Making the cut

I can’t tell you the name of the show, or the network, or the stars I may have played next to, but I can give you a glimpse inside the day of a background player on a TV series being made on the set of a major studio in New York City.

Actors work for the sake of the work more often than not. It’s the best way to hone our craft. Truthfully, though, we also like to make money. I opted out of the life of an actor early, partly because I couldn’t take the economic uncertainty. Now that I’m of retirement age, I still like to get paid.

In December I got an email from a well-known casting agency. It was designed to flatter. “We thought you had a great look for our restaurant scenes and wanted to check your availability for background work….” It was the week before Christmas and I was available.

After responding appropriately to a meticulously detailed email, I was told to be at the studio the following day at noon, with wardrobe appropriate to 2006. I don’t know about you, but my wardrobe hasn’t changed much since 2006. Instructions from the agency advised against bell sleeves, cut-out shoulders and high/low cardigans. I chose an opera coat and black slacks. At the last minute I grabbed a burnout velvet top from the back of my closet and rolled it up in my shopping bag. On the way to the studio I Googled “burnout velvet 2006” and found my instincts were right. Even the color, an earthy bordeaux, was in style that season.

Actors who work all the time will tell you that background work is the pits. You sit around waiting all day to be called to be in a crowd scene, and most of the time you are cut from the final edit. But to me, the idea of seeing a television series from the inside was intriguing.

I arrived at the studio on time and was directed to a room on the second floor. I signed in and chose a table where a well-dressed man my age was sitting quietly. Soon another man joined us. He was union. We were not. He was an actor type, talkative and just a little jaded, but friendly. The two of them had recently worked on another set together.

Soon we were called to be checked by the wardrobe department. My opera coat was approved, but I said I had brought an alternative and they asked to see it. The burn-out velvet won the day. “You look lovely,” the wardrobe assistant said, warming my heart.

One thing film and TV sets are known for is their catering. I had skipped breakfast expecting to be well-fed on set. But my inexperience kept me waiting in the holding area while other actors took advantage of the custom-made omelets and fruit salads downstairs. After getting my hair and makeup done (what a treat!) I barely had time to grab a coffee on the way to the set.

We were under strict instructions not to use our cell phones or take photos. I was among the first group called to be in a scene, and one of the actresses seated with me had a serious phone addiction. She tried to hide it in her lap, but the screen lit up her bosom. I was certain we would be edited out of the scene if she didn’t stop, but I didn’t want to be the one to tell her to turn it off. Finally a production assistant did.

The day involved a lot of waiting, it’s true. But I was being paid to observe and participate in a profession I love, without even having to learn a line. I can’t wait to see if I made the cut.


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