish Oxford lace-ups I chose, only remembering hours later why I don’t ever wear them. After a few minutes they hurt and after a few more minutes my feet feel like they are on fire. Bad decision number two. I finished the look with what I whimsically refer to as my lucky pedophile glasses: the very period-correct window-style rimless shades.
3:00 pm I grabbed my overnight bag filled with reading material and jaunted out the door, leaving my apartment in Jersey City and taking the PATH train to Manhattan and then the subway to Brooklyn.
4:00 pm Unfailingly punctual, I arrived at St. Francis College in Downtown Brooklyn a few minutes early, grabbed a slice of pizza, then reported to the “holding area,” which is a designated place for extras to wait until required on set, where I was greeted by Abby and Kevin, the upbeat duo responsible for coordinating the background actors. The phrase “holding area” has always made me think of a farm. On this particular shoot we were a fairly large group of extras— at least thirty. Some of us were supposed to be FBI agents and others were supposed to be Department of Justice employees. This struck me as funny as I was under the impression that the Department of Justice referred to Wonder Woman, Superman and the rest of the Super Friends. I never did find out for sure. I proceeded to find an isolated table, sat down, and started reading a book.
5:00 pm Despite having just had a slice of pizza, I felt like a nosh; well at least I thought I did. It is common on a set to think you’re very hungry even when you’re not. This is due to the many hours of waiting around and the constant availability of a craft services table or truck (annoyingly nicknamed a crafty—every object and every action on a set seemingly has an annoying nickname). After a few minutes, I got permission to go over to the crafty where I ate an entire meal for the simple reason that it was there. Bad decision number three.
6:00 pm We were slowly processed through hair, make-up and wardrobe. My outfit was approved and they put a little powder on my face. Not much you can do with my hair, but since I was playing an FBI agent, they seemed happy enough. We were sent to be “propped up” —another annoying expression. There is something about being told to get “propped up” that makes me want to rebel and not get “propped up”—maybe because I don’t like the sound of being “propped up,” or maybe the insider lingo suggests undue importance for what is really going to happen, which is that I am going to be walking by in the background holding a briefcase. Either way I didn’t like it, but I did it because that was my job. Turns out I brought my own prop, a period briefcase, thus ensuring I would have whatever necessities I might need with me at all times: tissues; water; a book; my phone, etc. The prop mistress did however, give me an FBI badge, which made me feel slightly important, albeit briefly. Now in compliance with the mandate to be “propped up” and I moved on.
7:00 pm All thirty extras were walked over to the location in the actual Supreme Court building a few blocks away and led to an on-site “holding area,” an actual courtroom, in fact. I tend to keep to myself on these shoots for the simple reason that I prefer to read and write and if you get roped into a conversation with someone who is impervious to social cues it can be catastrophic, so I tend to be polite, professional and a bit aloof. Background actors are, as a group, a bit over-the-top in their need for attention.
Many do this kind of work for a living, and excessive talkativeness is an inevitable side-effect of being a background actor with a foreground ego. Failing an actual speaking part, most will settle for peer validation and endless commiseration, which can often result in a range of social maladjustments, the most egregious being a tendency to take hostages in conversation, a form of interpersonal terrorism where the victim is forced to endure long and often bizarre monologues that usually reveal far more about the actor’s mental state than the level of acquaintance merits.
I found a bench and before I could even set up my bags, a blonde actress of “a certain age” began a rambling soliloquy of cringe-inducing over-sharing. “This courtroom is strangely familiar to me,” she began, a apropos of nothing and oblivious to the fact that I was a stranger. “I wonder why?” she continued. She was acting and, apparently, I was her camera. I braced myself because I knew what was coming. “Hm. Oh, I know! The reason why is my divorce. Yeah, just got divorced a few years ago. Didn’t work out, it wasn’t the worst divorce in the world but—ya know—it was still a divorce, and I mean divorce is always painful, at least mine was. You’ll never guess why we got divorced. Turns out he was gay, can you believe it? But I said to him, ‘Listen, you’re gay, it’s fine, have a great life, I don’t want to hold you back.'” Numb and immobilized by my embarrassment for this poor, unloved extra, I nodded politely and turned back to my book, praying mightily that my colleague would find some other gay to regale with personal details of her life. What can you do in situations like this? You want to acknowledge a person’s existence but any approbation perpetuates the effluence of over sharing, which forces you eventually to be rude. I must have found the right tone of indifference, because within five minutes Miss Lonely-hearts found a suitable replacement with whom she spent the next thirteen hours confiding deeply personal things while I, gratefully, read my book.
