Working as a background extra in New York City is really glamorous.
Last week, for example, I had to get to midtown at 5 am to catch a charter bus to Long Island. It’s amazing how much activity is around at that hour of the morning. We will be shooting some scenes for a tv series.
50 minutes later we are in a quiet, residential area with very large lawns and brick fences. We check in to the holding tent, get our wardrobe, report to hair and makeup, and then hang around in this big, hot tent for the next 4 hours. (Bonus: tons of free food and drink!!) After awhile some of us head to set, which today is the front lawn of a mansion. The house sits back from the water and a huge lawn leads down to the bay. A few sailboats drift slowly by. It’s very picturesque, tho we are not allowed to take any photos. The morning is beautiful but already very hot. In the 80s and it’s only 10:00. A large white wedding tent is set up on the lawn. There are white tables with white tablecloths and ‘champagne’ flowing from little fountains. The Production Assistant eventually assigns our starting point, a makeup artist rushes to refresh hair, droopy in the 80 degree heat. The show’s stars are cooled with battery fans and protected by umbrellas so nary a sweat mark will be seen. We are all in our places, dressed for another era, a previous century where they wore powder blue polyester.
“Background! First positions,” the P.A. calls. My ‘husband’ and I stroll slowly, arm in arm, among the partygoers, silently greeting our guests. We walk to the other side of the tent, and head back to the beginning. “Cut! Ok..regroup at first position.” We stroll, smiling, nodding, along our same path. “Cut! Regroup at first position.” We stroll, we smile, we wave, we raise our glasses. “Cut!”….
I could go on, but you get the picture.
I’m wearing a polyester pantsuit and shoes with teeny heels that sink in the grass. I step and sink. I have to pick grass and dirt off the little heels. We are all very, very hot. The temperature is now in the 90s and we are wearing clothes that stick to our skin. But we’re all happy to be here.
Many hours of strolling and smiling later, of hanging out and eating huge amounts of carbs, the light is quickly fading and we hear those three little words, “That’s a wrap!” We head back to holding, our tent away from home. We’ve had a 10 hour day. We are all happy with the day, chatty and full of energy. But mostly, we are so excited to put away [burn on a giant pyre] the polyester suits we’ve lived in for the past two days.
We wait in line to check out, get forms signed for our lavish paycheck, and return our clothes to Wardrobe. Street clothes on, our space cleaned up, (grab some last-minute snacks), we eventually get on the bus for a quiet evening ride back to the city. The chatter and gaiety of today behind us, we retreat back into the 21st century, our phones, into our own spaces. It’s dark outside and peaceful and quiet in the bus. Perhaps many of us will see each other again – maybe in some other era, some other century.
So what makes this worthwhile? The enormous minimum wage ‘background talent’ get for a 10+ hour day? Maybe it’s the remarkable allure of being a tiny part of ‘show business.’ I think what makes it worthwhile is what we all give to it. We show up – sometimes at 5 am – knowing we may be thoroughly bored for hours, the day might be long and tedious at times, but we will also meet interesting people and enjoy a day filled with fun, food and surprises. Most of all, we all have a great time. I gotta go now, I have to get up at 4 am to do it all over again.