This past weekend I got to go back to Louisville for another day of shooting on “The Perfect Gift.” I had such an amazing time, even though the day was long and laborious. We were basically shooting about seven pages of one scene throughout the entire day. And of course, the whole thing was shot backwards, so there was no rhyme or reason to much of it.
I got there about 9:30 Saturday morning, after experiencing a delicious omelet at the Embassy Suites. I had brought most of my closet with me, so the director Jefferson would have his pick of what I would be wearing. After getting dressed, I got to sit down in the hair chair. I don’t really know what she did there, but she sprayed some stuff and combed something. Then I got to sit with the wonderful Cassie in the makeup chair. She’s so amazing—so calming, so loving, and encouraging. Everything a nervous actor needs.
While in the chair, I could look out the window and see a huge group of people moving across the parking lot. I said, “Hmm…look at all those people! I wonder what they’re doing?” Cassie said, “Those are the extras for the shoot today.” That immediately jazzed me up. I’ve been an extra on so many shoots. I know how miserable it can be. How thankless. And how much you feel like a dumb sheep being herded around and generally treated like crap. And how it feels to look up and see the “important” people getting to do the real acting…and wonder if I’d ever get that chance.
My first motion picture extra work was in the early 90s, in the not-yet-classic film “Drop Dead Fred” starring Phoebe Cates, a guy who was on “ER” (Ron Eldred, I think) and another guy who was in the British sitcom, “The Young Ones.” I got to be in a giant food fight scene that took place in a swanky downtown Minneapolis restaurant. I was in prime position. When the camera was on Phoebe eating dinner, I was directly behind her. You could totally see the back of my head. It was awesome. My big break, I was certain. I discovered if I “reacted” a bit to the commotion, and turned my head, you would probably see my actual face. I did a lot of sideways glances that day. Can you imagine how thrilled I was when the director actually came over to my table. I leaned toward him. He graciously whispered in my ear, “Don’t turn around so much.” There goes my Oscar. (Though the side of my head did make it onto the back of the DVD box. Score!)
This past weekend was surreal in so many ways. I wasn’t an extra. I actually had a very sizeable role in this scene. I play the antagonist in the film, and this was my big day to present my case to the City Council. I pretended to be Harry Hamlin in “L.A. Law"—but don’t tell anybody I told you that. We shot the crowd scenes first, a lot of "over my shoulder” looking at the crowd kind of stuff. Then at the end of the day, we did my medium and close-up shots. For those shots, the extras were gone, and I acted to a few crew people, and in my head, my high school drama teacher Mr. Fortney, who let me be the only guy he didn’t cast in “Pippin,” my senior year musical. More on that later.
During the shoot, I also realized the value of kindness, and how incredibly easy it can be to show some. I pictured myself as an extra, hoping that Phoebe Cates would even just make eye contact with me—to acknowledge my existence as a fellow actor, much less a fellow person. So Smeby decided to not be Phoebe. I had some awesome conversations with some of the fellow actor/people working that day. I was honored to hear about Steve’s son, Nils’ desire to act, and Evan’s passion for writing and teaching. I was also thrilled to mostly remember all my lines.
Overall, I was blown away by the attitude on the set. It was an attitude of encouragement—people would actually clap for each other between takes. Jefferson was an amazing director/writer/actor—continually being gracious to everyone, especially as he’d explain the process of filmmaking to those who were on their first set.
I left feeling on top of the world. There had been a terrible snow and ice storm while we were shooting inside the City Hall, but I managed to lug all my clothes back into my trunk, scrape off my car, and once back in my hotel room, celebrate an amazing day with some delicious mint chocolate chip ice cream. This joy, this gratitude, this blown-awayness—of having received an opportunity I’ve only dreamed of—feels like incredible success.