It’s 10 in the morning and I’m standing in a medieval pillory, the old-school torture device that makes you look like you’re waiting for the guillotine with jazz hands. I’m dressed like a fifteenth century English peasant, as are the other twenty or so extras milling about, checking their cell phones that are definitely not period appropriate and also not supposed to come out on set. This is the first rule I remember learning about being an extra: do not bring your phone out of the holding area, and whatever you do, do not pull it out on set. This is also the first rule I see broken as soon as I step on my first set; it seems the entire cast and crew spend most of the day looking down, absentmindedly flicking through their phones as someone, somewhere does something everyone is waiting for.
I’m in the pillory because I’ve discovered I have a face directors and assistant directors easily pull out of a crowd. I keep hoping this will lead to getting a line or better yet, an actual part, but so far I’ve spent the first year in LA being a “background artist,” the creative euphemism for what used to be called extras, or human props that take up most of the screen space on your favorite movies and television shows. I’m doing this because I need money and also because I’ve heard it’s one way to become eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild, the union which guarantees livable wages for accomplished actors and also extras who get booked on three union jobs. The byzantine rules and complicated paperwork don’t make much sense to me, but I’m learning what it’s like to be on big budget sets and just try to soak up what everyone does when they’re not staring at their phones.
On this day, the assistant director was looking for someone to put in the pillory during a singing number, because they think it would be funny to cut to a close up of this poor soul, trying to dance along. I’m in the holding area when the PA asks if I’d want to “do something fun,” and because anything is more fun than sitting in a stuffy holding tent for 15 hours, I jump up.
Once I get locked in, the director comes over and explains the gag and also tells me I don’t have to actually get in the pillory until the cameras are rolling. Refraining from telling him I’m basically the Daniel Day Lewis of extras and please don’t mess with my PROCESS, I ask a friend to unlock the big wooden plank and we stand around until the shot is ready. I joke with the other extras that this could be my moment, while in my head wondering if this is actually my moment — surely the lead who is also the show’s creator will see how talented I am, come over after they yell cut, hand me a multiple-episode arc and whisk me to my trailer. I better nail this.
When I get the signal from the PA I climb back in, which is about the time I realize I hadn’t actually practiced how to dance hunched over with my head, neck and arms locked parallel to the floor.
ROLL PLAYBACK! ANNNND ACTION!
As about fifty cast, crew and fellow extras stare at me and the musical number blares through the speakers, I jerk my hands around and painfully attempt to bop my head up and down a quarter of an inch, my range of motion limited because I’m in a medieval torture device. This moment lasts for what feels like a week and from what I can tell, no one is laughing.
CUT. LET’S MOVE ON.
For the rest of the day, crew members walk by me and laugh, shaking their heads and mumble something about my dance moves. Because apparently this was the one part of everyone’s day no one was on their phone.
This is post #17/30 in a 500 Words-A-Day Challenge. Read them all here.