8:00 pm Abby and Kevin asked us all to line up for inspection. The director Gavin O’Connor, entered the courtroom and slowly began assessing the extras and separating us into sub-groups that would provide atmosphere for the different set-ups planned for the shoot. As he went down the line, the extras stood at attention with hopeful, obsequious expressions, each hoping that Gavin would assign them some preferential responsibility or—the Holy Grail for extras—the assignation of a line of dialogue that would result in a union-mandated upgrade. I took my place in line. When he got to me, Gavin asked my name. “David Munk,” I answered. “Nice period glasses, David,” he remarked, proving again that I don’t call ’em “my lucky pedophile glasses” for nothin’. His comment, though pleasant, reminded me that despite my efforts to deny my feelings, I was in many ways as eager to feel seen as the divorcee or the rest of the “Super Friends.” We were then broken into three groups and I sat back down, conscious that my trousers, which I formerly regarded as “a bit snug,” needed to be upgraded to “extremely uncomfortable.” Could it have been my neurotic eating at the crafty?
9:30 pm I was called for my first scene, which involved me waiting for a cue from Kevin, opening a door, walking out into a hallway (behind the principals who were having a conversation), walking down the corridor away from the camera, pretending to take a drink of water from a broken water fountain, walking two more steps to an elevator, pressing the button, counting to five, stepping on to the elevator, and waiting for Gavin to yell “cut.” I did this seven or eight times. It was not hard, though, to be completely honest, it did hurt my pride a little.
11:00 pm Crew breaks for “lunch,” which is what they called it even though it is 11:00 pm. We walked back to the first holding area a few blocks away. It was a huge spread (common on shoots). Though I wasn’t hungry, I overate again, filled with regret before I even finished my first serving, which did not prevent me from going back for seconds. With the second helping of “lunch” I decided it would make more sense to just stop counting my bad decisions entirely, which turned out to be something novel: a good decision. It was around this time I noticed that it was raining.
11:45 pm We were told to head back to the Supreme Court building and the holding area there. Problem was the rain was now torrential. They provided vans to get us from one place to another but the van and my umbrella weren’t much help because it was raining sideways. When I got back to location, my back was soaking wet and my ill-fitting shoes, formerly merely pinching, were now squeaking, my wet socks hastening the development of a festering blisters which made it impossible to walk without throbbing pain. I felt worse for the women who had to go back into hair and makeup to refresh their 1980 secretary looks which were awful in the first place, every one of them looked like Dorothy Michaels, Dustin Hoffman’s female character in Tootsie.
12:00 am I dried off quickly enough, but started experiencing stomach distress, certainly owing to the fact that my pants were two sizes too small and I had, at this point, been stuffing my face for eight consecutive hours. I also became aware of being quite tired for the first time. I noticed that many of the extras were stretched out on the courtroom benches and sleeping. I have never been able to sleep in public or in strange places and I regarded my colleagues with envy. As my eyes grew tired, I decided to switch from a book to a much more easy-to-read magazine. I took my wet shoes off to dry a bit and my feet began to swell in protest.
1:00 am I was finally called for my second scene. This one was set in an open office with several rows of tables. Once again, the FBI agents were supposed to be conversing while the principals did their scene. I was seated between two gentleman and when the director yelled “action,” we were supposed to pantomime conversation, which is actually not as easy as it seems, especially for someone like me who is not known for his subtle, small work. In fact, I was petrified of overacting. In hushed tones, extras have been known to repeat the phrase “peas and carrots,” or other nonsensical language to mimic the visual of a real conversation. When Gavin yelled action, I concentrated as hard as I could on being very, very, small and doing nothing to draw attention to myself, which to be honest, is completely inorganic for big, brassy me. The worse offense an extra can commit is “pulling focus.” This had actually happened to me once when I was an extra on a soap opera many years ago. The action was in an office and I was supposed to just walk by down the hall. I decided to add just a small bit of business—looking at my watch and acting like I was late as I crossed the threshold of the office—which resulted in the director telling me to “knock off that business with the watch and just walk!” Ever since I have lived in terror of pulling focus.
During the scene in question I found this almost impossible, not because of anything I was doing but because of what was happening around me. The actor to my right was really, really, BIG; his broad pantomime broadcasted that he was VERY UPSET about some perceived DELAY, for in his character’s interior life he had decided he was being kept WAITING. His broad gestures and exaggerated expressions screamed “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT? I MEAN HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN?” and the level of his focus pulling made me very frightened that I was going to get implicated in his gesticulated RAILING against the GODS for MAKING HIM WAIT! It occurred to me that what this actor was really mad about waiting for was the acting break that he never got.
But that’s not all: the other guy, the guy to my left, pretended to talk to me about something that looked completely different from the guy to my right’s fake anger over being kept waiting. The guy to my left was soulful and soft, like he was telling me about the loss of a beloved pet, or a recent catastrophic diagnosis. The dissonance of these two fake conversations and their concomitant competition for my attention rendered me completely mute; in fact, I became nearly catatonic, terrified as I was that any attempt to share the guy on my right’s fake disgust or the guy on my left’s emotional pain would create a tsunami of focus pulling and the director would notice and publicly rebuke me.
