I am uncomfortably straddling a white folding chair with 40 other people, ages ranging from 21-60 on a 103-degree day in Alta Dena waiting to work as an extra on a network TV show for the day. The pay isn’t terrible – $142.37 – or something like that, plus whatever gargantuan amounts of Craft Service snacks, candy, sodas and mini sandwiches I can shove into my shoulder bag to take home, but the overall feeling is grim. There is some old Greek food suffering beneath a sneeze guard nearby, a lot of discarded banana peels and a large fan blowing cool air towards us to keep us comfortable – like we’re NFL running backs playing a September game in Phoenix.
The scene has a prison-like feel to it. There are the lifers, the newbies and the guys who are only here for a few days trying to get their health insurance. I fall into that last category, but the fear of getting sexually assaulted by one of the older “inmates” is very real. Only problem is I can’t kick anyone’s ass to prove that I’m “tough.” Instead, I choose to bury myself into my iphone and hope the 45% charge lasts another 8 hours.
A year ago I was in New York City promoting my own TV show in Times Square for Tru TV. Now I am listening to a 22-year-old kid talk about how Hot Tub Time Machine is the main reason he dropped out of college to try to make it as an actor. You gotta love this business.
The majority of chatter amongst these “background players” or “atmosphere” is about the world of extras. Many relay the legendary scene in Ben Hur where an extra forgot to take his watch off during the chariot race. (Look it up – it’s hilarious). Others talk about how Ricky Gervais ripped off their idea when he did his Extras TV show. However, the subject that keeps coming up time and time again is the “bump up.” A “bump up” is when an extra is promoted from an extra to a principal role. Suddenly, the lucky bloke can go from zero to hero and earn Screen Actors Guild daily rate. However, according to everyone, incidents like that are more rare than finding a piece of sushi that hasn’t been in the sun for six hours beneath the cast and crew food canopy.
I am here today because I need to make $6300 before the end of the year as a way to qualify for Screen Actors Guild health insurance, a plan I have somehow managed to attain for the past twelve years. This year, however, the jobs dried up, a ton of work went non-union and I have finally aged out of the commercial actor category of “young, shaggy haired beer-drinking party guy.”
At this pay rate, it will take me working nearly every day for three months to earn the necessary SAG income to keep my family on the health plan. Alternative options – Obamacare and Cobra – basically guarantee that I will be paying 75% more money for lesser benefits. It has long been noted that SAG has terrific health care. The problem is that you need to earn an outrageous amount of money to qualify for it, and this year has been an ice bath as far as SAG work has been going.
“My dad was Jimmy Smits’ stand-in on LA Law,” a man named Sonny who was dressed as a Native American jewelry salesman bragged to the lot of us huddled beneath the blue pop-up tent. “He told me to find a niche as an extra. When I started out I only played Latino, only roles were for prisoners or a gang members. Now that I play Native American, I work all the time.”
I suddenly found myself wishing I had some Native American cheekbones.
As the day rolled along, I began to hear everybody’s story. You coop someone up for long enough, they will eventually tell you their life’s narrative. Every extra on set seemed to have a tale about the one legendary time they were “bumped up” to a principal role. One woman claimed she was bumped on Two and a Half Men because Charlie Sheen fired the original woman who had been cast for her one line of “Suck it, Charlie.” A guy who often plays blue-collar types said he got his bump on Dharma and Greg and had his career-defining moment in a bar fight scene when he raised his fists and said, “Meet my two friends… Mary-Kate and Ashley.”
And then there was Sonny, who said he specifically learned the extinct Native American language Kiowa to nab a line in a Civil War series. His line was “D’on T’ap Piii.” Which translates roughly to “See deer eating.”
I stared at Sonny for a long while. He did look familiar, as that Native American guy you sort of see in films, but I wasn’t sure. Which meant he was a great extra. One who blended in. He bragged of his work on The Alamo, Oz, The Longest Yard, Texas Rising, Hatfields and McCoys. Dances With Wolves and of course, That 70’s Show. The way he saw it, he was an integral part of these films. A guy who went uncredited – but felt he deserved all the success.
“There should be an extras lifetime achievement award,” he offered.
