n the acting profession, as in life, you must make the most of your tiny allotment. He who waits until he has been cast as Othello to pull out all the stops is setting himself up for disappointmentit will be Othello, not Desdemona, who is strangled in this production. So when a classmate told me she was helping to cast extras for the remake of Godzilla, I quickly recommended myself for duty. I clearly had not slayed them at improv camp in Wisconsin; here was an opportunity to channel my feelings of disappointment into bravura acting. And perhaps, in so doing, to achieve every extra's dream: to be awarded a line of dialogue.
My classmate called me two days later and said that the filming, to be done that Sunday, would involve prodigious amounts of stage rain. I assured her that I was no stranger to adverse meteorological conditions, natural and man-made, and, as such, could "play wet." The pay for non-Screen Actors Guild talent was seventy-five dollars; I needed to be available all day and night. I was to wear a London Fog-type raincoat and carry a black umbrella.
The harbinger of location shooting in a metropolitan area is a table on the sidewalk, heaped high with haggard bagels. When I arrived at the appointed location in the Financial District that Sunday morning at six-thirty, although the chaos I found thereTeamsters bickering over sports scores, thick black cables veining the streets as if to depict the late stages of arteriosclerosishad all the earmarks of filmmaking, I did not see the telltale breadstuffs and so was moved to ask the first walkie-talkie-wielding individual I saw, "Where are the bagels?"
"Are you SAG or non-SAG?" she asked.
"You're in the tent."
She pointed to a huge, dun-colored tent around which loitered hundreds of men and women, many of whom were also wearing London Fog-type raincoats and carrying umbrellas. "My people," I exclaimed. I walked over to the tent and, seeing a line formed at one of the twenty or so tables thereunder, queued up. Four minutes later the casting people had checked my name off on a list and I had been given a voucher, the form by which I would be paid.
All was actor-clogged; I could barely find an empty seat at a table. I was glad I finally didwe proceeded to wait for two hours. During this time, small groups of us were presented to a young, unshaven man from Wardrobe who was, by turns, exhausted and sniffy. He looked at the camouflage cap that the fortysomething gentleman ahead of me in line was wearing and said, "I don't know anyone who would wear that cap." Then he scanned methat is to say, my tan raincoat, my black umbrella, and my wingtips encased in black rubbersand yawned, "You're fine."
Shortly thereafter we were herded down to the set in groups of thirty or forty. The set was Federal Hall, the majestic site of George Washington's inauguration, rich in Corinthian columns and impressive stairways, which dead-ends Broad Street in the manner of a lion's gaping jaws. Halfway up its main stairs was a podium, festooned with red, white, and blue bunting and a sign reading RE-ELECT MAYOR EBERT. I wondered aloud, "Where's the reptile?"
The self-appointed expert in my group explained, "They're gonna blue-screen him in later."
We lined up on the sidewalk and then, one by one, walked through a small, cordoned-off area where a sweet, pale, bespectacled man was handing out props. It looked like about a third of the extras were being given still cameras and two thirds were being given placards reading RE-ELECT EBERT.
"I hope I get a camera," the woman standing behind me in line said.
Eager to be filmed shooting at Godzilla, I responded, "I hope I get a Taser."
Moments later I was handed three propsa fake 35millimeter camera, a fanny pack, and a press badge. I looked at the badge. The first thing I noticed was that the photo on it was of the man who had just handed it to me. Hovering over the photo was the name Sean Haworth and the call letters WAQR. These call letters sounded more like radio than TV to me; but then why was I carrying a still camera?
Rather than let this seeming contradiction bother me, I decided to base my character interpretation on it. What if Sean Haworth labored under the impression that if he took a good enough photograph it would be aired on the radio? Wouldn't this, character-wise, raise the stakes, and imbue him with the driven quality that makes for an interesting dramatic character? Poor Sean, you can almost hear the editorial staff at WAQR whispering over the water cooler. If only he understood that ours is an aural medium.
But five minutes later an assistant director who had assembled about a hundred of us in front of Federal Hall took away my camera.
