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How one woman found herself on a film set with Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson—and what really goes on during a Washington movie shoot
I stood looking around, wide-eyed—and missed my first cue as a movie extra.
I’m not your typical wannabe actress. I wanted to earn credits toward a union card so I could do narration for industrial and news videos. That’s how I ended up on a film set one night this past June.
I’m to meet in a parking lot of RFK Stadium at 4 pm. Once there, the other extras and I board buses that take us to a secret movie location in downtown DC. Rules are announced: No taking photos. No talking to the actors unless they talk to you. Do not look directly at the camera. Do what you’re told, and don’t change anything. Don’t ask questions. Turn off cell phones.
About 60 of us are to appear as “background.” I’m told that’s the more accepted term—“extra” is passé.
The working title of the movie is How Do You Know? It’s a romantic comedy about a famous baseball player (played by Owen Wilson) and a softball player (Reese Witherspoon); the film also stars Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson, who plays Rudd’s father. The plot is secret—although backgrounders who’ve been in different scenes might be able to piece it together. The director is James L. Brooks, whose films include Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News.
We’re dropped off at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The church is known as “holding” for when we aren’t working.
Cool, blue-eyed Chef Frank—who travels with the movie—is inexplicably cooking breakfast for us, although it’s late afternoon. We have a choice of filet-mignon eggs Benedict and California eggs Benedict with spinach and avocado. Or we can opt for custom-made grilled deli sandwiches. Inside the church are homemade scones, sweet-potato pie, toast, drinks, bagels, and more.
Frank says he’s cooking Chinese for dinner. “We get dinner, too?” I ask. “What time is that?” Ten-thirty pm.
Behind the Scenes
About three months before this evening, I attended an open call at Central Casting’s office near the Eastern Market Metro stop. Open-call sessions—held twice a month for two hours—are chances to meet with one of the agency directors. You need theater training and some previous camera experience; I’m an on-air TV reporter.
Prior to open call, a photographer took my headshots—photos presented to potential clients. These can cost hundreds of dollars, and you sometimes have to pay for a second session if the casting-agency director isn’t pleased with your look, clothes, or makeup.
At open call, the director suggested I do some background work until I got my union card. I’d be granted a Screen Actors Guild waiver and get paid union rates for up to three nights. Then I’d have to pay the initiation fee and join the union. Sounded good.
I waited. And waited. Finally, I called Central Casting. After several e-mails and calls—you have to be persistent—I was told that a movie was coming to Washington. If I could look younger than my age, I would be included on the roster.
“Done,” I said, not knowing if, after nearly two decades in TV, I could pull off 25.
Backgrounders who belong to the Screen Actors Guild are paid more than those who don’t belong. Generally, a movie has to hire about 85 union members; the rest can be non-union and are paid by the hour.
Non-SAG members are generally paid $60 to $100 for eight hours of work. But there are no additional perks.
SAG members—and those like me who are on waivers—are paid $134 for the first eight hours. Hours nine and ten earn time and a half. Hours 11 through 15 are double time. The 16th hour is fondly called the “golden hour,” when SAG members are paid the daily rate per hour. A seven-year veteran told me he’d hit the golden hour twice in his career. The average time spent on a set is 12 to 13 hours.
Union backgrounders get an additional $35 if their own car is used in a scene. They get an extra $14 if it’s raining during a scene or they’re required to smoke. They earn an additional $9 for wearing their own clothes.
The first thing we do is fill out pay invoices, although we’ll turn them in at the end of the night. Everyone gets paid, even those who aren’t used in a scene.
We line up for wardrobe checks. The casting agency told me to dress like a “young professional out for a night on the town,” so I’m wearing my own bright-teal-and-purple-paisley spaghetti-strap sundress. The wardrobe manager approves.
A background veteran named Duke later tells me it isn’t a good idea for your clothes to stand out. Once the camera is focused on you, the filmmakers can’t use you again another night because you’ll be recognizable. The veteran is on his ninth day of being background for this movie. His clothes are a muted brown. Being background is how this retired College Park furniture-store owner makes his money.
I figure if the camera focuses on me just once, I’ll be happy.
A few backgrounders are wearing masking-tape name tags. They’re the stand-ins for the stars. They rehearse the scene with the cameras, the lighting, the audio, the director, and the backgrounders until everything is nailed down. For the final takes, the stars are called to the set. The people standing in for Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, and Jack Nicholson have to be the same height and build as those stars so that the lighting and stage direction are right.
