Formula for an Ingénue

As a young actor in the throes of The Hustle, I read a lot of character breakdowns.  Most female roles I apply for through casting websites are rather bland, and several are blatantly sexist.  But even the roles that don’t hit you over the head with patriarchal ideals still seem to subscribe to a rigid set of characteristics.  This is especially true of leading lady roles.  I believe I’ve found the formula for an ingénue; follow the recipe below and you can make your own!

 

Describe her attractive looks.  The first and most important part of the character, The Look.  The beginning of any casting call will describe how beautiful and attractive this woman is, often using buzzwords like “model looks,” “girl next door,” “stunning,” “gorgeous,” and “sexy.”  These descriptions are sometimes concise, but can often be lengthy and repetitive, and sometimes the physical description takes up the majority of the breakdown.

Reveal her relation to the male lead.  Now that we know this girl is hot enough to be onscreen, let’s get to why she’s here in the first place: to serve as love interest/character development in the male lead’s story.  She is often the girlfriend, fiancé, wife, or crush.  Sometimes she’s the ex if you want to get edgy.  Rarely is the female lead presented without a male counterpart for whom she is designed.

Establish “cool girl” status.  Oh, don’t worry.  This isn’t your average hot girl.  This is a cool hot girl.  She’s not like other girls.  She’s down-to-earth and likes regular things, like wearing t-shirts and jeans.  She loves pizza.  She even looks pretty without makeup.  She’s confident and comfortable in her own skin.  She might be described as smart or witty (usually juxtaposed with a reminder of how attractive she is).  “Aspirational” seems to be the latest cool-girl buzzword in character breakdowns, although it’s up to interpretation what this actually means.  This part of the formula is pretty flexible, but something is always included to “set her apart.”

Remind the actress how difficult it will be to do her job.  Since this is the Leading Lady of the film, the grand finale is usually some phrase intended to scare away all those women who aren’t talented enough to handle this Difficult Role.  Usually clinched with clichés like “must have great acting chops,” “ability to handle dialogue,” “good facial expressions,” or “this is a demanding role.”  Casting directors assume that most women who are making a career out of acting are not talented or smart enough to be able to handle this kind of complex character arc, so it’s safest to remind these women that acting is hard and should not be taken lightly.

 

Is the recipe really that simple?  It sure is! Check out these real-life examples:

 

MANDI / Non-Union / Lead / Female / All Ethnicities / 18-40
Mandi is a budding starlet, gorgeous and talented. Her rich boyfriend pays for her to open a new club and it quickly establishes her as an A-list talent. Looking for that rare combination of great looks and dynamic personality. Specify nightclub experience in notes. Models welcome to apply, please state acting experience and if you have a portfolio to share.

 

KRISTINA WITH A K / Non-Union / Principal / Female / Caucasian, Hispanic / 18-30
Valley Girl, Definitely Pretty but you have ulterior motives and an evil side to you as well. You have always had a thing for your best friends boyfriend. When you find out they broke up (or so you think) you make your move. Strong Actor Needed for this role.

 

 

SARAH / Non-Union / Principal / Female / All Ethnicities / 20-26
Sarah is the stunning ex lover and is torn that she’s meeting her ex at this party by complete surprise. Needs to have an expressive look in her eyes.  She is dancing with her boyfriend but keeps looking at the host and constantly gets distracted.

 

WIFE / Non-Union / Lead / Female / Caucasian, Ethnically Ambiguous / 20-22
This beautiful woman would stop men in their tracks. She is a knock out. But she has a bit of the girl nextdoor vibe. She is the long time love of our hero. They went to Highschool together and have spent every moment together. Despite him being an asshole. She must have an emotional range from anger, to sadness, to crying. Again, she must be a beauty. One day of shooting in department store parking lot.

 

Now you can make your own Leading Lady!  Or you could ignore the recipe, add more substance and complexity, and create a new character free of archetypes. Chef’s choice.

Paint, Sawdust, and BS: My Season as a Summer Stock Carpenter

Summer stock theatre is an interesting experience, a rite of passage for many young artists as they make the transition from student to professional.  It involves low pay and long hours in the often sweltering summer heat in exchange for a bed, a professional stage, and an unforgettable experience.  One summer in college while I was pursuing a BFA in Acting, I ended up contracted with our local beloved summer stock theatre.  But I wasn’t hired as an actor – I was a carpenter.

In May of my junior year, I found myself stranded with no summer plans.  Lately I had been facing one failure after another.  I attended unified auditions and local auditions, and booked no professional gigs to speak of.  I had applied for camp counselor work at various art camps – one of which I was an alumni, and for the other I had driven all the way up to Chicago (18 hours in the car round trip for a fifteen minute interview) and all my options had fallen through.  Eventually I got cast in an unpaid Shakespeare-in-the-park production, but still had no prospects for an income.

