The story of being a movie extra
A few years back, a movie was filmed in West Michigan. Produced by our famous Holland son, Hopwood Depree, this independent film stars Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly along with Amy Madigan and Julia Robert’s niece, Emma Roberts. The movie also starred a town-full of local folks known in the biz as extras.
How cool would that be, I thought as I read the open casting call for extras for “Virginia” by TicTock Studios. Who wouldn’t want to be an extra in a film, starring Ed Harris and Jennifer Connelly? All it takes is one day of work so how hard can it be? Soon after, I received the confirmation email…
YOUR CALL TIME FOR “VIRGINIA” ON MONDAY IS 6AM. PLEASE BE SURE TO BRING YOUR WARDROBE WITH YOU WHICH INCLUDES A PANTS SUIT IN SUMMER WEIGHT FABRIC, 3 BLOUSE OPTIONS, AND APPROPRIATE SHOES. YOU WILL BE PLAYING A TV FIELD REPORTER.
Rising before sunrise, I pick up the instruction sheet one last time, and read it.
NO BLACK, NO WHITE, NO YELLOW, NO RED. NO LOGOS, NO HIGH CONTRAST STRIPES SEASON IS SPRING/SUMMER. LOCATION IS A BEACH COMMUNITY.
If I’m correct, this leaves me with the vibrant colors of blue, brown and grey. Going through my closet, which consists of different shades of black, I choose a navy linen suit jacket which is perfect for a beautiful summer day. Never mind that its October in Michigan and the forecast is rain with a high of 42°.
Navy blue…my summer black. OK, I’ll admit it…I’m geeked.
Arriving in South Haven, I find a huge white tent set up on the beach, with a banner that hangs over the entrance that reads, Virginia. Walking in, I’m greeted by a blast of heat blowing in from a generator. Finding a seat among the many rows of folding chairs, I wait for my first instructions. The tent contains a mix of crew members, volunteers and extras, and everyone is chatting, leaving me with the feeling that everyone but me has been through this before. A woman enters, followed by her entourage, and talking stops as we watch her set up the wardrobe area. One by one, we are inspected for wardrobe approval.
“Too black,” she says without hesitation. And with that, I’m whisked into a makeshift dressing room and fitted with my third-choice selection. Once dressed, I’m paired with two gentlemen, and the newly formed News Crew is shuttled off to Hair and Makeup, making the three of us realize we’ve been elevated in status to being officially, Extras. There are those who serve as Background or BG for short. They generally are part of a larger crowd, and meant to blend into the background – hence the name. And then there are Extras, the lucky ones who require hair and makeup and might have a small speaking role. We fall somewhere in between.
DO NOT BOTHER THE STARS. YOU ARE HERE UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF THIS CASTING COMPANY AND YOU ARE TO BEHAVE IN A PROFESSIONAL MANNER. YOU ARE HERE TO WORK.
With my hair now firmly cemented in hairspray, we are shuttled off to yet another tent where we are told to relax and be patient. The temperature outside is in the 40s, so we’re treated with another generator throwing a great amount of heat our way. What we don’t have is food. Seeing how we are the equivalent of cattle on a farm, food will come when the farmhands get around to it. Our tent is bulging with the Saugatuck High School Band, which is also in the movie, with the kids only being scolded occasionally for their loud voices.
And we wait…
News Crew, follow the band!” a crew member yells, and with that, we’re off in another vehicle, riding between the drums and tuba.
We’re driven to North Beach where the beach has been transformed into an ocean-side boardwalk – complete with carnival rides and food vendors. Bleachers are set up and we’re instructed to stand to the side and wait for our cue. I spot Ed Harris sitting in the front row of the bleachers and I take in the workings of the movie set – with cameras rolling on tracks and lights serving as the sun which unfortunately has taken a break today. Hopwood is sitting in the traditional director’s chair, but only stays a moment before jumping off and diving into his work.
And we watch…
“It’s a wrap!” the director finally yells after several hours, and I look at my News Crew. We don’t have to be concerned about winding up on the cutting room floor because it appears that we will not be used.
There is no explanation from the crew other than, “Thank you everyone…We are done for the day! It’s hard not to feel the sting of a broken dream. I tell myself that this was all just for fun and not really important – but the reality is that like many of the others here today, I got sucked into the magical world of moviemaking. How can “Virginia” go on without the News Crew? Apparently quite easily.
Wednesday, 2:40 pm
Two days have passed, and I’m back to my normal world of a career that pays, overlapping with hustling kids to soccer games and making spaghetti dinners. So when the phone rings and I hear my “Virginia” contact on the other end, it surprises me. “Would you be available tomorrow? You’ll be playing a Mormon leaving church.” Not exactly the sexy label of Field Reporter but just as a soldier is always prepared, I find that I owe it to myself to try it one more time. After all…Hollywood is calling me back.
“I would love to,” I find myself replying. And with that, it’s a repeat of what I can’t wear and a reminder not to feed the stars.
Wearing a simple but elegant Talbot’s dress, I am glad that I dragged a friend with me today. She is more vivacious than me and I smile at the likelihood that she will shine on camera, leaving me, once again, on the sidelines. Per our instructions, my friend and I arrive at our location in Saugatuck and wait for our next instructions.
And we wait…
Finally, we’re loaded into a bus and driven to Douglas. It’s a windy day and the trees are bare, with leaves blowing around in typical October fashion. We walk up to our church which sits on a street corner and is surrounded on a beautiful green lawn, without a brown leaf in sight. Our Mormon church is actually a liberal church and we are escorted to the back room. I’m just happy to be riding out my time today indoors – definitely a step up from the tents of the other day.
Soon after, a crew member enters, and we’re escorted to the front of the church and I’m paired with my husband while my friend is grouped with her instant family. Removing my jacket, I stand outside with my husband, shivering as we wait for our next instructions. Amy Madigan is standing in front of us talking to a crew member, and Ed walks past her, proceeding up the steps, passing within inches from me. I look behind me to see my friend smiling broadly at me. I’m in a scene with Ed Harris.
My scene is with Ed Harris!
I cross my arms, trying to warm myself in my lovely short-sleeve spring dress. Suddenly, I feel a jacket being placed over my shoulders, and I turn to see Ed Harris, ever the gentleman. I lift the collar and put it to my nose…nice cologne. It’s quite windy out but the day has suddenly turned sunny and magical for me, and I don’t believe this story can be any better scripted. A crew member comes up to me and suggests that she can get me a jacket, only to be interrupted by Ed, who says, “Just let her keep it on…I’m fine.” When the time comes for him to remove his jacket, he does so with a rub on my back and a, “Are you going to be warm enough?”
“I’ll be great,” I reply. My friend and I exchange smiles and we listen for our cues…