So you wanna be in pictures? Well, I finally got my chance yesterday as I started out on the bottom rung of the acting ladder. Yes, I had my first paying gig as an Extra.
I answered a posting from Foreground Background looking for extras for a film to be shot in Washington state under the working title of “Late Autumn“. I submitted my headshot and resume, and was surprised when I got a call back a few weeks later saying they’d like to book me to be a prisoner for a prison scene. I said yes.
Not only would I get to be a prisoner, but I would actually get to go to Twin Rivers Correctional Complex in Monroe. I’d be on the Inside in the Big House. I had to give information, so they could do a background check on me and everything.
The day for my shoot finally came after some delays due to productions issues of some sort. The production was kindly offering a shuttle up to the prison which is about 30 miles outside of Seattle, or you could drive yourself. I opted for the bus ride. I figured then I wouldn’t have to worry about getting lost, which I normally do.
Call time to catch the bus was 6:00am. I’d been up a little to late the night before at a dinner party, and was working on only 4.5 hours of sleep when the alarm went off at 5am.
I crawled out of bed and into the shower, but didn’t wash my hair, because it was specifically requested by the hair and makeup people. Apparently slightly dirty hair is easier to style. Who knew?
I also had to apply my own makeup. Just foundation and mascara, but those who know me, know that is stretching my abilities to the breaking point, but I managed. They said the makeup people would add whatever else they needed on set.
You know how you get up extra early, to make sure you get somewhere on time, and then somehow time drifts away, and you end up leaving the house 5 minutes late? Well, that happened to me. I ended up rushing to the location trying to read the map I was provided while driving. The bus was to leave Magnuson Park at 6:00. I got to the park, which is an old retired naval base and quite large. I made one wrong turn, but realized it quickly when the road dead-ended. I flipped around found the right road, and zoomed down to the rendezvous point by one of the old hangers.
The were a number of cars parked there, along with two tour buses. There was one car parked with headlights on, and I could make out a woman talking on her cell phone. I thought, OK I made it. I looked at my cell phone. It was 6:00am exactly. I always aim to get somewhere 10 minutes early. Not this time, but at least I wasn’t technically late.
I looked around and realized I didn’t see anyone else. I figured maybe they are in the building, so I got out of the car to see if there was a door to go in. As I walked past the car with the headlights on, it shot off across the parking lot and away down the road. I was alone next to the massive airplane hangar. I didn’t see a door, or anyone. It was dark and quiet. Then I looked over at the tour buses. I saw heads in the windows. Oh, they are just sitting on the bus waiting with the lights off. I headed over. As I got closer I realized the people were mannequins. I was alone. There was no one else there.
Luckily, Denise Gibbs from Foreground Background had called me the day before, so her number was in my phone. I called her. Um, yeah, I think I’m in the right place, but no one is here.
Let me call someone one I’ll call you back.
I wait in the dark. The phone rings.
The bus, which was actually a van, left without you.
Let me call someone and I’ll call you back.
OK. I sat in the dark. The phone rings again.
So can you drive yourself up there to Monroe?
Yes, but I didn’t bring the directions, since I was taking the bus.
Denise kindly gave me the directions, and said if I got lost to call her, she help me out. I drove off frantically, feeling bad about missing the bus and not being professional, but then again, I was technically on time. I went back and forth as I tried to drive fast, but not too fast for fear of getting pulled over and delayed even more.
I made it up to Monroe, found the prison after my obligatory wrong turn. I pulled into the parking lot after checking in at the metal squawk box. There were several people who were dressed like film crew (black jeans and shirts, and a little bit scruffy) heading in one direction. I followed them figuring they were going where I need to go.
I tried to find someone who looked like the person I should report to. There were people unloading trucks and carrying things. Then I saw her, someone with a headset on. People with radios sticking out of their ears tend to know things, or know who knows things. I walked up to her. She asked if I was Courtney. I said, no and gave her my name. She said, oh good. She was the Extra Wrangler for the day. I’m bad with names, but I think her name was Darcy. I had found the right person right off the bat. Something was finally going right.
She pointed me over to a small tent structure.
That’s the Extras Tent.
Is there a bathroom tent? I asked
She pointed to a trailer. I relieved my stressed out bladder and headed into the tent. There was propane heater going inside, since it was about 36 degrees outside. There were some others in there already, the other extras.
Darcy reappeared to escort me off to the costume trailer. I went inside. There was Gerard, who I had met the day before at my wardrobe fitting. He was harried and crisply gave me part of my uniform. I had been changed from a prisoner to a guard. I got dark navy polyester pants, a black t-shirt, and a pair of HUGE combat boots. My overshirt was in the process of having my law enforcement patches sewn on it, so i just stood in the corner of the trailer and waited.
Gerard went about fitting the other prisoners into their orange jump suits. They were led back into the cold once they were fitted. I got to stay in the trailer, which probably was only about 10 degrees warmer than outside, so I wasn’t sure who was luckier, since they had the heater.
The prop guy game and fitted me for a belt, the kind with all the attachments for handcuffs, keys, and radio, and then went on his way. Then suddenly there was a problem. The other guard, the one who gets to talk, her pants don’t fit. They demand my pants. I take them off. I get another pair which are a little big, but I’m fine with it since the other pair was a little small. Apparently they fit the other guard, and crisis averted, the wardrobe crew continues on with their assigned tasks, and I keep waiting for my shirt to get its patches.
Finally the patches are done. I put the shirt on. Then I get pinned with a shiny star-pointed badge. I get a coat to put on over my uniform, and am ushered back out to the Extra’s tent to wait. And wait.
