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.
After Reading Sean Penn’s ‘El Chapo’ Piece, I Decided to See What my Old Pot Dealer From High School was Up to…
Recently, Sean Penn made headlines when he bravely traveled deep into the heart of Sinaloa to meet and converse with the notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Right after the story went to press, El Chapo was captured – and his latest elusive time on the lam abruptly came to a close. Penn’s piece was published in Rolling Stone this week and I found it to be an engrossing piece of long lost Gonzo journalism at its finest. Penn, an actor, long known for his political involvement, put himself in the direct line of peril and danger all while partnering with a famous Mexican film actress to infiltrate the most impenetrable depths of Narco activity. He shook hands, broke bread and slammed tequila with a man that the DEA and Mexican authorities have been unable to locate for close to six months. In my opinion, Penn’s story was a hell of a lot more ballsy than anything else any pampered Hollywood actor has attempted in the past twenty years. (Sorry, Julia Roberts. Playing an AIDS-sensitive doctor in The Normal Heart may have been considered “daring” but it pales in comparison to a 55-year-old Oscar winner risking his life to traipse deep into a jungle of death for an interview for a rock-n-roll magazine).
So, inspired by Sean Penn’s courage, I decided that the recent stories and essays I have written have felt a little too “soft.” I realized that had to step it up. Knowing that I was traveling back to my hometown of Tucson to visit my mother on Martin Luther King, jr. weekend, I made up my mind that I was going to turn the trip into my own personal “El Chapo rendezvous.” I had a great idea…
My goal was to track down Ernesto Gregory, the most successful marijuana dealer in my high school. The last I had heard of Ernesto was through a photograph taken around 2011 by our mutual high school friend, Erik. He posted a picture of the two of them on Facebook drinking in the desert. Erik had captioned the photo with He’s finally out! Welcome home boss!”
Assuming that this caption insinuated that he had just been released from some high security prison, I was under the impression that Ernesto had built up an El Chapo-like narcotics network of hundreds of foot soldiers and truckloads of contraband over the past 18 years. Why else would he have been in jail? Why would Erik call him “boss?” Plus, he was wearing the typical outfit. A Large Polo Horse logo situated on a blue collared shirt on top of True Religion designer jeans. DEA agents call this look “Narco Polo.” Now I have seen Sicario. I’ve watched Breaking Bad. I had no doubt that Ernesto had risen from low-grade weed dealer at Rincon/University High School into a southwestern drug legend – living in ranches and mansions sprawled across the Tucson and Mexico landscape.
And I was going to interview him.
I was set to fly into Tucson International Airport on January 17th. My plan was to eat a bunch of food at my mother’s house, drink wine and play three games of Scrabble all while hearing her talk about how amazing The Revenant was. The following day, I would travel deep into the center of Tucson to meet up with and interview the most intimidating and bad-ass pot dealer my high school had known.
Back in 1993, Ernesto Gregory had owned the school’s finest lowered mini truck. He had a 200-dollar Motorola pager. His “system” – or car stereo – was as custom as they came, complete with an Alpine tape deck, a Sony Discman attachment, two 12-inch Kicker woofers, some Kenwood tweeters and a constant bass thump of MC Breed, DJ Magic Mike and Wrecks ‘N Effect blasting from his trunk. He had his own apartment on Speedway, decked out with a two-foot bong, a television with cable and an unlimited financial account on a sort of early 90’s YouTube video-on-demand predecessor known as “The Box.” He always wore a black Colorado Rockies cap and Marithe and Francois Girbaud jeans beneath over-sized t-shirts of ridiculous animated Looney Tunes characters wearing 90’s hip-hop clothing. His pager code for weed was “907.” His girlfriend was the hottest girl in the senior class – a dark-haired Mexican sex goddess named Racquel Hernandez. And he was tough. As far as we knew, he had never lost a fight. In fact, I recalled him once putting my friend from Hebrew School – Adam Richford – into a headlock and smashing his nose repeatedly until he apologized for “mad-dogging” him in the parking lot. He claimed he had connections through “uncles in Nogales,” where his product came from. And everybody knew, anyone with “uncles in Nogales” was always in the drug game… In short, Ernesto Gregory was the most accomplished 18-year-old kid I had laid eyes on in my young life.
After I landed, I told my mom about my plan.
“Why the hell are you meeting with this criminal?” My mother asked on the car ride from the airport.
“He was the king, mom!” I exclaimed. “Didn’t you read the Sean Penn article?”
“Sean Penn’s an idiot, going to interview that drug dealer!”
“I thought that story was genius,” I said. “Besides, what else am I going to write? Another story about my kids not being allowed to bring refined sugar to school?”
Following a few glasses of wine at the house, my mom was trying to convince me to go to Wal-Mart to buy a knife for the meeting. I assured her that Ernesto and I were in good standing and that no concealed weapons would be necessary. She broke into a desperate sweat. We played two games of Scrabble before deciding to put the third one on pause because we were so tired that word like “uh” and “is” had begun appearing on the board.
