Friday, March 9, 2012

I am Background, Not Your Bitch

Abe was spending some time with me. Before taking time off for his cousin’s wedding, I asked three times if he was sure. Each time he answered, he was more earnest, more hopeful. I agreed.

I waited for the proposition to move in together to fade under conversation, but he volunteered he was looking at places and would break his lease.

It all seemed too good to be true. It was a beautiful day, I was with someone I loved who was going to move in with me and save me from financial ruin and I was getting lots of work. 2012 could be my year.


I received an email from my background booker that my photo was selected to be background in an Allergy Auto-Injector commercial. (I fear I can not use the product name in this blog) Studying the email, I was one of two background actors booked. The other was some fellow named Lamont. This raised my chances of being bumped up to featured or principal- which comes with a pay increase.



I got someone to cover my shift at Doggie Daycare, and I showed up to a residential shoot in my old neighborhood in Altadena.

Abe spent the night, so he drove me to set. We arrived 9am to set. The map indicated where crew parking was and a transport was bringing people over, but since I used to live 4 blocks away, we parked nearby and Abe carried my suitcase for me to the holding area near set.

He said he would nap in his car. Since he lives far away, that is how he killed time when I worked and there was no great opportunity to commute back and forth.

I checked in with Ron. He was friendly enough. He asked if Abe was Lamont. I said, “No, he is just carrying my suitcase for me.”

Ron said, “Ok, we have everyone but Lamont, where is Lamont?”

I checked in with wardrobe, who approved what I had on- grey business khakis and a purple shirt, then I kissed Abe quickly on the cheek as I was ushered to set. He took my suitcase back to the car for me.

On set, they had converted one of the historic mansions into a child’s pirate birthday party. There was a great treehouse in the front yard with a solid rope wall hanging down, a nautical wheel and a fairly sizable landing in the arms of an old tree.





We sang happy birthday a few times on camera and then break.

The principal actress and I were in every scene together- during the treasure hunt, during the scenes where the kids played games, my chances of being bumped up looked really good from where I was standing.

Ron would ask me to walk the kids over to the on-set craft service and make sure they stayed hydrated. My first thought was, “That’s not really my job.” But, I am not going to complain. I was surrounded by children who were all courteous, intelligent and gorgeous.

Child actors are well spoken, sharp and appear to be a little more together than other children I see or am forced to interact with. Sometimes we have high school students volunteer at the Doggie Daycare for Career Week, and they can barely put together a sentence.

Child actors flourish under the individual attention of their parent, are surrounded by adults all and are therefore able to adapt well. They are surprisingly well-adjusted.

Though, the 9 year old who aspired to be a Victoria’s Secret model and looked like a little Brooke Shields worried me.  She would have a very difficult future if her parents don’t protect her.

We broke for lunch, and I ran into Abe who was chatting up the security guard.

He said, “Hey, this is Mario. He is a musician. He can make songs up about anything in the spot.”

I shook his hand.

Abe walked me to set, and we waited for everyone to grab a plate of something before I grabbed one. I noticed a crew member walk by and gave us a dirty look. I didn’t care. We were on someone else’s lawn now, temporarily converted to a feeding tent for cast and crew.

After everyone left, Abe grabbed a couple pieces of pizza and swallowed them in 3-4 bites. He said, “I should visit my girlfriend on set more often, someone came around with potato latkes on a tray, and then they came back with hot dogs. All I did was sit there and someone brought me food.”

Now, these details are important for later. The actual set was on someone’s lawn a block away from holding.

Holding was a long van with mobile toilets and a long tent the crew referred to as “school.” The children were supposed to study during long breaks. Most of the day, holding was just filled with stage moms and dads, standing around chatting with their lattes or dirty novels.

Abe kind of blended in with the group. There was a chair, so he would sit in it. There was a stage mom, so he would talk to her. All of a sudden, food was being presented to him, so he ate it.

I was on set the entire time, so I didn’t see him at any point during the day except for lunch.

Abe said, “I see you talking a lot to that other guy on set.”

I said, “Lamont?”

Abe said, “Yeah, the black guy.”

I said, “Yeah, so? He’s a moron.”

Now, Lamont was chatting me up a lot. At first, we were the two background actors, so we were each other’s common ground. But as we started talking, I just didn’t know what to do with him.

Lamont, “I am writing a book. Lamont’s book of jokes, quotes and pokes.”

