Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Undercover as an Extra - Guess I'm No Longer an "Ugly Girl"

So officially, I can no longer be referred to as an "ugly" girl or someone who is unattractive. Whoever casts extras for Gossip Girl recently picked me to portray a member of the fashion elite i.e. one of the "beautiful people" as part of background work. I was doing this Monday & yesterday in my very first gig as an extra for Central Casting.

You won't read plot lines here since even if I hadn't signed a form agreeing not to discuss it, I know why they don't want that getting out & if it were me, I'd make certain we did the very same thing. I'm going to talk about my human observations & experiences.

Now, I've heard many stories about the experiences of being an extra. How some sets are abusive while some are tons of fun. Different stories from different people I know. As an actress who is also an entertainment law attorney & partner in her own indie film company, there's no real reason I have to do extra work. I don't have to go garner favor from people, I have no shortage of people who think I have talent & when someone is so impressed with you after seeing you audition that they want you to create your own character in their comedy show + say you're almost too good at the lead role, that means you are nobody's slouch.

Let's face it: I'm in the position to get significant creative opportunities your average actor or even actor/attorney in a different field would never get. Even SAG membership is not something I have to go around begging or groveling for since I will have significant chances to get it sooner or later. For those of you outside the industry or who are novices, people would KILL to get into SAG & oftentimes, if you aren't a member you do not get to move up in your career.

The entertainment industry has spoken in many ways but this is the final word: for those of you jerkwads who called me "ugly" as a kid or think redheads aren't pretty, piss off.

Out of all the background people at my 2 days, I was the only natural redhead present out of over 100. The only person with even my hair shade. Actually, that includes everyone working in front of the camera on the show. I also brought 2 wheeled suitcases for wardrobe checks & had a very distinct coat (my fake fur leopard print that I wear when it's subzero outside). Random non-background people w/the show even complimented my ensemble as did the wardrobe people. Even the hair person doing my hair complimented its color. The red hair compliments happen a lot but still, I always respond politely since I never get sick of compliments in general.

So, without further adieu, some observations & comments:

1. Actors are a very, VERY whiny bunch: Don't get mad at me for saying this but the behind the scenes people have a very valid point here.

When I first arrived, I heard some vicious things about Central Casting & a woman working with the wardrobe department. One actress near me was talking about how this woman was evil, that she hated her & that this woman had apparently driven some background person to tears.

My experience was that perhaps this woman was a little brusque when we were determining a line up for coats but was polite to me the next day when she checked me in for the wardrobe match-ups. I have no room to say a word about brusqueness since I'm certainly a ball buster when I have to be. People have certainly taken issue w/my tone on things & I admit to being quite blunt.

The same goes for the first Assistant Director named Peter. He had to tell the background people numerous times to be quiet & instruct us ladies in high heels to walk quietly while going up & down the stairs. After we were done with one particular scene, I heard a different background actress have a HUGE conniption fit over the high heel thing. I also heard some very unflattering remarks about this man from other actors on the talking. I even overheard the director, the legendary Andrew McCarthy of '80s film fame, getting annoyed w/the loud chattering.

If Peter or some friend of his happens to read this, he should know that this entertainment attorney/indie film company executive approves wholeheartedly. He was far more polite than I'd likely have been. I'd have started having people released & encouraged the folk managing the extras to call talkers out in front of everyone. Insubordination doesn't fly with me or in the legal arena & if it happened in my company, I'd hear about it in a moment. You have to nip that in the bud.

Plus, I figured out how to master the quiet shoe thing w/out foam on the bottom: you plant your feet very slowly and/or walk on your toes.

Tell me, is following directions difficult? When they say "don't talk", you don't keep talking. You shut the hell up! That's not hard. When someone tells you to do something, you do your damnedest to make it happen.

I was in one section where I was near an entrance to the set. People kept coming in behind this fabric over the door. After it kept up, I asked the person at the door if we could have a signal or something to alert us when someone was coming in so people at this door wouldn't get hurt. The person agreed to knock. When we heard it, we pulled up the fabric so people could get in. After a point, I felt like they should be paying me for PA work since so many people were going in & out.

Perhaps it's because I'm an industry insider but I believe in not making life more difficult for people. I was on set for a day when Cookies & Cream was being filmed. To my mind, my task was to make sure things were going as they should & our biggest name, Ardie Fuqua, was taken care of. He was nice enough to take time from his schedule to work in our film so it's the least we could do.

I heard a LOT of complaint about changed directions & positions from person to person. A tip to note: things can change on a set. The director may want to try something different or your outfit may be causing a glare someplace. God only knows. Be flexible & don't bitch about it.