As a young actor, I did some extra work at age 22. At the time, like most young dreamers, I thought I was a small break away from my own series and I treated the other kids in the high school dance scene like castaways and future failures. When I started booking some jobs and enjoying the confines of an air-conditioned trailer with a private bathroom, I swore I’d never go back to the extras holding again. Yet, here I was. A 15-year TV veteran with a decent resume that I was too embarrassed to share with the other inmates. I decided to shut up and do my time and maybe get out of there with a few Clif bars and some coconut water.
Then, there was a call to action.
“Peter, Mike, Donna, Marla, Zach – party scene, now!” An Assistant Director yelled at us, directing us towards the makeup department to get touched up.
I put down my phone and walked over to the area, when Donna, one of the younger extras, mentioned that she often worked on the show. She then proceeded to refer to one of the makeup artists as her “glam squad.”
A short, effeminate man named Ty erupted in her face.
“Don’t call me ‘glam,’ don’t call me ‘glam squad’ or I’ll shove this hairbrush up your ass,” he screamed.
Emily, another makeup artist stopped him before any penetration took place. It was surreal. Never in my life had I seen a fight between an extra and a makeup artist. It was like the Cubs-Pirates bench clearing brawl in the National League Wild Card this season. You couldn’t believe it was happening.
It was a major altercation. Apparently, Ty was sent home and Donna was threatening to sue the show for harassment. It didn’t make sense. In my opinion, being called the “glam squad” wasn’t nearly as bad as being referred to as “background” or “ambience.”
My scene was fairly easy. I had to drink some iced tea and mouth the words “peas and carrots” to another extra. The entire time I was placed in the corner of the party and they shot about 9 angles and we let the main actress do six takes before she was happy. As the director stood merely three feet from me, I tried to convince him that a line would be appropriate for my character. I pitched him ““D’on T’ap Piii.”
He didn’t respond. Apparently he didn’t speak Kiowa.
Lunch was at 1:00 and the extras were told to not touch or come near any food until the entire cast and crew had eaten. I was actually quite full from snacking – so I didn’t need to rush, but a lot of the extras bitched and moaned about the lack of respect. I turned to a fellow extra named Tony, who was about my age.
“Why can’t everyone just relax?” I asked him.
“Welcome to the Screen Extras Guild,” he responded.
An hour later, following one of those naps when you fall asleep with your chin in your hand, there was a small rumbling about a potential bump up for one of the extras. Apparently, a producer had seen one of us and wanted to add a line. The bit was that the lucky person would confront the female star of the show – who was wearing a fur jacket – with an uncomfortable long hug and then said, “you feel like a plushie.” All the extras began rehearsing their lines as if this was an audition for the next Coen Brothers film and we all got excited. I even took a walk around the tent and worked on my delivery.
Eventually, the female star and the director came to the extras tent and started looking around at all of us as if we were cattle being sold at a livestock auction. The female actress passed the first few folks, skipped the youngsters and then whispered to her director, “I need a middle-aged schlub.”
I am certainly creeping up on middle age, but I don’t feel like I look that way. I’m in great shape and still have hair and my skin has been hiding from the sun throughout the years as I write my life away. However, I was chosen as one of the three finalists to play “middle-aged schlub.”
We all went and had a private audition with the actress and director. I immediately messed up my hair, raised my jeans to mom-jean height and did my best to look like a total Midwestern chump who would give a hot girl a “long hug” and make her uncomfortable.
“Mmm, you feel like a fluff – wait, what’s the line?” The first guy said, immediately messing up his chances.
“You feel like a plushie,” said the next guy who was 40 pounds heavier and 100% balder than me.
When my turn came, I looked deeply into the actress’ eyes. She stared back at me for about five seconds. I knew this was my job to lose… so I did my best to “eye-bang” her and get the job on the spot. Instead, before I could get my line out, she interrupted me.
“You look like that guy from that Tru TV show,” she said.
“I am that guy!”
“What are you doing in the extras tent?” She replied.
“Trying to get my health insurance,” I said, hoping she would feel my pain and give me the bump up on the spot. I dug deeper into my plea, mentioning that my family had been sick a lot the past year and I was a huge fan of the show.
“You might be too recognizable,” she blurted. “Second guy, you got the job.”
And with that, the fat, bald guy went off to his own folding chair, better food and a holding area behind the video village where the producers and directors hung out.