Instead, I ignored my scene partners completely, stared straight ahead, occasionally whispered “peas and carrots” and robotically pointed to my official FBI document, like a wind-up toy at a carnival, all the while praying for the scene to end. This went on for thirty minutes and by the end of the scene my nerves were raw, my feet were throbbing, my stomach was grinding and I completely hated the angry guy on my right and the sad guy on my left in equal measure. Finally we were led back to holding again and I limped like an old boxer to my corner.
3:00 am After another long period of waiting, many of the other background actors were released and went home. Because of my lucky pedophile glasses, I had been chosen for the conference room scene which was the last shot of the night. As we were led into the conference room I wished that I had been a bit more fresh, as there seemed to be a high probability that I would actually be featured. I was having difficulty walking due to stomach distress and whatever part of me wasn’t wholly focused on walking without hitting into the walls was filled with remorse that I had eaten so much. My pants were digging in to my bloated stomach and my Oxford shoes were pinching terribly and squeaked every time I took a step from the 11:00 pm deluge.
It was in this condition that I entered what appeared to be a conference room right out of a 1970s film like The Anderson Tapes or The Parallax View: the centerpiece of the room was a heavy oval conference table, which was accentuated by wood paneled walls that followed the contours of the table—essentially a round room. The most peculiar feature of this time-warp conference room was a recessed ceiling, also in the shape of an oval, with an elaborate lighting fixture that looked like it fell into the room from an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man. If I wasn’t so physically out-0f-sorts (feet, stomach, fatigue, hatred of mankind, etc.), I’m sure I would have enjoyed the perfectly preserved period room. Instead I was having trouble staying awake and trying mightily to manage the pain of my blisters and my pants which now dug into my stomach like calipers.
4:00 am As the technicians discussed angles and camera movement, I began to experience a strange auditory phenomena: the FBI agent across the table to my right would say something, but I could swear I was hearing it on my left. A moment later, someone to my left said something but I also heard it on my right. What the fuck? I looked up and realized that it was the ceiling whose odd physiognomy was somehow throwing the sound around the room like a ventriloquist, adding greatly to my general feeling of disorientation and anxiety. I wasn’t the only one: out of nowhere some FBI agent across the table started screaming and shaking his leg frantically, the victim, apparently, of a charley horse; but his howls of pain sounded like they were coming from behind me. I spun around in terror just as the director called “and…action!”
It took all of my remaining energy to appear to be listening actively to the principal actors and block out the auditory hallucinations, throbbing feet, stabbing pain in my stomach and general bleary-eyed state of complete exhaustion. There was one female FBI agent seated across from me whose voice carried in a strange childlike way as it bounced around the room during takes. Like some old 1970s horror film, I swore I heard her say, “Help me mommy, it hurts,” but it was just the ceiling, throwing audio clips from The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane around the room like an old rag doll.
5:00 am Would this scene ever end? By 5:00 am I was in such a bad way that I looked down at my briefcase and couldn’t remember the word for it! Naturally, I feared the worst and decided it was a brain tumor, associating Elizabeth Taylor’s moment of terror prior to receiving that diagnosis when, after picking up the phone to make a call in her Beverly Hills living room, she couldn’t remember how. This was all the proof I needed to know that I also had a brain tumor. My brain quickly jumped to an earlier Elizabeth Taylor anecdote about the time the then 28-year-old actress won her first Oscar (for BUtterfield 8) in 1962. She had almost died from pneumonia before the nominations were announced, but was saved by an emergency tracheotomy. She always felt she received that first Oscar not for the merits of her performance but for not dying. I thought that on account of my brain tumor, if only I wasn’t an extra had an actual speaking role that I might receive an Emmy for my performance in The Americans for the same reason. Then I decided that if I could remember the circumstances surrounding Elizabeth Taylor’s first Academy Award I probably don’t have a brain tumor.
My anxiety abated around the time Gavin yelled “cut” for the last time, and we were wrapped. It was 5:10 am. I hobbled out of the Court building and limped to the curb like a whore at daybreak. There were no cabs anywhere so after a few minutes of standing around, I ticktocked down into the subway, back into the darkness and headed toward home.
*Addendum: Several months later I excitedly watched the pilot, waiting for my big scene in the conference room (as I mentioned above, my peas and carrots scene was shown for a few seconds). Suddenly, the two leads burst into the strangely shaped room. As the camera follows them into the room, I can be observed first as a blurry orange thing in the right hand corner. A few shots later, the camera panned down the table of FBI agents. This was it! And just as the camera reached me they cut away. I was visible for slightly less than a second, but here it is:
A version of this piece also appeared in the Huffington Post.
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