my extra-ordinary life

Retroactive love is in the air, and recycled disco balls hang frivolously from the ceiling. Depending on how well you've aged or how successful you are, it's the much dreaded or anticipated high school reunion. Donna Summers' Last Dance aptly cues the evening's denouement.

Suddenly the dance floor parts and couples gracefully move to the side making way for the terpsichorean Moses. Cameron Diaz is glowing and ebullient, hamming it up for her trademark booty shaking routine. The song ends and we all break into frenzied applause. The director then yells "Cut!" for the tenth time.

Perhaps, I should do a bit of explaining. You know the people you see in the background of your favorite TV show or movie confabulating behind the fabulous, playing chess in the park or dancing at, say, a high school reunion? Well, they aren't just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time. They are what industry folk call "atmosphere" or what you may know as an "extra." They are hired to lend authenticity to the fictitious. It's the easiest way to infiltrate the entertainment world. It may even be the most reliable temp job in Los Angeles, as well as a fun summer stint for college students and a diversion for senior citizens. To some actors it has become the new waiting tables. For me it was a story. But to all of us, at sometime or another, it is war, and if you want to get your medals you have to subject yourself to the Horror.

The Enlistment
The first waft of deluded stardom isn't even inside the Central Casting Office, but on the sidewalk in front, where model/talent agencies set up gorilla style camps hoping to entice naive transplants. Blind Date recruiters likewise try to snatch only the most ingenuous to be daters on their derisive reality show. Fearless, I pushed my way through the fusillade of riff-raff, saving myself for putatively the most honorable of all extra casting agencies. “Central” boasted more jobs and extras than others around town and soon, I would be one of the thousands of faces on their glorious roster.

When I entered the registration room on that fateful day, I was stopped by a brawny woman who inquired about my legal status and made sure I had a social security card and driver's license. If you don't possess these documents, you haven't got what it takes to make it in the business. Fortunately, I did.

Sussing out the room, I noticed it was teeming with excessively made up and scantily clad 18-21 year old girls. There were also several retirees, pregnant woman and average people of varying heights, weights, styles and ethnicities. It was quite clearly a cross section of America.

Tape measures were provided and for those of us who were saying au revoir to our twenties, it was a cruel reality check. But my shock was quickly usurped by laughter when I overheard the surrounding prospective extras scribbling their talents as they matched the ones on a large poster board on the wall labeled "Attribute List" – where incidentally, “amputee” was a choice. Also on the list were: fencing, juggling, body contorting and yoga – finally one I could vaunt – until I saw the fine print, "experts only". Within minutes my self-worth had diminished. I may have even checked the "will do nudity" box to compensate for the fact that I had no expertise.

My first real taste of extra work revealed its dirty face in the form of lines and waiting. Both of which were usually the result of the inane questions extras tend to ask. Approaching the front of the line to turn in my paperwork, the person ahead of me was inquiring about the boxes for ethnicity. Now granted, there were only five boxes to mark, so if you were going to lodge a complaint about not being able to list your own background, more power to you. But, when she ended up asking what the word "ethnicity" meant, I shuddered upon realizing that this was my new peer group.

The Recording
"Hi ladies, this is Tammy and I'm looking for a detective, this is Pittsburgh so no California blondes or dark tans, call me at..."

"Hey ladies this is Kimberly and I'm looking for extremely gorgeous Sex and the City types, you must be hot, hot, hot, with great bodies and a chic and stylish wardrobe ..."

Throughout the day, messages like these are recorded and updated frequently on the Non-Union Ladies Work Line by the various casting agents advertising work for all types of movies, television shows and infomercials. If you meet the requirements they are looking for, you may call the extension and hope that the casting agent takes mercy on you.

As much as I thought that I was as Sex and the City as any self-indulgent resident of Los Angeles, I opted for the female detective. I didn't want to be hit in the face with rejection so early in my career.

I called the busy line several times and with each redial I could feel my vital signs changing. But then it happened, on the seventh try: "What's your social?"

Having been warned about the casting agents' penchant for brevity, the sudden demanding exasperation wasn't befuddling. My number jumped off of my tongue as if it were saying, "Fine thanks, how are you?" After a few seconds the voice returned politely telling me that she couldn't use me this time.

Feeling only mildly dejected, I submitted to my insolent side's urging and dialed the other number. A woman picked up: “Social." The single word came out of her mouth chillingly expressionless.

