Monday, March 13, 2006

Back To (Day) One

"Back to One!" is the command an assistant director shouts at the end of every take, telling the extras to return to their starting point for another go. I didn't always know that, however, and am reminded of my first day as an extra here in Los Angeles.
(rubs long white beard)
Seems like it was just yesterday . . .

August 21, 2000

I’ve always been a problem sleeper. Maybe not all my life, but ever since childhood, when my mom would wake me up to go to school and then come back a half an hour later to find me still sleeping, with no recollection of her waking me, my sleeping habits have gotten me in trouble.

Take lately, for example. This week, through a tiny bout of courage and determination, I enrolled myself in Central Casting, and managed to book myself on "The X-Files." The only bad thing was, the call time was at 6:30am, meaning I’d have to go to sleep around 9:30 to get myself eight hours of sleep.

But I couldn’t seem to get tired. So 10 o’clock rolled around, then eleven, then twelve. Finally, I told myself I had to go to sleep or I’d be suffering like my soon-to-be-damned soul in the morning. 12:45am arrived, and I tried desperately to sleep. I couldn’t even yawn. One o’clock. One-fifteen. One-thirty. I was in trouble. My mind wandered to a thousand different subjects, and though I kept reminding myself that I had to sleep, I couldn’t get comfortable, and worse, I couldn’t get tired. 1:45am arrived, meaning I had been at it for over an hour. What the hell was wrong with me? Two o’clock came, and with each fifteen minute interval, I’d do the math in my head, exactly how much sleep I was going to get. Even worse, I thought, if I don’t fall asleep soon, my alarm’s gonna go off at 5:40, and I’m going to simply shut it off without thinking. A terrible thought since I knew my penchant for doing that very thing.

It was close to two-thirty when I thought about just getting up and going to Ralph’s to buy toilet paper and some razors. If I wasn’t sleeping, I might as well make myself useful and buy groceries, right? I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though, hoping that any minute now, I’d drift off to sleep. Again, my thoughts were everywhere. I was thinking of things and people and songs and phrases and stories and ideas that never would’ve been worth my time during the day, and were only making me miserable in the wee small hours. I tried to clear my mind of all thoughts. I tried lying perfectly still. Heck, I even tried self-hypnosis. But I was awake.

I got up and went to the bathroom. The light was blinding. My face looked pale and haggard (but hey, don’t it always?), and when I went back to bed, I saw that it was 3:15am. I didn’t even want to do the math. I was dead meat.

That’s the last time I remember looking at the clock before my alarm went off, so I must have fallen asleep after that.

I got up. I didn’t even push Snooze. I showered, dressed, and got out of here. Luckily, the location was even closer than I had anticipated, so I got there early. I was among the first to be given my wardrobe: the uniform of a Baltimore Police Officer. I didn’t know how I’d look, considering I think I barely pass for an adult, but the uniform fit well and was really cool. I got to carry a gun, pepper spray, a badge, a CB radio, and two ammo clips for my pistol. I even got ushered into the makeup trailer and got my hair cut.

Actor Joe Morton was guest-starring in this episode, and I talked to him a minute about his death scene in TERMINATOR 2 (he had been in a car accident and tried to recreate the experience of having a crushed lung). I should’ve talked to him longer, but I always feel uncomfortable about that sort of thing. Also on hand as a guest-star was Danny Trejo, who plays this episode’s villain, Cesar Campo, the Spiderman. I talked to him for a minute about always playing a villain.

Most of the shoot, I just sat around. I read probably a hundred pages in two books and had a sleep-deprived stomach-ache for a while. All around me were other extras, playing cops like me, detectives, prison guards, perps, or prisoners. Some of them got involved in a poker game, which I watched with awe (depressed and feeling like an outsider), especially since they were playing with real money (maybe I just felt like a depressed outsider). When I finally got my moment to shine, it was one of those shots where I’m not going to be seen, so it makes me wonder what they even needed me for. A couple of hours later, I got to sit at a desk in the precinct, but again, it’s doubtful that I was visible.

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson were elsewhere, so today’s lead actor was Robert Patrick, the scary dude with evil blue eyes, who was also in TERMINATOR 2. We also had a conversation, but it consisted of: “How you doin’?” “Just great, how about you?” “Have you seen this boy?”

The workday ended and it was time for people to go home, but the assistant director asked if any of us wanted to stick around to play other parts. Knowing this was the first work I’d had in what seems like years, I asked if I could (and frankly, I love doing film and TV work so much, I would've done it for free). They were happy with my volunteering, and I suddenly found myself no longer a police officer, but one of the lowly prisoners. Stripped of all my props and uniform, I put on a bright orange jumpsuit and a pair of Keds.

A couple of hours still had to pass before we got escorted to the set (herded like a bunch of convicts, I might add), and by this time, my lack of sleep was wearing on me. The set was a two-level prison, with about eight cells on each floor. All was made up extraordinarily realistically, and it was only on close inspection that I realized that the cinder blocks were painted on, the toilets were fake, and the metal bars were made of wood. I was escorted to my cell, where I sat on my bed, waiting for them to finish rehearsing and setting up the shot.

Sometime later, I heard a snoring sound from the cell next to mine. The convict beside me had fallen asleep, but nobody really noticed because all the action took place on the floor below us. When it was time for us to go back to the rest area (they called it "holding"), I woke him, but he just stayed there. We came back twice more, but never was any of the action focused on our level of the prison. The lights were hot and bright, and I leaned back in the hard little bunk (is that what they call the beds in a jail cell?), listening to the directions and line readings. My eyes closed, opened again, closed . . .

I awoke with a start. I opened my eyes (it had gotten darker), sat up, and checked the cell next to me for the snoring man. He was gone. All the prisoners were gone, as a matter of fact. Down below was just a scattering of people, taking down lights and carrying equipment. Embarrassed, I made my way past the crew and out of the studio to the background holding section. There too, everyone was gone--the chairs, the cards, even the food. It was like one of those bad dreams, the kind you have during a good night’s sleep.

I found one of the assistant directors at a table, doing paperwork. She glanced up and asked what I was doing still dressed in my jumpsuit. I didn’t know what to say, so I just said "Sorry" and ran to the changing truck. I changed as fast as I could and traded everything back in. I felt like I had been caught doing something indecent by my mother or religious fanatic aunt, and was afraid of what would happen when I returned to the A.D. (which is illogical, after all, I had put in fourteen hours of exemplary extra work, what could they do?).

When I finally checked in, I said, "This is gonna sound stupid, but . . ." and explained it to her. She laughed and said, "You’re right, that was stupid," and told one of her buddies about it. But no censures came and that was pretty much all she said. I was sent on my way, still feeling tired and ashamed, and stopped at Ralph’s before I came back home.

So, that was my first day as a full-time extra. I’m going to sleep now. I hope it causes me no further problems.

Rish "Blast From the Past" Outfield

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