I had been working in my university’s scene shop for a little over a year, so when I heard they were still seeking a carpenter for the summer, I jumped on the opportunity.  However, I was anxious about the job – I was still somewhat of a novice as a theatre technician, and after an incredibly stressful year I felt rather frail: physically and emotionally.  I wasn’t sure what the season would bring, but I decided to rise to the challenge.

It was hard work, to say the very least.  8 and a half hours of physical labor a day, six days a week (though Sundays were, mercifully, half-days).  On top of that, our theatre was outdoors under the shade of a temporary tent, so all load-ins powered through the steamy humid heat of the Midwestern summer.

On our change-over days, when one set was torn down and a new show installed over a mere 48 hours, those were our marathon days.  We would work a full 8 hour shift, get dismissed at 5:00 pm to eat dinner, nap, and prepare, then would return at 10:00 pm for strike.  At strike, each technician was in charge of herding a team of non-union actors who were contractually obligated to help tear down their set.  (Degrees of competency varied from person to person – most were enthusiastically helpful, but some slinked away into the shadows at every possible opportunity to avoid doing any actual labor.)  We had to stay until the job was finished, usually around 3:00 am.  We would then go home and get what precious little sleep we could, then return at 9:00 am the next day to work another full 8 hour shift to install the next set.

When you add it all up – between 50 and 60 hours per week – and divide our earnings for the season, the pay evens out to be around a mere $4 per hour.  And the terrible thing is, the theatre I worked for isn’t even considered “low-paying.”  By summer stock standards, these wages are considered a little high.

Needless to say, the fatigue of our team was tangible.  Some days we could be found lying face-down on the stage, taking a minute to breathe because the fireplace still doesn’t fucking fit in the wall.  When deadlines were fast approaching, days were long and tempers were short.  At the end of the day we would roll in to the university dining hall as a group; sweaty, smelly, and dirty.

After one long day, a co-worker of mine was sitting across from me absolutely fuming – I could practically see the steam shooting out of his ears.  He ate his meal in a terse, angsty silence.  Suddenly he broke the silence with this declaration: “I’m covered in paint, sawdust, and bullshit.”

I immediately burst out laughing.  When he asked me what was so funny, I said that phrase perfectly sums up our job.  The rest of the table agreed, and the saying quickly became our mantra.

Over time, something incredible happened.  We all began to bond, and not in the usual co-worker way, but something that felt deeper.  They say that suffering brings people together, and in our case it was true.  We were able to commiserate, and through the daily bitching about all the bullshit collecting on our tattered t-shirts, we became friends.  We entertained ourselves with insulting each other, making as many sexual innuendos as possible, prolific swearing, talking in funny voices, and playing “Kill-Marry-Bang” with fictional characters.

Outside of work, the bonding continued.  When you’re working 60 hours a week and you only have one night to unwind, there’s a great deal of pressure that needs to be released in a short amount of time.  So we drank.  A lot.  Every Friday night would be a house party in some basement blasting classics like “Shots” and “Turn Down For What” where we’d rage our faces off, dancing like no one’s watching and drawing dicks on the steamy windows.  These nights laced with liquid courage were not only opportunities to let loose, but also the intimate hours of the night when we were honest with one another, saying what we meant, allowing a glimpse of who we really were.

The friendships I made that summer lasted longer than the job itself.  For a year afterward we still met semi-regularly on Wednesdays (Winesdays) to hang out and catch up on life.  For the rest of my college career they were my go-to party buddies, a group that continued to have my back.  When other acting students would observe that I had a lot of tech friends, I would shrug and say, “They’re my family.”

Sexist Casting Calls

As a woman in the acting industry, I have to deal with a lot of bullshit.

As most socially conscious people are well aware, sexism is alive and well in the American workplace.  In the entertainment industry, they don’t even bother hiding it; they can always use the excuse “well that’s what this role requires.”  This character needs to be skinny, or attractive, or ditzy, or submissive.  There’s a pervasive attitude of “that’s just the way things are.”

I’ve found that when I bring this issue up, people are often surprised.  Some are even skeptical. (Are you sure that’s what you’re experiencing?  It can’t be that bad.)  So I thought I’d share some real-life excerpts.

The following are all real casting calls that were posted online within the past year.  These are all roles that came up on my casting websites (specifically Actors Access and LA Casting) and were listed on my page as “roles fit for me.”  I’ve highlighted the parts that are extra sexist for those of you with the attention spans of goldfish, and provided commentary below each post.  So behold these real-life absurdities and laugh.  Or cry.  Or both.

