“Debby– I have got to know what you do for work now! I keep seeing all these crazy pictures on Facebook and Insta!”
These days, I love getting asked about my job. Twenty-four hours after I returned to the States, I marched down to a casting office and dropped of my headshots and resume. Since then, I have spent four amazing months hopping from set to set, working all sorts of interesting and quirky gigs.
My main “goal” is to get production experience. I would like to someday be a film producer, so my route is clear: Production Assistant -> Production Coordinator -> Unit Production Manager -> Producer. Of course, there are many alternate courses available. I have already worked as a script supervisor, a makeup artist, a costume assistant, and even a boom operator! These are fun to add to the resume, but not necessarily the best paid opportunities.
So how do I make money? I book jobs with Central Casting. Central is the largest background (or “extras”) booking agency in the world. They book somewhere around 85% of all television shows and 55% of all films in Los Angeles. This is not glamorous work. Sometimes we are referred to as “props with mouths” or, less politely, “cockroaches”. We are the groups of people that meander back and forth across the television screen, sometimes just blurs of color added to the backdrop. The days are long (I’ve worked several 15-hour days), but rarely do I find them boring.
My favorite sets are the ones where I get to play “dress up”. Sometimes, a production asks us to wear certain attire, from hipster to beach looks. On other occasions, the wardrobe department comes in full force: entire trailers full of period clothing and shoes of every size. My background resume includes: military, policewoman, chef, nurse, and robot! Some days, we even have to go through hair and makeup. I have learned more about contouring and lip liners on set than in the rest of my life combined.
Some of the more serious sets ask us to do more than just walk around. When I was a police officer, I received an hour of training from the stunt coordinator on how to hold and run with my prop gun. Our “squad” had to jump out of police cars driven by stunt drivers and set up a perimeter around a bank in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. Talk about exciting!
While I can’t go into too much detail about the sets I’ve been on (I regularly have to sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements”), I can say that the amount of work that goes into filming your favorite television shows is extraordinary. There are hundreds of crew members all with specific tasks to do and unique union affiliations. The days can stretch late into the night. The sets are brilliantly composed by production designers. It is simply amazing to see how it all comes together.
One of the really attractive parts of doing background work is going to new locations every day. Sometimes they’re in large, public areas like malls or parks. Other times, I’ve been directed to magnificent Beverly Hills mansions or exotic Malibu beach condos. One time, I was booked on a four-day gig at a waterpark! I was quite literally paid to float in a lazy river.
It is also quite interesting to watch famous actors at work. Most keep to themselves and don’t like to be bothered by background or crew members. Their focus on set reminds me of professional athletes– they simply zone out and fixate on their own private world of story. Some actors like to improvise lines and let each take flow organically. Others call “Line!” halfway through the shot, but continue to roll with the scene. Some of my favorite people to watch in action were Mindy Kaling (so funny), Jordana Brewster (SO beautiful), Danny DeVito, and Dean Norris.
But one experience was really memorable. I was working on a night shoot near Malibu. It was cold and windy (and I was in a mini dress!) and the scene stretched into the early morning hours. At one point between takes, I was shivering in the corner by my starting mark. An older actor walked over and said, “Oh you must be freezing! Here, take my hand warmer.” He pulled a hot pack out of his pocket and I took it gratefully. He then proceeded to ask where I was from and where I went to school. I was so flustered by his kindness that I could hardly keep up my end of the conversation. Also, this man was Anthony Hopkins.
While this is not my “dream job” it really does feel like a dream at times. I love going to set each day and encountering new challenges. I love the stories I bring home every evening. I don’t mind the long hours and the food is absolutely incredible. At this point, I don’t know what my next step is or what the next open door will be. But, you know what? I am completely at peace with that.
P.S. If you are nerdy enough to recognize the “featured picture” as the setting for the Hearthstone Asia-Pacific Regional Competition… Yes, I was in fact a background actor sitting at one of the tables behind the commentators.