The crane offered the first sign that the Hollywood machine was operating nearby. It stood against a gray loft building in downtown Los Angeles, a powerful light perched on top. Further down Main Street toward Seventh, tents, trellises, and vans lined the opposite side of the street, a few blocks west of the tents of Skid Row’s homeless residents. A small crowd stood in front of a historic hotel, arms crossed and cameras out, scanning for famous faces. It was a common LA scene.
I’m not impressed by actor sightings, but I am nosy, so I stopped to watch, too. I leaned against a planter and looked up at the hotel marquee. “The New Yorker,” it said. I thought, There’s a New Yorker hotel here like the one in Manhattan? That didn’t seem right. As my eyes started to glaze, a blonde man in cargo shorts stopped while shuffling past me. “Are you with us or background?” he said. He stood at an angle, leaning back mid-step.
“Background,” I said. I figured, Why not? Let’s see what happens.
As vain as I am, seeing myself on screen has never been one of my fantasies. I’ve never read an article in People or US Weekly. I never wanted to be an actor. Too many celebs are as boring as the blockbusters they star in, and I wouldn’t recognize half of them if they were standing inches from my face. Growing up, I loved watching shows like The Late Show with David Letterman, but I never pictured myself getting tickets to join the audience. Seeing the wizard behind the curtain didn’t excite me as much as immersing myself in the stories, like Chinatown and Star Wars. As a kid, I loved Star Wars so much that my mom took me to get my photo taken with Darth Vader at a toy store, though I never wanted to be Darth Vader. I did lots of impressions and was a total ham, but my connection to the TV and movie industries was always as a viewer—until this day. The subversive thrill of infiltration drew me in, though the older I got, the more curious I’d become about the way Hollywood worked.
Now, here I was, faced with the chance to be on camera. I could see that it was really the opportunity to do it illicitly that really attracted me. Of course, I didn’t know how to act. I knew enough to know that it was a no-no to remotely acknowledge the camera, yet part of me still wanted to be recognized, so that someone watching whatever movie this was, not knowing I was in it, would say, “What the hell? I think that was Aaron Gilbreath, the guy I used to work with at Subway Sandwiches!” And by the time they recognized me, I’d be gone, poof, already off screen, leaving an even stronger air of mystery than my split-second appearance had. Those startled viewers would have to rewind the movie to confirm what they saw, and when they did, they’d find a blurred profile of my aging face egging on the camera, taunting this production and the entire film industry with eyes that said, “You suckers got a hole in your security perimeter so wide that any jerk off the street can walk in.” Thinking this made me want to taunt the camera, to look at it and pucker my lips, all sultry, like, Yeah, babe, it’s me, Mr. Can’t-Act A.G., totally invading your airspace.
The crew member waved his hand and said, “OK, come with me.” With a determined shuffle, he led me across the street. “I’m going to have you do a walk here,” he said. “Why don’t you take off your backpack and set it somewhere.”
I tried to play it cool. “I was wondering about that, but no one could tell me a good place to keep it.”
He looked me up and down, tilting his head. “Or you can just wear it on one strap. It looks cooler that way.” We stepped onto the curb and into a cluster of cameras and crew. “I’m going to give you to Stephanie. She’ll take care of you.”
From what I gathered, the bad guys in the town car were trying to get the suitcase from the good guys. Beyond that, details were hazy: Who were these people? What was in the case? And what movie was this?
A rush of adrenalin buzzed my extremities. As he re-crossed the street, I looked at the two other extras standing beside me. I intended to say hi, to acknowledge our linked destinies with a friendly nod and revel in the fact of our accidental brotherhood; instead of glancing at me, they watched the cameras.
Cameras, extras, playback monitors—was this actually happening? I looked around for proof that I hadn’t lost my mind, and I texted my girlfriend Rebekah: “Snuck on a movie set and am going to get my ass on film.”
“OMG!” she replied. “Which one?”
I texted: “I have no clue!”
I like mischief. Since I was on vacation and looking for fun, I decided to see where this madness would lead. Now that I had penetrated the set’s inner sanctum, my objective became simple: remain undiscovered long enough to get on film.
