It was my friend Jeff who talked me into signing up for a casting company’s newsletter. During our senior year of high school, in his typical brand of unbridled, doe-eyed enthusiasm, Jeff convinced me to become a movie extra with him. Maybe, just maybe, he said, we’d get discovered.
With nothing better to do, I went for it. We signed up for the newsletter one snowy weekend in suburban Boston in between quarters of a Patriots game. Neither of us had any acting experience.
A few weeks after signing up, we received our first email from the casting company. It was an announcement for a big-budget movie, but it didn’t disclose the name of the film. It sought background teenagers for a scene, and Jeff and I—as baby-faced as 18-year-olds could be—deemed ourselves perfect for the role.
A few weeks after receiving the email, we schlepped 40 minutes outside of Boston to the call. It was in a town that neither of us ventured to other than to see a movie when the local theater didn’t have what we wanted. I didn’t have a GPS at the time so I had Jeff sitting in what he called the “admiral’s seat,” reading off the directions. We arrived just on time for the call but we struggled to find a parking spot. We parked next to what appeared to be a shanty and noticed a swelling mass of antsy, dangerous looking Bostonians holding various papers and photos. They were a mix of weathered, middle-aged women with hoop earrings and portly, gray-haired men in old tweed sport coats who probably told people they met that they used to know Whitey Bulger. Looking at them, Jeff and I knew we were in the right place.
The scene on the inside of the call was methodical. Attendants sat at multiple stations asking dreary, would-be extras to fill out a piece of paper. Then they took your picture, which made the high school yearbook photos Jeff and I brought in lieu of professional headshots useless and downright laughable. When the staffers took our picture, Jeff and I were probably the only two people who smiled. The call was melancholy and regimented, like ranchers drearily moving cattle from one place to another.
I forgot about the casting call. I turned my attention over to more pressing matters, like hyperventilating over what colleges I’d get into, or making ranked lists of girls to bring to prom, or assessing my chances of getting laid after it.
Then, about a month after the call, in the midst of my neurotic adolescent musings, I received word from the casting company telling me I’d been cast. Jazzed, I immediately responded “yes.” They were short in their response, simply disclosing the shoot’s time and date, and not much more.
Besides telling my grandmother that I was about to become a gigantic movie star, the first thing I did was call Jeff. He said he’d also got a call, but would be unable to make the shoot, since he had already planned to go on vacation with his parents to Europe.
“The plight of the bourgeois upbringing,” I thought. “Oh well.” My ascent to superstardom would be a solo journey.
The day of the shoot came a few weeks later. I slipped into my Saturday best—which at the time consisted of light American Eagle Jeans, a white oxford with black stripes, and a pair of Nike Air Max shoes. I thought I was dressed perfectly for the occasion since the original casting bulletin had called for teenagers, and I was in the same clothes that I’d seen every teenager wear on those MTV reality shows about unplanned pregnancies.
Once in Boston, I struggled to find parking on the street, largely due to my abysmal parallel parking skills. Displaying the impulsivity and anxiety of an 18-year-old going to a Hollywood movie shoot, I decided to park my car in a garage for an eight-hour rate of $60.
“I have no other choice,” I told myself. “They need me on set.” I DEFINITELY didn’t want to be late for my big show biz premiere.
After I spent half of my weekly salary on parking, I scampered through Boston looking for the address of the shoot. Arriving at the location, I expected being met by bright camera lights, but was instead confronted by the unbearably luminous red sign of a gaudy Chinese restaurant with fake gold and dragons everywhere.
“Is this the movie shoot?” I asked a Chinese waiter. He looked at me, confused.
“Extras—downstairs,” he said tersely.
He pointed to a long black staircase, and I followed his finger and trotted down. There, at the bottom of the stairs, was a massive room with about a hundred well-dressed men and women, mostly older, sitting quietly at round tables while frantic people wearing headsets dashed in between them.
“This can’t be right,” I thought. “Where are all the kids?” “I thought I was supposed to be some hormone-raging 14-year-old at an arcade.”
Hopelessly confused, I asked one of the overburdened headset people if I was in the right location. They looked at my extra number and assured me I was. I’d be portraying an upscale diner, not a teenager at an arcade.
They then asked me if I had brought multiple wardrobes. Apparently, you often don’t know what scene you’re going to be in, or what character you’ll be portraying, so you need more than one set of clothing.
The production assistant could tell I was new to this and took pity on me. Instead of chewing me out and sending me home, she promptly ushered me over to wardrobe and makeup. As soon as I heard the words “wardrobe and makeup,” my eyes lit up. “This is incredible,” I thought. “They’re sending some teenage schlub with no acting experience to put on makeup for a Hollywood production!”
I sat down and was approached by a stylist who picked out an old olive-colored suit for me. It was hideous but I had no right to complain. After receiving a blue dress shirt and a pair of clunky old black shoes, I almost fully resembled a used car salesman. The resemblance was helped along by the fact that I was still wearing white ankle socks.
