Throughout September, October, November and December of 2016, I whiled away a sizable chunk of time indulging my interest in being an extra, or as some kinder behind-the-scenes wranglers call us, background actors.
In that time, I have played a wide variety of amazingly inconsequential roles, all of which pay more than amazingly consequential roles in Chicago theater: I’ve been a doctor on Chicago Med, a protester on Chicago Fire, a news reporter on Chicago PD, a mayoral benefactor on Empire, and a coroner and juror for two shows that won’t premiere until 2017. And, for these programs and more, I also played the coveted Pedestrian With Auto role, thanks in no small part to my fiancee allowing me to drive her car to set. Thanks, honey. However, there has been no other role like playing a Fallen Priest on The Exorcist.
There’s one thing I should point out first: the folks who cast extras always make it a point to say that we should not approach the talent while on set. That’s never a problem with me for two reasons: (1) it just makes sense and (2) I don’t watch TV so I could only differentiate the talent from everyone else by their haircuts (cut, combed and styled, very obviously, in the hours before filming began = real actors). I have witnessed some yokels walking up to the talent, having a brief chat, and then being escorted off-set, never to be seen again.
But back to The Exorcist. For the role of a Fallen Priest on our first day, we filmed in the cold and unfinished basement of Trump Tower in Chicago – a fitting enough place for demonic clergy to hang out. Most of the time, there was a dozen of us regulated to some folding chairs hidden in the shadows while the amazing crew machine rushed around carrying equipment, lights, makeup bags and an assortment of other goodies. Eventually, the wrangler told us we were required on set. Twelve of us were lined up, complete with our dog collars, black suits and knee pads, and the cast began rehearsing. That’s when I noticed Geena Davis walk in and expertly deliver her lines. Wow, I thought, someone I actually recognize. I later recognized Francis Guinan, who played our evil bad priest boss Brother Simon, as a Chicago actor from “The Magic Play” at Steppenwolf (among many other things), but, hell’s bells, I was not there to stargaze. I was there to look foreboding, then, on cue from Ms. Davis, drop to my knees and slap my face on the concrete floor. The filming went on for most of the day, with the increasingly dirty (and dusty) dozen falling repeatedly to the ground. I was happy that one shot was specially set up to film my new friend Nick and I eat some Trump Tower concrete.
A couple of weeks later, the casting folks tried to pull the dirty, dusty dozen back for not one, not two, but three extra days. Seven of the background celebrities, as one director called us (a bit over the top there, I think), could not commit to that, so it was left to a mere five of us – Henry, Joe, Jim, Nick and me – to carry the proverbial cross. The five of us became fast friends for many reasons, not the least of which was we were stuck with each other for a few dozen hours sitting in the dark and eating the pretty good food Crafts and Services foisted upon us at random. When full-on meals weren’t served, we were given a selection of overly-healthy snacks and coffee, the former of which I stuffed into a pocket or two. They remain uneaten in my kitchen.
On Day Two, we shot a boatload of hours in an alley after dark, during which you can see one or two of us for a second. On Day Three, we shot an incredibly long day in Grant Park for a papal parade sequence. I must say, it was an absolute hoot hanging out on the street wearing priest garb – and not just priest garb, but prosthetic boils and cysts running up the side of our faces to signify possession or really bad acne – as people walked by en route to their jobs. Most were kind, many were deferential, some were utterly confused, and a smaller percentage were utterly dismayed to see a pox-ridden priest smoking a cigarette. I did thoroughly enjoy that day’s shooting, as I was given a lovely closeup or two, as were my fellow fallen angels, as our characters conspired to make peoples’ ears and eyes bleed in order to have our big bad boss bad priest go after the pope.
On Day Four, we shot in a warehouse, again for an amazing amount of hours. Extras are hired on a fixed fee basis of $84 for 8 hours, so the best days are those that are only three hours, for which you are paid $84 no matter what, and those that last well after ten hours, because you get a respectable $16 an hour for basically sitting in a chair and occasionally looking foreboding.
Back to Day Four. For other background artists, one can definitely see fatigue on some of our faces during some of the aired footage, as we were made to do a couple of scenes repeatedly for well over twelve hours. However, in that time, I got to watch Ben Daniels deliver a blistering speech along the lines of “I’m not dying for the bloody Church… I’m dying for Him!” I had to watch him deliver the speech a few times from my vantage point as a wicked vicar, and, after one tear-streamed take, he and I made eye contact. I could only think of doing what any other actor would do to another: I smiled and nodded with a “you nailed it” approval. He smiled back. Good lad.
I have to admit that I loved every second of it. The other four guys could not have been more different. Henry, the doctor. Jim, the rock star. Joe, the Indiana working stiff. Nick, the affable nice guy/actor. And me, the guy who was fired and was struggling to rediscover my footing in this crazy world. Despite or perhaps because of our differences, we all bonded strongly and instantly friended up on Facebook (it’s not official until it’s Facebook official).
Watching Episodes 9 and 10 of The Exorcist and remembering the work that went into it (and the friends that resulted) is a thrill for me. In a year with so few wins on so many levels, this was one of my favorites. Joy doesn’t often just show up at your door; sometimes you have to go and find the stuff. And it was found here.
Thank you Henry, Jim, Joe and Nick for being the best bunch of guys one could be stuck in the dark with. Here’s to lighter days ahead.