While we were waiting for this Stephanie person, my fellow extras paced around, taking the slow, self-conscious steps that people in movies take while killing time. One of them was a dark-haired teenager wearing khaki pants, a plaid shirt and black sneakers. He kept his hands in his pockets and arched his shoulders, looking both insecure and like someone whose parents had made him do cereal commercials as a kid. The other guy was in his thirties. Dressed in a brown sport coat and poorly tailored trousers, he had buggy eyes and wore a stereo earbud in one ear like an FBI agent. But his mouth hung open like a chimp’s.
Like me, these two guys were acting. While I tried to look natural in order to avoid detection, they tried to play the role of the seasoned professional, projecting a mixture of distance and engagement, ego and aptitude, a vibe that acting coaches might call “casual.” But as they did their best to seem blasé, their rapid eye movements revealed just how closely they were paying attention.
Inches away, the actors rehearsed. A blonde woman in tight pants and a dark-haired man in tight pants pulled up in a black van and parked on the curb. The male driver got out, clutching a small metal case. The passenger stayed seated. Then a black town car slammed to a halt, and its passengers stepped out to block the man’s passage. One had a pistol tucked into his belt.
From what I gathered, the bad guys in the town car were trying to get the suitcase from the good guys. Beyond that, details were hazy: Who were these people? What was in the case? And what movie was this? Whatever it was, it looked like some real bottom-of-the-barrel sci-fi stuff, one of those straight-to-DVD franchises whose target audience was single guys who drank energy drinks at clubs and wore too much cologne, in which case I’d never find it unless I got the name. I couldn’t ask anyone. That would reveal me as an intruder. I had to be sneaky. Imagine my disappointment if I left this set without the most basic information. Unable to tell my friends what exactly I had done, to know the key detail about what I’d wandered into, I’d spend the rest of my life denied the small satisfaction of this trivial triumph. And I’d never be able to view footage of myself! It was already disappointing that fate had delivered me onto such a low-grade production.
The long-awaited Stephanie showed up. She wore practical shorts and a brown ponytail and gathered us beside one of the cameras. “You’re people on the street,” she said. “You’re going to walk through here, past the van. OK? Between the cars.” The three of us nodded. “See that guy in the hat?” She pointed to a guy on the other side of the shot. “When you get to him, stop.”
Butterflies filled my stomach. I’d never acted before. I mean, aside from during bad sex, boring dates, job interviews and college classes, or to cops giving me tickets, in court before judges, as a teenager lying to my parents, and while returning food to grocery stores.
“You got it,” I said. Only when she left did I realize that she hadn’t specified our route. Should we walk to the left of the neighboring camera, or the right? When she said “between the cars,” did she mean we walk between the van and car and actors, or just past them on the sidewalk? The former seemed weird. What kind of pedestrians walked diagonally across an empty street to pass through the center of a violent showdown?
A water tanker drove by and sprayed the pavement. A man with a headset lined cars up along the curb. On Seventh, police redirected pedestrians around the barricades. To my left, one cameraman asked another, “What’s your mark?” and someone set down an orange cone.
My chest tightened.
I wondered what expression I should use in my shot. The face of the vacant walker was what, distant? Unaware? Maybe I should look annoyed. After all, this was “Manhattan.” Maybe I could fix my gaze on some distant point, act like there was something down there, like, Oh hey, a three-legged dog, how adorable. Here on the edge of Skid Row, there could very well be a three-legged dog. But no, that was a sure sign of bad acting. Maybe it was best not to look in that direction at all. I should probably just try to look expressionless, like I wasn’t thinking about anything, let blankness be my mood. The only hitch then would be appearing too self-aware. Part of the trick of acting, I assumed, was making it look like you weren’t trying at all.
I decided to go for “absorbed.”
