I’ve never been much of a crier. It takes A LOT to make me cry. In fact, I didn’t believe one could actually, authentically cry from misery… until I did some background “acting.”
What follows is not a complaint. I am not complaining, nor even lamenting. I am merely recognizing the humorous irony of being driven to literal tears from absurdities in the movie business. Here are, as promised in Confessions of a Hollywood Extra: The Way It Was, the 3 times I have actually cried from misery in the golden movie business.
It was a wintry, overcast day in the downtown Los Angeles industrial district. (In LA terms, this means around 40 degrees, which, with a wind chill and thinned out blood, can actually be a little cold.) A dozen or so of us “background actors” sat in dusty plastic chairs in a crowded truck parking lot, awaiting our work on an ominously titled “Dark Skies.” I was brand spankin’ new to the background world, and still saw my blue nonunion voucher as kind of cool. I held a pink Disneyland Paris towel, as we’d been warned we might get “a little wet.”
After 3 hours of waiting, a PA rallied us to set: the tunnel beneath the 6th street bridge, strewn with a couple of parked cars. We stood in the trench leading to the tunnel, looking up at the the director and crew, 30 or so concrete feet above us, as they pointed at various things and talked amongst themselves. The trench formed a wind tunnel, and I was starting to shiver, even though I was still completely dry. Not a good sign. Finally, the AD gave us some direction from the pristine heights beyond the trench.
“OK! You’re on a highway and it’s flooded. There are some sharks. We’re adding them with CGI. We’re going to release some rain from the rain truck, and you just run away from the sharks, ok? Our actor is getting attacked by the shark. Run like you’re being chased by sharks. Run and scream and run to the tunnel. Got it? K!”
There was a an ominous, thundering sound from above the concrete heights. What could that be? It sounded like…..
And then it happened. A torrential downpour. I looked over to see the actor screaming and (apparently) dying, attacked by what I could only assume was an imaginary shark. Obviously. I looked the other way and began running, also screaming. I crawled over cars and dodged poncho-clad cameramen in order to reach the tunnel. Drenched. The real shivers began.
We went back to our starting points for another take, huddled in the one spot of sunlight creeping through the clouds. Shivering.
It began again. Imaginary shark attacks. Running. Screaming. Questioning of life choices.
This was becoming not very fun, very quick. Hopefully it would only be a few takes, right?
A few takes became 4 hours. FOUR. HOURS. By the end, my thoughts were a complete murderous blur. Perhaps sharks really were chasing me? I was at that point of cold where you can feel your heart shivering. I wondered if it would simply stop beating. My skin had taken on a sickly, pale blue tint. And still the rain fell. And still we ran on.
It was during one of those final moments, running through the storm from the cursed rain truck, that I felt the tears begin to fall. They were invisible, washed away by the rain. I remember thinking to myself, like some third party observer, “Oh. So this is what it’s like to cry from misery.” I prayed to God for it to end.
Finally, a PA approached me and a few girls as we clung to each other for body warmth. “Are you ok?” he asked. I just stared at him. He went to another crew member, and I heard whispers of “we should let some of them go… hyperthermia,” as they furtively glanced our way.
And so, like sheep led from the slaughter, a few of us followed him to a tent, itself barely surviving the wind, and huddled around a heat lamp. We didn’t say a word. We just… sat there.
I later learned that “Dark Skies” was Sharknado. They sent us a follow-up check for $20, due to the “water conditions.”
2. WE ARE MEN
The second time I cried from misery was also due to cold, on the ill fated CBS show We Are Men. It started out innocently enough, as 30 or so of us bikini-adorned background lounged and walked around a pool at Oakwood Apartments. I was sweating in the dry Burbank heat, so when the AD asked if some of us would like to go IN the pool for a scene, I agreed. Little did I know this meant a commitment to the pool for the rest of the shoot… which just so happened to feature a 3 hour night scene.
When the sun dropped beneath the horizon, and darkness overtook, the temperature quickly dropped to the fifties. I found myself freezing in a pool, doggie paddling in the deep end as a futile attempt to stay warm. By the end, I simply clung to a wall and tried to tune out the cold, as tears silently slid down my face. I told myself if I were union I “could do it” (as the check for SAGers was probably around $300+ at this point). Minimum wage, however, was not worth this misery.
3. THE FAST & THE FURIOUS 7
The third, and final time I cried from misery, was the last time I worked in the background world.
I awoke at 2:30 am to make my 5 am call for The Fast & The Furious 7 at some God-forsaken desert race track 2 hours from my Hollywood apartment. There were hundreds of us there. Unlike most other projects I’d worked on, half of these BG were actually non-entertainment locals who wanted to be there. Oh my.
As the wardrobe woman fixed me up in tiny shorts and a crop top, she looked at my skin. Muttering an ominous “you’re so fair,” she threw a hat my way. Yep. This was not looking good.
When we began standing by the race track around 9am, it was already 100 degrees. I clenched my water bottle for dear life, and crouched beneath my umbrella each time they called cut. The eventual blistering 110 degree heat by 10am was simply too much for my constitution. As a low carber, I don’t store much excess water, and dehydration’s deathly hands were scraping my soul.
Feeling like I was quite possibly about to die, I approached a PA to inquire about the situation. I timidly asked if we’d be standing in the heat without a break for the unforeseeable future? He said yes, and asked if I was OK. As I am increasingly stubborn and never like to “fail,” I nodded and reassumed my position. I guess I wasn’t convincing enough, because another PA soon approached and escorted me to the medic tent.
I entered that little air-conditioned piece of heaven, to see a few other extras lying about in various stages of distress.
And at that moment, I just started bawling my eyes out.
This was not the surreal adrenaline tears of Sharknado, nor the silent self-pity tears of We Are Men. No. These were authentic, passionate sobs of misery which I would not have believed, were I watching the situation. The medic convinced me to ingest a yellow pill (despite my pleas that I didn’t eat sugar), and as the coolness began to sooth my scorched skin, and electrolyte hydration filled my veins, I honestly think, had that medic pulled out a ring (he was already on his knees, after all), I would have accepted. I alternated whimpers of Thank you and I’m so sorry between the melodramatic cries. When the AD came to the the tent to wrap me (set terminology for “bye!”), he assured me I was not the first such extra to bow out early. The next day, he texted me to say a girl went to the hospital due to the heat. Shocker.
After this experience, I swore off background acting.
These were by no way the only cold/hot/miserable days in my short lived background career. Indeed, there were dozens of other moments of pain and self-loathing, due to temperature extremes, long hours without breaks, and just general physical discomfort. (Wearing actual heels from the 60s for hours is harder than you think.) Boredom also bears its fair share of misery.
But like I said, I am not complaining. I find the whole thing near-hysterical, in a dark comedy sort of way. I also believe I am more resilient as a person now, having done some of the things I did. Plus, I know how I’d react if the town were suddenly flooded with sharks. And if that’s not useful knowledge, I don’t know what is.