Poseidon: The extra's story

'Poseidon' is a very big blockbuster and Jay Fernandez played a very small part in it. He spent a long day on the Hollywood set, screaming and getting wet, as one of its thousand extras... sorry, that should be 'background actors'
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The Independent Culture

OK, rookie mistake. Note to self: Before going on set, don't nervously gulp down six cups of coffee. My predicament seems like a rite of passage, something each extra must learn for himself the hard way early on. On this steamy July morning, I'm in Burbank on the Warner Bros. lot amid $140 million of blockbusting equipment to live as an extra for a day on a big-budget movie. And not any old big-budget movie. This is a remake of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the disaster epic that featured Shelley Winters swimming in her granny panties! After a rogue wave capsizes their cruise ship a handful of victims try to reach the surface. The film boasted a dozen Oscar winners in its cast and crew, was itself nominated for eight Oscars and spawned a sizable cult following.

Looking for a tent-pole feature for summer 2006, Warner Bros. tapped water-friendly director Wolfgang Petersen, helmer of Das Boot and The Perfect Storm, to captain Poseidon, an updated "re-imagining" that takes advantage of the latest in CGI technology. This time Jacinda Barrett, Richard Dreyfuss, Jay A. Fernandez, Josh Lucas, Emmy Rossum and Kurt Russell - plus yours truly - will fight the rising water, the sinking ship and each other in a life-or-death struggle for survival! This production offers an excellent venue for a case study of the life of an extra: spectacular sets across five soundstages, full wardrobe and makeup, a huge cast, intensely emotional material, a major director and movie stars like Russell and Dreyfuss.

Granted, it's almost immediately obvious that extras - many like to be called "background actors" or "background artists," depending on whether they consider this a calling or a way to dodge a subpoena - are lowest on the filmmaking food chain. "Everybody's replaceable," one 52-year-old veteran tells me with 20 years of resignation in his voice. Extra work typically involves an extended day full of lengthy stretches of punishing boredom, lingering uncertainty, potential injury and banal indignities. And yet the camaraderie, the exposure to successful actors and the chance to hone "the craft" provide a genuine satisfaction for many.

Background actors are keenly aware that, when it comes to screen acting, most people's minds flash to iconic images of stars doing and saying dramatic things, like Russell Crowe rousing his vast army in Gladiator. But what about the seething horde of warriors behind Crowe? Imagine they're not standing there. Does the scene change for you at all? Face it: If Crowe growls "Unleash hell!" and then rides out of frame by himself, you're not watching a gripping Ridley Scott epic, you're watching Monty Python.

I won't go so far as to say that extras are indispensable - CGI has been stealing background actors' paychecks for more than a decade now - but they truly are the cake around the creamy filling. Ask any extra, and he'll tell you. In our current case, we have to sell a truly frightening scenario: We're in full black-tie attire, dancing, drinking, flirting and desperately trying to shuffle into the frame, when a tidal wave rolls the ship, and everyone in it, twice. When the backup generator kicks the lights back on, our ballroom has been given the Keith Moon treatment. We're in horrible pain, we can't find our mothers or our husbands, and the hysteria will not come across for the audience unless a large group of people behaves as if this is truly happening. This is our mission: to provide the physical and emotional context. "Fifty percent of the feel of a scene like this comes from them," Petersen says during a break in filming. "They create the texture of it all." It's gratifying to hear this from the man in charge. "It's very important also for the actors," Petersen adds, "because they feel it and ride on the emotion that comes from the whole room." Well, gee. Anything we can do to help out Kurt Russell, you know?

I arrive at Warner Bros.' Gate 7 a few minutes before 6 a.m., my official call time. I'm wired with nervous excitement. After checking in with one of the second assistant directors, AD Skid, I'm sent to men's wardrobe. Last week I was fitted in a new tuxedo, shirt, cuff links and shoes, and now I find three complete versions of the outfit suitably "distressed" - liberally daubed with dirt streaks, blood and sweat - and hanging on the racks. Wardrobe has fitted more than a thousand extras for this production who are all going to take the big wet nap in the first reel. I suit up, head for the hair-and-makeup trailer and get appropriately disfigured. Then AD Clark escorts me across the lot while he explains today's work. Principal photography began three weeks ago, and they've completed the pre-disaster ballroom scenes. Today is Day 2 of filming the immediate aftermath, and Petersen and his Perfect Storm cinematographer, John Seale, are getting coverage of the chaos on the ruined set - four cameras, including a swooping crane and a sweeping dolly, are ready to capture what will amount to only a few moments of drama in the final cut.