The sun had set and turned the damp air cold. I started to shiver. I was the only extra wearing shorts. That made me nervous because it made me stand out. Crew members shuffled by, carrying coffee cups and equipment, and I kept expecting one to ask for my credentials. Instead of being discovered, I stood there and looked at the kid in the khakis and the chimp in the suit with the gaping mouth, and I realized how we three were competitors. Our refusal to acknowledge each other felt like a declaration of war: I’m getting in this shot even if it means pushing you aside. After Stephanie left, the kid moved close to the camera as if to ensure that when it started rolling, he would walk out first – the little punk ass. I decided to let him. He had the cocky air of the semi-seasoned. I’d watch where he walked and copy him.
Someone with a bullhorn yelled, “OK, lock!” Others said it too, moving the word through the crew like the wave at a football game. When he said, “Rolling!” another chorus rose up, the word “Rolling!” echoing down the street.
Extras in suits started pacing Main. The men at the hotel’s outdoor restaurant started eating prop dinners and fake talking. Cars launched from the curb in succession, impersonating Manhattan traffic. This is really happening, I thought.
Beside the second camera, Stephanie stood behind the kid. He pulled his hands from his pockets and didn’t know what to do with them. The good guy’s van pulled up beside us. The bad guys arrived soon after. Stephanie placed her hands on the kid’s back, and his body went limp and expectant. She watched the scene unfold, waited for the right moment. When she shoved him forward, he took a few stumbling steps and stopped, turning to face her. His eyes registered fear. He seemed to need reassurance but was too nervous to look at her directly. He raised his hands as if to say “What, now?” and she waved at him like a cowgirl shooing cattle – arms out, wielding knuckles.
Cars launched from the curb in succession, impersonating Manhattan traffic. This is really happening, I thought.
I’d misread him. He was as inexperienced as I was.
The kid’s pass took seconds. When he stopped on the opposite side, he looked shaken, his eyes darting around like he’d just dodged bullets. I took his place beside Stephanie but someone yelled “Cut!” before she sent me out. The crew reset the shot. Extras resumed their positions. I worried that they’d get what they needed before I got on camera.
A guy with the headset called out, “Security, scoot back! Can you scoot back, please?” and a man in a uniform backed deeper into the hotel parking lot. The crew locked. They rolled, and again they yelled “Cut!” before I crossed.
During the next take, the kid crossed again, and Stephanie took her position behind me, waiting to send me on my maiden voyage. I waited, my body straight and attentive. I was so terrified that everything looked as if it was already an image on screen rather than something I was living. Then Stephanie pushed and I stumbled forward. Over the tree roots. Around the camera tracks. Through the frame and into the shot. I’m here, I thought, I’m on camera! Then the voice of reason: Look casual. Look regular. Another distracted dude on the street.
For seconds that felt like minutes, I was doing it, strutting calmly through the shot, acting like a guy not acting. I strutted right past the actors as they faced each other in their phony-looking standoff. Then someone yelled, “Cut!” or “Reset!” and the actors went limp.
I stopped by a playback monitor and thought, Stephanie, you idiot, you sent me out prematurely. Didn’t she know how to do her job? My one chance to get on film, and she ruined it!
She stood on the other side of the cameras, talking to another crew member, as I and my fellow extras watched her like obedient puppies.
While crew prepared the shot, Stephanie shuffled across the street to the food station. A long trough on wheels, it stood in the hotel parking lot. This shot didn’t involve extras, so I walked over to scan the offerings. Bottled water, soda, yogurt—I reached in and grabbed some carbonated lemon Arrowhead water from a pile of ice. As I debated whether to take a sandwich or a cup of fresh fruit, a short, bulky man in knee-length jean shorts and a dark tee appeared. “You both with crew?” He held out his hand. “Got your union cards?”
The chimpy background actor with the sport coat stood beside me. “No,” I said, “we’re background.”
“We’ll have a station set up for you on the other side soon,” the man said.
I held up the water. “You need me to put this back?”
“No. You can keep that, buddy.”
I thanked him and entered the hotel restaurant, which served as the extra’s temporary headquarters. Actors packed all the booths. They lined the lunch counter, occupying every stool. A kid slumped against the counter, his chin resting on his hand. All the skin on his cheek bunched, and when I stepped into his line of sight, his blank eyes met mine, the expression unchanging: bored. He made no attempt to hide it.