 

PLAYERS (Dating Coach Assistants )
Pilot Presentation
NON UNION

[ DATING COACH ASSISTANTS ]
2 females – age 21 – 30, to play the assistants to a dating coach for a British reality web series. Must have a big personality, outgoing, funny, opinionated and free-spirited (Not too prudish). You will be helping a dating coach give tips to his students on how to appeal to women.
*Improv skills a must and able to match wit with dry-humored English guys.
*Must be comfortable in bathing suits or suggestive outfits and be game for anything (within reason of course). If you are uptight, this may not be the role for you.
Looking for actress/model types. Be funny, fun, outgoing, and gorgeous!

Commentary:  Okay, so I highlighted the whole thing.  But this one is just chock-full of BS.  But it’s subtle and sneaky, as many of these posts are.  Let’s break it down:

  • They want 2 women to “assist” the male expert explaining to other men what women want. Good start.
  • You have to be funny/smart enough to keep up with the guys.
  • You have to wear suggestive outfits and bikinis, and be “game for anything” (???)
  • If you are not willing to wear skimpy outfits and are not willing to do “anything,” then you are “too prudish” and “uptight”

 

Witches Bitches

CASSIE CRANE / Non-Union / Principal / Female / All Ethnicities / 18-30
Cassie (15) is your traditional high school b*tch. She loves about boys, and plotting supernatural revenge on the girl who stole her boyfriend. You know? The usual. Once her and her bestie Violet Beaumont (15) start messing with a ouija board all hell breaks loose.

Commentary: Girl plotting revenge on another girl for stealing her boyfriend. You know?  The usual.  Because that’s what girls usually do.

 

Gorlesque – The Haunted Burlesque

VICTIM / Non-Union / Supporting / Female / All Ethnicities / 21-30
Two victims of the evil doers find themselves trapped in the dungeon. They will be attractive, smaller women and good at looking scared.
Rate: Negotiable

Commentary:  The character’s name/identifier is “Victim.”  I also chuckle at the idea of seeking an actress who is particularly good at “looking scared.”

 

Alesso Music Video

GORGEOUS CLASSIC LOOKING BLONDE HOLLYWOOD STARLET / SAG-AFTRA / Principal / Female / Caucasian / 18-28
Looking for gorgeous blonde bombshell Hollywood starlet. This takes place in the 80’s. Think a gorgeous young Kim Basinger or a gorgeous blonde with the IT factor. Has a classic beauty look and has great expressions. Can act.

Commentary:  I like how this breakdown takes 3 long-winded sentences to explain how this character looks and how beautiful she is, and then “can act” is an afterthought.

 

SH*T KIDS

[ CECILY ]
Beautiful, sexy, bratty.  In the 18-20 range who can play more on the teenager (16/17) side.  A milennial, who can be easily disliked by how attractive she is.

Commentary:  Women in film should be beautiful, but we’ll hate you for it.

 

PARALLEL WORLDS: A NEW ROCK MUSIC EXPERIENCE

[ TRACI ]
20s/30s/female.  Gina is an edgy, sexy, very talented NYC photographer brought in to coax Johnny Beck, an up and coming artist, into loosening up for a publicity photo shoot.  The chemistry is palpable and they end up having a one night stand.  For Gina, using her sexuality to get what she wants is all in day’s work. 

Commentary:  This description was fine until I got to the cringe-worthy final sentence.  It perpetuates the idea that career-women all sleep their way to the top.

 

UNTITLED HORROR DRAMA

WENDY / Other / Co-Star / Female / African American, Caucasian / 25-45
WENDY is tall, dirty long straight hair, voluptuous, embodies what it is to be sexy, and has no tongue. After being forced to spend years in a bed with her own grandmother and grandfather, as they had their way with her she grew an appetite for sexual stimulation. When her grandfather died her grandmother got rid of her, and Wendy went insane and attempted suicide multiple times. In the facility Wendy has now grown an appetite for all of the orderlies, and does not side her sexual desires for them. It is never enough sex, and she has had with all of them. She fell in love with Frederick, an orderly, and when they fired him she bit off her own tongue out of protest. And now the only gift that she has to give her orderlies is sex and a bad case of herpes.

Commentary:  ………..what?

 

Pie Guys

BRITTANY / Non-Union / “1” / Featured / Female / Caucasian / 18-25
A buxom blond who is beautiful but ditzy.
Wardrobe: Short Shorts and a tight shirt.

Commentary:  Why are the blondes always ditzy?

 

SHANNON / Non-Union / Lead / Female / Asian, Caucasian, East Indian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Ethnically Ambiguous, Native American, Pacific Islander / 23-34
sexually hungry. Is trying to keep her lust secret but it is pouring out of her skin. she will have confrontations with her husband when the fat hits the heat. A demanding role

Commentary:  Any post that starts with “sexually hungry” and ends with “a demanding role” is sure to be a winner.