I proffered my social security number, which the casting agent uses to pull up your photograph and statistics. Seconds later she returned and replied, "Yeah, I can definitely use you." I remember her words vividly because at that moment they validated my existence. She then gave me a number to call later that evening where I would learn more details about wardrobe, location and the time to be at the set.

Girl on Girl Action
Extra women cannot be friends. Sure you can meet people whom you are less bothered by than most, but when push comes to shove, you’d better push if you don't want to get shoved out of the frame.

On the set I was paired up with a young woman in lingerie and her perky blonde friend. Both recently moved to LA from Ohio to pursue their acting careers. We were placed in the scene just to the side of the main action. At first I found it entertaining and thought I was merely being paranoid; maybe it just so happened that their dancing styles were such that they would nudge me away from the frame. However, the further I got, the more I sensed that this was no accident but their master plan to ensure that they'd be on TV.

As soon as it hit me that I was being served, I felt I had no other choice but to assert myself. I fervently danced my way back to my invisible mark and didn't budge. This struggle went on for 17 takes in the midnight cold, beside the pool of a Malibu mansion, while I was ostensibly dressed like Carrie Bradshaw.

Eventually we were asked to return to the holding area, the corral where the "atmosphere" is kept at bay until they are needed to partake in the scene. This particular coop consisted of tables and cold metal folding chairs.

Waiting for the next shot to be set up, I scoured my surroundings in desperate need of forging camaraderie in criticism. I spotted someone who wasn't what you'd call affable or even approachable. OK, it was out of convenience. She happened to be sitting right next to me. I tried to strike up a conversation with her feeling mildly cheesy, like a loser guy making the moves on a poor unsuspecting girl at well, an extra gig. She wasn't immediately receptive to my advances so I peppered her with questions about herself, to which her answers where surprisingly uninspiring. She spoke of her past assignments with a detached and unaware condescension: Alias and Curb Your Enthusiasm--certainly she could stand a little less of the latter. Within minutes we were called back to the set and I never spoke with her again.

Excuse Me, Did You Say Background Artist?
Not all extra women are as laconic and unfriendly as that woman was. In fact, it’s amazing the ease with which some people open up to you upon finding out that you are not in competition with them as I learned one early morning with a surprisingly loquacious young lady.

I didn't unveil what exactly--if not an aspiring actress--I was hoping to accomplish by waking up at 4:00 AM, driving 30 miles and getting berated for a minimum wage job. She didn't ask, so I didn't tell.

The woman didactically informed me how I might be better served as a career extra by checking out a book entitled Extra Work for Brain Surgeons. "It's a must have for any serious background artist." I laughed at this pronouncement thinking that surely, she was exercising her wit. She didn't smirk back in acknowledgement. Rather, she took it upon herself to disabuse a system where it was no longer appropriate to use the taboo word “extra”. She explained that the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), in one of its negotiations on behalf of extras, union and non union alike, determined that extras would no longer be called "extras" because of the demeaning nature of the term. They would instead be given the patronizing euphemism of Background Artist to further keep them in subjugation. I later found out that the official SAG term was Background Actor, but many still prefer "Artist" and profoundly think of themselves as such.

What Cargo Pants and a Walkie Talkie Can Do to a Woman
Overall, most of the women on any set are beyond "doable" by most men's standards. Having said that, it is astonishing to see them carrying on with such portly, unkempt, beer bellied Grips (union guys who carry heavy stuff) and PAs (Production Assistants), who wouldn't stand a chance if they weren't moving a C-Stand, operating a boom or assisting the director. What all of this slutduggery amounts to is the likelihood of being a recipient of the coveted union voucher.

All extras get a voucher; it's your receipt for working. But only union and very special non-union extras get the SAG voucher. There is usually a spare SAG voucher, due to one of the scheduled SAG extras not showing up to work. To recognize the powerful and the union voucher wielding on a set doesn't take much talent. The skill lies in being the one out of 25 or even 200 to win over the keeper and capture what can one day facilitate making you into a star.

The rules are simple, earn three union vouchers and you are eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild. There are other perks such as making $110 for 8 hours of work instead of the customary $54. Overtime and double time commensurately increase. Of course, you are also taken more seriously when you have the backing a union. Above all, you are allowed to audition for SAG work.

Hierarchy and Its Relation to the Craft Services
One morning, while still a novice, I observed from the periphery for about half an hour a group of forty people milling about, garment bags in tow, like passengers anxiously waiting to board an airplane. Meanwhile, burly tough guys with long hair and tattoos--the crew--ate custom made omelets.