Scott Powers of the Scott Powers Studio offers a list of Weekly Tips.

While I don't publicly endorse him since I've never attended any of the forums or used his workshops, I will say that these tips are extremely spot on from my experience as an insider. Many of these tips will tell you similar things that I'm saying: I recall one in particular that says not to trash agencies & others because word does travel and you can be blacklisted. I also don't think he'd publicly support someone like the con artist at the sham TV network I dealt with last year.

Hearing these comments in this capacity is even worse than trashing a former employer in a job interview. I was present & saw the conduct of the people you trashed firsthand so you don't even have the advantage of making me wonder whether some former employer indeed violated labor laws, used racial slurs against you, sexually harassed you, etc.

2. Watch how you treat EVERYONE: This doesn't just go to background people. This goes for PAs, crew folk, directors, ANYONE! I don't care how big a name you are or how known you are. You never know who might be a non-union insider like me. Major big-wigs in this business will instantly be nice to an attorney, especially an entertainment attorney. Even a newbie like me has gotten this sort of treatment & others have told me similar stories. We're not even talking about your average background slave type; I'm speaking of executives, industry veterans, people who might be truly nasty to you if you weren't one. People with very impressive jobs in the business have point blank told me they were impressed with my background or admired me for doing all that I have. I've not even reached my apex yet.

Because I did not walk onto this set with a plan to get fawned over just for my job or my credentials, I only told a few people my second day in. One person from the TV network scam came up to me at lunch yesterday & vouched for me. He said I was actually one of the nicest people w/the company & seemed to care since I warned people about the scam. I pointed out my obligations as an attorney & that I warned people I truly felt had a shot in the business based on their behavior toward me. He did agree not to loudly or publicly out me.

As for the bigger name folk with the show or anyone else, the people getting trashed by the background are the people I'd love to deal with. Those people will get things done & be efficient instead of being too soft or letting anyone ride them. I have to admire that in others since I'm the same way.

I didn't see star trips or rudeness toward me or others from the "names" but no one really acknowledged me either even though the show's director did personally direct me & some other extras in one scene since we were right near the show's action. More on that in a bit.

But for now, they at least did graduate from my disdain to my indifference. Meaning I won't hold your work on a show I don't care for against you but I'm also not going to vouch for you among my partners if you or your agent comes in wanting to work with us. To get me to vouch for you, you'd better reach out to me first instead of expecting a meeting b/c you said you worked w/me & pointing to my IMDB page as evidence (if my gig gets listed there). They'll just ask me about it anyway. Plus, doing that before you speak to the person first is bad form (especially in entertainment).

Oh, and if you're SAG? Don't get cocky about getting to eat lunch first. I saw a SAG guy doing this while us non-union folk were waiting in line? Do you think that after you do that to me, I'm letting you get involved w/my company? Ha! You won't even make it to the audition b/c I'll tell my partners & they'll tell the casting people.

That's a character flaw none of us need or want in our lives. That's a turd who'll abuse PAs & belongs in permanent background limbo. Wish I'd gotten his name but I know what he played (wasn't one of the beautiful people). Star trips: contrary to legend, you'd better not try it with producers, executives, the people who can get you an audition or keep you out permanently. It's happened to countless actors, even big names who got too big for their britches (as my mom would say).

3. PETA has done something vicious to big name TV production companies: The content of my coats was a huge issue. The wardrobe people told me point blank that they couldn't use anything w/real fur. They also had to put me in a different spot b/c of my other coat looking like a real fur coat.

Damn you, PETA! While I'm not anti-animal per se, I'm a pragmatist. I have a real rabbit skin coat that belonged to my husband's grandmother along w/a few real fur items. This coat has probably existed long before I was born so what would you have me do now? It keeps you warm, it has function & when you don't have money, it's not the time to get hung up on particular principles. I would not demand a custom real fur to be made for me but if the animal has long been dead, what good does it do to reject that product when someone else will take it?

I also have a hard time taking PETA seriously when many of the members are hypocrites & attempt to promote censorship + shut down various industries instead of provide a reasoned viewpoint. Whether I eat meat or not is not your business. They're just as bad as religious zealots & I have a huge problem w/anyone daring to control my life.

Unless these people want to start PAYING for my monthly expenses, the extra costs of organic items & generally any cost difference resulting from traditional items vs. organic or animal friendly products for everyone who can't afford it, it's time to shut the hell up. Until you put your money where your mouth is, you have no room to criticize anyone for doing the best they can when they are broke. I will fight anyone to the death on that point.