Me, “What’s a poke?”

Lamont, “After dating a girl for a couple weeks, you might want to make her laugh to keep the fire going, you know?”

Me, “If a guy doesn’t make me laugh in the first couple hours, its over.”

Lamont, “If you were a soda, guess what you would be?”

Me, “What?”

Lamont, “Orange Crush.”

I rolled my eyes.

Lamont, “Why don’t pirates get married?”

Me, “Why?”

Lamont, “Too many ARGuments.”

Me, “You have a very bright future writing for Laffy Taffy.”

Lamont, “What’s a pirate’s favorite vegetable?”

Silence.

Lamont, “Arg-tichoke.”

Silence.

Lamont, “Why aren’t I a pirate?”

Silence.

Lamont, “Because I am an ARG-tist.”


The few kids around us drifted away in silence. Yeah. It was painful.

Ron was having trouble remembering everyone’s names. There were about twelve kids on set and four adults.

He had resorted to calling me “Thing” since he was having trouble remembering my name.

Ron, “You- Thing. Come and stand on this mark.”

An 8-yr old asked, “Why is he having such a hard time remembering your name? Its not that hard.”

I said, “Its only two syllables, but its exotic I guess.”

I was amused by my nickname at first, but later, I realized it was another way to make a background actor feel very small.





A little girl was sitting across from the Principal Mom and myself on the porch of the historic mansion between takes.

Little girl to Principal Mom, “Is that your wedding ring or is it a prop?”

Principal, “Its mine, but I am divorced. So it isn’t a wedding ring anymore.”

The little girl looked to me, “What about you? Oh you don’t have a ring on.”

I said, “Nope, but I am divorced, too.”

Her head got heavy and nodded, taking it in.

I continued, “So the lesson for today is, be very careful when selecting a husband.”

She giggled. She got it.

Lamont, “What do you call a geologist and an astrologer?”

Principal Mom, “What?”

Lamont, “A rock star.”

Me, “That one was pretty good actually, not to say that you’re other ones weren’t good, but lets be honest . . . they aren’t.”

Principal Mom, “Subtle.”

We were all moved to the party table, where we were supposed to look occupied with the fruit punch and other elaborate snacks on display. A watermelon was carved out as a pirate ship. There were jello shots, Rice Krispie treats with pirate flags in them, everything a child could ever want but was now not allowed to touch.




Lamont, “How did the ocean greet the sand? . . . He didn’t, he just waved.”

Me, “You are amazing.”

Lamont, “That’s what she said.”

Me, “That’s not how that joke works.”

Lamont, “Its called a double a double entendre. You ever heard of a double entendre?”

Me, “Yes, but the comment has to be sexual in nature.”

Lamont, “A girl could say I am amazing in bed.”

Me, “Eh.”

Director, “Action!”

I circled the snack table and brought a plate of hot dog buns to Lamont, who was stationed at the barbecue.

Lamont poked them with the prop prongs, “Those buns are hard.”

Me, “THAT’S what she said.”

Then I circled back.

***

During the next break, all three adults were discussing our personal lives.

Principal Mom, “I have been in a relationship with a writer for 8 years. I am really lucky I found him.”

Lamont, “I am dating a model, but I want her to get out of it.” Yeah, right. Then he couldn’t say he was dating a model.

Me, “I am dating two ex-boyfriends to make one whole boyfriend.”

Principal Mom laughed.

Lamont, “Do they know?”

Me, “Oh they know. This one here with me today is stepping it up. He is going to move in with me. I think its only because of the pressure of competition from the other one.”

Lamont, “I know I feel if there is sexual competition, I work for that girl.”

Me, “I would like to think man can operate on a higher plane of thought than animals.”

Silence.



It was around this time, that I moved my attention from the adults to the children.

At the table with me, as the crew struggled to capture more party shots while losing daylight, was a tall, white boy of about 12 years and an awkwardly tall, black girl who said she was in the 6th grade, but was just as long as me.

She was going to be late for basketball practice and was very worried about it.

I turned to the boy and said, “I dare you to eat the prop food.”

He laughed. His laugh, even as it echoes in my memory while I write this, was so light hearted and full of charm, I smile now trying to find a metaphor that does it justice. Perhaps the jingle of bells in front of my favorite Sinatra Christmas carol.

Now, let me set-up the dare.

On the prop table, there were:

BBQ Potato Chips
Carrots
Rice Krispie Treats
Cheese Puffs
Jello Shots
Cupcakes

The young girl said, “But the prop woman said she painted the food, so we can’t eat it.”

The boy said, “And I never turn down a dare.”

So I said, “Well, now I have to dare you.”

They both laughed.

I said, “What are you going to eat?”

The boy examined the table and selected a chip. He carefully put it in his mouth and then nodded, “Its a regular chip.”

Me, “Well that doesn’t count.”

He reviewed again, then selected a carrot. He put it in his mouth. The young girl stood across from him, in bated breath.

He chomped, nodded his head and said, “It doesn’t taste like a carrot, but I kind of like it.”

We laughed.

We got through a piece of a rice krispie treat before we got to the cheese puff bowl. He put one in his mouth and gagged.

He laughed up small, neon orange pieces, “It’s painted! Its painted!”

The Prop Master yelled, “Don’t eat anything! Please. Stop doing that!”

I turned my body away and drifted away from the two kids.

The boy, “I’m sorry. Sorry. Ok.”

I came back and said, “Shame on you!”

He laughed music again.

The boy, “I want the cupcake.”

I said, “Ok, here is the plan. You have to stuff the whole thing in your mouth right when the director says, ‘Cut!’”

The boy said, “But I can only fit in half.”

Me, “See, that won’t work. Otherwise they will see you eating it.”

Boy, “I really want that cupcake.”

Me, “You should hide it down by the curb and come back after dark to grab it.”

Boy, “What if I just go to Vons and get a cupcake.”

Me, “But it won’t be THAT cupcake.”




He thought about this carefully.

I suggested another option, “I can walk in front of you, like this,” I demonstrated synching my limbs with his, “while you carry it off set with you.”

Both kids laughed heartily.

Principal Mom, “Are you guys losing your minds over there with the end of the day?”

The boy turned to me, “Are you on Facebook?”

Me, “Yeah.”

The boy, “We should be friends.”

Me, “Hm, ok.”

He said, “Do you have a phone number?”

Me, “Yeah, but . . . why?”

He said, “We should text each other.”

Was I being hit on by a 12-year old?

I said, “I don’t know if your parents would approve of that.”

He had pulled out his phone but now casually slipped it back in his front pocket.

I said, “Don’t put that on your person. It can cause cancer.”

Both kids again laughed.

I could really say anything at this point, they would laugh at me.

The boy, “What if I put it in my lower pocket?”

Me, “Well, I guess that’s better, leg cancer might be easier to deal with than stomach and scrotum cancer.”

Boy, “But I don’t want leg cancer.”

I said, “Well, don’t keep your phone on your person.”

He said, “Thanks, now I am gonna get cancer.”

Me, “You will be thanking me, writing me a card from the hospital . . . saying, ‘You were right’ . . . with only one leg.”

They both laughed, stumbling around like they were drunk.

The boy, “But I want both my legs.”

Me, “Well, put your phone on airplane mode.”

The word “Wrap” rung out, at first far away, and then was repeated lower and lower as it reached our table.

We all walked back towards holding as the sun set. We crossed the street, I was joined by Abe and the children were joined up with their parents.

I grabbed Abe’s arm, “Hold on. Let’s not walk too close to that kid. I kind of dared him to eat paint.”

We held back and then strolled slowly back.

Abe, “Mario said that I should stop by the production office and apply for a job.”

I looked at him hopeful, “You should do it.”

Ron called my name for the first time, while reading it off the voucher, and said I was called back the next day. Shit. I work Doggie Daycare.

I did what any actress would do, smiled and said, “Ok!”

As I turned to leave, Abe grabbed me again and asked, “Should I drop in about a job?”

I said, “Why not?”

Look, no one responds to our on-line submissions, our resume queries, our follow-up emails. Why not stop in person and ask?




After all, two young boys around the age of 13 or 14 were working the cables for camera and taking still photographs. I am sure they were related to crew in some fashion, but obviously that is a job someone could fill. Someone who is about to move in with his girlfriend.

Abe stepped in, then stepped back out after a few minutes.

I said, “How did it go?”

He said, “He asked me what I could do, I said pretty much anything. And then he asked me to write down my number and email.”

I said, “Good!”

I thought it showed initiative.

The next day, I came back and Ron said, “Abe isn’t here, is he?”

I said, “No, why?”