 

THE WOMAN / Non-Union / Principal / Female / All Ethnicities / 25-35
The “manic pixie dream girl”. She is fun and spontaneous and she forces Oscar to think what he really want for his life. More of an idea than a real person.

Commentary:  Not even attempting to hide it, this character is an archetype of a woman who exists simply to make the male lead feel things.

 

Fun Internet Videos!

THE “PERFECT TEN” GIRL NEXT DOOR / Non-Union / Co-Star / Female / All Ethnicities / 18-30
You’re a very attractive, model-type women… a girl next door with sex appeal. You’ve got a great sense of humor and self-esteem, and you don’t take yourself too seriously. And you’ve got a soft spot in your heart for good guys. You’ll have a major crush on “Joe” – our average antihero who – with the help of our advice – has a magical way with attractive women. And you’ll find yourself in all sorts of situations… chasing after Joe on the Venice Boardwalk… eating dinner with him… hanging out in the hot tub… while doing your best to capture his attention in ridiculous ways. Time-permitting, we may also shoot a candid interview/conversation with you about your thoughts on dating, relationships, etc.

Commentary:  This one is tricky, in that it’s very subtle.  The woman must be very attractive, a model-type, girl-next-door cute but also sexy, a perfect ten.  Meanwhile her love interest is an average Joe.  This is a trope that pops up all the time, especially in rom-coms; the guy is chased by a girl way out of his league.  It’s not really apparent what the problem is, until you try to flip the roles.  Imagine a devastatingly handsome man doggedly pursuing an average-looking, slightly chunky girl.  It doesn’t make sense because it’s not a story that gets told.  (Okay, it’s probably been done at some point, but it’s not a common narrative.)  By continuing to make stories that follow this stereotype, we propagate the idea that average men “deserve” a beautiful woman, but by failing to flip the story, the idea is that average women just need to try harder.

 

FEMALE TOP MODELS / Other / Co-Star / Female / African American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Ethnically Ambiguous / 20-30
Extremely Attractive – Female Model
Super high caliber of almost perfect genetics in terms of extremely beautiful looks.
Wardrobe: Casting Off Pictures

Commentary:  We don’t have unreasonable beauty standards for women!  You just have to have perfect genetics!

 

[ LISA ]
Early 20’s blonde, cute, bubbly & ditzy. She is a Call Girl and a victim.

Commentary:  Seriously, why are the blondes always ditzy?  That joke died in the 90s.

 

SEXY CONSUELA ]
She is the Sexy transformation of the older Obese Consuela, who then seduces the rap stars with her flirty eyes and sexy lab dance moves. Move be a good dancer and super sexy.

Commentary:  Every rapper’s dream, an obese woman transforms into someone skinnier, younger, and sexier to perform sexy moves manufactured in a lab.  Did we mention she’s sexy?

 

Victim (Supporting): Female, 18-25

a young victim who becomes the next target for the world’s most notorious serial killer and rapist; open to race, looks, types, merely need an actress comfortable with the requirements; this is all improv, zero budget filmmaking, thinking on the fly, running around with a camera getting the shots; full frontal and full rear explicit nudity and explicit sex scenes are required; leave a note stating that this is not an issue; pays $100/day, plus credit (including a co-writer, and co-producer credit if you wish, on top of actor credit); must have transportation to Cumberland; shoots one to four days beginning asap.

Commentary:  Once again her name is Victim, and boy, does this director have a deal for you!  He admits that he has no solid plan for how he’s going to shoot this, describing his directing style as “running around with a camera.”  Full frontal and rear nudity and explicit sex scenes are not only envisioned but required.  And it only pays $100/day (considering most film days run for 10-12 hours, that hashes out to less than minimum wage).

 

CASSIE / Non-Union / Lead / Female / All Ethnicities / 23-34
She’ a tortured woman. Lot of the film she is in her head contemplating what she should do. You can see her opening up to her brother in law. Strong emotional scenes involved
Rate: $75 for the shoot plus 3 premeire tickets you keep the profit
Media Submission Request: reel or clips
Nudity Situations: There is a scene reminiscent of Dressed To Kill where she is sleep and her husband is simulating making love to her in a heavy handed way; It happens under the covers. No nudity. The husband is grinding on top

Commentary:  You have to portray simulated sex (and considering a “sleeping” person cannot give consent, that’s simulated rape) for a mere $75.  But don’t worry, they’ll give you 3 complimentary tickets so that you can scalp them for a profit.  When was the last time you bought a ticket for a short film?

