Wednesday was the
Ultimate Cliche L.A. Day.
I drove on a highway bisecting mountains to reach a company whose sole job is to cast background actors in movies and t.v shows. I parallel parked for the first time out of necessity and at 12:30 I was the first person in line for the 2:30 registration time.
There were a few adults gathered a few yards from the premise.
What I asked them: Where does the line start?
What they heard me say: I'M NEW HERE. SELL ME THINGS.
A woman named Seana approached. "Hello! Are you an actress?"
Seana laughs. "Oh my God, girl! If you're here you have to say I'M AN ACTRESS. You have to have that kinda confidence where people believe you."
"Oh right, well yes! Then I'm an actress." I said, eyeing the stack of papers in her hand.
"Of course you are! Look at you. You're so pretty! And look at you, you have such an up-personality. We up personality people, we just attract one another, you know what I mean?"
She then proceeds to tell me about a workshop that is happening that night...free of charge. I thank her, and after she tells me about her R&b/gospel career, she walks away as more people arrive.
Three other people approach for another class, a woman representing a call-in service (after you register to be an extra, you have to call the company to see if they can use you. People pay the call-in service to do it for them.) $20 off if you go directly there after you register for the company we were all in line with, and a man selling $300 headshots, but assures us that he has celebrity testimonial.
The man who showed up next was a short, 40-something bald black man with a bum leg. His name was Sean and when the man approach him about needing headshots, Sean was genuinely thrilled. He figured that since so many people had approached him about getting headshots, there had to be something attractive about him that made him cast-able. We chatted a lot, and when he charmingly declared he needed to “drain the weasel,” I watched his things for him.
The third person in line was a 30-something Chinese woman, wearing garish glittering eye shadow, two huge black cross earrings, and a white suit under a white and red dress with dark blue socks and brown flats. She seemed very confused the whole time. As she wandered between her spot in line and the Sushi food truck that had pulled into the adjacent parking to make a buck feeding us, she repeated the same few questions in broken English to anyone who would listen. It became obvious to Sean and I that she was either “not all there” or perhaps, incredibly high. Both were a possibility.
While I wasn’t speaking to Sean, or fending off the Chinese woman’s questions about whether or not I had driven here and could give her a ride, I took some time to read short stories from Flannery O’Connor’s: A Good Man is Hard to Find, a Christmas present from my brother. There was something very ridiculous about reading such an accomplished author in that line, but I was grateful I had thought to bring it as the California sun beat down for two hours. As more and more people joined, they too were approached by Seana and the selling things crew. It was a depressing time, knowing that the 100 of us who eventually gathered to register to be extras all give off a collective aura of desperate, naive, easily bought.
Eventually, it was time to enter, and to go through our registration, which consisted mainly of filling out a packet. There were 4 row of 25 chairs each. Those of us who had showed up first were treated to fat rolling chairs and a table, and a prime view of the tripod on which the instructor placed the blow up representations of the sheets in our packet.
The Chinese woman showed Sean and I her headshots. They were unprofessionally done and posed. One shot was a from-below shot of her cupping her face in both hands a few feet away. Another was a close up of her with one finger draped across her cheek.
The man registering behind me turned out to be a ’97 Prospect High School graduate, which was both kinda cool and kinda terrifying.
Our instructor was a young woman in a bright yellow dress with a perfected speech.
“Okay everyone. Welcome! At our company, we refer to all of you as background actors. We don’t like the word ‘extra’ because it implies....well, it implies being extra.” And so began the most insightful two hours of my life.
We learned where and how to write our full names: “for example, if you’re name is Michael, but you go by Mike, write down Michael.”
We learned not to fill out anything marked FOR OFFICE USE ONLY: “how many of you have already filled it out?....Ah yes...well, we’ll have to get you all new first pages, don’t worry.”
We learned how not to screw up our date of birth: “This is where we get a lot of problems. Don’t write todays date. Don’t write your birthdate with today’s year, and please don’t lie about your age!”
We learned how to correctly identify ourselves ethnically. “Now, I once had a man who was Mexican, like real 100% Mexican, but he had blonde hair, and paler skin than mine, and bright blue eyes. So what do you think I had him mark down? ...Caucasian exactly. Because it’s about what the camera sees, what you look like, on the outside, what you appear to be.”
We learned how we shouldn’t lie, because they once had a juggler who couldn’t really juggle and the stars were not happy that they had to keep redoing the take. We learned that you can’t tell any of the shows secrets, because a “background actor” once got sued for millions by a company when she revealed the finale secrets.
We learned that if we write down we play an instrument, we have to be able to site-read, causing half a dozen drummers to protest.
We learned that you make $64/8hrs (less than minimum wage), and time and a half after that....most shooting days are 12-14 hours.
We learned that they're aways looking for "deads," the industry term for dead bodies on the many criminal shows, but if you wanted the chance to play one, you almost always had to mark down you were okay with partial nudity to be filmed beneath the thin white cloth in the morgue.
I learned that no one really listens. The instructor said we were missing a sheet from our packet that we would fill out later. Sean raised his hands after a few minutes and started to ask about where the sheet was, I whispered to him that we were getting it later. Another hand shot up in the back. He was “just wondering about where the extra sheet was”. The woman explained to him he would get it later. I was getting cocky about being one of the more intelligent people in the room, but then I remembered that I spelled “Sweden” wrong in my last blogpost....
I hurried to get my picture taken and get out of there, because Sean had been poking around trying to get a ride home. Luckily I had contemplated that he might ask that and had earlier prepared “I have to meet my aunt for dinner!” I half ran to my car as he was distracted trying to use a laminated social security card to register.
The Take Away:
My lesson of the day came from watching the Chinese woman register. Almost everything on her form was circled, and the person registering her sighed and responded: “Ma’am, you can’t play all of the ethnicities.... You have to pick one.”
“Oh..” she said, “Chinese then.”
I can only be Laura. If I’m going to try to be an actress in this town, I have to be okay with being reduced to 5’8, size 4-6, brown hair. No half inches, no larger size range to reflect differences that occur due to various clothing qualities, not even light brown, or dirty blonde, because those weren’t options in this company’s scroll down selection system. Beyond understanding it, I have to be okay with it. The world is full of people who can play the other ethnicities and heights and hair colors, and the only choice I have is to rock what I’ve got.