Finally, a middle aged man gingerly walked over to the craft services table to filch a Krispy Kreme doughnut and a cup of coffee. Other extras started to follow his example. One of the PAs, sensing an imminent mutiny, quickly laid down the rules for us, "Eat from the table, stay away from the truck." The catering truck was strictly for the cast, crew and yes, SAG extras--yet another reason to join the union.

A huge part of the charm of being an extra lies in the fact that you are generally fed two meals a day with ample snacking opportunities in between. In fact, those in the know will sometimes chose their assignment based on the quality of the catering and craft services provided.

Catering truck and craft services protocol vary from show to show. Big budget productions are usually the most generous. But it's not the rule. Though Lifetime may not offer the best entertainment on television, they definitely garner high ratings among the extra community when it comes to the food they ration. It’s easy to forgive them for the cloying programming, when they offer such delights as chocolate cake, freshly baked cookies and ice cream sundays.

You may recall the freshman fifteen, the inevitable weight gain that plagues first year college students indulging in a hearty dining hall diet three times a day. Well, for Background Artists, I call it the extra eighteen. It happens to the most fit and health-conscious. You can't help but fall victim to such decadence, especially when it becomes an entitlement.

Let's Talk About Sex and Exchange Value
I wish I could regale you with tales of romping in the wardrobe trailer with stars, Assistant Directors or even PAs. I know it's happened, just not with me. But talking is different and if you get a bunch of bored people together, sex conversation is all you need. Once you get past the raunchy positioning and locker room banter, and establish that you’re already romantically involved, extra men change their tune and don't seem like idiots trying desperately to get into your pants. They become more candid, albeit proportionately bitter about their experience with women and why they think extra women especially, are contemptible.

Most extras on a set are transplants and aspiring famous people--I hesitate to say actors because some of them, fresh off the bus, don't care about the craft but just want to be on TV. They came to Hollywood hoping that they'd be discovered almost immediately upon arrival. They aren't prepared for the long hours, bad pay and effrontery.

Initially, extras are lonely and reach out to one another as kindred spirits. They have plenty of time to talk and flirt on the set; they commiserate and hope for the best. If they are lucky enough to have a date, it rarely goes beyond that; the second date is something of a myth in the extra universe. By what would usually be considered the time to have the second rendezvous, the woman will have realized – especially if she is attractive – that she's a commodity in this town and she'd better use it to her advantage.

The Extra Male
The extra male is not a man, but an entity. He is seen as lecherous, pathetic, obnoxious and just plain nefarious. The women don't want anything to do with this creature, yet can't escape his ubiquity. His masculinity is nullified by the fact that he brandishes no power. Even a measly $100-a-day PA has more clout in this universe.

Ironically, what the extra woman detests most, even more than the extra male, is the latter scoring with a sister. Similar phenomena occur in all facets of society, but with the extra assignment being a microcosm, such indiscretions are even more evident and uncomfortable. In fact, it's fun to strike up a conversation with the extra male just to see the hating that goes on.

If a woman sees a man talking to another woman, that man all of a sudden has appeal. But that's not enough. The other woman, who notices that this man is being chatted up, now wants a piece of the action. All of a sudden the man becomes alluring. This same man, in a group of guys, would be unquestionably overlooked. Now, however, this loser has women vying for his attention. Even the original woman talking to him has become more interested. This sado-masochistic flirtation amounts to nothing in the world of an extra. Elsewhere, a one night stand might at least transpire, but here it's really about the hating.

Simulacra and Simulation
Aside from the women banding together to ward off the bane of the extra male, the most arrant division on a set is by race. Class boundaries are generally transcended by virtue of the fact that most of the extras are working for minimum wage, therefore all living below the poverty level.

Rank comes next, at least on this particular assignment which was for a popular TV show needing “Air Force soldiers”. In our down time, sergeants talked with sergeants, corporals ate with corporals; lieutenants coquetted with other lieutenants and so on. Since then, when I worked on a show as a prostitute, I hung out with the whores, and as a result, I became sassier. Accordingly, when I assumed the role of a police officer, I downed doughnuts with the cops.

The most logical explanation for this artificial kinship is that clothes can temporarily transform a person. And in that physical transformation, under the guise of being like the other person, you welcome the opportunity to become someone else and interact with people whom you ordinarily wouldn't talk to.