My final memory of the evening was listening to my mom curse my name before she went to bed in the other room.
The following morning I fueled up on eggs and coffee, not knowing when I would be back to the house. The afternoon’s plans had been Facebook “messaged” to me by Erik, who I quickly learned from his profile hadn’t left Tucson since graduation. Erik wrote me that Ernesto wasn’t on social media, but he mentioned that he did watch a lot of TV and he had even seen my History Channel show and had once commented, “I know that fucker!” He also told me that Ernesto had demanded that Erik take down the aforementioned photo he had posted in 2011. Sure enough, when I searched for it, it was no longer online… All this solidified my drug-lord theory even more.
Ernesto had agreed to meet at 12:30. I took off in my mother’s Acura and sped over to an address located in the shadow of the bar-heavy downtown area. A place much hipper and enticing than it had been back in the 90’s when druggies and skinheads and homeless wandered Congress Boulevard scaring off any young people looking for a good time. Must have been all the drug money given to the city by Ernesto, I theorized.
I parked in a dirt lot and immediately recognized Erik, who looked like he had been a meth fiend since about 1994. He wore a saggy shirt, filthy pants and sported a patchy beard and shaved head. He had a kid’s BMX bicycle in his pick up truck bed, which I took as also a sure sign of a man on crystal meth. For some reason, heavy meth addicts seemed to always travel on way-too-small dirt bikes. Erik wasn’t unlike them.
I looked up just as a helicopter darted above us in the sky. DEA drone, I thought. Of course. We were most likely being followed. Hell, who knew what corner or alleyway was outfitted with a hidden camera tracking Erik’s every move. Shit, maybe the FBI had caught on to my story as well? I mean, who’s to say they weren’t tracking Erik’s Facebook page when I sent him my original message? I was starting to hit an all-time level of paranoia. Even a pigeon that flapped above us and landed on a telephone wire looked like it had a hidden camera in its eye… I tried to keep my cool.
Knowing some of the narco protocol, I began preparing for my meeting with Ernesto.
“So, should I give you my iphone for safety precautions?” I asked Erik.
“What for?” He replied.
“Oh, I just assumed I wasn’t allowed to bring any electronics to the meeting,” I said.
“We aint goin on no airplane or nothin,” he replied.
At this point, my entire drug kingpin theory went out the window. After all, in the El Chapo story, Sean Penn was told to turn his phone off in Los Angeles, nearly 14 hours before he even made contact with the cartel in Mexico. He had been forced to travel to in two separate SUV’s, two single engine planes and armored vehicles just to meet with El Chapo’s henchmen before gaining approval. He was most likely given a full body cavity search, frisked and water-boarded. Ernesto’s lone henchman was a meth fiend named Erik who was allowing me to bring my iphone into a meeting as if I was about to pitch him a new Angry Birds app to finance… Ernesto’s notorious drug cartel was crumbling before my eyes.
“Follow my truck, we’re going to shoot pool at Pockets,” Erik said.
“Pockets? We’re not going to his house or something?” I asked.
“What house?” He said. “Ernesto likes to play pool. You play pool?”
“Sure, man – I love pool,” I said.
I hate pool.
Pockets was a stale billiard hall way too brightly lit for a Wednesday afternoon. A few biker types with chain wallets and denim jackets drank Miller High Life at the bar. A Mexican guy who looked to be on his 5th or 6th Corona sat watching a soccer game on TV. One lone female, a waitress who would have slept with Bad Blake in the movie Crazy Heart after he played a set at a bowling alley, served beer. In the far west corner stood a chubby man in an Arizona Wildcats baseball cap chalking up his cue. I recognized him immediately as Ernesto Gregory.
His face had filled in and he had put on close to 35 pounds. By his footwear and saggy jeans I could tell that he hadn’t done much to change his fashion choices during the past 22 years. He wore Jordan sneakers, which were probably eight years old and had accumulated a slew of new arm tattoos, including one portrait of a woman who looked a lot like a fatter version of Racquel Hernandez. He drank what I would soon learn was Jack Daniel’s and Diet Coke and was constantly adjusting his pants from the crotch area. My first thought was that the most accomplished 18-year-old I had ever known had become the sloppiest 40-year-old I had seen in some time.
“Zach Selwyn!” He announced as I nervously approached the pool table. “What up Hollywood!”
Oh boy. He was going to call me Hollywood the rest of the day, I knew it.
“I seen you on that TV show about the words and shit!”
“Yeah, America’s Secret Slang, thanks man.”
“Yeah, American Slang! That’s it, what up big homie?”
“Nada man, just trying to catch up with some old friends, ya know?”
“Well shit, let’s shoot some stick.”
Ernesto racked up some balls and began rattling off shots. He was a damn good pool player and I knew that even at my best – which was pretty terrible – I was about to be embarrassed. But, he told me to pick a cue and even though it was 1:30 in the afternoon, I ordered a pitcher of Bud Light. The waitress brought it over and charged me for it. It cost $3.75.