Voices filled the room. A guy with sandy hair and a strong jawline told a brunette about how he wanted to open his own yoga studio, and about “the importance of water in human metabolism.” Beside me, a pudgy white guy told a young man with dreadlocks, “I have a few other jobs lined up.” He listed some recent background shoots he’d done, one involving the reggae-rock band Pepper. He dropped the band’s name as if it was impressive, but the guy just nodded his head and kept his eyes on the floor.
I went over to the table of food in the corner and eyeballed the selection: small bags of Frito-Lay brand chips and generic cookies: shortbread, chocolate chip, lemon, and oatmeal cream. Next to this spread, my bottle of Arrowhead resembled a trophy, a symbol of wealth and privilege that reflected a film set’s social hierarchy, as well as the treasure that awaited those who worked hard enough to rise through the ranks. It was late and I was hungry, so I ate a few cookies and a bag of Sun Chips.
As I crunched, the extra beside me lifted a container of chocolate-covered graham cracker cookies, the kind whose waxy sides put off a dull reflection. He studied the label with pinched eyes and an amused grin. “This is Dollar Store food. The packages look like they’re from the 1980s.”
I said, “They taste like they’ve been on the shelf since the ‘80s.” I’d already eaten five cookies. This was dinner. I took an unripe orange and a second bag of chips and stood outside by the restaurant tables.
An extra in a suit leaned back in one of the chairs, arms behind his head. “So I’ll see a check in about a week?”
“Yeah,” another extra said. “Some commercials can take a month.”
The first guy smiled. “You do enough of these you can get a place down here,” he said. “Not that I’d move downtown if I had the money. This area is weird, man. It’s fine right here. But go that way a little and it gets bad. It’s fucked.”
Skid Row is definitely bad, though mostly for the people who live there. It loosely begins on the next street east from where the movie shoot was taking place, and its fifty or so blocks contain one of the largest permanent populations of homeless people in the U.S., with some estimates running as high as 5,000 residents. Main Street runs through an intermediary zone where Skid Row’s squalor overlaps with downtown Los Angeles’s hip, gentrifying edge.
Its edges and occupancy are debated, and they’re being eroded by gentrifying redevelopment. What’s undeniable is residents’ living conditions. Thousands of people sleep on Skid Row’s sidewalks, either in tents or in structures built from cardboard boxes. People drink. They openly shoot heroin. They panhandle, sit on curbs, and play cards, sell cigarettes and pass the midday heat against the shady sides of buildings, their worldly possessions stuffed into shopping carts and duffle bags. When I walked through parts of Skid Row that day, elderly men sipped beer in wheelchairs parked on the sidewalk outside of a single-resident occupancy hotel. People with sun-chapped lips hobbled by on crutches, while others stood in an alley inhaling fumes from a glass pipe. It was daylight.
“I had never seen anything like it,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez about his first visit to Skid Row. “Every manner of human suffering and social breakdown was on full display in this teeming colony of the destitute and the desperately ill. I saw people in the grips of full-blown psychotic breakdowns. Sirens wailed and drug dealers ruled, and prostitutes escorted clients into their port-a-potty parlors a block from the police station.” Even ten years after that first trip, he still couldn’t believe the world’s richest country lets people live this way.
In Skid Row, women are often the victims of sexual assault, and residents die in their tents from exhaustion, attack, or overdose, their bodies sometimes lying unnoticed for days. In the heat, streets fill with the smell of urine and garbage.
A number of local nonprofits serve the homeless and addicted, such as Skid Row Housing Trust and Union Rescue Mission, but the job is a big one. Standing on the film set in front of all that food gave me an idea: I could steal a bunch of it and give it to local homeless people. Here was all this concentrated wealth a stone’s throw from one of the most marginalized populations in America. A few bags of chips and some apples weren’t going to save anyone’s life. More sugar and hydrogenated oil did the body no favors, but calories matter to the people who eat so few, and maybe the act of giving mattered as much as the taste.