AD Clark deposits me at "Holding," an area of white rental pavilions directly across from the stage where we'll be shooting. It's filled with chairs, wardrobe racks and sweaty, penned-in bodies. Holding looks like a triage center, with bloodied background actors scattered throughout the overheated tunnel sleeping, reading, playing cards and making breathless cell-telephone calls to their agents.

An extremely attractive woman with hypnotic green eyes approaches. It turns out that Hot Jennifer does photo-double work for Sharon Stone and Cameron Diaz, including the scene at the end of Vanilla Sky in which Tom Cruise ties Diaz up. She has a manager and an agent, and she recently auditioned with Ben Kingsley for a role. She uses background work, she says, to fill in the gaps between more substantive gigs. I miss much of what she's saying, though, since I am convincing myself that I really should give Vanilla Sky another look.

AD Skid comes on the PA and runs through the morning announcements. We didn't get through hair and makeup fast enough, he says, so from now on women need to put on base and men need to shave at home. As he finishes, an excited call ripples down the row of tents: We are needed on set.

We're filming on Stage 16 and the ballroom set in the cavernous space is absolutely spectacular. Sprinkled about the artful wreckage are incredibly realistic-looking dummies playing dead people. The phalanx of second ADs fans out, each with his own small group of extras to direct. AD Clark gives us our assignments. Mine includes crossing to pull Valerie, a pretty woman in a slinky, black, size-zero dress, from under a twisted staircase and away from the flames that will shoot from a long fire bar cued by a stunt performer nearby.

Finally, everything is set: 100 background actors, Kurt Russell in the middle and dozens of crew, all ready to make some art, baby. Petersen comes on the "God mike" and gives us a little first-shot-of-the-day pep talk, ending with: "G-G-G-G-Go for it!" The dripping water is cued. The fire bars go hot. The lights are extinguished. A tense pause as we all lie still in the silent darkness ... And: "Background ... action!" As the lights burst on, we immediately start stirring and moaning like it's a big collective hangover. I try to pantomime agony, but when I get to Valerie I realize that I have no idea what to say to her. Luckily, the take is cut. The first AD doesn't hesitate: "Bring the excitement level up!" With his sandy hair, professorial glasses and excited gleam, Petersen appears to be genuinely joyful in this big-budget madness. "Go with the energy," he chimes in. "Forget it's 9am. Pretend it's 12. Remember yesterday? At 12 we were rockin'."

On Take 2 people are expressing much greater suffering. It feels good. We're all getting into it, carrying out our assignments. I ask Valerie if she's OK and drag her out from under the bent railing. "Cut!" After that take they need to wire the principals for clearer audio, so AD Clark takes pity on me and sends me to the bathroom. Unfortunately it takes so long that I miss the next take. But hurrying along the catwalks that crisscross behind the walls of the mammoth set, I can hear the bleak cacophony of people trapped and petrified. Without the visual, it's pretty terrifying. We do three more takes before Petersen decides to move on to some tighter shots, and we are dismissed to Holding. The lull is a great opportunity to seek out some thoughts from the real background actors.

A guy named Dave sits in a director's chair with an elegant gash across his face and talks enthusiastically about background acting. "Just relax and have a good time, that's what it's about," he says. "You can learn a lot. You get to learn about your emotions, you get to learn how they work behind the scenes, you can learn the camera angles. I've grown tremendously by doing this stuff."

It's now about 12:30, and we've been waiting nearly two hours. Finally AD Skid comes on to announce the next batch of shots. They will again be of Kurt Russell and his crew locating a little boy up on the piano and trying to get him down, but the angles will include the ballroom behind them, so we're back in action. AD Basil lines up my group and gives us "crossing paths" in front of and behind a dolly that will swing along next to Russell and take in the full scene. AD Basil will tap one of us every few seconds as the main action unfolds - Barrett yelling for her son, Russell finding him on his perch - and send us back into the melee. Our instructions are to keep moving while looking for our loved ones, and only those who happen to be right next to Russell should take note of what he's doing.

On the first take, there is hysteria. I'm running a buttonhook to the left when I stop to take the pulse of a guy lying face down as a passing Asian woman shrieks, "He's deeeead!" It's truly unnerving. But then, when Russell summons forth his heroism, everyone stops what they're doing and looks up at the piano. Everyone except me. I have chosen to use the idea of losing my real-life stepson to fuel my anguish, and much like a person singing full-tilt after the song abruptly cuts off, right after everyone gets quiet I scream, "Ethaaaaan!" The first AD is not happy about any of this.