Extra work isn't exactly the Stanford Prison Experiment, but similar interpersonal dynamics apply. Your sense of self becomes tenuous as you try to establish who you really are. It is here where the true acting surfaces. You create an alterniverse for yourself that is suitable only for the moment, or day, and you go with it. Its absurdity is laughable if you parse it too much, but if you don't zoom in on the situation and just let it be, it's quite similar to reality.

The Criteria
Sometimes you can sit in the holding area all day long and never be called to duty. Savvy extras bank on this glitch and will even leave the set and have a friend call them when it's time to wrap so they can return unscathed and get their voucher signed. I wasn't that cavalier yet and was happy to be culled from the lot. But what did it mean to be chosen this time? Grasping for a clue I looked at the others who were selected, there was no common thread and I was at a loss. Could it have been random? Could they have been looking for all types?

The herd was hastily navigated over to the set and we were forced to stand on the side lines while the director made up his mind about what to do with us. As soon as we were told to sit down, the first AD came trudging by scratching his head. He did a few switcharoos and then pointed at me. I looked around in bewilderment bringing unwanted attention to myself. He said, "Yeah, you!" and gave me the "you're out of here" thumb.

Chagrined, I retreated to the less favorable seat, while I tried to figure out why I was replaced. I glowered at the person whom I was supplanted by. But just as I was about to condemn her to an eternal return of covert ops involving chocolate brownie extractions from the "Crew Only" craft services table, I saw that she was an older, more "character" looking woman. I was relieved and recanted the fatwa.

Bump and Grind
Wouldn't you know that my best performance – that is, my most obvious on-air moment – would be on a now canceled TV show that no one ever watched. The call was very specifically an all women "lipstick lesbian" job. Since most of the night club assignments are excruciating given that you have to shoo away sleaze ball men who feel licensed to trounce on you all day long with repugnant pick up lines, I was looking forward to the change.

But by the time we were asked to make our way onto the dance floor for our moment to shine, it was apparent that all this was a grand scheme to placate the teamsters. In the morning, the first AD walked around the holding area offering extra camera time to any ladies willing to "dike out." Not at all appalled by the derogatory nature of the request, several women asked if they would either get a SAG voucher or a bump. The latter term is used for a slight increase in pay for additional services. For example, if you have to get wet from a fake storm there is a water bump; if you are subjected to smoke, there's a smoke bump; and if you have to dance in a sudsy pool, there's a bubble bump. You can lobby for a bump for almost anything. Bumps are the raison d'ĂȘtre for extras.

Two women begrudgingly accepted the extra air time for kissing. But it was I who got caught on the split screen, in slow motion dancing to Anastasia's "Not That Kind." When the episode aired, I had dithered for a month afterward not sure if I should show my parents the performance. Really nothing was inherently wrong with the scene –save for when the actress said, "I'm gonna go meet me some lesbians" and they cut to me rhapsodically getting down.

In the end, I had to tell them because I hadn't had anything else to show for a while. After the last few disappointments, their prudishness was clearly averted by their daughter's quasi-Warholian moment.

Is That All There Is?
The time between the completion of your work and the show's initial airing ranges from two weeks to never. The first time is exhilarating; you inform your friends, family, neighbors, and former co-workers what you were wearing, what you were doing and whom you were standing next to. They all tune in, and then you sit there at the edge of your seat, straining your eyes in desperate search of your itsy bit. Without the VCR, your hours of blood and sweat go unrewarded. Your video recorder then is your redress, allowing you to see yourself the way you were intended to be seen--on pause.

Assuming you are lucky enough to have a VCR with a clear resolution when paused, or better yet TiVo, it's an excitement like no other. With a straight face and a sprinkle of shame, you can share the experience with others. Whether it was the back of your neck, profile or the left side of your chest, you indeed made a contribution to ensuring the authenticity of a show. Alas, even catching a glimpse of yourself is rare. In most instances, as I have learned, you will end up on the proverbial floor of an editing room, never to be acknowledged by the viewing public.

Extra work, like life is abounding with a series of ups and downs, giveths and takeths aways. You’re in the limelight one minute being pampered, polished and primped. The next minute you are sitting humbly on the side lines waiting endlessly to be placed or worse, replaced. Maybe you can escape the conspicuousness of this frigid reality if you reside outside of the greater Los Angeles region. But if you are within the confines of “company town” there really is no dodging this Jobian anathema. Still, I'd like to think that it's less about the victory and more about the battle. After all, shouldn’t we be mired in the trenches at some point in our lives, if for no other reason than to make our skin thicker and give us a sense of humility?

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