Semi-retirement can inspire people to do all sorts of crazy things. Last year, thanks to Michigan's film incentive program, my husband Doug and I made an unexpected foray into background acting.
Our first gig began on a lark last year when we were cast with several Royal Oak neighbors in the opening scene of the controversial Red Dawn remake. Humvees and tanks rolled through our Vinsetta Park neighborhood while a troop of gun-wielding Communist soldiers took us captive. It was a blast, literally and figuratively, and some of us were called back to appear in additional scenes in Detroit.
Since then, Doug and I have worked as extras in 14 film and TV projects. We've played wedding guests, medical professionals, foreign diplomats, suburban parents and homeless refugees. We've run from explosions and steered our cars through crash scenes. We've belted out hymns in church. We've nursed fake cocktails at formal receptions. Topping it off, this fall we were booked for two episodes of Detroit 1-8-7, one of our favorite TV shows.
Our friends keep asking why we never audition for speaking parts. Why are we playing small? Why would anyone spend hours toiling in the background for a few seconds of screen time – or to end up on the proverbial cutting room floor?
Speaking for myself, I'm proud to be part of Michigan's growing film community. I thrive on the creative energy it's bringing to our state. Despite the political uproar over tax incentives for filmmakers, even the naysayers get excited when the talk turns to movie making or yet another celebrity sighting in downtown Royal Oak.
Bright lights, big stars
As an extra, you get a rare look behind the scenes and a crash course in filmmaking. This takes most of the glitter out of the stardust, yet you can't help but return home with a deeper respect for the hard work invested in any given film project.
"I've always been a fan of film, so it's exciting to see how much preparation goes into even the shortest scenes," explained Ron Zill, a Royal Oak resident and teacher at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights.
Zill has worked in five film projects this year. His first experience as an extra was playing a Swiss cop in The Double, a thriller starring Richard Gere that's scheduled for release in 2011. The role had special meaning to Zill because his late father was a Royal Oak police officer. Since then, he's played a cop in other films and often jokes about being "typecast."
Schoolteachers like Zill find background acting ideal for earning extra money during the summer. But given Michigan's depleted job market, unemployed workers representing a variety of fields, from retail to finance, are finding work on film sets these days.
As Zill points out, it's the camaraderie on and off the set that makes the whole experience twice as rewarding as the paychecks. Extras spend a lot of time waiting between takes and often form bonds with fellow actors. "I've met so many wonderful people from different walks of life," Zill told me. "Getting to know other extras and crew members between scenes has been one of the best experiences in my life."
Of course, any background actor would be lying if she told you that rubbing elbows with celebrities wasn't part of the allure.
While I can't discuss too many details about the unreleased films I've worked in, I can tell you that I've literally brushed shoulders in a street scene with Richard Gere when downtown Detroit was transformed into Paris for The Double. I met Thomas Jane on the set of HBO's Hung, and worked for a week in a Real Steel crowd scene with the amiable Hugh Jackman. (Yes, all of these guys are just as gorgeous in person as they are on screen.)
Life lessons on the set
It all adds up to lively cocktail party conversation, but honestly, that's about as glamorous as it gets.
Though we're treated with respect on most film sets, extras are at the very bottom of the cinematic totem pole. It doesn't matter if we run companies or rule the world in our off-camera lives. We don't get special treatment. We rarely eat lunch or dinner until after the stars and crew have been fed. We spend long hours on our feet and our pay is minimal.
On the other hand, we don't have the stress or responsibility of memorizing lines; our job is simply to provide authentic atmosphere. We're merely props in the director's creative vision, which is, at least to me, both humbling and freeing.
My high school drama teacher liked to remind me, "There are no small parts, just small actors."
I've always thought that was terrific advice to remember, no matter where or how you're employed. Whether you're talking about sports or the performing arts or the ever-changing drama of real life, every player is part of a larger ensemble.
As I tell my friends, I know I won't get rich or famous working as an extra. Nobody's going to ask for my autograph or list my name in the film credits. I know I won't be discovered and given a one-way ticket to Hollywood, and I'm totally cool with that. Working as an extra gets me out from behind a desk – and is another way to feel like I'm part of a team.