Friday, May 28, 2010

My Life as an Extra

All my life I wanted to be a star. First, it was a basketball star. Then, a movie star. I just wanted to be famous. Heck, I’d have even settled for 5 seconds on the Jumbotron. This yearning stayed with me and was part of the reason I moved to Hollywood in 2000. I had taken an acting class in college, and even did a short stint at the beginner level of the improv comedy group, The Groundlings. But I was not an actor. I wasn’t a star. I couldn’t do voices, impressions, accents, nothing. I could only act like myself.

That’s when I learned about Central Casting.

In 2001, I discovered that any Joe Shmo or Sally Smith off the street could end up on the TV or the silver screen. I drove to the Central Casting office which was a lot like the DMV for wannabe actors. I sat for a while, stood in line, filled out some paperwork, and then posed for a picture. I gave them $50 or so and that was it. I was on my way to be a star.

When I got home, I called the number they provided for me. It was a hotline describing roles for background actors or extras. For example, a television show is looking for actors who can play high school or college students. Please call if you’re interested. So I did.

Must See TV

My first role was on a show called Imagine That starring Hank Azaria. (If you wanna read the full Hank Azaria story, click here for more.) The sitcom was appearing on NBC and was predicted to be a smash hit (they were wrong; it lasted only 6 episodes.) I played an audience member who watched the show within the show. I was told not to laugh, and that was it. My acting skills must’ve been amazing because when the show aired a few months later, guess who had the close up? ME!

For 3 seconds, the TV lay frozen on my straight face. This turned out to be the punch line of the scene. It wasn’t very funny, but afterwards, the phone calls came flooding in (it was only 3 calls, but still…)

I got to meet Hank Azaria and Katey Sagal (of Married with Children and Lost fame.) I got paid a bit, enjoyed a free lunch, and ended up on TV. Not a bad first day.

The Original Buffy

My next show was a complete dud, and never even aired. But I got to eat lunch with Ron Livingston (of Swingers fame.) I wanted to tell him that he was so money, but he was insistent on talking about planes from WWI. Actors are boring, I thought to myself. Kristy Swanson (the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer) smiled at me though. That was cool because she’s super hot.

What do you think my childhood was like…my last name was Saget!

My next adventure was for a show called Raising Dad on the now defunct WB network. They were casting for high school kids and even though I was 23, I looked and acted like I was still in high school.

I was to play a student at a Boston high school. Being from Boston, I thought to myself: “Didn’t I just do this 5 years ago?”

Here was the twist: my teacher was to be played by the one and only Bob Saget. I expected Saget to be just like Danny Tanner from Full House. Boy, was I wrong. While his role was pretty much the same, Saget himself was one of the dirtiest comedians I’d ever met let alone seen. In between scenes, he cracked jokes about the Olsen twins, body parts, and words that rhymed with Saget. I was laughing so hard, that at one point, they had to stop shooting. Saget remarked about me: “This kid’s laughing even before I say anything.”

I somehow made it through the classroom scenes while keeping a straight face. I had lunch with Kat Dennings (the daughter in 40 Year Old Virgin and the star of Nick and Norah’s Inifinite Playlist.) She was super nice and thanked us all for being a part of her show. I think this was her first role; one of the reasons she was so nice.

I escaped the set for an hour and somehow got a free tour of the Warner Brothers studio. When I returned, I hit it off with one of the other extras who looked like she was in high school too. I was shocked to discover that not only was she older than me, but we were from the same town of Sharon, MA. We spent the next few days together and ended up dating for a while.

But our relationship was a lot like the show Raising Dad. It was fun and juvenile, but only lasted for a short period of time.

I was prominently featured in the first 2 episodes of Raising Dad. I can be seen wearing a tight leather jacket, laughing at Bob Saget’s cheesy jokes, and throwing a paper ball at one of my classmates. Even though I was 5 years older than nearly everyone in the room, I fit in perfectly. In fact, I looked the youngest there. Unfortunately, the show got cancelled, and I never got a chance to reprise my role as the goofy kid at the front of the class.

Van Wilder

I was very excited to learn I’d been “casted” in a new movie called Van Wilder. All I knew is that it took place on the UCLA campus, and I’d moved up to playing a college student. I showed up and was told to see Jenny in the wardrobe trailer.

I whistled my way into the dark trailer and noticed a guy and a girl sitting on the couch watching TV. I plopped down next to them, and asked what we were watching. They looked at me like I had leprosy. We sat in awkward silence for 15 seconds.

I said: “So you must be Jenny?”

It was not Jenny. It was Tara Reid and co-star Ryan Reynolds. It wasn’t the wardrobe trailer. It was one of their trailers. Oops.

I finally found the right trailer, and changed into some college gear. My role, for what seemed like the day, was to toss the football with Teck Holmes (best known for being on The Real World: Hawaii.)

For the rest of the time, I snacked at the craft service counter (all the Krispy Kreme you can eat), hit on girls unsuccessfully, and lied out in the sun. Despite my acting efforts, I was somehow cut out of the movie. Maybe Tara Reid and Ryan Reynolds had something to do with that.

Orange County

In my next movie, I was back to high school again, and I was starting to get the hang of this acting thing. This shoot was enormous---hundreds of extras were used to fill out the high school scenes. That meant I had a lot of girls to hit on. I had many vibrant memories from this shoot, but one of them was getting one of the “cheerleaders” phone numbers. She had attended Santa Clara University, and was impressed that I knew Steve Nash went there. We never went out, but every time I see the cheerleader in pigtails, I think of what might have been.

