I am Check-In number 50 playing an ‘Upscale European Businessman’ and I am wandering around Brooklyn at 6.45am on a Saturday morning searching for the Marriott Hotel. I am running slightly late for my first job as a ‘background artist’, perhaps more familiarly known as an ‘extra’, on the US television show Blue Bloods starring Tom Selleck, Donnie Wahlberg and Jennifer Esposito. I am starting to worry my fledging (side) career will be over before it begins if I don’t find the place pronto.
Luckily with one minute to spare I find the hotel and enter ‘Holding’, a room at the back of the hotel, where I am suddenly faced with scores of other identikit ‘me’s’, sitting at round tables all gripping the piece of luggage we were asked to bring along with us as props.
We are split between union and non-union, there are all sorts of quotas apparently and the pay is better in union, and asked to check in with wardrobe and make-up. Make-up takes a quick glance at me and tells me ‘I am good’ in a way that makes me feel I am not good. Wardrobe asks me if I brought another shirt, I haven’t, and then decides it wants to change my blue and yellow tie for a brown one. I neglect to find out why which bugs the hell out of me later on.
After an hour and a half waiting we are all brought over to set – the hotel lobby. Surprisingly the hotel continues to operate as normal; guests step out of elevators and double take when they see all the people gathered and the equipment piled about. The big film lights shine like a small sun into the foyer, so bright it is impossible to look at them.
I am placed in a corridor near a bar area, told to walk to the entrance and greet another background artist who is standing there waiting. Our cues are given as ‘Rolling’ (the camera starts), ‘Background’ (we start) and ‘Action’ (the principal actors start). For the first few takes I am fully focused but eventually I do start to wonder where the cameras are, as I can’t see any nearby. After I hear cut I sneak a quick peek through the bar window and I can see all the action is taking place about 100 yards away through a window on the far side of the lobby. Background doesn’t really begin to describe our distant position in the scheme of this scene.
Eventually, after about eight or nine takes, we are instructed to leave the set and return to ‘holding’. We sit down again for about an hour before they are ready for the next take. The experienced had books and laptops to hand and quite a few seemed to know each other well, luckily I had brought a book, the freshmen just stared into space for what must have felt an eternity.
My big moment finally arrives and I am chosen to travel up an escalator as the stars Donnie Wahlberg and Jennifer Esposito bring a handcuffed suspect down the other side. I hear the Director say don’t look at the cop so on the rehearsal I steadfastly ignore them but when I get back down the 2nd AD tells me, somewhat sarcastically, what I did was good but he would change one thing, he thinks I would look at the cop. I totally agree; I decide not to get into it with him.
So I change it up as instructed and Donnie and I exchange glances. And we exchange glances going up and down the escalator over and over again until the Director is happy.
After the final scene, six hours later we are allowed to go home. My guess as to the amount of screen time that will make the final episode would be somewhere under 2 minutes. That’s six hours work for two minutes screen time. There were hundreds of people working on this show so it is easy to see how the costs mount up. The whole thing is extremely industrial in nature.
The standard day for a background artist is ten hours before you go into overtime, a long day sitting or standing around for very little money and the dubious promise of a shot of your back in the distance. This is not very glamorous unless you are one of those people who are utterly star struck.
I discover my colleagues are waiters, off duty doormen and one woman who said she does this in between working in musical theatre. New York is all about the ‘hustle’ she says as she explains to me how she manages to pay her mortgage adding she can only manage this kind of work twice a week though or she goes slightly mad. And although I found it interesting this time I can already see how she might be right.