I’m experiencing a new reality. I’m a survivor of the rapture, and I am outraged. I’m attending a town meeting to vent. I’m playing make believe.
I’m an extra on The Leftovers. An actor pal told me about the gig, and I thought it could be fun, maybe.
On the day of the shoot, I report to a parochial school cafeteria in Nyack, New York, at 11:30 in the morning. Fortunately, I have a friend who lives in Nyack, and he put me up for the night and dropped me off. I had been prepared to be on set at the crack of dawn.
Unfortunately, the production doesn’t release call times for extras until the last minute. At about one in the morning, I was informed via a recorded message of the late start. After checking in, I report to the wardrobe department in the rear of the cafeteria, and they’re not pleased with my town meeting attire. They order me to remove my black sweatshirt, which has a tiny logo on it. It was so small I forgot it was there. No problem, fortunately, I’ve got my navy fleece. After my wardrobe is cleared, it¹s time to do something I’m not very good at: waiting.
It’s only a few minutes when one of the production assistants asks me for my number, sixty-nine. When you¹re an extra, you have a number, not a name. It¹s just easier that way for the production. Something’s up. Minutes later, an assistant director informs me that I¹m going to be used for “an additional scene.” When I ask an approachable production assistant about this, she tells me that I have “a look that they’re looking for.”
I won’t be just a number much longer.
“What kind of look do I have?” I want to pester but don’t. Instead, my mind starts doing cartwheels. This is how it started for Brad Pitt!
In the additional scene, I’ll be playing a gas station attendant.
This isn’t how it started for Brad Pitt.
I start to mull over my new assignment. That’s easy because there’s nothing else to do. Will I pumping gas for Justin Theroux? Will I have a line or maybe two? If that happens, I’ll become a “day player” and be paid about $900. Will I be asked to play a gas station attendant for future episodes? Either way, I won’t be just a number much longer.
A few hours later, an assistant director orders the hundred-plus extra herd to the set: a church meeting room. As we funnel in, a fellow extra praises Alec Baldwin for how friendly he was on another set. Hey honey, tell that to the meter maid he had a moment with a while back. Seriously, I saw Alec on the street not too long ago, and he seemed very pleasant.
In the church, we’re attending a town meeting. Some of us take seats. Others stand. Justin plays the police chief, who is attempting to enforce a curfew because some townies have been mysteriously killed.
We’re outraged and feel that we’re being punished for someone else’s crime. After each statement during the meeting, the director, a mature woman with an affable disposition, directs us, the townies, to mumble and grumble. In industry speak, we’re executing “omni,” which is reacting in unison. If you’re applauding as an audience, you’re doing omni. We’re not uttering actual lines. We’re merely mumbling and grumbling. No, none of the extras will get paid $900 for this.
We go through the scene several times, during which Justin gives a compelling, dramatic speech. Throughout the scene, we either mumble and grumble or utter something positive such as “yeah” when a fellow town member protests the curfew. I attempt to be in the moment but can’t. My body is at the town meeting, but my mind is obsessing over my additional scene. Regardless, no one notices. I’m background, and I’m doing it just fine. An assistant director even refers to us as “background artists.” An extra colleague sitting just behind me is acting like a shmuck. Instead of mumbling and grumbling, he’s echoing.
When the mic’ed-up day player, also a town meeting attendee, complains to Justin that “they robbed my house on Christmas!” the bad extra repeatedly echoes “Christmas!” After a few takes, the second second assistant director, the one in charge of the extras, orders the lame extra to stop and orders him to mumble and grumble, not echo. He explains in a gruff manner that the extra is not being paid to speak. So cold, but so true.
After the scene is shot from a multitude of angles, for four hours, we’re dismissed. As we walk out of the church in single file, Justin walks past us in his cool shades, the ones he’s always photographed in, and he steps into a waiting black BMW.
“Justin is so handsome. He’s much better looking in person,” gushes a young female extra. “But he’s not my type.”
“I’m sure you’re not his type either,” I want to respond but don’t. Frankly, I think Justin could use a big steak or two. The man is tiny.
As my town meeting brethren check out, another herd of extras check in and take seats on the opposite side of the cafeteria. They’re easy to spot because they’re dressed in all white. They’re playing cult members. Meanwhile, a plentiful buffet is laid out, which I happen to be seated right next to. Even though I haven’t done much at all, I’m absolutely famished. I’ve exhausted myself by obsessing over the gas station attendant role.