Reese and Owen
It’s Miss America time—we stand around to be picked for the first scenes of the night. A production assistant walks around the room and points at people, saying “You, you, you, you—follow me.” Maybe it’s more like being a mutt in an animal shelter.
I’m chosen for the first round of shooting. We walk about two blocks from the church and stand in line at a trailer for props. I have to exchange my driver’s license for two empty shopping bags, which will be my props.
A guy behind me is supposed to be a European tourist. He brought his own Canon camera, thinking he might need it for the scene. They confiscate it and hand him a Sony. The movie is from Sony Pictures.
Most of the filming is on 15th Street between H and I streets, not far from the White House. We’re told to sit in chairs outside Loeb’s Deli to wait again to be chosen for the first scene of the night. I’m one of the chosen ones.
I’m directed across the street to the Bowen Building at 875 15th Street, which houses law offices. For the movie, it’s been transformed into a luxury apartment building.
I’m to stroll down the sidewalk behind Witherspoon and Rudd as they drag suitcases from that building to the corner and a doorman calls a taxi.
I am “set” by an assistant director and stand still for about eight minutes as the assistant directors and production assistants direct other backgrounders. They also direct real people on the edge of the movie set—who have gathered eight deep to get a glimpse of the stars—to move out of camera range. The bystanders are taking pictures.
While I wait, I surreptitiously take notes. That’s when I miss my cue to walk.
The signal to begin occurs when the first assistant director yells, “Background? Action!” And, yes, a man claps together a piece of board in front of the main camera for every take. The first assistant director stands beside James Brooks, who sits in his director’s chair, looking at the filming via a monitor. He rarely moves from the monitor except to talk to the stars.
This scene takes a lot of time because a special-effects manager keeps spraying down the street with a fire hose attached to a hydrant. It rained while taping adjacent scenes the night before, so every scene tonight needs to have “rain” on the sidewalk and cars for continuity.
Someone yells, “New deal!” That’s the cue for technicians to set up the cameras for another angle. Mr. Special Effects sprays the sidewalk. We do two angles for the same scene. The scene itself lasts about ten seconds. It takes an hour to finish it.
Someone carries around trays with snacks—wraps, pita bread, hummus. Someone else hands out soda and water. There’s a stand with dozens of snacks, including make-your-own peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. You never starve on a movie set.
Someone wheels by a cart filled with clothes. The stars need different outfits.
A production assistant’s index finger appears in my vision. I’m chosen for another scene. I partner with a backgrounder who in real life is a real-estate developer in Northern Virginia. We’re told to walk away from the scene. So that will be my backside facing the camera.
At 9 pm, we’re sent back to holding. I change into my next outfit—a black-and-white-herringbone sleeveless dress with a silver belt. And it’s time to eat again—a Chinese meal with seven different entrées.
At about 11 pm, I go outside for fresh air. Another production assistant walks out with about eight twentysomethings. He says to me, “You come with us, too.” We’re off to our next scene.
The Movie Opens With …
There’s no way this next scene will be cut: It’s the first scene of the movie. Wilson and Witherspoon walk out of a bar, and Wilson is surrounded by five twentysomethings who want his autograph. Witherspoon angrily walks away. Wilson yells for her, then runs after her. It takes about 30 seconds.
I’m paired with a 25-year-old hunk. Our instructions are to hold hands and walk past Witherspoon and into the bar. Again, my backside will be on camera.
We do 26 takes. Mr. Special Effects has to spray the pavement and cars five times. Wilson talks to the hunk and me. Witherspoon is deep in thought—director Brooks keeps discussing the scene with her. The guy with the food tray passes us several times.
The “lead greensman” comes up to talk with us. He’s a scruffy guy with a mustache. Greensman is in charge of every tree, light, plant, and flower. I thought the mini-trees with the twinkling white lights around the bar and hotel were normally there. He explains how he relandscaped 15th Street.
Greensman tells me about “set crushes”—when the crew members get bored, they pick cuties in the background or on the crew. I was his tonight. My hunk laughs.
