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The Column

Extra, Extra, Extra Long Time
5/23/04

I have met a lot of people who say that they're actors. But the only acting they're doing is pretending to be an actor.

Have I acted? Yes. Am I an actor? No. Aside from some school productions, my parts have consisted of four extra roles (one of them unpaid), and a fifteen minute independent film. I have been a party guest, a crime scene onlooker, a concert-goer, a pedestrian, and a guy who gets his butt kicked. I was also on an episode of Ricki Lake, during which I was paid to make fun of people. The only role I ever play is myself. So if I thought I was really an actor, I'd be, well, playing myself.

This weekend, I shot two scenes in "Synergy," a forthcoming movie from Universal that stars Dennis Quaid along with a very well cast red-headed blurry thing in the background. I, with the 200 other people getting paid virtually nothing, was an extra. I was furniture with a mouth. This was not my big break.

But for the same crazy reason that draws people with no acting skills into acting, a lot of the people there thought that this was it. They brought headshots and did breathing exercises and talked about how they were hoping that this movie would be some good face time. As if a crowd scene at night in front of Madison Square Garden is going to give anyone good face time.

We were inconsequential. We were cattle. So much so that the area in which the extras wait between scenes is called "holding."

I felt bad for these people. They sat there expecting to get famous, while all the rest of us expected was $75 and a free meal. But some "actors" thought the director would come into holding, which he never does, and say, "Hey there. I like the cut of your jib. I'm going to make you a star. Start thanking the academy, baby, you're on your way."

It is true that every once in a while, one of the production assistants moves people up in a scene. It happened to me this weekend. Instead of walking in the background behind five other people, I was placed behind just two. On the way home, I stopped to buy some polish for my Oscar.

The delusions espoused by some of the cattle were hysterical. I heard some discussing how they were hoping to parlay roles like this into more feature work. Roles like what? Pedestrian #168?

One anecdote illustrates what level we were. When the staff brought out some food, one woman pushed her way up to the front of the line and started filling her plate with as much food as she could grab. A gentleman smiled at her and said, "hungry, huh?" The woman snapped at him, while still taking more food.

"Look, we all hungry," she said. "I hungry, you hungry. Don't say you ain't hungry. I just being real. Don't fake the funk. You gotsa be real."

My point is that this crazy woman was getting paid just as much as the rest of us to be in this movie.

I have fun doing extra work. And it'd be cool if I got any real gigs – but the two are mutually exclusive. Extra work is not acting. It's passing time and making a few bucks.

I know someone who is pretty good at plumbing. He constantly fixes stuff around his house. Occasionally, he helps his friends with projects. Someone even gave him a twenty for doing a great job. Does this make him a plumber? No.

I don't play softball and expect a scout to sign me to a minor league deal. I don't make pasta and wait by my phone for the call from Emeril. I don't talk about politics at a party and expect to win the Democratic Nomination. So why can so many people who have never had a line call themselves actors?

Real actors impress the hell out of me. Fake actors annoy me to no end. They should annoy you, too. Next time someone says they're an actor, find out if their greatest role involves the phrase "you have to look for me."

Anyone can do extra work. ANYONE. Look up an extra agency online, call them about an "audition," and pay the fee they ask for. It's that simple. Go for it – maybe it'll be your big break.

At one point during the shoot, a production assistant came over and took three people to be in direct line of the camera, just over Dennis Quaid's shoulder. One of them turned to the others and said, "this is it!" As the rest of us started laughing, I yelled, "don't blow this!" and sang Eminem.

You might think that's mean, but anyone that delusional needs to be grounded. And I was desperately trying not to fake the funk.

I mean, I gotsa be real, right?

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