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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

Confessions of a supernumerary— EXTRA!

My three-day marathon of naps and doughnuts


Supernumerary (-noo'me rer'e, -nyoo'-) [adjective, noun, pl. -aries] adj.1. beyond the usual or necessary number; additional; extra. 2. beyond the number needed or desired; superfluous. noun 1. an extra person or thing; one beyond the usual, regular, or prescribed number. 2. a person who appears on the stage but usually has no lines to speak, as in scenes requiring crowds; extra. Ex. In addition to the regular actors, there were 20 supernumeraries for the mob scene.

--The World Book Dictionary

It was a mob scene all right. A tide of dark suits with hairy gray caps topping the waves, filling the capitol rotunda, jostling for coffee and doughnuts. Some in the mob might have used blue rinse, but you can't see that in a wide shot, and that's what we would all be filling out.

The wide shots, the pans, the dolly shots. We are the spear carriers for a new-age army called extras, or "background," as it's known in the trade. Background. Kind of like a shrub, or boulder, or some other inanimate object. Yet a noble profession, necessary to bring a film to life, or so the Screen Actors Guild's Web site implies. But as a SAG member, I am here for the extra cash to be made right before Christmas. Because it is called "show business," not "show fun," and that's the way it has always been since the first storyteller traveled from village to village performing for his supper.

After the first 14-hour day of waiting around on the set of Legally Blonde 2--the sequel to Legally Blonde starring Reese Witherspoon and Sally Field--every extra understood this all too well.

When I arrived at the Hilton parking lot to catch a bus to the capitol, I felt a little out of place. Springfield was chosen for the shoot because the capitol's interior supposedly resembles the U.S. Capitol; we were going to play Congressmen, the media, and police officers. I was wearing my dark suit (wrinkled and in need of a cleaning), but I just didn't fit in. My hair was a dirty brown. I needed a haircut. I was sure that to get some serious time in front of the camera I would have to actually look politically astute and nearly on the verge of physical collapse (Strom Thurmond maybe). I got on the bus anyway.

Arriving at the check-in table, several of us youngish, rumpled types were pulled aside and told, "You are press." It so happens that I've hung around reporters and newspaper photographers all my adult life. Obviously their stench had permeated me. I was made.

I was told to change into jeans, comfortable shoes, and a long-sleeved shirt. In other words, I could wear my everyday clothes.

That was good. There were far fewer "press." I would either be stuck in the back never to be heard from again or . . . I might get to shout a line to the principal players as we rushed them in a pack. And I was union: If by chance they told me to speak and filmed it--BINGO!--an easy $700 or so would get mailed to me the next week. Now it was actually worth sticking around for three days of waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. . . .

The capitol looked good, lots of multicolored marble on the floor, beautiful pink granite columns reaching up to a polychromatic relief that circles up to a stained-glass top. Nice. That is, for the first 10 hours or so.

It wasn't too long before I noticed how dim the lighting was in all the common areas. Then the lack of illumination started giving me a headache. I had to strain to read the book I had brought along to kill time. I had to move near one of the entrances to read by the natural light coming through the glass doors. The building almost seemed cave-like, and I started to crave bright light.

But let's not dwell anymore on the waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. I had become a lovely Hispanic woman. A Latina with a brooding pout. Everybody in our group got a press I.D. with a tiny Polaroid attached. I got to the prop room late and was given a leftover pass from another shoot.

I had changed gender painlessly and didn't look at all bad. My name, as signed on the back, was Squiggle Squiggle Squiggle, or, as I am now known to my friends, Undulating Line.

Then it was back to the rotunda to the "extras holding" and the sea of gray senatorial hair. The "press" had already congregated at a table near the front drinking coffee, eating doughnuts, and playing cards. And we never strayed far from each other the entire time.

One of my "colleagues"--a friendly, petite, pretty woman with short dark hair--asked me why I was writing in my fake reporter's pad. I told her I was jotting down a few notes for this story. She looked at me dubiously, smiled, and said, "Oh." She didn't bring it up again. She probably thought I was a little too serious about getting into character.

Then the "senators and their aides" were called to a shot on the main floor and we were left outside to wait for them to finish. So far an almost exact parallel with real life had been drawn.

By then we had been waiting a good six or seven hours, and I was a little punchy on the coffee and doughnuts and boredom. I don't like cards, but it was fun watching the others shoot dice. A trivial pursuit game was interesting too, in a pathetic sort of way. Did I mention there were doughnuts?

Then it was up to the front of the main floor of the House of Representatives to do some wide shots. Being in a press box, which bumped up right next to the podium, meant possible screen time. But when I got there the shot was full, so I went back down to read my book. I did this from a horizontal position on the cool marble floor. I began to relax. Very pleasant. And soon I was taking a nap. I did that a lot.