A woman with the crew marched into the restaurant carrying a checklist, her loud voice cutting through the hum of overlapping conversations. “OK, anyone who wants to come back tomorrow to work, I need you to raise your hand.” A few hands went up, but far less than half. She scanned the room, tapping a pen in the air to count hands. “Once again,” she said, “who is available to come back tomorrow? I need a show of hands and then for you to come see me so I can mark you on the list. If you don’t step forward, I’m going to have to come around and ask all of you, so let’s make this easy.” Barely anyone moved.
In this, the worst economy in decades, surprisingly few people wanted to get paid to stand around doing nothing. The lack of interest was even more confounding considering how strongly America mythologizes film and television, and how many Americans seem to covet actors’ supposedly cushy lives. Here we were, on an actual set, and most extras looked ready to abandon their entry-level position inside the Hollywood circle. To do what? Return to their lives in suburbia? Go home and stare at TVs? Maybe they didn’t like their roles. Maybe they thought the storyline was trash. Or maybe the job was more boring than expected – all work and no glamour, too much standing around. Their disinterest reminded me of some line I thought I once heard in a movie, but might actually have made up: “Everyone starts at the bottom, kid. Grab a broom.”
For seconds that felt like minutes, I was doing it, strutting calmly through the shot, acting like a guy not acting.
I wanted to come back. Standing around doing nothing here was more interesting than sitting on some crowded beach like I’d done countless times before. I didn’t know how to sign up, though. The woman with the clipboard had the eyes of a pit bull. When she saw that my name wasn’t on the list, she’d spot me as an intruder in a flash.
I leaned against the lunch counter and tried to devise a strategy. Maybe I could sneak a peek and pluck a name from her list. No, that only seemed to work in movies. To complicate things, half the time extras gave their names, she’d mark them off the list and press the clipboard to her chest, blocking any view. Over the din of chatter, I tried to listen to what other people said while signing up. At one point, I heard the woman ask an extra which casting agency he’d used. When he muttered his answer, she said “Central?” and marked him off the list. I’d seen enough movies to know that “Central” must be insider slang for Central Casting. When she walked outside, I made my move.
“Hi,” I said, “I have a little problem.” She turned to face me, offering a broad but superficial smile. “I want to work tomorrow, but apparently I’m not on the list.”
She clutched the clipboard. “You’re not?
“No,” I said. “Another crew member spotted the error earlier.”
“Who’d you go through?”
With the ease of a veteran I said, “Central.”
“Central?” She studied my face, lingering on my eyes as if searching for something—fear, hesitation, maybe.
I didn’t budge. She didn’t either. We didn’t seem to blink.
What resembled the faintest sign of a grin appeared on her face. She looked at her list, then straight into my eyes. “And you don’t have a voucher?”
“I don’t,” I said. “No voucher.”
“You did a cross with no voucher?”
“I wouldn’t normally, but when I called, no one at Central could clear it up.”
This is it, I thought. It’s over. She’s going to raise her voice and use some stock line like, “Do you think this is a game?” Maybe she’d just yell, “Get out of here!” and call the cops; this neighborhood was filled with them. If the gig was up, then I wanted to at least take the opportunity to yell back, “I don’t even know what we’re filming!” before I ran.
She eyed me from legs to waist to face. “You’ll need to go through Central if you want to come back tomorrow. I just called it in. It should be up on the website in about twenty minutes.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
She said, “K,” and walked up Main.
My stomach unclenched. This was the point where some people would have left satisfied that they’d gotten out while they were ahead. But if you asked me, we had just started Act II, and the show, as we all know, must go on. I still needed to get on camera. I also needed to steal more food.
Back in the hotel, I decided to stay out of the clipboard woman’s line of sight while I waited for the chance to weasel into another scene. I also took the opportunity to slip some oranges into my backpack, then some chips. With my back turned to the crowd, I wrapped napkins around a stack of oatmeal cream cookies and slid them into my bag. These would give a few homeless people a little snack tonight.
After I had passed many nervous minutes hoping that nobody saw my thieving, the crew member who pulled me into this mess came inside and called out, “OK, I need all background outside, please.”
I stepped onto the sidewalk and made myself visible by standing on the edge of the crowd. He stood beside the hydrant. “Can everyone hear me?” The crowd said “Yes” with a loathsome indifference. “This is going to be a group shot. OK? There’s going to be a bright light from the top of the building, a series of flashes. I need you to look confused and scared. Cover your eyes, shield your face, look away—that sort of thing. You don’t know what’s happening, only that it’s bright and loud and you want to know what’s going on. Look up at the building and point.” Extras started chattering amongst themselves, repeating his directions and often laughing at them. The man’s voice echoed under the hotel marquee. “There’s also going to be a loud noise. You won’t hear that now, we’ll put that in later, but I need you to act like you do. Cover your ears. Look away and then up at the building. You’re scared but want to see what it is. OK, everyone got that?”
“Yes,” we said.
After a few seconds, one of the extras asked what others were probably wondering, too: “So, just, cover our eyes and ears?”
Another extra answered for him: “Oh no! Alien invasion!”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind!” someone yelled.
The crew guy smiled and nodded. With a few waves of his hands, he split the crowd in two—one group to work the north side of the street, one to work the south—and then subdivided the halves. He pointed at me and two people to my left. “I want you three here: one, two, three.” I looked over at my new partners: a brunette in her mid-twenties in a skirt, and a boxy man with stringy silver hair, cut long in the back, and baggy, oversized clothes. We smiled at each other and surveyed the set. Crew had parked cars in the middle of Main, scattered haphazardly to look like traffic had suddenly stopped to check out the lights.
The crew guy led extras to their positions. When he took my group to the south side of Main, he stood us between two parked cars on the edge of the shot. There, alone, we looked at each other and shrugged.
The tanker had driven by and re-sprayed the street. My stringy-haired partner said, “For some reason they always wet the street. They think it looks better for some reason. Even if it’s not raining in the shot, they wet the street.” His voice sounded lethargic, which made him seem spacey. When he spoke, he only looked you in the eye for part of the time. The young woman ignored us and stared at some indeterminate point in the crowd.
I wanted to ask if either of them had done this before, and to find out why they decided to be extras. I wanted to say something that would require them to say the name of this movie, without me having to ask. Instead, we stood there and scanned the set.
Everyone was confused. A short director-producer person in cargo shorts climbed onto the planter and spoke through a bullhorn. “Can you all look over here, please?” He waved his free hand until the crowd quieted, then repeated what the previous crew member in cargo shorts had told us about the flashing lights and looking scared.
The man’s voice echoed under the hotel marquee. “There’s also going to be a loud noise. You won’t hear that now, we’ll put that in later, but I need you to act like you do.”
My partner smirked at me.”This must be the ending,” he said. “Something ‘scary’ happens.” He had a droll, dry delivery that oozed a subversive sense of humor. I liked him immediately.
I said, “I’m definitely channeling that Close Encounters vibe.”
My partner and I mocked our directions: “Look! A flashing light! I’m scared!” We practiced covering our ears and pointing at the building: “Ahh! No!” Others around us did the same. The atmosphere shifted from a serious night of work to one of open derision. We were mocking the absurdity of the direction, mocking the corny plot, maybe even mocking ourselves for getting involved in all this for money or fun or fame; yet we were also preparing ourselves for the shot. As goofy as this scene was, we were going to nail it.
The director-producer added that there would be some sort of “raining sparks, like fireworks” that they would add during post-production and that we had to imagine sprinkling from the top of building. He suggested we hold out our hands, palms up, as if it were snowing and collect them. “Collect the sparks?” someone said. Yes, the man said. When he dismounted the planter, the young woman in our group turned to us. “That’s the most acting we’ve done all night,” she said. “Besides trying to act not bored.”
“I don’t do scared,” said the man with the stringy hair. “I have one expression: confused. I use it for everything.” He showed us his confused face. Furrowed brow, puckered lips, eyes aimed up—it combined the face of a sad puppy with that of a pious friar from some Baroque religious painting. I could see a certain universality in the expression, a one-scene-fits-all utility. But it hardly looked like a suitable stand-in for scared. He held up his hands. “Not that it matters here.”