4. We see right through you: Oh, I do! After mentioning that people treat you different when they hear about a background like mine, many actors joined that chorus of "Oh, I don't suck up to people. I act however they treat me." You don't fool me, kid! I look for behavior, I look for actions. Talk is extremely cheap, especially in the business. Let me see how you conduct yourself & get lessons. I made this disclosure to one person who spent a lot of time not following directions & apparently spoke to the actor who knew me from the scam fest. I'll say this: I didn't hear him trashing folks after that.

One actress I spoke to on this was quite pleasant & had I seen her when I left, I would have given her my card but I'm easy to find. After all, I bought my name for my website domain name & the first results on Google are my film company, LinkedIn profile, etc.

5. Being the only person with your look helps: I got moved up close to the action on Tuesday. I suppose I got some choicer spots the day before but every time I tried turning on my laptop to see if I could get Internet or do some corrections to sample legal documents so I'd have viable samples when I need them, it seems like I was needed on the set. Then I was put in one point & was moved up when Heather, the woman placing extras says "The redhead! Come here."

If I make it to the air, you're most definitely going to see me if you look. If someone's looking for a redhead, chances are you'd see me. As I said, I was also placed in areas close to the action w/very few others around me, in fact making it to the camera. I was put in places enough that she started to know me by name.

At one point, Andrew McCarthy himself directed me & the extras around me for one scene where we were reacting to the main action. I did inject some creativity into mine, sort of doing this slight double take but it was entirely on instinct.

6. Abuse? This is nothing: Going back to #1, I was absolutely right that being a background player was far less demeaning than doing document review (despite better pay for document review). In document review, there was extensive draconian behavior & a particular "little Hitler" who was supervising the only assignment I did. Not to mention the inconsistency of policies. At least when background was told to be quiet, ALL the background had to shut up. They didn't let one or two get away with it like what happened in the assignment I was at when that guy was on his cell phone so loud, you could hear his conversation while the reviewers couldn't talk to their seatmates.

At least in being an extra, you get some flexibility for creativity. I attempted some on my own, perhaps instinctively. You get encouraged to do that in entertainment. In a law firm, HA! They may as well hire robots to be associates. I'm honestly shocked that hasn't happened w/the utter discouragement of creativity in that field.

They don't feed you the things you get from being an extra. No "crafty" breaks w/food & no lavish lunches. You're lucky to get pizza on Fridays & the occasional bagel breakfast. Here? Much better stuff. Partly due to union rules but far superior to what you'd get on document review, which requires just as many hours.

7. SAG vs. Non-Union: If you're SAG, you eat first and get paid more but you work longer hours. I like seeing my husband so I didn't mind going home when I did. Plus, I did get more sleep.

8. If I got famous, I'd need this shirt from T-Shirt Hell: The first day I was on set, we were outside part of the time. I saw tons of onlookers w/cameras taking pictures with flashes. It made me laugh when I figured these people were looking for big shots & likely just got PAs and background people in their shots.

Tuesday, when we were leaving the set, I saw more onlookers in the area we had to travel from.

It also pissed me off, though. I felt like a zoo animal or some celebrity dealing with paparazzi. How do you famous faces deal with it? I'd hate all the restrictions on my life and travel.

I have even more sympathy for it after having to experience it myself but God help you if you ever piss me off. If I'm getting this onslaught on you, that means you did something truly nasty like harming one of my family members/business associates/friends. You'd love my non-star struck family, though. Especially my mother, who's still nobody's "yes woman" & probably explains a lot about why I am as I am.

I also understand why people in the business end up with drug and alcohol addictions. I think I did beforehand but after doing this for 2 days & seeing some of it, I definitely get it.

The verdict: Would I do this again? Sure, if I have time, the right outfit & think a particular background role might be up my alley. I'm married so no nudity, kissing, etc. I also don't think I'd be able to play hooker since I'm a bit more demure & evoke too much class to be truly convincing. I'm not too certain what you'd call "my type" since I do look so different & sort of am a minority unto myself; I'm of the "here I am, decide where you want to put me" school.

So thanks, Central Casting & Gossip Girl extras casting folk for proving to me once and for all that I actually am pretty. That self-esteem boost made my century & will give me ammo against anyone trying to underplay or disparage my looks.

I also saw professionalism, contrary to what any whiny factions might have to say. Apparently, some background people consider this set to be miserable but that really wasn't my experience. I was completely shocked when that actor who recognized me said I was "nice" because I can be very nasty when someone's irked me. Hell, I'm "the enforcer" so anyone doing their own enforcing is okay in my book if our end purpose matches up.

So next time you have the experience of background work or have people come in for it, there may very well be an industry insider in your midst who could make you or break you.

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