 

[ TRACEY ]
18 to 25 years old, Caucasian female.
Tracey, 15, has just caught on to the fact that she’s sexy. In the big city, where there were lots of shops, and lots of girl friends, and lots of boys, she knew how to be cute and how to flirt and how to have fun. Now her mom’s remarried this city lawyer who has decided he wants to be a part time farmer and he’s taken them all out to this big new house in the country. There’s only one other kid in the new neighborhood, a sexy 17 year old cowboy from next door. He seems cool, but she’s starting to think he’s the ultimate “bad boy”.  If you’re an actress who thinks young women can be very beautiful and dress sexy (this girl reads a lot of manga) while being compassionate, determined, experimentally flirtatious and ultimately heroic . . . this is the role for you.

Commentary:  If you’re an actress who believes a girl can be beautiful/sexy and still have other redeeming qualities, this is the role for you!  Also, she’s 15.

 

MUSIC VIDEO. “ESSENCE OF WATER.” / Non-Union / “Video” / Principal / Female / Asian, Caucasian, East Indian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern / 18-25
This is a music where a portion of the video will be filmed at the beach…IN THE WATER. You DO NOT need to know how to swim. You will NOT be in deep water. Water level will only be below your knees. YOU WILL BE COMPLETELY WET As you will dance / move sexy in the water and sand. Acting as a couple with the musician. You’ll be acting as lovers in certain scenes You are to play a submissive sexy girlfriend who is fun, adorable and is happy being in love….on the beach.
Wardrobe: Bathing suit, sundress, bikini with loose fitting dresses.

Commentary:  Moving sexy in a swimsuit, portraying the musician’s submissive girlfriend.  Yes, they really did just say submissive.

 

TL;DR  Yes, I know, this is a lot.  But I want to demonstrate the sheer volume of casting calls that are openly, unapologetically sexist.  The above posts are merely selections from what seems an endless well.

And that’s not even including the roles that are quietly uninteresting.  All the roles where the only description is “pretty.”  All the “girl next door” roles.  All the “sexy model” roles.  All the “cute girlfriend” and “loving wife” roles.  The roles that are only defined by appearance, or their relation to the male lead.

This is the way things are.  But this is not the way things should be.  We need complexity.  We need diversity.  We need characters written by women.  We need projects directed by women.  We need change.

The Los Angeles Vortex

Los Angeles is a weird place.  Beautiful, but weird.

The weather is always warm.  There’s a breeze, but it’s rarely windy.  It’s sunny every day.  It hardly ever rains.  Even a cloudy day is unusual.  It doesn’t get humid, and mosquitoes aren’t a thing.  Weather-wise, Los Angeles is paradise.  But this utopian climate comes at the cost of your internal clock.

I grew up in mid-Missouri, where you get the best and the worst of every season.  The summer temperatures would break into the low hundreds, and it snowed at least a few times every winter.  In the bad winters we’d see negative numbers.  We got rain, wind, hail, sleet, ice, even tornadoes (yes, a tornado actually flattened an entire street my senior year of high school).  We were blessed and cursed with a little bit of everything.

Then I moved to LA.  I tell people all the time that I’m a lizard because I can’t produce my own body heat – I have to absorb it from my environment.  I was happy to leave behind 22 years of runny noses, shivering, wearing frumpy sweaters when everyone else is in shorts, and condescending comments of “It’s not that cold.”  I raced into the arms of LA, the land of eternal sunshine.

I arrived at the beginning of September, still riding the high of three months of summer.  That year was a sweltering September in the Valley, with highs in the hundreds for weeks.  So, naturally, that month felt like an extension of summer.  The month after that was less suffocating, but still warm and sunny.  And so was the month after that.  And the month after that…

Compound this anomaly of nature with the fact that this was the first year in my life where I wasn’t returning to school in the fall.  My existence began to feel like one long summer break.  But the hustle of trying to make a living as an actor kept reminding me that this isn’t a break – this is forever.  This is the rest of your life.

In October I left the city at the last minute to catch a film festival in New York.  When my flight was getting close to landing, I looked out the window at the forest below.  I was breath-taken by the view; the trees were a bright blend of red, orange, and yellow.  I was also genuinely surprised – I had forgotten that it’s fall, that this is the time when leaves change and temperatures drop and people start making plans to visit their families.  I nearly cried at the realization; not because I romanticize fall weather, but because I had lost track of how much time had passed since I had moved away.  I was overcome with the idea that time was ticking away, that the rest of the world was moving on without me, while I was stuck in this void removed from space and time.

When you live in Los Angeles, it’s so easy for that to become your whole world.  It’s a microcosm of sorts, and you get wrapped up in the events in LA, news in LA, jobs in LA, forgetting that there’s a world outside it moving at an entirely different pace.  When the sun is always shining, time stands still.

