by Michele Deradune
Okay, okay. I know that no actor with any sense of self-respect will work as an extra. The secret is out. I have no pride. I did it. I was an extra for a protest rally on the Texas Capitol grounds in THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE. Got a call from extras casting company to work as "background" and "atmosphere" (common terms an extra is called by supervising crew members on the set and, well, yes, even at lunch). Did I mention you have to have no pride to work as an extra? And I may do it again, as long as I can wait for the paycheck - since I didn't receive payment for my one day as an extra until 19 days after the shoot.
By the way, I found out that not all extra jobs pay equally. Most big films and TV shows will pay extras $100 a day. "The Life of David Gale" paid only $75 for the 12-hour day because so many people wanted to be extras on that film (yes, minimum wage). After all, over 1200 people showed up for the open cattle - er, casting - call back in August.
Kevin Spacey was there on the day I played atmosphere, and it was a pleasure to see him there. At one point during a break he pulled out what looked like a camera but which he wielded as if it were a camcorder. Pointing it in my direction, he held the camera with one hand and waved. Some of my friends tell me that Kevin Spacey taping me was something really special, and I guess it was. Especially when I later learned that Spacey has the directing bug. In a sense now I have been in a film directed by KEVIN SPACEY. Wow. I followed his direction well (hey, I waved back!), but I cannot figure out how to add that to my resume. If you have any ideas, please drop me a line. (Smile). Yeah, yeah. Ever the opportunist, that's me!
Here was (for me) the hard part: One of the main sequences shot and re-shot that day was when a speaker at the rally gets shot. This happens while Spacey, as David Gale, a UT professor, is among the crowd handing out flyers protesting the death penalty. When she gets shot, the protestors were supposed to react with horror to the sound of the gunshot and either cower in fear or run pall mall from the scene. Except for Spacey. He runs directly toward the scene of the crime, the New York firefighter-like hero who is thinking of helping the wounded rather than saving himself. That was all cool, and we were told which directions to run - if we chose to run - based on the dates of our birthdays. October birthdays were to run northwest. We could choose to stay sitting on the ground and cower if we wanted to. Acting horrified at the gunshot took some acting on the part of all the extras. I guess because we were on the Texas State Capitol grounds during a time of great caution and high security caused by 9/11, no gunshot sound was to be heard - not even a cap gun! When viewers hear the movie they'll hear a big gunshot; what we heard was someone yelling "BANG!" - our cue to get scared and scurry (or cower, as the case may be).
Now, the sensible side of me wanted to cower, but the actress in me said I should freak and flees. That was my biggest mistake of the day (even bigger than not trying the fish at lunch). I decided to freak and flee after the sound of BANG - not taking into account the very real possibility that this scene might we shot again and again. Being a large-sized woman with a heavy center of gravity it took me some great effort to get up from the ground to standing position. But that was okay because most people fled quickly and it was good to have some of that fleeing staggered (to look more realistic and all). So then I would look wildly ahead of me and begin my own fleeing bit.
Well, guess what? The first three or four shots doing that, KEVIN SPACEY missed running into me (on his way to the shooting victim) sometimes by only inches. I was looking west and northwest (my fleeing direction) and he was coming up from behind me so that I never saw him coming until he was about to run into me. The time we nearly collided did he touched me gently and said softly "Excuse me" as he hurried by on his way to damsel in distress. (Sweet guy!)
Okay, okay. Yeah, that was pretty cool in a way. BUT. And this is a big but: that scene was shot and re-shot for hours, literally. After about six runs I was feeling way out of shape and said to my rally neighbor, "This is getting too hard to keep getting up and down over and over again. I am going to start cowering like you!" She pedantically informed me that this was out of the question. Since Kevin Spacey had been nearly colliding with me in all the shots up to then it would ruin the continuity of the film in future shots if I suddenly started cowering rather than fleeing. I knew that. Okay, okay. My fate was sealed: a runner I had been, and a runner I would have to continue to be. Twenty times? Forty times? I do not know. It seemed an eternity.
My biggest fear was finding myself unable to get up one more time and causing the entire shot to be delayed because I unable to get up again. Shoot, toward the end there I was having trouble sitting down again, much less getting back up. Oh, I could just see it: "Call the set medic! She's fallen and she can't get up!" The thought was terrifying. Somehow I made it through and got up every time. Thankfully, just when I was certain I could not do this one more time we moved on to a new scene.