I returned to my spot in the tent. All the other extras wanted to know what had happened and I told them I relayed the story as best I could. When I mentioned that the female star had said I was “too recognizable” the tent wanted to know why. After all, not one of these folks had any idea who I was. I told them. Nobody had even heard of my show.
“I get recognized all the time,” said Sonny. “People stop me when I walk down the street.”
The rest of the day I watched my phone dwindle down towards the 3% range and eventually die. In a way, I felt like that iphone charge… A year back I was flying high at 100%. Now, I was hanging onto 3.
Before I left, I managed to fill my bag with enough high fructose corn syrup snacks to kill a small village and I hopped into the first awaiting white van that would shuttle us back to the parking lot. Luckily, I ended up in the same row as the female lead actress from earlier.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m sorry about that moment back there… I just recognized you from that other show – I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
“Amazingly, you’re the first person to know me from that like, ever,” I said.
“I’ll tell you what. Give me your manager’s name and I’ll make sure we get you in for a small role this season,” she offered.
I couldn’t believe it. Here she was telling me that she would go out of her way to get me a speaking part on her show. I got her personal email and said I’d be sending my demo reel and headshot over immediately. We exchanged good-byes and I returned my mom jeans to the costume department and signed out for the day.
As I walked to my car, the lead actress shook my hand and said I would be hearing from the production office very soon.
HOW TO SURVIVE A GRATEFUL DEAD SHOW WHEN YOU LOSE YOUR FRIENDS IN THE PARKING LOT * By Zach Selwyn
My old college friend Bernard (Or “Burner – for reasons that don’t need to be explained) called me the day before Father’s Day. He had an extra ticket to the 50th Anniversary Grateful Dead concert in northern California. I informed my wife that I would be traveling to the show the following Saturday night.
“Haha yeah right,” she said.
“No. I’m going.”
“Stop it. Now, what do you want to do for Father’s Day? Should we meet the Bartons for brunch? Or do you want to have people over to bar-be-cue?”
“I hate the Bartons,” I said. “I want to go to the Grateful Dead.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well, take your son with you, don’t you think he would enjoy it?”
I didn’t think that was the brightest idea. The smoke and the dancing and twirling was completely mind-blowing to me when I was at my first show at age 18. Back then I was scared shitless. Too many drugs, too many lost souls… too many people having a lot more fun than I was. I told my wife that I’d rather let my son find his own musical path. (Then again, if he’s following 5 Seconds of Summer around the country in 10 years I may have failed somewhere.) Plus, I told my wife that a 9-year-old boy does not need to see his 40-year-old dad clink Absinthe cups with a dude in hiking shorts who made Silicon Valley millions by inventing the Nook.
“Do NOT drink Absinthe,” she demanded.
“I won’t, I promise.”
Eventually, I got the green light – and I called Burner back and committed to his 70-dollar ticket. Which I soon found was WAY too expensive for my shitty seats behind the stage where just a few songs into the set a man would face-plant and nearly die on the concrete right next to me.
Recent online ticket prices for the Santa Clara shows had settled at $20-$40 depending on where you were seated, way down from the rumored $1500 nearly a month earlier. This was due to the “Soldier Field Panic Purchase” that nearly every Dead Head and ticket scalper had fallen for when their final two shows of this “Fare Thee Well” concert were originally announced… Thinking the tickets to Santa Clara might be listed at the same price as the Chicago shows, folks bought up dozens of seats at face value, only to find themselves losing money when trying to unload the tickets in the parking lot the afternoon of the show. (Steal Your Face Value, anyone?) Even Burner was left with a handful of tickets that he ended up trading for “pieces” (pipes or chillums), 50th anniversary bandanas, T-shirts and at one point a foot long joint being sold by a spritely blonde nymph out of a giant cardboard box.
Now, a fair amount has already been written about these shows – if you want to hear about the set lists and the fan reactions to Trey Anastasio and the supposed $50,000 “fake rainbow” – go Google that now. This is my personal adventure about smoking a lump of hash with a crazy looking scallywag who was dragging a dirty pet pit bull named “Iko” around on a hemp dog leash – and becoming so cosmically altered, that I managed to lose my friends for the duration of the show long before the first note of Truckin’ was even played.