Everyone except the backgrounders and stars wears headsets. Rumor has it that some big stars—including one in our movie—wear an earpiece to feed them lines. But I see no evidence of this. The crew’s headsets are used to communicate when scenes start and end—and to chat with one another during downtime. There’s a lot of downtime.
The scene is done, and we’re sent to join the dozens of other backgrounders who are now inside Bobby Van’s Steakhouse waiting for the next scene.
It’s 3 am. It took three hours to complete that scene. Some backgrounders are asleep in the booths. The production assistant arrives and chooses who will be in the next scene. New blood and looks are needed. The handful of us who just came off the set get to chill with the other unchosens.
I meet Larry, the liaison between the movie people and the union. He’s a retired deputy sheriff from Fairfax County. Tonight he’s a backgrounder, but tomorrow he’s a stand-in for Jack Nicholson. He tells me that one day he was scheduled to be a stand-in but they never had time to shoot Nicholson’s scene. Larry got paid 14 hours to read a novel.
I also meet Kristin, who works as an accountant. And Rob, who wants to be a famous actor someday. Jim runs a nonprofit that coaches people in life and work. Carol was a TV anchor in Ohio. Annie worked on Broadway in Les Misérables and 42nd Street. Dori works at the Newseum and is married to a national radio correspondent.
At 5 am, we’re told we’re done for the night. I stop by props to hand in my shopping bags. We stand in line to submit our invoices. There’s more food—breakfast rolls, fruit, granola bars. We’re to call the casting office tomorrow to see if we’re needed.
My Big Scene
They need me. And my car. Call time is 8:30 pm. The shoot is at night because that’s when the scenes take place in the movie. To look different, I put my hair in a bun. It works.
I arrive at the holding location in time for dinner. Tonight Chef Frank has conjured up the Middle East. Lamb, eggplant, seafood paella, lemon potatoes—all terrific.
The wardrobe lady likes my strapless black dress with flowers. I head to the filming location.
As I’m talking to another backgrounder—Owen Wilson is about three feet away, relaxing at an outdoor table—a production assistant comes in and chooses both of us.
This is my lucky scene, although I don’t know it yet. Jack Nicholson and the doorman walk from the apartment building to the corner. The doorman hails a cab. Nicholson talks on his phone. The doorman walks back to the hotel and holds the door for someone exiting the hotel, then for me.
On the second assistant director’s cue, I walk down the sidewalk behind Nicholson, then into the hotel.
We do it about ten times with the stand-ins. Then we wait—Nicholson is late. We’re told the electricity went out in his trailer while he was getting dressed. His star status ensures he doesn’t work early hours. He doesn’t work in the rain. And he doesn’t work past a certain time.
Nicholson arrives with a tense, quick walk, lost in thought. He meets with the director. We do the scene 15 more times. At one point, a real DC taxi stops to pick up Nicholson. Production assistants frantically motion the cabbie to drive by so our backgrounder cabbie can do the movie pickup.
Every time I enter the door to the lobby—a total of about 20 times—I see a cute backgrounder named Wally. I’ve found my set crush. Wally is a six-month-old black miniature schnauzer. His owner gets $35 for his work. Four dogs are on the set: two big ones, two small ones. Two are stand-ins.
After we finish the last take and someone yells, “New deal!,” I thank the doorman. He says, “You got a bit.” I have no idea what he means. I ask Larry. He says the doorman has an earpiece and apparently has heard that the camera focused on me for some time. It’s a “bit part.” Cool.
It’s a Wrap
We’re all sent back to Bobby Van’s. At 3 am, my stomach is growling, so Dori and I head to the snack area, where we find a vegetable tray with edamame, miniature red peppers, blue cheese, and more. We sit under a boom camera that’s across the street from the action and watch as five cars drive by the scene: a Lexus, a Porsche, a Cadillac, a Saab, and a taxi van. The taxi driver is having problems: After every take, he has to back up all the way down the street to reset the scene, and he nearly wrecks his van several times. They do the scene about ten times.
I go back to the restaurant, where I realize I’ve missed two cell-phone calls because—well, I had my phone off as instructed. They wanted to use my car—an SUV—in place of that taxi van. My additional $35 is lost. I hope they keep my bit part.
The sun is up. At 7:30 am, we’re done for the night. My two nights of living with the stars have come to an end. Until the premiere—scheduled for December. Can’t wait to see my backside on the big screen.