As I was getting more comfortable on the set, I started asking questions to the producers about movie making. I even stood next to Jake Kasdan (the son of Lawrence Kasdan who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi) as he directed certain scenes. It was really a crash course in film making.

But Jake’s memory of me might not be so positive.

During one scene at the school courtyard, Colin Hanks’ character is arguing with his girlfriend. (This is prefaced by him not getting into Stanford, fighting with his counselor, and then running into a pack of cheerleaders as they morph into a dance routine.)

As the student body, we were instructed to watch the argument in stunned silence. I, of course, was not listening, and didn’t really care. I watched the scene unfold, and felt a wave of boredom. That’s when one of the extras egged me on. “Do something funny”, he begged.

It took me two seconds to make a decision. I decided to act like a high school student. I would be random and stupid. Without warning, I broke into the running man. The extras smiled and laughed heartily as I increased the pace of my dance move.

The director wasn’t nearly as amused. CUT was shrieked into the air.

The director’s assistant frantically roamed through the sea of extras.”Who was dancing? Who was dancing??”

I slowly raised my hand. “It was me. Was it funny?”


Apparently, I was lined up directly behind the camera. While Colin and his girl barked at one another, I was right behind them dancing. I stole the scene as my royal blue warm up pants shuffled back and forth.

They shot the scene 3 more times, and although I was on my best behavior, it never made it off the cutting floor. I must’ve cursed it. I hoped it would end up in the deleted scenes on the DVD, but I guess the director didn’t want me and my running man to sweep the nation.

The Characters

From my experiences, I learned that most people dreaded doing extra work; those were the professional actors. It was beneath them to go from playing Hamlet to suddenly playing some stiff walking down the street. These people made themselves known on the set. They were grumpy, irritable, and preached about the rules of acting. There were also a wide range of young, hot women. They were wannabe actresses who tried to coerce the casting directors to give them lines so they could receive their SAG cards. These girls were manipulative, and unreliable, but also very hot. Then there were the old veterans. They were like regulars at the bar. They’ve been around forever and knew the tricks of the trade. They brought books to read, and knew where the best snacks were. The sane ones had interesting stories about the industry. The insane ones seemed like characters from Lord of the Rings. They were incoherent, smelly, and yearned for their precious.

Like Mike

By the time I got to Like Mike, I was nearly a pro. I knew where to get the best food, which actors I could approach, and how to do as little as possible without getting yelled at.

As I drove to the Great Western Forum, I felt a surge of adrenalin. The Great Western Forum was not just an old arena in a tough area of LA. It was the rebirth of the NBA. It was where Magic and Bird squared off in the 80’s. It was the epicenter of some of the best basketball ever played. And now I was on my way in.

There were hundreds of us to play fans; to cheer on Lil’ Bow Wow as he tried to make a lay-up. But I didn’t like my role. I liked what I saw on the court.

A dozen “players” casually shot hoops while surrounded by “cheereleaders.” Since it took hours to set up the perfect shot, these guys had hours to work on their perfect shot.

This seemed like a dream: getting paid to play basketball (even if it was only for a day.) I’m 5’ 9”, white, and Jewish. This is the closest to the NBA I’m ever gonna get.

So I put on my best acting skills. I walked by the casting directors, walked onto to the court, and pretended like I belonged. I sank a few jumpers and nobody bothered me. I sank a few more, and I was there to stay.

About 15 minutes in, I nailed a 3 pointer from the corner, and thought to myself: this is what Larry Bird did 20 years ago.

The basketball actors were twice my size, but they didn’t care, and befriended me. I tossed them alley-oops and we goofed around on the court. The cheerleaders flirted with me. I was in heaven. It was like the bizarro world.

That’s when the celebrities showed up and started shooting with us. First came Lil’ Bow Wow, the star of the movie. He was definitely not like Mike, but seemed like a nice kid at least for those 20 minutes. Then Morris Chestnut showed up and clanged a few shots. Then Cuba Gooding Jr. stopped by and bricked a few jumpers.

After a while, people got tired and relaxed on the sideline. I was left alone when the NBA star showed up: Vince Carter!

I didn’t ask for an autograph. In fact, we didn’t even talk. We just shot around like we were in the park and played courtesy. He shot lefty 3’s and I flipped it back to him as he swished away. After he missed, I knocked down a few shots and he zipped it right back to me. I couldn’t believe it. I was playing courtesy with Vince Carter at the Great Western Forum. I wanted to tell my friends right then and there, but this was before facebook and widespread social networks.

I just enjoyed the moment. I didn’t feel like a fan. Or an extra. I felt like a star. It was only for a few minutes, but I got to live one of my dreams. The little white kid from Sharon, MA was in the NBA.

A few moments later, the filming started and I relaxed on the sideline. I didn’t even try to be in the background. I was glowing too much from the experience.

There were two lunches that day: one for the extras and one for the stars. I followed the cheerleaders, the basketball players, and Vince towards the filet mignon. I sat next to Reggie Theus (former NBA player, coach, and star of Hang Time), and we analyzed the New Jersey Nets—Boston Celtics series. I asked who would win and he said the Nets (he was right.) I disagreed, and we argued vehemently. He definitely didn’t like me.

But I didn’t care. Instead, I swallowed my steak, flirted some more with the cheerleaders, and gave Vince Carter a head nod as he walked by.

I wasn’t an extra anymore. Today, I was a star.


Anonymous said...

Wow, seems like an eventful "career" with some well known movies and shows! :) Did you get them all through Central Casting or Extras? I'm moving to L.A. soon (just turned 18) and I can still definitely pull off the whole middle/high school vibe.

OnCloudNine9 said...

Sounds exciting ! cant wait to read more . Follow me back ?