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48 hours into a nine-day cruise on the Baltic Sea, I successfully traded a first season DVD of the TV show SMILF for a bottle of French wine.
About two weeks ago, my friend Dan asked me to help punch up some scripts for a new live music/theatrical show he was producing on the Lightdream Cruise Line – a ship that is the size of some small cities – with 4000 passengers aboard and over 1200 staff members… Always one for an adventure, I took the gig, fondly recalling the last time I was on a cruise back in high school… I bathed in crystal blue waters, ate unlimited five star food, seduced beautiful women and sipped tropical cocktails by the pool… I was hoping this would be the same thing.
Ehhh, not so much.
Following a 17-hour travel day, Dan, the show’s producer Mark and I boarded the ship in Brest, France. Following our long trip, I was craving a glass of red wine and some Netflix. We met our cruise liasion, Sarah, and she gave us the lay of the land…
“So where’s like, the best bar on the ship?” I asked.
“Oh honey, there’s no alcohol until we reach Copenhagen in four days,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Yep. And all the restaurants are closed. Oh, and be aware that there’s no internet or facilities open now… This is called ‘Dry Dock.’”
“And where can I jump overboard?”
As I contemplated learning how to make “toilet merlot” in my cabin, I got the rundown on what exactly “Dry-Dock” is.
“Dry-Dock” is when the ship is being refurbished, rebuilt and cleaned. For weeks, it is in a state of disrepair and thousands of contractors from over 50 countries tear up carpets, put up stages and gather for their three meals a day in the makeshift dining room. People are monitored, allowed 45 minute meal windows, told to avoid sexual contact, can be kicked off board if they have weapons or contraband and nobody is allowed off the ship once they are on…
Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s because it sounds exactly like prison.
If I was going to write a Yelp review about the makeshift dining room where we were forced to eat, I would describe it as “Just a cut below Cracker Barrel…with all the ambience of a shopping mall Red Robin.”
Still, it was our only option and Dan, Mark and I became our own little prison gang, talking under our breaths about Broadway shows and musical theater as massive Scottish, Irish and Croatian guys cursed in their own languages, swallowed gallons of coffee and made us feel like we had to kick one of their asses to establish our dominance in the jail yard…
“I guarantee you we’re the only guys in this dining room right now discussing The Greatest Showman,” Mark said.
The food was constantly recycled and turned into a “new dish” the following day. For instance, the leftover “Breaded Chicken and Peppers” from the night before suddenly showed up again the next morning in the “Breaded Chicken Veggie Scramble.” At one point, I counted four meals in a row featuring a fish called branzino.
One day in the slop line, I chatted up one particularly nice Irish pipe-fitter named Lochlin as we were served what was being passed off as “Lamb Stew.”
“Hey man – where’s the booze on this ship?” I whispered. “Somebody’s gotta have something?”
“Booze? You gotta cohme to Deck One,” he replied in a thick brogue. “We smahggled in everything… booze, dihrty mags, DVD’s.”
And just like that, my trip was saved.
“Wait – why do you have DVDs?” I inquired.
“Shite – with no intehrnet – DVD’s are our only fohrm of entertainment. They’re in high demahnd… Unless you have a thumb drive with pornahgraphy on it – that’s what everybady wants.”
He wasn’t lying. As it turns out, thumb drives with porn on them were traded among the contractors like cigarettes at Riker’s Island. If I could only download my weekly browsing history on Redtube.com, I’d be a very rich man.
“So how much are DVD’s worth?” I asked.
“Depends,” he said. “I just traded seahson one of Stranger Things for four pahcks of smokes… it was fookin’ brahlliant.”
It was then that I remembered I had a few DVD’s with me in my backpack. With any luck, I’d have something valuable on me… I also had a thumb drive that, if I recalled correctly, had Toy Story 3 on it from a family trip a few years back. I ran to my cabin to assess my stash.
In my bag, I had brought DVD’s of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Why I had this I have no idea.) Major League and Major League 2 (Research for a baseball comedy I was writing) and the first season DVD screener of the Showtime TV show SMILF – about a single mom who dates the wrong guys in Boston. It didn’t look very good, but the actress was hot. (I was sent the screener by the Emmy nominating committee, fyi).
I then checked my thumb drive, for Toy Story 3. It was gone. The only thing on it was my latest acting “demo reel.”
That night, Dan and I went downstairs to Deck One to see if we could get our hands on anything… a sip of wine, a beer… something to take away the endless jet lag and long nights of rehearsal.
Lochlin vouched for us – and the DVD’s were thrown on a table. About nine guys came and glanced at them, seeing if any of these films seemed appealing. Sadly, nobody was interested in Benjamin Button or the Major League movies.
“The Benjamin Button movie is too sad and we all fookin hate bahseball,” Lochlin informed me.
