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Camera? Action!
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.
Photographs by Chris Leaman.
Comments () | Published February 1, 2010

“Background? Action!”

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.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 02/01/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles