Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Meat Puppets Make The World Go 'Round

Have you ever noticed the random people in tv shows and movies that fill a room and bring "life" to the scene? They're called background actors or extras. The term "extras" isn't used so much anymore probably because it sounds unimportant and degrading. On the other hand, I don't think the term "background actor" should be used either because walking back and forth while out of focus in the distance doesn't count as acting. With that being said, I'm emotionally preparing for my scene where I walk back and forth, out of focus, as a Chinese restaurant waiter. What's my motivation?! Oh, that's right: $64 for 8 hours; ie, minimum wage.

I got called in to work as background for an untitled sports radio sitcom, filming at the CBS studios in Studio City. Being inside of a sound stage on a big studio lot is fun, but the real fun is meeting your fellow background actors aka "the crazies".

Background actors, or meat puppets, consist of an eclectic bunch of people, most of them being professional background actors. And by professional, I mean that they work 5 or more days a week, 12+ hours at a time, and strive for nothing more. I've met people that have no intention of being in the entertainment industry except for working background. I personally don't get it, but I guess if you're going to be making minimum wage anyways, working background isn't too bad. The days are long and boring, but you can hardly call this working. You sit around most of the day, waiting for a scene that needs atmosphere, you get at least 2 free meals, and you have a plethora of snacks at the craft services table.

What really gets me is that background jobs aren't that easy to get. You have to really hustle and call in to the booking agencies; some people even hire calling agencies to call on their behalf. But if you're going to put this much effort in, why not strive for something more?

I love watching female background actors endlessly primp and apply make up only to have their back to the camera or be asked to walk back and forth outside of camera range. Speaking of make up, where is the make up lady? I'm feeling blotchy. Oh well, time for another trip to the snack table. I gotta keep my eyes low so I don't accidentally welcome conversation from one of the "crazies".

Not all background actors are crazy. It's just that the majority of them are really quirky and extremely socially awkward. Half the time, I'm expecting Chris Hansen from "To Catch A Predator" to pop out and announce himself during one of the many inappropriate conversations.

Here is an actual conversation that I overheard between my new friend Felix, dressed in an all black, hipster-ish ensemble, and a post-op Courtney Love look-a-like:

Girl: "I like your outfit..."
Felix: "Oh, this?  It's just all black, but thank you!"
Girl: "It's cute."
Felix: "Did you see my shoes?" (They're 2 different colored leopard print sneakers)
Girl: "Yeah! I had to ask the security guard a few times what this homeless girl was doing on our set, but now that I've seen it more, I like it a lot!"
Felix: "Thanks?"

True story.  I'm not able to make that up in my wildest dreams.

While many background actors are wildly awkward and socially inept (see above), they are still people and should be treated as such. Many times while on set, background actors are treated as second class citizens. They're shuffled around without a clue about what's happening, referred to as flies as they hover over the snack table, and jammed into barely inhabitable holding areas with zero amenities. Usually, they're just left to fend for themselves. The cast and crew get chocolate dipped marshmallows, exotic fruits and gourmet cakes and pastries as snacks.  What do the background actors get?  A paper towel lined basket of pretzels and a small spoon to scoop them out.  During lunch, the background actors aren't even allowed to sit with the cast and crew.  We're all humans, right?  People often say that actors are a dime a dozen.  Well, you can light a stage and turn on the sound, but without actors, an empty stage can be entertaining for only so long.

The moral of the story: Be nice and value everyone around you, especially the "little" people.  It takes all of us to make the world go 'round.

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