Next, a makeup artist came over, looked me up and down, and dabbed cover up over a few pimples on my forehead, which probably wouldn’t have needed concealer if I had been portraying a teenager. At that, I was told I was ready, and to wait for my scene to be called.
Here’s another thing you should know about being a movie extra: You do a lot of waiting around. Sitting in the basement of the dingy Chinese restaurant, one hour turned into two, and two turned into three. As various scene names were called, lines of extras filed out of the basement, while the surviving groups made small talk over which sets they’d done work for, which directors were bigger assholes than the others, and who in the business they’d met. Most had enjoyed a small conversation with a star or two, but nothing substantial. From their conversations I wasn’t expecting a rip-roaring exchange with an A-lister. I learned that the movie we were shooting starred Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Garner. At the end of my third hour of waiting, a lukewarm dim sum meal was served.
I knew the compensation would be meager, but I cherished the possible screen time and the potential to brag about the experience to my friends—especially Jeff who was off gallivanting in Europe. At the end of my fifth hour in the basement though, I began to ask myself if the paltry screen time was worth the horrendous wait.
More time dragged by and I hung my head lower and lower. There was no iPhone to fiddle around on, and I struggled to relate to most of the other professional extras. After all, if I hated this shoot, which was quickly becoming the case, I could simply stop being a movie extra. The people I shared the basement with had no such choice. They were lifers.
At the apex of my helplessness, at around the sixth hour of my wait, my scene was finally called. About thirty of us walked out of the Chinese restaurant and onto the street where we passed a few buildings and walked up the stairs into a bar filled with bright lights and production teams. Staffers scurried about, climbing ladders to adjust enormous light fixtures. One staffer tapped a blonde girl named Caitlin and me on the shoulders and paired us together. She was gorgeous, and I had no complaints about being placed on a fake date with her.
He told us to stand at the bar and pretend to sip our drinks, which in actuality were two pint glasses of apple juice. As the director yelled a series of commands that were inaudible to a layperson, the scene started. I was scared to death to fudge anything, raised my glass and made odd, vaguely charming, facial expressions at Caitlin. I looked like a doofus, but I think she thought my high school nervousness was adorable. After about thirty seconds of wrenching my face every which way, the shot was over.
Next, Caitlin and I were lucky enough to be escorted into a private dining room in back of the bar where a scene was to be shot featuring McConaughey and Garner eating dinner. I was ecstatic and as giddy as an 11-year-old would be meeting Justin Bieber.
There were about three rows of tables, and Caitlin and I were placed in the last row. At our table were two steak frites dishes. Dismayingly, they told us we couldn’t eat the food, which, after the mediocre dim sum, would’ve been divine. As I sat down, my worst nightmare came true: my bare ankles and white socks were exposed. Internally, I panicked and clenched my two feet together to try and hide my skin from the camera’s sight. “How stupid would that look,” I thought. Luckily, I must’ve done an excellent job hiding my fashion faux pas as the director didn’t stop the shoot to take me out of the scene. After another minute of clenching and pretending to eat French fries—which I desperately wanted to devour—the shot ended.
That was it. Caitlin and I said our goodbyes and she walked away with the other extras. I was the last to leave the scene besides one person who was standing at the front of the dining room. As I began to walk towards the exit, the person turned around and revealed herself. It was Jennifer Garner. I froze. The rest seemed like a dream.
“Hey, Jennifer! How are you doing?” I said, somehow relaying exuberance. In actuality, I was too stunned to do anything else but sleepwalk through the conversation.
“Great thanks for asking,” she warmly replied as if we’d known each other for years. “Are you staying on for the next scene?”
“No, unfortunately not. That’s it for me,” I said, for a lack of a better quip.
Looking back on it, I would’ve loved to have told her that I couldn’t stay because Scorsese or Eastwood needed me elsewhere.
I smiled at her and caught her beautiful oak-colored eyes. Her friendliness to an 18-year-old nobody caught me off guard. As I turned away all I could think about was how lucky of an S.O.B. Ben Affleck was.
It took the casting company around two months to send me my check, which was for only a few dollars more than I spent on parking my car for eight hours that night. When the movie came out, I didn’t even see it in theaters. I didn’t want to spend the money on something I knew would suck.
Waiting for the movie to come out on DVD was a good choice, because my scene wasn’t in it. I had no evidence that I actually schlepped to a casting call, waited in the basement of a Chinese restaurant for hours, and then spoke with Jennifer Garner for a fleeting moment. Instead, I was forced to sit through one of the worst movies I’d seen in recent memory. Then my parents got mad at me for making them watch it.
Previously: Meeting the Neighbors
Eli Epstein is a recent graduate of NYU and a freelance writer in New York City. His work has appeared online at The Atlantic, Fortune, and Esquire. Among other things, he enjoys cereal, Alice in Chains, and corgis. He’s a sworn Bostonian.