I approach the buffet. But just as I’m about to tong some greens, I’m ordered to halt. “Background!?” the catering guy asks in an authoritative tone as if I’m an insect. I drop the tongs immediately, and I almost feel as if I should raise my hands in the air in surrender. I’d be damn good in a surrender scene. Spielberg could have used me as a surrendering German in Saving Private Ryan.
“Ah, yeah,” I stammer, ashamed. Being identified as mere scenery caught me off guard. Since I was chosen for the role of gas attendant, I thought that my status had been elevated.
I thought wrong.
“You gotta wait for the crew to eat first,” says the catering guy gruffly.
As a non-union extra, I will dine dead last. I slink back to my seat. As the crew eats, I sit alone and mumble and grumble inaudibly to myself. The cult members who have been working on the production for several days have their niche. The production assistants sit with the production assistants. The teamsters sit with the teamsters. Unfortunately, there are no other gas station attendants.
Indeed, I am a leftover.
When the cult members form a line at the buffet, I’m out of the gate like Secretariat at the Kentucky Derby. I cut the line and feel only mildly guilty. I’ve been here all day. I should eat first.
After dinner, the cult members and I are bussed to a satellite holding location, an upstairs room at an Italian restaurant. When the cult extras are called to the set – a gas station – I depart to the bus with them. Perhaps the production will decide on the fly that it needs me for this scene. You can’t wait for opportunity to come to you. And the scene takes place at a gas station, and I’m the attendant. Before I can board, the production assistant who told me I had the look that they were seeking orders me off the bus and to wait upstairs.
I’m in the final scene of the night.
Unless I get an actual line, my pay isn’t going to be much more than that of the townie nonunion extras that were dismissed hours earlier. Non-union extras get paid a little less than $100 for a ten hour day, lunch hour not included. I’m down. I return upstairs and plop myself at a table that’s vacant except for a basket of onion rolls. They speak to me. Will you eat me? Please! Somehow, I manage to not devour.
She has to get up at 3:00 every morning to be at the set at 5:00. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, she doesn’t get a driver.
There’s another guy there, a veteran union extra, whom I’ll call Al Pacino. He’ll be driving his car at my gas station in the final scene.. It’s a decent pay day for Pacino because he gets overtime after only eight hours as opposed to ten for nonunion, and his hourly wage is livable. Plus, he’s being paid for the use of his car. During his extra career, Pacino has seen just about everything, and he tells me that I shouldn’t expect a line in our scene because the production would be fined for using a nonunion extra for such purposes. As he checks his email on his phone, I pester him with questions until I fall asleep on the floor. Somehow, I don’t drool on myself.
Just before 11:00, I’m awakened by the cult members. It’s time. I’ll finally find out my fate. Pacino drives me to the gas station set. There, the second second assistant director tells me that they may use me. After all this, they may use me!? I’m disappointed, to put it mildly. I just want the day to be done. Unfortunately, the gas station has a conspicuous “self-service” sign.
Forget about a line. I won’t be making an appearance of any nature in this scene. That’s fine by me. I’m out of gas. However, the second second assistant director does refer to me by name as opposed to my number, 69, which makes me do a double take..
As they shoot my scene, I wait in the station’s convenience store and listen to the makeup lady complain about some of the seemingly endless days on Orange Is the New Black. She has to get up at 3:00 every morning to be at the set at 5:00. Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow, she doesn’t get a driver. I also talk to the gas station owner, the real gas station owner. A favorite of location scouts, this station has a futuristic exterior and has been featured on several television shows.
Minutes later, the production wraps. I want to drop to my knees like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, but I’m just too beat. I hitch a ride back with Pacino to the parochial school. As I sign out, I ask the production assistant, the one who said I had the look, about getting a ride back to the city in one of the production¹s vans. Earlier, a few production assistants assured me that they would accommodate my transportation needs. While I could stay in Nyack with my pal, I really don¹t want to.
“I thought you were taking care of your transportation?” she replies, somewhat flustered.
“A PA told me that I could get a courtesy ride,” I whine.
“We asked you to stay late because you were arranging your own transportation,” she explains.
“What happened to my great look!?” I want to respond but don’t. Ironically, it doesn’t appear as if the unused gas station attendant is going to get a ride.
“We¹ll get you in a van,” she says finally as if I were baggage.
After midnight, I get in a van with some of the other crew members. It’s packed. No one speaks the entire ride. Everyone’s beyond exhausted. When the van hits the drop-off location at 96th and Broadway, not an actual word is uttered. Someone might have mumbled something. That would have been fitting. That’s show biz.
Jon Hart is the author of Man versus Ball: One Ordinary Guy and His Extraordinary Sports Adventures.