Darcy comes and takes me to another woman, who is standing out between some trailers. Now I’m waiting outside, away from the heater. It’s very cold. Apparently we are waiting to pick up the other guard from her trailer. She talks so she gets to have a trailer. How nice for her.
Eventually we get rounded up and head over to the prison. We have to be let in through a big gate in a 20′ high chain link fence frosted at the top with razor wire. We have to stop at a guard house where we turn over our ID’s and get visitor badges to wear. Then its through another gate, under they eyes of the guards in the tall watchtower. A corrections officer escorts us up to the prison block we are shooting in.
Inside the place is a hive of crew-bees. There are people standing around, people moving things, people talking to each other. I’m led to a cell. I look around, since I figure (hopefully) this is the only time I’m going to be in a real prison cell. There are two bunks, a cold looking stainless steel toilet, and a skylight that shows a bit of the sky if you happen to be lying on the top bunk. I imagine the top bunk is the prime real estate.
Also inside is the prop guy I met before. He has the belt he tried on me earlier, but now apparently it is going to the guard who talks. Damn her. Not only does she get to say lines, she gets a trailer, my pants, and now my belt.
The prop guy hands me another belt, but it is too small. Then he hands me another, it’s kind of ratty, but it fits. He gives me handcuffs to put in the handcuff thingy, and I get a radio with a separate microphone attached by a coiled wire that’s clipped onto my shoulder. I was ready to go.
Back out into the cell block, I’m led down to my spot. Apparently I’m going to be sitting in the “control room” for the cell block. A room with a panoramic view of the cell block behind its thick bullet proof glass. This is where the buttons are to open/close the cell doors, the outside doors. Plus there are ventilation controls, the sound system (there are microphones all over the place, so you can listen in on the convict conversation, and surveillance camera monitors. Also a handy bathroom, which I imagine would come in handy in case there is a prison riot. That way you don’t have to leave the safety of your bullet proof enclosure to go potty.
More waiting around as they set up the shot. I stand around trying to figure out who the director is, but I can’t tell. I figure it’s best to know so I can stay out of his way. I see the star Tang Wei in her orange jumpsuit, she gets led off to her cell.
The shot is going to be tracking behind the guard as she walks through one wing of the cell block, past me in the control room, then into the other wing that has the cell that Tang Wei is in. Then the guard will put a key in the cell door to open it, and says “Prisoner 8234 report to the Sargent’s office”. For that one line, she gets over twice as much money as me, a trailer, my pants, and my belt. I do have to say she did look more like a prison guard than I did, so I guess I should just be happy I got the part I did.
As the guard passes me she gives me a wave and a nod and a slight smile. The first time through rehearsal this surprised me, so I did what I thought I would do naturally, which is nod and give a smile back. But I wondered was this what they wanted? Is this a mean prison with evil guards, should I scowl more. Should I wave back? No one came to direct me, so I went with the nod and slight smile back. I figured if they didn’t like it they’d tell me to do something else.
No one did. The only thing the corrected on me was to put my hair in a pony tail, and tell me to sit down, which I was glad for, since there was a bar across the window right at the level of my face. I though, great, I’m going to be this body with my head covered over by a bar, assuming I’m not cut out in the first place.
There was a real corrections officer with me during rehearsal and he was answering questions and opening doors to let people in and out. In the shot we were doing the cell door is opened by the guard with a key, but this isn’t really how the cells open. They normally open by pushing a button in the control room. So they faked the cell opening with keys, and then pushing the open button in the control room.
Since I was sitting at the control panel as the guard walked by the corrections officer suggested that I could just push the buttons, since he wasn’t supposed to be in the shot. I was like sure, I can do that. Gives me something to do. So they let me. Someone behind the camera with a radio on would say door at the right time to someone standing next to me with a radio on, and then I would hit the door button. The director would yell cut. Then I’d close the door to the cell for the next take.
This was a step in fulfilling my dream of being Gary Jones, the actor who plays Walter Harriman, the guy on Stargate SG-1 who “operates” the stargate. Why do I want to be Gary Jones. There is a guy who got regular work. He was in 108 of 200+ episodes, plus a few of the movies and crossovers to the other Stargate series. A minor character sure, but paid and fed, and since he talked, I imagine he got his own trailer. And I bet no one took his pants.
There is a funny scene in an episode where Walter explains his job. Here. And there is a funny scene on one of the DVD extra features where Gary Jones the actor explains his technique for pretending he was working the equipment and pushing buttons, and how he couldn’t actually type on the keyboard because of the noise, so he would pretend type, and then reach for something. Pretend type and reach. This may not sound exciting, but I bet it is more fun than putting numbers into spreadsheets and filing.
My second scene of the day was being out in the “yard” escorting a prisoner in handcuffs. I doubt anyone will see me, since the camera was on the inside of the cell block, focused on the star, who was standing in front of a window looking out into the yard. They put fake bars over the window. Then about 50 feet out from that they had me and the prisoner crossing, plus some other prisoners scattered about. Just window dressing.
The most amusing part of this scene is that the “yard” is really just a a lawn between the two cell blocks. The cell block we were not filming in was in use, and full of prisoners, who also happened to be mostly sex offenders according to one of the officers. So they advised us not to pay them any attention to avoid getting them worked up and rowdy. They were hooting and hollering as it was, playing music, offering us cigarettes to dance for them, yelling Action and Cut! a thousand times. Probably we were the most exciting thing they had seen in a long time.
If you add up my entire amount of time on screen between the two scenes, I imagine it will add up to about 3.5 seconds. Still you have to start somewhere I suppose.