“You can do your act-y thing as much as you want, but always have something to fall back on.”
I cannot quite remember which wise, shadowy, looming and spirit-broken role model intoned this to me when I was a child. Perhaps it was all of them. I took their advice on board, of course, and it was that advice I thought of often when the complete opposite happened a few decades later.
In August 2016, there was a strange confluence of events which left me without gainful employment for the first time in twenty-seven years. And, despite my efforts to effortlessly bounce into another similar position, I could barely land an interview – and those I had were very bad, due in no small part to not being in an interview for over twenty years. So I fell back on the only other thing I’ve been moderately good at: acting.
In September 2016, I landed my first work as a background artist on the set of “Chicago Med.” Saying “background artist” suggests a certain level of artistry and respect for the craft of creation; however, a “background artist” is a very nice way to say “extra”, or an extremely nice way of saying “blurry bits of movable furniture with shoes.”
Informed that I was to play the part of a physician (could my big break be coming this soon, I marveled), I arrived in a slick brown blazer, navy blue shirt, complimentary tie, dark trousers and shiny dress shoes. Saying “I arrived” suggests I walked onto set that way and was welcomed by a round of applause by cast and crew alike; however, I merely mean that I arrived at a parking lot at 5:00 in the morning.
Of course, saying “parking lot” suggests a paved area of real estate with yellow lines denoting spaces; however, the parking lot for most of the highbrow shows and movies shot in Chicago is a flat-ish area of what used to be a building. Crumbled bits of floor, wall, windows and doors are the closest things that denote parking spaces. There is a no doubt a premium for the non-absestos-laden section of the lot.
I took my place in the van to take a half dozen of other background artists to holding. Saying “holding” suggests… well, actually that one is spot on for describing where we were going.
In the van, I struck up an animated conversation with two folks who were to be my guardian angels for my first few adventures in background acting: Shirley and Alan. They were old hands at this “BG” thing by the time I showed up beaming and hopeful, and they were wonderful in guiding me through the various forms and vouchers one has to fill out upon arrival in holding. Shirley had a sprightliness that matched her inferno-red hair and blood-red lipstick. She taught me the importance of bringing a book, carrying a big bag and stretching. Alan, by contrast, preferred sitting in holding with a slightly disappointed and laconic look on his face. Those who I have gotten to know can testify that I have taken all of these lessons seriously, and can often be found reading a book I appear to be disappointed in.
I do not remember how long we were in holding, but the sun was up and shining when we were all again packed into vans and driven to location at a nearby hospital. The production assistants (PA’s), which one can identify by either unkempt beards, lack of makeup, signs of questionable nutrition and/or poor sleeping habits, eventually guided us into place on the street with arbitrary instructions like, “stand there, and then, when you hear ‘action!’, cross over there”, or “you’re walking around that pillar and stopping there” or “just stand there.” This last direction was aimed at me, and I was delighted to have no movement to memorize. Happily, I was standing near a bench, and Shirley, big bag and book in tow, was put on the bench itself. The PA swooped by us and said, waving her/his arms, “you two are having a conversation”, and walked away.
As Shirley guided me on how to have a conversation without making any sound, gesturing like a mime who drank a bit too much coffee, proper actors – who you can identify by the idiom of the business, “film sets are construction sites in which pretty people walk through once an hour” – roamed back and forth, mumbling lines to each other.
It is very rare to be told what the scene to be filmed is all about, and this was no exception. One merely had to keep a sly eye on where the cameras were. The 45-second scene was shot over the course of a couple of hours and eventually we were herded back into vans to be taken back to holding where we were signed out. “Are we getting paid today?” I asked Shirley and Alan. They laughed.
A few weeks later, I tuned into “Chicago Med”, anxious for the first opportunity to see myself featured in a real-life television program. And there I was, talking to Shirley, while two actors passed in front of us. We were on-screen for an overwhelming 0.05 second. I screen-captured the moment – and it was a moment – and looked at it excitedly. That excitement, moments later, turned to an expression that only Alan could have taught me.
“I am ready for my blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blurry shot, Mr. DeMille.”