Another thing about my David Gale extra experience that one should be well forewarned to know: When I was called by the casting company I was asked if I would be available for two days. Turns out the second day of availability they wanted to know about was just in case the shoot went overtime, but I wasn't told that. So what did I do? Like an overly-considerate chump I called one of my other jobs and said I would not be available for 2-3 days. Since, (so I thought), the shoot was scheduled for two days, and I wanted to be available just in case it ran over to a third day. I ended up being hired for only one (very long 14.5-hour) day. But just one day. Then had no work for the next two days. I found out later that some extras had been forewarned that it might be only a one-day shoot. Next time I'll know to ask.
Another thing was the food. I had been an extra only one time before this. It was for "Texas Graces," a TV pilot with Richard Crenna back in 1997 at Guerros restaurant on South Congress. When we were fed lunch we had to wait for the cast and crew to get their food first (which I found to be reasonable and fair enough), and then we were fed the SAME food as the cast and crew. It was delicious! Gourmet even. A special treat. Because of that one experience I was under the mistaken impression that extras ALWAYS get fed the great food. To me, this made being paid minimum wage seem not quite so bad.
Wrong. The "background" for this film was fed from a buffet type setting along one wall, the cast and crew along an adjacent wall. Extras got the "school lunch cafeteria" type fare, with cold bread rolls and non-dairy creamer for the coffee at breakfast along with scrambled eggs, one sausage link and some pan potatoes. No half-and-half or milk for the coffee for the extra. Just powdered non-dairy coffee creamer. I hate non-dairy creamer. My body reacts to it like some minor form of Anthrax! There was a very nice fruit salad, so breakfast was not bad.
However on another table there were steaming hot bread rolls, bagels with cream cheese and lox. I cannot tell you what else, because when I started to spread cream cheese on a bagel (not knowing that the food was off-limits) a crew member walked up and informed me that extras had to get their food only from the other wall. Being one of the minimum-wage people, I wasn't allowed to eat my half-spread bagel. It wouldn't be right to set it back on the table either. I threw my half-spread bagel in the trash and felt humiliated.
At the lunch provided for the extras there was not much that looked or smelled appealing, and the veggies were downright disappointing. So I moved on down the line, which was almost over. Eureka. Salad. Yea! Can't go wrong with lettuce salad. Okay, so it didn't seem to have any tomatoes or cucumbers, but it had lettuce and lots of it. I think it had a little bit of carrots and/or purple cabbage shaved into it too. I happily piled it on my plate and got some of the punch they had to drink and sat down to eat. Foiled again. The salad came with dressing already poured on and tasted to me like sweet pickles. I tried to eat it, but just couldn't. I looked over at the long lines of people getting food and did not feel energetic enough to wade through the line again for another possible disappointment, so I just returned to the set unfed and grabbed a bag of chips and an apple from the snack table which was there. (The snack table near the set is a great thing!) Thus I went from very disgruntled to slightly grouchy.
ALAN PARKER, the Director, turned to a bunch of extras lunch and asked if our lunch was good. It was nice of him to ask, but something told me it would not be a good idea to tell him the truth. I said nothing. I heard some extras tell him it was great. Liars. (I heard the fish was good. Not everything in the extras food line was terrible, but still! Why couldn't we have the same food as the crew? That seems little to ask, especially when being paid $5.35 an hour - and cost to use the Capitol grounds that day, so I heard, was to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars.)
Well, enough of my bellyaching. I will not go into the other little details that explain why so many people choose not to do extra work, except to say that it is just never very fun to be in a group of people where you feel truly like cattle. However, I came out of it with a resolution: If I am ever a big star and talking about signing a contract for a movie I will make it part of my contract that the extras get fed the same food as the cast and crew. Ix-nay with the class system on the vittles! As one fellow extra sang out while we were talking on the subject at the end of day, waiting in a long and slow line: R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me! She was a trained actress and swore "never again."
On a different note: Something positive I have gotten out of the tragedy of September 11th as well as the distress of living in a time when my country is at war. It really makes a difference to treat others with kindness and respect, every day and in every way we can. And remember: LOVE will take you through times of no money better than money will take you through times with no LOVE!
Until next month, this is Michele Déradune during her term of pre-Superstardom, signing off . . .