Before Take 7 Petersen comes on. "One more," he says. "Now with full acting. Let's make this the one!" It works. As the first AD calls "Action," it's like the entire background cast has been hit with a Taser. The place goes berserk, fear and chaos cranked to 11. And I'm swept up in it. I feel like Ethan may actually be buried under there. I'm screaming for him, clambering over the broken furniture, shoving people out of the way. We're way inside it this time, and Petersen knows it. "Cut!" They check the gate and we're good. "Lunch, one hour!" somebody calls. "Back at 3!"

The largest background-talent agency in the world is Central Casting, which handles both union and nonunion actors. It has between 10,000 and 12,000 extras on call on any given day in Los Angeles alone - more than the number of active policemen in the LAPD. At the peak of the television season, the agency casts between 70 and 110 productions daily. Getting on its roster is only slightly more rigorous than acquiring an appointment in the Bush administration. You show up at the agency's offices with your passport, your clothing sizes, a cash-only $25 photo-image fee and no contagious diseases, and voila - you're in the loop, Brando.

Central Casting gets you the work, but the Screen Actors Guild protects you while you're doing it. SAG has around 120,000 members, but no data on what percentage are purely extras - because, for obvious reasons, no one would identify himself that way. For television and most feature-film work, a nonunion background actor becomes eligible for SAG membership after getting three vouchers from SAG-contracted productions. You can obtain a voucher simply by being cast and working a full day. As long as you pay the annual dues, you can sustain membership for the rest of your life without doing another hour of acting, which most SAG members manage to accomplish despite themselves. But benefits such as health insurance and pension kick in only if you can produce $13,500 in earnings each year on SAG-contracted productions. That's where it gets tricky: The current rate for general background is a flat $122 for an eight-hour day, which is why 75 to 80 percent of SAG's members double as absurdly good-looking waiters or waitresses.

But wait! "Added hardships" on set work in favour of the background actor. Night-time or early-morning shoots can net you a 10-to-20 percent premium on your flat rate. Working in water, snow or smoke - called "wet bumps" or "smoke bumps" - can net you $14 extra per day. Bringing your own wardrobe or props can get you a $9 bump, and having makeup over more than 50 percent of your body gets you an $18 bump, as well as, typically, a rash. "Meal penalties" come into play when you've been forced to work without a lunch break for more than six hours straight after your call time, with graded rates for each additional half-hour of starvation. This happens approximately 100 percent of the time. And if you're nonunion? Well, how does $54 per day grab you? As for add-ons, you could be shivering in waist-deep snow at 4 a.m., wearing nothing but the lederhosen you brought from home and 42 pounds of makeup, and you'd get... $54. But, hey, you're in a movie, kid!

In the afternoon Petersen wants to do some more wide shots of the pandemonium. While we're waiting for the setup, I chat with a 20-something guy and girl who don't take the whole rigmarole too seriously. Many extras, they say, are whiners who complain about everything and forget their call times and set positions. "Cattle calls," or situations in which 1,500 extras are needed for something like a Pepsi commercial, draw a certain element who show up, sign in and then go sleep in their cars, only to come back and sign out at the end of the day. Since no one keeps track, they get paid. They also say that young extras can work every day if they want, but it's harder for "older folks." This is an observation that the 52-year-old 20-year veteran makes as well, since verisimilitude is not exactly a priority in television. "We're working in a police station, and all the female uniformed cops and undercover detectives have had plastic surgery," he says dryly.

The filmmakers are ready again. Before we shoot, an AD lets us know that Petersen is using one camera to roam across our individual faces in close-up. This strikes me as a ploy to keep us committed 12 hours after starting our day. It's very effective. When "Cut" is called after a frenzied Take 4, Petersen throws out a hurried, "Great day. Wonderful. Wonderful. Goodbye." Wow. That's it. It's over. A weary cheer ripples through the cast and crew. It's 6:15. I linger on set as the magnificent space empties of life, and take advantage of my privileged access to say goodbye to Petersen, who is conferring with some crew. I shake his hand, thank him for inviting me onto his set and leave him with a parting thought. "I hope I make the cut," I say with as much manipulative optimism as I can muster. Petersen merely raises an eyebrow, and then lets loose a skeptical laugh. This is not encouraging. But you never know, right? When you head to the multiplex, make sure you look for me anyway. I'll be the guy suspiciously close to Kurt Russell, hopping from foot to foot with a desperate grimace on his face.

'Poseidon' opens on Thursday