The first crew guy came back and moved the woman in our group to an empty patch of pavement between cars. She stood still, arms flat against her sides like a mannequin, and listened to his directions. After he went around telling different groups how to play their parts, he jogged back to me. “OK, I have a job for you. I want you to run across that way”—he pointed through the center of the crowd of extras—”right across the shot. When the actors come running out of the hotel, you’re just going to run. Hold your ears and cover your eyes, whatever feels natural, but keep running. Don’t stop until you get to that gray car there. That should give the shot some variety. Can you do that?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “And just stop at that car there?”
“Yep. That’s it.” He gave my right bicep one firm pat—”Thanks”—and darted off.
My partner leaned toward me smiling. “Ready for your close-up? Now you actually have to act.” I didn’t mention that I’d been acting like I belonged here all night.
Minutes passed. Extras chatted. One of the drivers in a nearby car sat in the driver’s seat texting without looking up. My partner and I talked about how low-budget this production was, how vague and corny our directions were, how the paycheck was too small for the amount of invested time. He lived in the Valley and drove far for too many similar jobs.
I’d been trying to figure out a way to get the name of this movie without blowing my cover. Then, it happened.
The actor in the car behind us leaned across the passenger. “Hey,” he said out the window, “what’s this show called again? Daylight?”
“No,” my partner said. “Daybreak.”
“Ah ha.” He tapped the rest of his message into his smart phone. “Daybreak.” My partner turned to me and giggled. “It’s not a good sign if your background can’t remember your show’s name. I kept calling it ‘Daywatch’ at first.”
“Sounds like your mind combined Daylight and Baywatch,” I said.
He laughed. “It seemed to do something.”
Finally, voices from behind us called: “All right, we ready? Background, here we go. Locked!”
“All right,” my partner said. “Time to look confused!”
I wiped my palms on my shorts and eyed my path. In order to secure my place on this show, I needed to run as close to the actors as possible. As they rushed from the hotel, I’d trot right next to them, even try to weave between them.
A strobe flashed atop the hotel. People pointed in exaggerated surprise. It felt bizarre to recoil from a sound we couldn’t hear, but that’s what we did. When the main actors rushed from the hotel lobby, I snaked so close to them that we almost bumped. When I got to the other side, nearby extras were asking each other, “Is it over? Do we keep going?” We kept going until someone yelled “Cut!” The crew gathered by the monitors behind us, likely to assess the footage. “I feel so stupid,” one extra said to another.
I walked through the crowd and resumed my position.
“How was that?” my partner said.
“Exhilarating.” We both laughed.
The actors went back inside the hotel as crew prepared the shot.
“Uh oh,” my partner said, “here comes trouble.” A disheveled man in a dirty blue Hawaiian shirt and shredded blue pants sauntered down the sidewalk toward the hotel. He held a plastic soda bottle filled with dark liquid, and the tatters swaying around his shins and knees made him look like Robinson Crusoe. His shirt was so soiled that you could see the dark patches from a distance. My partner said, “This will be interesting.”
The man walked past the security guard by the parking lot. He raised the bottle at him and said something, scrunching his face and pointing his entire body like a hunting dog. As he walked by, he spun around a few times, making slow circles as if to take everything in. When he arrived at the restaurant, he stopped and said something to one of the extras, then darted inside.
“Oh no!” said stringy hair.
“He’ll be happy to see all that food,” I said. “I wish I was in there to see how that was going down.”
We waited, wondering if the cameras would start before the man came back out. When he reappeared, he launched from the entrance as if he’d been ejected. Spinning around, he saw the concierge, stopped, and started gesticulating in a wrathful way.
“He’s talking to the concierge like he’s a real person,” my partner said. The guy waved his bottle the way an angry preacher waves a Bible. “Whatever’s in that bottle looks disgusting.” The concierge said something, and the man turned and shuffled off.
Each time we did the shot, I ran across the set, stopped at the other side, held up my hands to catch the falling sparks that crew would add in post-production. Then I walked back to my buddy on the other side. Each shot contained acting as horrible as the previous one.