He said, “Someone complained. There are two sourpusses on set, and I am sure it was one of them.”

I said, “Oh, well, he dropped in and asked about a job.”

Ron said, “OHHH!” and tilted his head back like that explained everything.

I said, “Sometimes that’s the right thing to do, and sometimes its the wrong thing to do.”

Ron said, “You’re right.”

I didn’t think about it again after that.

My arrival was perfectly timed with lunch, and I joined the Principal Mom for lemonade, brown rice and vegetables.

She said, “Do you know where most of the exotic animals in the world can be found? Those that are extinct in all other parts of the planet?”

I said, “No, where?”

She said, “Texas. Over time, all the rich ranchers in Texas have bred and preserved species that have since been pushed to extinction for game hunting.”

I said, “You mean, rich people that hunt exotic animals for sport.”

She said, “Yes. Isn’t it ironic that those people who want to hunt them, are the ones who are inevitably saving the species from extinction?”




I sipped my lemonade and measured the thought. She knew I was vegan and I wanted to make sure my response was balanced.

I said, “That is ironic.”

She said, “Isn’t it better that we let the ranchers breed those animals and preserve them in some fashion, even if its for something terrible like sport hunting, until society can catch up and do something else more humane, to preserve the species?”

I said, “Well, you have to ask yourself, is the preservation of the species more important than the quality of life for the animal? Its a hard question to answer, and I am not sure either of us could really answer it.”

She said, “Until we come up with an answer, at least those ranchers will have those animals. We have to be pragmatic to insure the right outcome.”

I said, “Interesting. You have a good point.”

Man is obsessed with keeping things. Keeping all the species. Keeping all the things. Keeping all the memories. Keeping our life and youth for as long as possible. In the end, having something might not be as fulfilling as letting it go.

After I put my dirty dishes back, Ron said, “Can you do me a favor and watch the kids until we are ready for them?”

Um . . . did anyone ask Lamont to do that the day before? No.

Back on set, I was paired with the youngest child on set, pardon me, that is presumptuous . . . the smallest child on set. He told me he was 9, but I suspect he was lying.

We were instructed to approach Principal Mom, say a quick goodbye and exit.

The boy was up to my waist and was a fair, blond mix of Asian and White. His facial structure was unusual, but quite striking. I bent down and said, “You were my first choice to be my child, but don’t tell the other kids.”

When we started out the scene, he wanted to walk behind me and then refused to hold my hand.

Ron shouted, “You don’t have to hold her hand if you don’t want to. Just keep up.”

I turned to him and said, “Great, now it looks like you don’t want to hold my hand. What am I not giving you as a partner? What is it? Do we need to do some trust exercises? Do you want to fall back into my arms?”

He shook his head.

I continued, “Well you aren’t a very receptive partner, but that is usually they kind of man I am drawn to.”

He kind of smiled. I was talking fast and he knew I was joking, but he really wanted it to sink in before saying anything.

I said, “I am going to walk fast in this scene, and you will be left at the party . . . alone . . . without your mom.”

He said, “I will walk faster than you. I am gonna beat you.”

I said, “HA! How could YOU beat ME? You are only as tall as my leg?”

Then we did a few takes with him shuffling to keep up with me. I beat him every time and then jumped up and said, “HA! Beat you!”

In the next scene, we had to create lots of movement so our shadows appeared in the windows of a car pulling up.

I did a few insane dances the kids liked, but would never do in the company of adults. In the end, I took a cluster of balloons and punched them one by one into my stage son’s face through each take.

They loved it.

So did he.

How do I know? He tried to impress me with how many beaded necklaces he could spin around on his wrists at one time.

After the set wrapped, I went to Doggie Daycare to close and then crashed at home.
***

Monday morning, I got the email from my booking agent:

Titled: WHAT WERE YOU THINKING???

I cannot believe the absolute audacity and lack of professionalism you displayed by bringing your boyfriend to set with you on Thursday! How dare you violate everything I discuss at registration about background and our company policy by not only bringing another person with you but to have him walk into the production trailer, announce that he is a GUEST of Miss (my name) and attempt to procure a job as a p.a.? Are you out of your mind?? Only, because you were needed  to match the shot, were you not sent home immediately and also brought back the following day.. I work too hard to make sure our company has a reputation of providing the best nonunion background in the city.. way too hard! Are you kidding me??

I assume you know you just burned the bridge to the company that gives us our commercial jobs... they don't want you back..

WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?


Well, this was unsettling.
And reading this over, Abe would never "announce" anything, much less use a word like "guest." Jesus, someone was really trying to stick it to me.

I sipped my cup of coffee and typed:

Oh No, he drove me to set and carried my suitcase. Then I didn't see him for several hours. He was chatting with the security guard off set.

He never spent time with me on set, he napped in his car and spoke with some of the stage moms.

I am sorry. This was a total misunderstanding and I can write a letter stating that Background advises against this behavior and this was not typical of the professionalism of your company.

I don't know what to say . . . I am devastated this went down like this.


I waited an hour or two, no response.

So I wrote a letter:


To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing regarding a complaint my booking agent received about my behavior on set for a shoot this last Thursday the 23rd and 24th for the Allergy Auto-Injector commercial.

In no way would I like to misrepresent my booking company, because they have been working with me for over 2 years and helped me significantly. I would, however, like to explain the situation since I think it was misconstrued.

My friend drove me to set that morning because he knew I couldn't afford the gas. He carried my suitcase to set for me, he insisted, since he thought he was being a gentleman. After wardrobe approved what I had on, he took my suitcase back to the car and I didn't see him again for several hours until we broke for lunch. We had agreed he would hang around Pasadena and nap in his car. Since it was a shoot in a residential area I used to live in, I didn't believe this would be an issue.

While I was on-set, my friend got to chatting with the security guard on the outer perimeter of the shoot. This person suggested and encouraged my friend to go to a specific trailer and apply for a job. In no way, would my friend have done this without someone working the set's advice. He is a professional and respectful person who just thought he was taking initiative and thoughtful advice.

We chatted briefly when we broke for lunch, but he did not take a plate for craft service and I didn't see him again until we wrapped. I did see him on the outer perimeter of set with the other stage moms and dads, as well as public spectators from the neighborhood who were watching the shoot out of curiosity.

He and I both believed this wasn't a problem, nor did we have any indication from Ron or the rest of the crew that this was a problem.

I understand that you do not want to work with me again, as this unfortunate scenario has scarred my professionalism, but I ask that you do not hold Background at all responsible. She works very hard to keep all of us in line, and goes to great lengths making sure we understand what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.

I assure you this is not typical behavior and apologize for any inconvenience we caused the set.

Respectfully yours,


I still haven’t gotten a response.

Something that kept with me, was that very morning, Lana heard she didn’t get the job at ABC she interviewed for and was, I am sure, overqualified.

You do things the right way, you do things the wrong way, none of us can still get jobs.

And I must add, that I find it highly disturbing that because I am a background actor, I was referred to as “thing” and reported as “inappropriate” for having my ride wait off set for me.

If I worked as a dishwasher on the craft service van, I seriously doubt I would have been given any slack.

But because everyone who comes to LA wants to be an actor, they expect you to submit yourself totally and entirely, apologize profusely for any inconvenience and, perhaps as a woman, walk around on your knees with your mouth agape begging for another background job.

I showed up on time.

I did my job.

And I did someone else’s job babysitting those kids.

Part of the fault lies in the way actors behave on set, overly apologetic, overly eager to please, advertising themselves as easy and willing to do anything and everything for the gig. In general, that is the consensus among background actors you meet in this town. Jobs are hard to come by, and jobs in the arts are very hard to come by. I get it. But a job is still a job, and as someone doing a job for someone else, you need to retain some self-respect.

They ask you to bring your nicest clothes, then don’t even bother to provide a chair to keep you off the ground while you are in one of your only two decent professional outfits. I don’t have the money to constantly replenish my wardrobe or pay for dry cleaning on the minimum wage shit they pay us.



It remains to be seen if I can still book work through this company. I don’t regret it. I stand by everything I said.

Abe arrived that Monday morning and I told him about the email, even though I promised I wouldn’t to spare his feelings.

He felt bad.

I said, “Think about it. Think about this guy who spent all weekend eating meals, relaxing in his house, watching the Oscars, pacing back and forth and saying, ‘You know what really burns me? You know what really pisses me off? That background actress who brought her boyfriend to set.”

He laughed.

I continued, “He wanted to crush someone, so he blacklisted a background actor and her unemployed friend. I hope he feels really powerful now.”

Abe nodded.




More important things were on my mind, I needed to get a dress for the wedding. Abe and I were off to find the perfect dress.

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