As I write this, it’s a full year later.  I’m acclimated AF, and I’m even more of a weenie about being cold than I used to be.  But I know how to find true north in the vortex.  I notice the precious few deciduous trees, see when they change color, look to them for clues about the season.  I feel the subtle shifts in temperature.  I pay attention to national news (or at least I try to).  I take any excuse I can to step out of the city and see somewhere new.  Los Angeles may be timeless, but we mortals must find a way to keep moving forward.

Questions I Have for Los Angeles

Why don’t people here recycle?  If you’re going to pretend to care about the environment, you need to at least recycle.

Why do you put “the” before every freeway number?  And why do I feel the need to conform to that?

Why are there no mailboxes in the valley?

Why is LA obsessed with juice?  Why are there specialty bars that serve only juice?  And why are they $12 per glass?

Why are there so many vegans here?

Why do maps of LA cut off at Hollywood Hills?  You know Los Angeles city limits extend all the way up to Sylmar, right?

While I’m at it, why the hell are city limits like this?

map_los_angeles

Seriously, wtf even is that?

Why is there an afternoon rush hour but no morning rush hour on Saturdays?

Why is everyone obsessed with In-N-Out?  Why is it every time I drive past an In-N-Out, the line for the drive-thru is so long that it wraps around the entire building and extends halfway down the street and obstructs traffic?  Doesn’t waiting over an hour defeat the purpose of using the drive-thru anyway?  I mean it’s a good burger, but it’s just a burger.

Why are people so flaky when you’re trying to make plans?

california-plate-with-heart

Why is a heart symbol an actual character you can actually have on your license plate?  Are children allowed to drive here?  If so that would explain a lot.

Why don’t we have a decent public transit system?  This is the second largest city in the nation.  Get with the times.

Why is there a public park in Calabasas with ASTROTURF at the entrance?  Isn’t the whole point of going to a park to get in touch with nature?  Does anyone care about authenticity?

Why does everyone have multiple part-time jobs instead of one full-time job, even people who aren’t in the entertainment industry?

Why is the weather always beautiful?

When are we going to run out of water?

In spite of all these things, why do I love this city so much?  Why can’t I see myself anywhere else?

Extraneous: Working as a Film and TV Extra

They say anyone can do it, but it takes a certain kind of person to do background work for film and television.  First of all, you have to accept that you and all the other schmucks are going to be treated like cattle.  You have to accept that you’ll spend hours online looking for work, calling in to a busy signal over and over and over, only to get through on the 30th call to an answering machine saying the project is all booked up.  And most of all, you have to accept the fact that, to “them,” you are disposable.  If you don’t fit the role perfectly, if you’re late, if you are uncooperative in any way, there are 100 other schmucks who look just like you who will gladly take your job.  Oh, and it’s minimum wage of course.  But you might be on set for 12 hours.  Or more.  I had a friend once tell me, “When you’re doing background work, you’re always working but you’re always broke.”

Despite these discouraging conditions, the job of an extra isn’t without its benefits.  You get a free catered meal, sometimes two.  You have a lot of down time to read, check emails, knit, whatever floats your boat.  And sometimes, you get a chance to watch an actor you admire at work, doing what they do best.

Within a couple months of moving to Los Angeles, working as an extra drew me in.  Mostly I looked at it as a learning experience; it would be an easy way to get onto the sets of major productions and observe how they operate.  I wanted to absorb everything, from the vocabulary to on-set protocol to acting techniques.  So I lined up in front of Central Casting at 8 am and… got turned away.  So I came back a week later, arrived at 5:30 am, sat on the sidewalk for 4 hours, and registered myself into the Grand Background Database.

The Bad

My first experience as a background actor was awful.  I got hired to be a “Beautiful Woman Swimming,” or as I liked to call it, a Pool Bitch.  The scene was supposed to be an outdoor party, complete with DJs and dancers, so this was a pretty large call.  They herded all of the extras to set, and the first thing they did when we arrived was say, okay Pool Bitches, get in the water!  Now this shoot was outside, at night, in late November.  Although Los Angeles never gets Cold with a capital C, the temperature was still in the low 50s all night.  So 50 gorgeous models plus me (I don’t know how I got grouped in with them) were all asked to strip down to our bikinis and get in the water and wait.

It was at least an hour before we even started shooting.  And then the transitions in between shots were long and plentiful.  I kept getting asked to get out of the water and switch between the four pools at the hotel.  They picked us one by one to go sit at the top of the waterslide, soaking wet and half naked, and then wait for another half hour while they set up the next shot, until we get the word go to slide down.

