True Tales Of An Unknown Actress: Not For $64!
In late 2004, I came across a casting notice in Backstage. “Seeking non-union men and women to work as background extras in the upcoming Nicole Kidman film “Fur.” The movie was going to be loosly based on the life of photographer Diane Arbus. The casting call stated that they were seeking many age ranges and types, so I figured i’d give it a shot.
About a week later, I put on a cute A-line floral dress and headed to the listed location. Apparently me and every other non-union actor in NYC had shown up that day. The line wrapped out the door of the building and down several blocks. Some actors held headshots and resumes, while others in line were just normal people looking for a shot at being in a movie. As per usual at these type of non-union calls, there were actors bragging to each other about just how many productions they had worked in as an extra. It shocked me that anyone would strive to be a background actor, or find it enjoyable enough to do it full time. The few times I had done it before, I found it degrading & depressing. But, I desperately needed money so here I was once again.
Like many others, I had heard the rumor that if you are lucky enough to be upgraded while working as an extra, you would get a waiver and be paid union rate. You probably even got to eat from the super special Union catering area, where they obviously had champaigne and caviar for lunch. If you got three of these fabled waivers, they acted as your golden ticket to finally be able to join Screen Actors Guild. As I waited in that long line, I held out hope that maybe this one would be worth my time.
After waiting in the hot sun for a good hour, I was finally approaching the entrance to the building. My feet hurt from standing outside in heels and I was getting a sunburn, so I was thrilled to see an end in sight. A casting assistant holding a clipboard had me sign in and handed me a paper to fill out with my contact info, sizes, weight and height. Once inside, I was suprised to find another huge line wrapping around the inside of the room like a Disney World hidden queue. Another frazzled assistant then started yelling at everyone like we were four year olds. “BE SURE TO FILL OUT ALL INFORMATION ON YOUR SHEET. DO NOT SIT IN LINE. STAY IN LINE TO HAVE YOUR POLAROID TAKEN. MAKE SURE YOUR NAME IS ON YOUR PAPER. THE NON UNION DAY RATE FOR BACKGROUND WORK IS $64.00 A DAY.” You could tell these people had completely had it with being asked stupid questions all day and despised their jobs. I honestly didn’t blame them. I slowly sifted through the second hidden line. Though there was no magical hidden queue pre show, people watching some of the fucking freaks around me was worth the price of admission. One guy had brought a bird with him. Another woman was wearing a bikini with a see-through wrap. Another guy was wearing a full leather daddy outfit and was drinking a bud light out of a paper bag.
When I finally got my photo taken, one of the assisants counted off fourty of us and led us into another large empty room. This one had a long table with members from the casting and production team. We were instructed to stand in two long lines, in two rows so that they could look at all of us. One of the team members told all of us that most of the extra rolls would require full nudity, so we would have to let them know if we were ok with that if selected. I was annoyed, since that had not been mentioned in the notice. If it had been I would have stayed home. I had always promised myself that I would NEVER do nudity in film or theatre, unless it was an extremely integral need of the character I was playing. Being a breathing prop did not qualify.
Out of the two lines, they selected just five of us to come over to the table and talk to the team directly. I was shocked to be one of them. All of the other people waited behind me as I stepped forward. Despite the room being as crowded as it was, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. One of the men took my paper and headshot and then asked “Are you willing to do nudity?” I instantly blurted out “Not for $64!!!!!” A bunch of the people in line behind me gasped and most of the team at the table started laughing. If nothing else, at least I provided them with some entertainment for the day. As much as I wanted to work, I was not willing to give up my dignity to be eye candy for crew members in a non-integral extra role in the film.
When everyone in the room was dismissed, a few women gathered around me as we walked toward the exit. “I can’t believe you had the gall to say that to them! It’s what we all were thinking! That was so ballsy! Good for you!” I was surprised that my honesty had inspired anyone, but more surprised that complacency in this type of situation was the norm.
I headed home that day knowing that I was never going to be called to work on “Fur”, but I felt empowered about my decision. I learned a great lesson that day. It was that even unknown actors have the right to be choosy. Though there are many roles out there, not all of them will add value to a career or be worth our time.