I got to be one of the dozens (sometimes hundreds, occasionally thousands) of people you see in the background of a movie or TV show. I've done it before, but unpaid and in a small crowd for a Portlandia sketch. This time was for the TNT fantasy-adventure show The Librarians, which is shooting its fourth season. On Monday a friend who works on Portland film and TV projects asked people via Facebook to apply as an extra if they were available this week. I was. I confirmed that in this case (though not usually), a selfie to show what I look like to the company that casts extras would be enough, I emailed those selfies, and got notice to show up at the Portland Meadows horse racing track.
At 5:18 a.m. Tuesday.
I made it (thanks, Ryan and Kristen, for letting me crash on your North Portland home's futon Monday night!) and joined well over a hundred people who'd pretend to be patrons of a Colorado horse racing track. (Portland doubles for worldwide locations on the show, which is also set here.)
I got signed out and finished the day at 8:20 p.m. Subtract an hour for lunch, and that's 14 hours. I already knew, thanks to friends who've done this, that shooting days are long. I had snacks, water and a book.
Being an extra, I heard a fellow extra say, is like being in a jury pool, except you're far more likely to be used as an extra. A production just needs people; the producers and assistants figure out as they go how to use them. You're herded around based on the needs of the shots. Assistants make quick, snap decisions of how to use people, pointing to you or your group and saying Go here and do this. Certain extras get makeup if they're going to be featured prominently. Others get clothes from the show's wardrobe. I was there in my own clothes, with one extra shirt in my backpack in case they needed me to look different. (They didn't, but I'm amused by the thought that I could've wound up being two different people on this show.)
Most of the time, you wait. "Extras Holding" at this location was part of the Portland Meadows stands, with a cart with pub-grub snacks nearby, as were restrooms. (I made what almost was a huge mistake by leaving my paperwork, i.e. THE WAY I'D GET PAID, on top of a restroom dispenser; luckily I had time to go back and find it before this became a problem).
The stuff I got to do (in other words, where I'm most likely to show up in the completed episode):
• Pretend to be watching the finish of a horse race from an outside patio. For the needs of the scene, where a fight takes place between several people including Rebecca Romijn's main character Eve Baird, we were told to ignore the fight and focus on the race — in other words, we needed not to watch what was really happening and pretend to watch something that wasn't (the horse racing wasn't filmed at the same time). Moviemaking magic! (TV-making magic in this case, but that's not the term that's used.)
• React to that same fight from the interior stands, because that particular camera angle would show the stands and it would've looked weird if they were empty.
• Cheer a horse — which was literally a production assistant running on the track, because the horses were resting a well-deserved rest from the other running they did today, and weren't needed for the shot.
• Watch real horses really race; the shot's focus is on the horses, but having people in the foreground adds to the verisimilitude.
• Walk past Romijn and Christian Kane (an Angel/Leverage veteran who plays main character Jacob Stone) as they find out a key part of the plot. I was one of three men chosen to do this. "Our asses will be famous!" one of us joked.
(We did this quietly, because the focus needs to be on the main characters and what they learn. If I'd gone rogue and said something, to another extra or to Romijn and Kane, I probably would've been fired on the spot. EXTRAS DO NOT DO THIS. Unless they're getting paid to do it, which means they were hired in a different process by different people. There are tiers and protocols to all of this, and I made sure to respect that. Not the place to try to show my (non-existent) improv skills.)
Sometimes I was holding a prop betting ticket and a prop cup, with some water in it, to avoid that thing you see in so many shows where there's clearly nothing in someone's cup. Other people were holding clear glasses with fake beer, wine, or Scotch-and-ice in them; some extras played servers carrying platters of fake drinks, with plastic tinted to look like fluid. Less damage if they're dropped! No spills!
Amidst all this was lunch, from 12:30 to 1:30. Productions feed you welllll. (At least they should; if they don't, something's wrong.)
There was so much activity. I'd go into a room under the stands to get snacks and see stunt people practicing a fight they'd film later. I had conversations with fellow extras while we were either just standing around between shots or standing in the far background of a shot, needing to look like we're talking. I was in a queue of people waiting for one scene, and what sounded like a fight was happening in the next room, a landing at the top of stairs, but I couldn't be sure because the action was taking place around a corner. The many TVs in the stands were showing footage especially edited or shot for this episode: stock footage of horse races, fake ads for race track meal specials, the casino-owner character appearing in a house ad next to a busty, red-dressed and red-hatted brunette blowing a kiss.
I need to make sure I say nothing that even approaches being a spoiler, and what we shot is so out-of-context for people who were there for just the day that it'd be a fool's errand to try and reconstruct the plot from what I saw (plus The Librarians is a fantasy show whose ad slogan is "Because Magic," so the possibilities of what could be happening are even wider than they'd be on, say, SVU), but here are some details I feel safe adding: the episode's main guest actor is Richard Kind, from Spin City, Gotham, Inside Out and the 1994 film StarGate. (Made by Dean Devlin, The Librarians's main producer.) The director was Eriq La Salle, who was Dr. Peter Benton on ER, was also in 1988's Coming to America, and recently was a welcome presence in the film Logan. I hadn't known he also directed, but he's done a lot of that for TV, such as for Dick Wolf's shows.
There's still a weird disconnect when I see people I've mainly seen in films or on TV standing right there, but I made sure a) to be cool and b) not to ogle. The actors and filmmakers are doing a weird job, but it's still a job. Yes, they're often attractive; I'm reminded of how a writer once called actors and models "the professionally good-looking." (Nicely, a lot of the extras were striking, attractive people, too.) It's also their job to say what are often very hard-to-deliver lines, make it sound natural, and sell to the audience what's happening. I know I am not an actor; there are subtleties to the craft I can appreciate but not emulate. Everyone in the main cast of almost anything we watch has been working for years or even decades, and that earns my respect.
In the last scene we shot, during the 7 o'clock hour, I reacted to a particular race's finish. A man standing behind and above me, one of the people the shot focuses on, says a key line; two of the main characters pass him and say lines in sardonic reaction to that line. Out of context, it feels nicely like the sort of happy ending Leverage, which was made by a lot of the same people as The Librarians, used to do. I got to react in — again, I'm trying not to spoil anything — a happy way, hugging and high-fiving the people near me. Many times; we did many takes. And then finally the director said "Cut" for the last time that day, and thanked all of us. We were done.
I wonder if the day went longer than planned, in order to finish at the location. Earlier in the day the extras company emailed us to say we might be needed Wednesday for one last scene, and just in case, I planned for how to get back to Portland Meadows if needed. I wasn't called back for this. I got home late, ate a little bit, then crashed and slept the sleep of the dead. I was wiped.
I have no idea when this Librarians episode will air, but will let you all know when it does. There's no guarantee I'll be visible, since editors might choose shots I was never in (or might say "Who's that distracting extra acting badly? Cut him out of the shot!"), but if I am, you'll see me in black pants, black hard shoes, my dark-grey paisley shirt, and my black hat. I'll show no pictures, either; we weren't allowed to take them.
It was a long day, but it was honestly fun. I'd like to do that again. Heck, I wish I'd done it for Leverage, which I really like, or Grimm, which is fun and clever, but hey, now I know I can do it, and there are chances to do so.