"I based my character interpretation on that!" I exclaimed, hoping that this would translate to him as "Serious actor. Could handle a line of dialogue."
"I need it for up front," he reported tersely, then walked to the front of the crowd.
One of my fellow colleaguesa vivacious English as a Second Language tutor and sometime actress in her early thirties with whom I had fallen into conversation back in the tent witnessed my loss of camera and counseled, "You were probably overpropped anyway."
"Yes," I responded, "my work was getting proppy."
We proceeded to work for almost eleven hours, lunch break included, on variations of a single shot. In it, about four hundred of us New Yorkers are standing in the rain, listening to Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) give a speech. All of a sudden, we hear a thump. Some of the crowdthose born between January and April, to be preciselook behind them, down Broad Street, whence the sound originates. The mayor continues to netter on when thump! May through August now look down the street, too, expressing restlessness, a sense of discomfort, the vague possibility that this little piece of earth they call their own will soon be rent asunder. Then seconds later a third THUMP!: Godzilla appears, causing the crowd, regardless of natal season, to shriek with abandon, perhaps to drop umbrellas or placards, and to run off in a prescribed direction.
Since I was born in February, my prescribed direction was straight ahead, up the thirty or so stairs of Federal Hall. So, hearing my thump, I would look behind me down Broad Street in highly nuanced, ever-burgeoning panic; erupt into a despair-tinged, Edvard Munch-calibre scream on hearing the third thump; run northward, negotiating my way through what was, by now, a very festival of bad acting; ascend the stairs two at a time; look behind me again while closing my umbrella (note the elegant adherence to decorum, even in the face of apocaIypse); and then hurl my body against Federal Hall's massive stone doors in an attempt to gain entry.
I loved this work. I would be hard-pressed to recount any event from my personal or professional life that more accurately typified the phrase crazy fun. Yes, my colleagues and I encountered much wetness; the rain machines were assiduous in their ministrations. Moreover, no lines of dialogue were being doled out by the director or assistant directors. But the acting task at hand wedded blitzkrieg-strength drama with stuntman-strength athleticism and, as such, was wholly engaging. Screaming at full force in the canyons of Wall Street on a Sunday morning was particularly liberating. On the first few takes (by the end of the day we would do more than twenty) I would yell, "Oh, my God!" or "There he is!" By the eighth take I was screaming, "Here comes trouble!" By the late afternoon, punchy, I was shrieking, in an accent vaguely Caribbean, vaguely Cockney, "'Zilla monster ate me baby!" causing the self-appointed expert to glare at me and say, "Let's keep it real, huh?"
This statement might have chastened were it not for the other extras. Seldom have I seen such a preponderance of scenery-chewing; my colleagues' every utterance and movement seemed to offer ready proof that vaudeville is not dead. Several of the extras, in an attempt to make themselves noticed, would run directly at the camera. Another one, a tall, fiftysomething woman who appeared to be a recent graduate of the Lucille Ball School of Clown Makeup, made such a spectacle of repeatedly dropping and then retrieving her umbrella that an assistant director was forced to take the umbrella away from her; the woman, divested of her gimmick, then devoted her energies to a veritable Oberammergau pageant of shrieking.
"That woman just screamed right in my eardrum," the ESL tutor told me between takes, motioning with her head toward the offender.
"Yes," I acknowledged, "her work is particularly broad."
Another extra, a burly gentleman in his mid-thirties, was vying for attention by collapsing on his backside midway up the stairs, his bent legs splayed open in the manner of a sleeping dog unembarrassed by the public display of his genitals.
"That's a nice little, unh, advertisement you've got going there," I said to this man as I walked down the stairs at the end of one take. He looked at me uncertainly and then expressed anxiety about people running over himhe might get trampled, or worse, his tramplers might obscure him from the camera's view.
"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that," I said in reference to his second anxiety. Pointing at his open legs I said, "That will read."
"You think so?"
"That will definitely read."
Excerpted from Big Kiss by Henry Alford. Copyright © 2001 by Henry Alford. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.