SMILF however, had some people intrigued. They wanted to know if the girl got naked, had any sex scenes, if it was funny, etc. I told them I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t watched it yet, but a small bidding war began.
One guy offered up a German porn magazine and two Heinekens. A Croatian guy said he had two packs of cigarettes and homemade Rakia – some type of homemade alcohol. Finally, Lochlin offered me a bottle of Bordeaux he had paid a Phillipino busboy 5 euros to smuggle on.
Lochlin took me to the bowels of the ship. These were the DiCaprio cabins from Titanic and the party going on down there was exactly what you think it would be. A guy was DJ-ing off a laptop, people were dancing and drinking… and there was even a guy giving makeshift haircuts using what I would refer to as my “pube clippers.”
In Lochlin’s room, he showed me how he and four other guys slept in the same room and shared a “Shoilet” – which is a combination of a shower and a toilet. I looked in the bathroom and nearly had a panic attack. These guys were living like pirates in the 1700’s but without barrels of rum, wenches and chests of gold.
He also told me the ship’s morgue was only two doors down the hall.
“The morgue?” I cringed. “For what?”
“About ten fuckers a year die on this ship,” he said. “Someone will prahbably die before we set sail tomorrow.”
I urgently prodded Lochlin to produce the wine and I swiftly stuck it in my bag. I also noticed a couple of other bottles in his room as well. With two more days until Copenhagen, I offered up my thumb drive for another one.
“OK, look my friend – I’m actually an actor – on this drive is a three minute demo reel of a bunch of TV shows and movies I’ve been in… it aint much, but maybe worth at least a glass of wine?”
“Hmmm, “he said, actually contemplating the trade. “What mowvies have you been in?”
“Uhmm… A couple Disney shows, a Jim Gaffigan movie … I dunno – nothing you’ve probably ever seen…”
“Fuck that, Ill just take SMILF.”
I handed it over to him, and with that, I had my hands on a mediocre bottle of French Bordeaux.
Dan, Mark and I savored every pour of that wine that evening. As we giddily went off to bed, hoping to finally have a decent night’s sleep, we passed three contractors casually walking from the top deck somehow holding six beers in their hands.
“Woah, what the fuck?” Dan said. “Where’d you guys get that?”
“At the contractor bar upstairs,” the guy said.
What? A contractor bar? We ran up and caught the last five minutes of a ship regulated “pop-up bar” for the workers. It had been here the whole time and nobody had told us. As it turns out, all of the ship contractors were allowed to come to this bar for a two hour drink window… It was like when the caddies are allowed an hour in the swimming pool in Caddyshack.
Beers were $1.00 and a mini bottle of wine was $1.75. Mark bought the entire bar a round for $14.50.
The following night we were back up with the contractors, who were amazed that a couple of Americans had actually gone down to Deck One and made a wine deal with a Irish guy. One guy from Warsaw informed me that I had been ripped off. He would have given me three bottles of wine for SMILF.
We finally sailed towards Copenhagen and I was reminded of how beautiful the world can be outside of Los Angeles. The contractors left and the passengers got onboard and the drinks flowed and a lot of overweight older couples explored the ship and bought things that nobody in their right mind should ever buy.
At an onboard art auction, I watched two 75-year-old women violently bid on a 72 x 36 painting of a unicorn walking through Times Square… The lucky winner paid $2875 dollars for it.
Meanwhile, the cruise sailed on. We helped establish the flow and structure of the show. After a few days, you start to learn a lot from cruise employees. Most of them are on board for nine months at a time, and many of them are running from some dark, hidden past. It’s almost like the porn industry mixed with hotel management… Which often leads to bad decisions.
Sarah explained it further.
“Everybody sleeps together at first,” she said. “But then you realize you’re gonna have to see them every day for nine months. One night you have sex, the next day you’re fighting over the last box of Frosted Flakes in the buffet.”
“So I’m guessing you’ve stopped sailing your boat in company waters?” I joked.
“No way,” she said. “I banged a sushi chef last year.”
Another thing about cruise employees is that they are obviously extremely removed from current pop culture. At one point, Sarah told me that her favorite film of the past five years was “That amazing Ben Affleck move The Accountant.”
“You have to get off this ship,” I said.
The final night of the cruise and our show was up and running. I had befriended a bunch of new people and watched the show come together. One of the stage directors actually told me that I’d make a great cruise employee as I enjoyed talking to everybody and having a good time.
“I’m flattered, man – but I gotta get back to my family,” I said.
“Oh, you’re one of them…” he said with a sense of disappointment.
I had just been “Family Shamed” by a cruise ship employee.
He apologized for the way he reacted and just said he didn’t know a lot of people who were married with children. I told him not to worry about it and we wrapped up the show for the night.
He then excused himself and went to the shoilet…
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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.