During one take, I decided to spin in a circle, palms up, collecting the invisible sparks, so I spun round and round beside three extras who were laughing and making comments at such volume that the crew must have heard. “Oh, look,” said the extras, “Sparks are falling! It’s magical, magical I tell you.”
As I waited for the cameras to roll on the next shot, a teenager appeared out of nowhere. “Hi,” he said. He stood close to me, and his gaze displayed an unnerving, dumbstruck vacancy. “Are you guys filming a movie?”
My partner said, “TV.”
The kid’s eyes widened, and the ecstatic, vampiric expression of the star-struck overtook his face. “TV? What show is it?”
We both said: “Daybreak.”
He said, “I’ve never heard of it.” Neither had we. The kid stared right at us for what felt like an unnecessarily long time, then pivoted his head to take in the scene: the cameras, trucks, wires, lights. Behind us crew yelled “Lock!” causing my stomach to tense. I’d hoped the kid would hear that and make a swift exit, but he remained there, staring at us as if expecting some revelation.
“We’re just extras,” I said. “Dime-a-dozen, low on the totem pole.”
Crew yelled, “Rolling!”
“Actually,” I said, “they’re filming right now. You should either hold your hands on your ears and look terrified, or head that way off camera.”
The strobe light flashed, and the kid looked at it smiling, as enraptured as someone absorbing sun at the beach. The extras’ hands went up. Mine went up, too. When the actors rushed from the hotel, I made my run. When I returned to my post, the kid was gone. “That was weird,” I said. “That kid. He just walked into the shoot.”
My partner shook his head. “I know. They don’t have very good security.”
A little while later, the crew thanked and gathered us inside the hotel, where the woman with the clipboard collected props and costumes. I went to grab some more chips and heard a voice behind me: “You still don’t have a voucher, so I can’t have you hanging out.”
Without turning around I said, “I’m taking off right now.”
“OK,” she said, “perfect. It’s just a liability.”
When she walked outside, I grabbed more cookies and ate them on the sidewalk, right beside the planter where this insanity all started. The air was cool and moist. It was just after 11 p.m.
I turned and took a final look at the set: the scattered cars, the powerful lights casting harsh shadows, the fake New Yorker Hotel marquee. The scene looked small and ridiculous. Real life proceeded around us: People sleeping in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks to the east; hip young people getting drunk on neighboring Spring Street.
Further up Main, the street and I shed our costumes and became again what we really were. Free of the industrial bulbs, the deep sense of night settled in. A few dome tents stood against the fence surrounding a parking lot, the low voices of the homeless audible inside.
Up near Fourth, I stepped into the vacant slow lane to take a photo of the old Hotel Barclay. A man with a grizzly white beard and soiled jeans staggered up and stopped beside the entrance, preparing to take a leak. When he turned and spotted me and my camera, he zipped up and tried to strike a casual pose. “Howya doing?” I said.
He exhaled cigarette smoke. “Hungry as fuck and have two cents to my name.” All his top front teeth were missing.
I reached into my backpack and handed him three bags of chips. “Take these,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said. “That’ll help. Have a good night.”
“You too.” As I walked away I remembered the rest of the loot. “And here’s dessert: oatmeal cream cookies.”
He took the stack in his hand and smiled. “Thanks again. Have a good night.”
I later googled “Daybreak”—it took me an entire month to finally find it. Turns out, Daybreak was a web series developed by AT&T as a way to cross-sell their smart phones and apps. As the show’s now-defunct website put it, “Brought to you through various media and technologies, Daybreak is an interactive story about the magic of technology and its power to transform our lives and aid us in reaching our highest potential.”
Meaning: The show was a commercial housed in a sci-fi narrative. The first episode aired May 31, 2012, the day after my shoot. Some of the shots I watched them film appear in Episode 5. I couldn’t see myself in it, though if the show ever made a sixth episode, maybe it would include additional footage. If so, I’d be easy to spot. I’m the only person in the scene wearing shorts and Vans.