The pools were heated, but when you’re sitting still for hours on end in 85° water when your body is trying to maintain a temperature of 98.6°, you end up freezing.  We were all miserable.  The crew members were all wearing parkas, boots, gloves, and beanies.  Yet when we’d complain about the conditions, they’d shrug it off and tell us it was a heated pool.  At one point, someone who was higher-up in the chain of command walked over and took off one of her winter gloves, dipped her fingers in the water and said, “The water’s pretty warm isn’t it?”  We all responded quickly with “No, it’s not.  When your whole body is in it, it’s way too cold.  We’re miserable.”  She gave us a look that said, well that’s too bad, then put her glove back on and walked away.

I was in the water for 5 hours before we were dismissed.  And during those five hours, not once did the production team tell us, “take five,” “take ten,” or even, “we’re resetting the cameras now so if you need to go to the bathroom now is a good time.”  After we arrived on set, we weren’t offered a single break, not even a moment to dry off.

All the other extras I talked to insisted that working background is not normally like this, that it’s usually not this bad, that it’s usually quite easy actually, and that I shouldn’t give up.  Although this first experience left a bad taste in my mouth, I decided to keep at it and try again.

The Good

My second background experience was vastly better.  I put myself on the emergency availability list the night before, and woke up to a phone call at 4:50 am asking me to come to set.  The casting associate said, “Your call time is 7:00, so you might was well get up.”  So I got up.

After a frantic stuffing of 10 outfits into a tiny backpack, I set out for Studio City.  You know it’s too damn early when you’re leaving your apartment and Starbucks isn’t even open yet.  After stepping in dog poop on the star-spangled sidewalk, I begrudgingly made my way underground to catch the train to the studio.

Despite the rough start, the day that followed was fascinating.  I started the morning by jogging outside in the temperate California dawn.  In the afternoon, I was a forensic specialist.  I walked onto a set full of huge television screens, flickering with graphs, codes, maps, and mugshots.  The set was glowing green and blue.  It was alive.  This was my first time ever being on a high-budget studio set, and I felt like I was living a dream.

I sat behind a computer desk that I soon came to call my own, busily clicking away on the keyboard and answering super important phone calls.  The production kept me busy all day working at my desk, walking around headquarters, conferring with colleagues, and handing off files of evidence.  I was on my feet all day and I couldn’t be happier.

At one point I was hanging out by the elevator waiting for the next scene to start when they called for “first team rehearsal.”  As the principal actors approached the set, I grew wide-eyed and speechless as I saw that year’s Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress.

I leaned to the actor next to me and stage-whispered, “Is that Patricia Arquette?!

Yeah,” he whispered back.

OH MY GOD,” I whispered more loudly than I should have.

She walked over and took her place directly beside me.  I could have touched her but I didn’t because that would be weird.  Then I tried to be cool about it but at that point I think the cool ship had already sailed.

When we broke for lunch, I was surprised and overwhelmed once again.  It was mid-December, the last day before “The Hiatus,” when all the major studios shut down for literally an entire month for the holidays because they all make enough bank to do that.  Since the studio was shutting down, Craft Services was cooking up all the food that they had left in storage.

They gave all the extras lobster.

I’ve loved lobster ever since I was a kid, but since moving away from my parents and moving to an expensive city where I was struggling just to pay the rent, I didn’t think lobster would be on the menu for me any time in the foreseeable future.  I sat down grinning from ear to ear, just so happy to have a food that I loved but couldn’t afford.

I was kept on set well into the evening, pushing into overtime and then double time.  Towards the end of the night, I was selected to do a series of foreground crosses.  Because of this, I was able to watch Patricia Arquette (whom I admire deeply in case you hadn’t already noticed) and the other lead actor develop the scene, work on it, run it over and over until it came into its own.  I watched with glittering eyes, knowing that moments like these are what I came for.

The Sexy?

Several months later I was booked again, this time on a Showtime series.  I was cast as a Strip Club Customer.  So I wasn’t a stripper, but a person at the club appreciating the strippers.  And, because it’s Showtime and they can do whatever they want, there were actual strippers there, actually stripping.  Throughout my entire mimed conversation, my eyes kept flicking to the stage and I kept thinking, “There are boobs there.  Oh look, boobs.  Those are a stranger’s boobs.”  It’s just not a thing I see on a daily basis, so it was quite distracting.  This was another one of those moments where I found myself appreciating how weird my life is.

The Freezing

I then made my first foray into audience work, the awkward cousin of background work.  I was booked on a show hosted by Craig Ferguson, so when I found out I was ecstatic; I used to watch The Late Late Show with my parents when I was in middle school, so his brand of humor had a special place in my heart.  It was spring, and we were instructed to dress more upscale, so I wore a skirt and a nice blouse.  When I was sitting outside, one of the veteran audience members told me I was going to freeze inside.  When I asked why, he said that Craig Ferguson demands that the studio be kept at 56°.  I thought he was joking or exaggerating, but to my horror he wasn’t.  As soon as I stepped into the studio, I was blasted with cold wind.

