Laura Beck Auditions For Background Work

Mar 09, 2011 at 12am
  
Topside
When I was 12, I was almost on the TV sitcom Roseanne. As a child, I took every acting, singing, improvisation, voiceover, and interpretive dance class possible. Most of them were basically glorified babysitting for kids with ADHD, but one of them actually had some “ins” in the biz. Our sessions were taped and sent to casting agents in Los Angeles, including the producers of Roseanne, who fell instantly in love with my chubby charms. They were looking to cast the roles of Roseanne’s next-door neighbors, two girls who moved in and stirred up shit! I was flown to LA, where I read for some bigwigs. I was having a blast; due in no small part to the fact that I was treated like the Great Talent I always knew myself to be, and also, there was free food EVERYWHERE. I was really feeling Hollywood.

After several rounds of callbacks, it came down to me and another girl. For my final reading, I was taken to the actual soundstage where Roseanne was filmed. It was at this time that I lost my shit. I mean, I WAS IN ROSEANNE’S LIVING ROOM. I was so busy trying to steal pieces of the set that when the time came to read my lines, I was a distracted mess. I didn’t get the part (Sara Rue did! Crazy, right?) and I flew home heartbroken. Not even the stolen lemon pepper prop in my pocket could comfort me. 

I was crushed, but I didn’t let that experience bring down my reverence for all things behind-the-scenes. I haven’t really tried to get work since that experience, but recently a friend told me that Steven Soderbergh is shooting his next flick, Contagion, in San Francisco, and they’re looking for extras of all types. That’s industry-speak for “ugly people are welcome.” Game on, Steven Soderbergh, whoever you are. Wait, did he make Crash? Ugh.

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I was ready to become another face in the crowd on the big screen, but first I had to take care of some things. The casting call says that potential extras need only three things: a recent photo, a pen, and a good attitude. I have none of these so I’m off to a poor start. After routing through my couch for a minute, I find three pens, $1.57 in change, and a human tooth. Why the tooth is there is of no consequences. One down! Next, onto the photo. I recruit my friend, Mark, to take photos of me on his balcony. Here are some mistakes we made, just so that you will not repeat them:  

(1) If you don’t want to look like Carmen Miranda mated with a peacock, go easy on the MAC. 

(2) As Tyra always says on America’s Next Top Model: Smile with your eyes, not with your whole gigantic face. This is next to impossible as she demonstrates when she attempts to do it for the terrified contestants. The best advice I can give is to make sure you’re comfortable with the person taking your photo; think about something happy, and you better WORK it. Sashay, shante. 

(3) Unless this is for porn (no judgment!), keep the cleavage to a minimum. Think of the children! 

(4) Avoid shots that look like they were taken from a helicopter. That’s right, I’m talking about the flattering yet deceptive “Myspace angle.” Ladies, I’m looking at you. 

(5) Work with a digital camera because you’re gonna need approximately a billion photos to find one you feel semi-okay about.

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Now that I have my pen and photo, the good attitude is all I’m lacking. I think about puppies rolling around with kittens in a pen of bunnies, and hundred dollar bills, and I’m good to go. 

Mark decides to come with me to the casting call and I’m almost reluctant because it’s always the friend who’s “just along for company” that ends up getting YOUR rightful lead in the school pageant. But whatever, take one for team and whatnot. We learn that his mom, Fira, also knows about the casting call (more competition!), and so we grab her and head down to the Embarcadero YMCA. 

The line of would-be background artists stretches around the corner, but we’re assured by the casting assistant who hands us a form to fill out that it won’t take more than 30 minutes. We queue up and start to fill in the sheet with our names/stage names, measurements (for waist, Fira simply puts “big”), and some other information. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a sheet like this; many open casting calls for extras require them. However, if you’re dealing with an extras casting agency, you’ll need résumé that briefly lists your previous film experience (not including watching), your special skills (I can cry on command with the help of an onion or a punch to the gut), and sentences that sell yourself, such as “high energy with can-do personality!



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The two biggest agencies in San Francisco that cater to background artists are Beau Bonneau Casting (this one wins for best name, hands down) and Nancy Hayes Casting. Both agencies keep large catalogs of potential extras and run through them every time they’re casting commercials, movies, television, and even stuff like trade shows. Yes, you too could end up in front of some sports car à la Nomi in Showgirls. Dreams/horrible nightmares do come true! Getting into the databases is easy, but it ain’t free. At Beau Bonneau Casting, you can complete the whole process from home by simply uploading your résumé and photo to its SF Casting Network website for the yearly fee of $25. At Nancy Hayes Casting, you go to its offices in the Mission, enter your info into a computer in the lobby, give them $25, and someone will snap a quick photo of you. I guess they don’t trust you to not turn in a photo that won’t embarrass everyone involved. With both agencies, casting directors and agency staff regularly access the database for all their casting needs. Bam! 

Back at the Contagion casting, our line creeps forward at an almost unbearable pace. I know from experience on set (don’t hate) that standing around for hours is a skill I should cultivate. Most of your time as an extra is spent playing cards with the other background artistes or hovering around craft services hoping more free Luna bars will be put out so you can shove them in your mouth/backpack. You can be on set from 10 a.m. until 2 a.m. but actually filming could be only about 30 minutes total. If you value your time or hulk out when your friends are 10 minutes late to lunch, this is not the job for you.

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About an hour later, we’re ushered into a large room. The casting assistants collect our sheets, take individual photos, and give us a brief overview of when we’re needed and for what. Scenes will be shot all over San Francisco, including one in Candlestick Park that requires 1,000 extras. Big time! Typical of extra work, the job pays minimum wage, plus meals, and the days are long. But you also have a chance to meet and fall in mutual love with stars on set. If you’re a total star fucker, this could be your meal ticket or at least a really good story. I think it’s how Matthew McConaughey meets all his girlfriends.  

So, now I sit and wait. Which is the name of the game with this kind of thing. Hey, it’s not nearly as glamorous as my Roseanne experience, but I’m not in it for the fame. I’m just hoping eat free food, make a little cash, and stare at Jude Law’s ass.  

Speaking of it, I just got a phone call that I’ve been cast as an extra in Contagion. In three days, I’m to report to Candlestick Park, which will be turned into a vaccination center for people with whatever fake disease Contagion is about. See you on the silver screen, suckas!

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If you’re semi-serious about show biz, definitely spend the $25 to get on the books with Nancy Hayes Casting and Beau Bonneau Casting. Extra work usually pays minimum wage so if you’re looking to make it rain, I’d pass. However, if you want to see movie magic in the making and enjoy large amounts of free snacks, shoot for the stars. Or at least the chance to stand right behind one.

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