It was a surreal experience to say the least. When I last saw the Grateful Dead in 1995, the crowd was pretty much the same… just about 20 years younger. But now, those folks have grown up. Gone are the days of living in the Vanagon and hopping from town-to-town. The “Only Users Lose Drugs” shirts I used to fawn over had been replaced by at least 25 men happily wearing a t-shirt reading “Grateful Dad.” (Thank you, honey for not getting me THAT for Father’s Day.)
A vast majority of the well-off crowd could be found eating sushi and sipping wine in the safe “red” parking lot, while the more traditional “Shakedown Street” blue parking lot catered to the jewelry designers, pushers, providers, dealers and, yes, the guys selling veggie burritos. (At $5.00 a steal – considering it was $11.00 for a nitrate-riddled hot dog in the stadium). Bottom line was, it was a very balanced scene. Which is how I went from talking about music with a doctor who lived in Marin County – to witnessing a hippie trade a T-shirt for a Churro – to eventually asking the aforementioned scraggly looking pit bull owner if I could have a hit of his joint.
“It’s hash bro,” he said.
“Nice,” I said.
“Nice,” he responded.
I took a long drag from the tightly rolled spliff. It was licorice-like in flavor… and reminded me of smoking hash on a Eurorail with a Spanish stranger during a train ride from Switzerland to Germany in 1996. I exhaled.
“Nice.” I said again.
“Real nice,” he said and pulled off the joint again.
I stared up at the clouds.
“Nice,” I laughed.
“Totally nice,” he replied.
We stood and watched the sky for a few minutes. I started to realize that for the past ten minutes, I had managed to keep a totally coherent conversation going by merely uttering the word “nice.”
I shook off my daze and decided to gather myself to find Burner and our other friends and head inside. We were 30 minutes away from the opener and I didn’t want to miss it. I looked back at my hash-providing friend and we shared an ever-knowing look of “I’ll never see you again, but thanks for the time together.” I threw up a peace sign. As I walked away to find my buddies, I heard him utter one final word as a fare thee well to our little session.
Back on Earth, I was suddenly totally confused. Burner was gone. Swirls of dreadlocks and weathered faces engulfed me. I wasn’t sure if I should head back to the blue lot and skip the show altogether or saunter forth inside all alone. Like a wilderness-trained tracker, I decided I’d take some photos to document the beauty of the signage and the sky and the colorful people and cars all around me. Scrolling through my camera roll a day later, all I can find is a few pictures of the stadium and a wasted girl passed out on a lawn. I definitely could not find my friends. I was high and wandering… but at least I had a ticket to my seat.
Having lost buddies at concerts over the years, I am somewhat used to making friends and surviving. This was certainly not the first time I had been alone at a Grateful Dead show… In fact, at the LA Sports Arena in 1993 I accidentally left the concert mid-song and walked 23 blocks away until I was lost in a Ralph’s parking lot deep in South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, the night cashier slipped me a Fentanyl and called me a taxicab. Once I lost my buddy in Santa Barbara and ended up sleeping in a bush after a Neil Young concert. At the Dead show, however, I wasn’t truly worried, because nowadays we are all lucky enough to have cell phones.
I looked down to text my friends. No service. Of course. No fucking service.
I made my way inside and ogled the crowds flittingly dancing along. Anticipating the first note of the show that would send me into another stratosphere. They started with Truckin’. The place went nuts.
Then the guy next to me almost died. His friends pounded his chest until he sat up and they forced water down his throat. Scared and afraid, I went to get a beer. I met some kind gentlemen in the beer line. We spoke about how awesome the show was that we were missing… by waiting in that beer line. I looked around. A girl next to me made sure to use all 9 pockets of her leather fanny pack. At least three guys purposefully wore cargo shorts to show off the “Jerry Bear” leg tattoos they had done in the 90’s that they were waiting all these years to uncover once again… Finally, a woman carrying a six-month old baby in what seemed like a paper bag attached to her back came dancing through the crowd. The kid’s head bobbled furiously, unstable and terrifying. In Los Angeles, the helicopter moms of Orange County would have screamed, rescued the baby and brought it to the nearest hospital. At the Grateful Dead show, however, grown men laughed and spewed forth dragon breaths of marijuana smoke into the sky as the baby drifted right through the haze. It was absolutely disturbing. I could not imagine my kids in this environment. As much as I would want them to appreciate what the music can do for everybody, the last thing I would want is my kid getting a second hand weed buzz around a group of folks sending wafts of OG Kush into the atmosphere.