One of the main reasons I moved to Los Angeles in the first place is because I HATE being cold.  I spent the next 4 hours slowly crumpling into myself and desperately wishing I were somewhere else.

The Fulfilling

One rare occasion, I had a casting assistant actually call me, and asked if I was available to do background work for Transparent.  This was a show that I had binge-watched all in one 10-hour sitting on the day that Amazon Prime offered its services for free.  Excited to be part of a show I was genuinely interested in, I agreed and cleared my schedule for that day.

I was cast as a “Feminist Undergrad,” and I later found out that all the women in this shoot had been hand-picked by the casting director by look, which made me feel special.  I joined a diverse group of edgy, alternative-looking young women in what turned out to be a short 4-hour shoot.  I watched the director talk through scenes with the lead actress, and eavesdropped as they bounced ideas off one another.

Because of the progressive nature of the show, I felt like I was a small part of something larger and important, a sort of landmark in television history.  Months later as I watched Jill Soloway accept the 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, I felt connected to the achievement, in a weird way.  Even though I was only there to fill the background, I still had a small sense of ownership over the final product.  And that small victory made me smile.

The Weirdest Thing that has Ever Happened to Me

This is a story about the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me.  I usually save it for parties and second dates, but lucky you, I’m sharing it with everyone.  It involves fake vaginas, so buckle up.

In college I had a part-time job as a standardized patient.  Basically I was an actor for students in medical fields to practice their trade with an actual human.  I worked with nursing students, hearing instrument science students, EMTs, and firefighters.  Usually I just got my hearing tested.  But then things took a turn for the strange.

When I told my boss I was staying in town for the summer, she beamed and said, “Perfect! You’d make a great mother.”  I immediately had flashbacks to my orientation day, where we all sat in a conference room glossy-eyed and staring at a Power Point.  In said Power Point was a photo like this:

childbirth_simulator_2

Except there were straps where the legs should be.  My boss explained that you strapped this apparatus to your body for a birth simulation.  So it’s your body, your spread legs, but with a fake belly with a fake baby in it and a fake vagina.  So this is what I knew was in store for me: I’d have to act my way through childbirth while nursing students got friendly with my strap-on fake vagina.

Needless to say, I was scared shitless.  But I put my brave face on and figured if I could act my way through childbirth, I could act my way through anything.

I showed up to work that day prepared for the worst.  But I was relieved when I was informed that I would not be playing the mother after all, but rather a family member who is present at the birth.  I let out a breath of gratitude, knowing I had dodged a bullet.  I then I found out who – or rather, what – was playing the mother.

The mother was a high-fidelity manikin.  Which, in case you were wondering, looks like this:

simman

They breathe.  They blink.  They sweat.  They turn their head and look at you.  They even talk through a microphone in their throat, thanks to the voice of the operator in the next room.

They. Are. Freaky.

So I was the concerned sister of a female manikin with a big old rubber belly.  I was told by the instructor that I was there to add a sense of humanity and realism to the scenario.  And then she told me that while the manikin is designed to provide a realistic and detailed experience, it could not actually push the baby out.  So when the nursing students said “push,” I was to unbutton the side of the rubber belly, slip my hand inside, and push the baby out.  Ah, there it is, that’s why you’re paying me.

So we get to the scenario, with the instructor walking five fresh-faced nursing students through the details of “catching” a baby.  When it’s show time and the students say “push,” I do as I’m instructed.  I surreptitiously slip my hand under the thin hospital sheet, unbutton the side of the belly, and slip my hand in and grab the baby.

Now remember, this is a high-fidelity manikin, meaning it’s designed to simulate birth as medically accurate as possible.  So I touch this plastic baby and it’s… slippery.  They’ve LUBRICATED the damn thing.  Pretty soon I realized why – it’s a tight fit.  I’m pushing and pushing and this baby is hardly moving, it’s such a big object going through a small hole.

It’s right then when I had a moment of self-awareness, appreciating the fact that I’m getting paid to push a lubricated baby out of a fake vagina, and I just thought, “Man, my life is weird.”

After a minute of my not-so-surreptitious effort, the baby finally slips out, followed by a moderate amount of red colored fluid (high-fidelity, right?).  The instructor passes around the plastic baby from student to student, making sure they each get to appreciate how slippery it is.  She then casts it aside and leaves it in the sink, arms and legs askew at all the wrong angles, to be cleaned up and re-lubricated for the next scenario.

I walked away from that experience knowing way more about childbirth than any college student wants to know.  But I also walked away with the satisfaction that in this weird life of a young actor, I will continue to be surprised by opportunities that roll my way.