As Ernesto sank shot after shot, we never once discussed drug dealing. In fact, we spent most of our time talking about girls from high school that he had always wanted to screw. Turns out, he thought I was some Olympic-level cocksman in my teens and he assumed that I had slept with every cute girl in our high school. As he dug up names from the past, I could only laugh and try to remember who some of these girls even were. Most of them I had never been intimate with, but to placate Ernesto, I played along.
“Paula Schrapner? Yeah, I nailed her,” I said. Not true.
“Jen Robbins? Blow job,” I lied.
“Did you ever get together with Laura House?” Ernesto asked. “She was DOPE!”
“Uh, we just kissed,” I said, which was actually true. One New Years Eve 1992, we had briefly kissed.
“Man, I wonder what she’s up to now?” He said, staring off at a neon sign.
As the beers flowed, I was finding that I was having a hard time getting anything out of Ernesto. He was stuck in 1993, still pining for girls who were long married, divorced and even had kids in high school of their own. He remembered football games that I hadn’t even thought about in 20 years and quoted our Economics teacher Mr. Franklin from a class I didn’t even recall taking. When I took a second to ask him about Racquel Hernandez and what happened to their relationship, he grew silent, took out a vape pen and pulled long and hard.
“You know we have three kids, right?”
“I did not know that,” I said. “Congrats. I have two. How old?”
“19, 17 and 15,” he said. “But the 15-year-old has blue eyes and blonde hair – aint no way that kid’s mine. We broke up 12 years ago. My second wife bailed on me last year. Bitch.”
Wow. Here I was, stressing out about my 9 and 5-year-old kids in Los Angeles and this guy had been divorced twice and had three kids in high school – one who he was convinced wasn’t even his. I suddenly felt like every pampered Hollywood asshole I have come to despise.
“Hey Hollywood, you never slept with Racquel, did you?” He asked.
“What? Hell no!”
There was a sudden silence. Erik looked ready to tear out my jugular. Ernesto stared me down. This was what Adam Richford would call “mad-dogging.” My mom was right… I should have bought that knife.
“Man, I’m just playing!” He said. “You should see your face, you looked like a little bitch just now!”
Everybody laughed. I pounded my beer. It was then that I decided that I had to get the whole story right here or else I was going to end up on the wrong end of a bong in the south side of Tucson come six o’clock, getting high and watching some show like Ridiculousness on a Futon. I found my courage and lowered my voice to a whisper.
“So, Ernesto – you still in the weed game?” I asked.
Ernesto looked at me and laughed. He looked at Erik and then back to the pool table.
“Man, I aint dealt weed since high school,” he said.
“I thought you went to jail or something?” I inquired.
“Shit man… I shot some endangered pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season. Thank God it didn’t die… Luckily I only did two nights in county jail, man. Sucked ass.”
He had shot a pregnant salamander with a rifle during bow-hunting season? He did two nights in county jail? El Chapo had done something like seven years in maximum security before his first escape… As far as I know, he never complained either. Here was my one-time narcotics hero admitting to me that he was scared after doing two measly nights for shooting a fucking lizard. My story was falling apart.
“So, what about the last 15 years? I mean, what have you done for work?” I asked.
Ernesto sunk a 9 ball and looked up at me.
“I repair windshields, man. Over at Glassworx on Speedway.”
I watched him return to the table. My heart sank as he finished off the game by dropping the eight ball perfectly in the side pocket. My story was over. The most notorious drug dealer I had known had become a windshield repair guy. There was no mansion in the hills, no ranch house in Nogales… and no harem of sexy Mexican women. Ernesto had gone straight and my story was dead.
“Why do you ask, homie?” Ernesto inquired. “You need weed?”
Being that my story was a bust, I figured that the very least I could do was to go on one more pot buying deal in my old hometown. Maybe the dealer would be the drug kingpin I was looking for and I could write something about him instead.
“Yeah, sure man. Just a little bit to get me through the next two days.”
“Well, my dude sells dime bags over at hole 14 at the Golf N’ Stuff on Tanque Verde if you want to pick one up,” Ernesto said.
Dime bag? Golf N’ Stuff? I wasn’t interested. The last thing I needed was to buy Mexican weed from a kid at the same place where I had celebrated my 11-year-old birthday party. It just didn’t seem right.
“No that’s cool, man,” I replied. “I gotta get home anyway – maybe we can hook up tomorrow or something.”
“Are you sure?” He said. “This kid gets good shit… he has a couple of uncles in Nogales.”
Of course he did. I threw a five-dollar tip on the wooden table and finished off my beer. I high-fived Erik and Ernesto, promised to be in touch and promptly drove back to my mother’s house where I found her nervously pacing the living room like I was 15 again and out with a senior at my first high school party.
We opened a bottle of wine and finished our game of Scrabble…