A few songs later, I had settled down. It suddenly hit me that I was completely alone and that my conversations with strangers were fun but fleeting. I wasn’t making any new friends… I wasn’t analyzing every note Trey played… The worst part was, I was barely even seeing the show from my seat behind the stage. I watched the majority of it on a big screen. So, I wandered around and decided to talk to the security guard. His name was Reed.
“What’s crazier, a 49ers game, or this?” I asked.
“Well, different crowds, ya know?” He said. “Niners fans drink a few beers and try to look tough. These folks drink 10 beers and dance around like fools!”
“So is this the rowdiest show you’ve ever seen here?” I asked.
“Oh hell no, the worst was the WWE Wrestling event. I broke up about 30 fights, had to throw a guy down some stairs.”
“What’s the weirdest show you’ve ever seen here?”
“Kenny Chesney. Was like a Gay Pride Parade met the deep south.”
He shook my hand and walked off.
A few beers later, I was overwhelmed by hippies praying to the miracle rainbow in the sky yelling out things like “It’s a gift from JERRY GARCIA MAN!” (If you can imagine a bunch of high people reacting to a rainbow at a 50-Year Grateful Dead anniversary show, it’s EXACTLY how you picture it…) The argument that the rainbow has been faked is everywhere online, but in truth, if the Dead had 50K to blow on a holographic rainbow, I would hope they at least should have tried to construct a hologram Jerry Garcia instead. (Shit, I’d have settled for hologram 2Pac.)
As the evening went on, as a way to remember what I was going through, I began dictating voice notes into the “recorder” app on my iphone. These are the translations as best as I could decipher them:
A: I have just spent the last hour hanging with a giraffe
B: (Me singing a song idea for my band to record in the future) – “Sunday Ticket, who’s got my Sunday ticket… man are you with it? I wish I could stop and smell the roses – but the elements of elephants are lost among the doses – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead – I suppose it’s the way of the Dead” (Then yelling): “WAY OF THE DEAD!!! MY NEW SONG WOOOOOOHOOOOOO!!!!”
C: Hot dogs, nachos, chicken fingers… hot dogs nachos chicken fingers…
D: What hole have these people been hiding in since 1995?
The last note made sense. A lot of these fans were folks who looked like they never recovered from Jerry Garcia’s death. They had been in exile, awaiting the return of the Grateful Dead for years, sort of like those Japanese soldiers you read about who were trapped on islands with their loaded weapons unaware that the war had ended months earlier.
The highlight of my night came during the song St. Stephen. I had never heard the tune live – nobody really has – and it lifted my spirits high. For five minutes, the long drive alone had been worth it. So had the hash and the lost friends and the $70 seats. I reached high for the sky and let out primal screams of joy and happiness and thought about my kids, my wife, my career, my goals, my dreams my family. I was genuinely ecstatic. I had found my top of the mountain… It was one of those moments that I remembered having as a kid – worshipping this band for slices of perfection like that – when everybody is smiling and nothing can go wrong. A moment of calm and peace I hoped would never end…
Of course, an hour after the show I found myself cursing technology and feeling depressed about having to wait in a two-hour line for an Uber.
I left the venue alone. Got to the hotel alone. I was in bed by 1:00. I woke up before my friends – who had stumbled in at 3:30 – and shook off the cobwebs before beginning the long drive back to L.A. As I listened to the radio and heard reviews of the show it became clear how awesome the evening had been. I re-played to my voice memos and shuffled Dead songs on my iphone the whole drive, wondering how I could call my work and get out of it Monday so that I could stay and watch the second night show instead. Thankfully, I decided one amazing show was enough and I rode down California 5 with Santa Clara and the Grateful Dead in my rear view mirror. As I watched northern California disappear behind the rolling hills, one word came to mind as I smiled and traveled the golden road home…
Zachariah’s new song explores the corporate logo marketing travesty that all of us 90’s kids endure every time we see a Nirvana or Ramones shirt for sale in Target or Wal-Mart. Back in 1992 I had to go to the concert to buy a $30 shirt. Now the logo is on onesies.