April 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 28
My day in the television background at Emory West
Sidney Poitier is a tall man. That's the first thing that struck me. I was killing time as one of 15 extras on the set of "The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn," the upcoming CBS movie partly filmed last month at Emory West, and I admit to a double-take when I first realized that the imposing (at least 6-foot-2), elegant man standing near me was actually Poitier. Hunh, I remarked to myself. I thought he was shorter.
For those who haven't had the pleasure, being an extra for film or television is not glamorous work. It involves long hours of sitting and waiting, punctuated by brief moments of activity that bear precious little resemblance to acting. In fact, most of the histrionics I saw that day took place in the small room where the extras waited; put any group of actors together, and one or two are bound to have their diva moments.
But then, on the set of a movie or TV show, extras are not actors. Extras aren't even people-they are referred to as "background," and I quickly learned that human background is regarded as one (small) step above inanimate background. That's not to say the job can't be fun, because when 15 people are herded like veal into a room for 10 hours and periodically propped in front of a camera, they develop a bunker mentality and bond quickly. But I still had to remind myself that what I was doing qualified as "acting" experience.
The day started early. By 6 a.m., when I arrived at Building A on the former Georgia Mental Health Institute property, there were already a couple dozen crew members scurrying about in the pre-dawn cold. I was directed to the catering truck for a cup of much-needed coffee. The extras casting coordinator gave me a form to fill out. Then I waited.
First, Kelly from Wardrobe regarded my attire. I was told to bring three outfits of varied formality, along with a bathrobe, pajamas or anything else befitting a hospital patient. I ended up wearing what I initially had on, though everyone else got re-dressed by Kelly. Then someone from Hair & Makeup regarded my head and, like every other male, I was given a once-over and told I was fine; nearly all the women had their hair re-sculpted and their "faces" re-applied. Then we waited.
Jules was our handler. In theater, she would be called an assistant stage manager; I have no idea what they call them in screen work. Jules walked around with a headset radio and a shooting schedule and pulled groups of us out to be in scenes. At first I thought Jules battled attention deficit disorder--when she addressed us she often drifted into silence, mouth agape and eyes unfocused--before I realized just how much banter went on over those headsets.
Shots for two scenes were being filmed that day, one set in a mental hospital and the other in a regular hospital, and my first action came just before lunchtime when I was called for a shot in the former. They handed me a white lab coat, a nametag and one of those steel clipboards, and I got to "play" a doctor escorting a mental patient just as co-star Mary Louise Parker (who is just as striking in real life as she is onscreen, thank you very much) rounded a hallway corner.
My fellow extra (dressed in ratty bathrobe, slippers and 'do-rag) and I waited at our places and dutifully marched out just as Parker delivered her last line. Quick-thinking thespian that I am, I came up with my own bit of action, glancing up from clipboard to patient with an occupied yet compassionate countenance, as my psychiatric charge shuffled and twitched his right arm and head (hooray for stereotypes!). Then we did it again, and again, and again. After nine or 10 takes the director apparently was satisfied and we were shepherded back to the room with the other extras. Then we waited.
Sometime mid-afternoon I was summoned for a second shot, this time in my street clothes as a hospital visitor in the background of a long hallway shot as Poitier walked toward the camera. It was then I learned how veterans of the game make the monotony of extra work bearable: by trying to make each other laugh during takes and risking the fury of directors, who already are liable to yell at extras just for making eye contact with them. Being a family paper, Emory Report can't print all the jokes we whispered to each other as the cameras rolled, but let's just say the word "gerbil" was almost the ruin of that particular hospital shot.
The day that started at 6 a.m. ended around 4:30 p.m., when we were shuttled down from Building A to the production company's trailers to turn in our pay vouchers: a grand total of $55 for a day's waiting. Not too terrible for someone who occasionally plays hookey from work (names withheld to protect the guilty) for a glancing brush with Hollywood, but some actors rely on extra work to make ends meet. I'm told that actors' unions in New York and Los Angeles forced studios to pay extras more in those markets, which means Atlanta is to New York for acting as Tijuana is to Detroit for auto manufacturing.
Since I'd been an extra once before, my day waiting in a small room in Building A yielded no earth-shaking discoveries for me: extras are the stump of the screen totem pole; the stars spend as little time on the set as possible and don't fraternize with the background; at lunchtime everyone, including any nearby wandering homeless, are allowed in the food line before the extras.
What it did offer was a surprisingly good time that had nothing to do with acting or movie stars. Perhaps it was the luck of the draw, but the extras that day got along quite well and formed some friendships that hopefully will last long after "The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn" is relegated to a dusty video store shelf.
Who knows? I will probably end up on the cutting room floor, without even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment on the small screen. But that's okay. For a day spent waiting, I had a grand time. And I now know Sidney Poitier is not a normal-sized man, but he plays one on TV.
Michael Terrazas is senior editor of Emory Report.