Lunch wasn't bad. The soup was good, and the sandwiches were a little better than airline food. There was tea, coffee, bottled water, cola, juice, fresh fruit, some really good cookies, and, of course, the doughnuts.

The movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray repeats a day over and over again until he gets it right, provides an almost perfect analogy for my experience those three days. Small stretches of sleep, interrupted by an assistant director shouting on a bullhorn. Taken to a place where they repeat the same words over and over again until they get it right.

By the end of day two I was past punchy and working on seriously weird.

An example: I would occasionally peer from the balcony to see where they were setting the lights. That way I could tell where they would shoot next. If I wasn't in that location, I could read myself to sleep in a corner of the third floor and be assured that they wouldn't need me for several hours. Once I climbed to the balcony to do my usual reconnaissance, but found the door barred by a little woman in a state police uniform, one of many wandering about.

She stepped forward and in an alto growl verging on baritone said, "Can I help you?" The emphasis was on the word "help," which told me that help was the furthest thing from her mind. By that point crankiness was the only emotion left in me.

"No, I don't think you can." There was a nasty tone of voice coming out. Oh, man, I was talking back to a cop. I never do that. They carry guns. I forced myself to turn around and walk away.

"Sorry, you can't go in there." She didn't sound sorry. I had been in and out of there for two days.

"You obviously don't know what you're doing," came tumbling out of my mouth. Why was I still talking? I walked faster before my mouth got me put into an arm lock. Obviously I needed more doughnuts.

I lay back down on the marble floor and contemplated the ceiling with its faded frescos of fleshy women swathed in what looked like bed sheets. I was pretty low by then; we all were. If I got any more bored I felt certain that my internal organs would start shutting down one by one.

The local casting people handed out tickets to everyone and told us that a series of raffles would be held for gift certificates and money. I supposed they were trying to keep people from defecting back to the real world after the frustration of waiting overtook their need to be on camera. Who cared what they raffled off? I didn't. I stuck the tickets in my jeans pocket and went to get another doughnut.

But then I won a hundred dollar bill! Benjamin Franklin was always my favorite patriot. An intelligent, cynical, diplomatic, and very practical man who liked the ladies and a good drink. Just having his likeness folded in my wallet made the murky rotunda brighten up a bit. Things were great. Even the doughnuts tasted better.

On day three I got my gender back when they couldn't find my old press I.D. I was now "Mike Bender," a TV guy. He didn't have a picture attached either. I was me again with a kinda funny name.

I had now been outside the set for nearly three full days, and the best I had done was to get into a crouching position in the back of the balcony while they took an extra wide shot. I am certain I couldn't be seen because I was behind a pillar mounted with lights.

I didn't care. I had won a hundred dollars. It was the equivalent of an extra day's pay, or thereabouts. I would take the bill out every hour or so just to stroke Benjamin's doleful face a little. "Cheer up, Ben," I whispered and smirked, "you're paying for a big Christmas dinner next week."

The last sequence was being shot at about 9 p.m. and they needed press up front to fill the press box. I wandered to the end of the line not caring one whit whether I got on set. But some of the "press" had left. Life must have intruded on their acting careers. They were spear carriers gone AWOL, and I was ushered into the end of one press box. The end of that box was where the crew had set some lights to illuminate the woodwork behind the podium. I would soon see my right elbow on the big screen because that was where the shot would have to end in order to not break the illusion of filming a joint session of Congress.

I still didn't care. I was rested, well fed, I had caught up on all my recreational reading. I would watch Sally Field and Reese Witherspoon tear up the set with some snappy dialogue.

This brings me to a strange belief I've acquired during nearly 20 years in show business. It's never failed, and this is how it goes: Work hard at your craft, be patient, and always remember that the less you want something the more it will be handed to you. That last part makes absolutely no sense to me, but then I don't make the rules.

In this particular instance, it went down like this: There were too many women on the other side of the podium. An assistant pulled me from the corner where I was kicking back and pushed me into the chair just off Sally Field's right. Unfortunately this spot was already occupied by my pretty and petite new friend who had asked me about my note taking. I bumped her out of her prime position. I just wanted to go back to my secluded corner by the lights.

I couldn't tell if she was really starting to tear-up or was just pretending to cry a little in a mocking sort of way as they led her off. Maybe a little of both. The "security guard" next to me said he couldn't see how I improved the shot because I wasn't nearly as nice to look at as my friend. I had to agree.

I was forced by luck and the camera guy to be a cad, but as I said before, they call it "show business," not "show fun." The director needed to balance the shot, and I was just the thing they were looking for--I was male.

Not much of a recommendation, but it sufficed at the moment, and I have to admit that it was actually fun to share a medium wide shot with Sally and Reese.

They even "wrapped" the press corps early, so we finished the scene, got a free, cold meatball sandwich, and scattered back to our kids, spouses, and mortgages, places where there would be no more Sallys or Reeses. But that's O.K. I can always have more doughnuts.


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