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Rock Stars, Trained Seals, and the Truth About "Extra" Work

(A shot taken through the directors hand held camera right before filming some web content.)

Extra work might be pretty low on the social hierarchy of entertainment jobs. But it’s also not slinging burgers at McDonalds, so let’s be cool, guys. (Unless we are talking about a McDonalds commercial. I’d wear that paper hat so fast!)

It’s tempting to get on a high horse about what type of work we’re willing to do when we are “slashing”. We see our peers on Facebook, doing really exciting looking jobs. But they probably just choose not to post publicly about the days they worked as an extra. Or picked up a shift at a restaurant. Or walked doggies.

And they especially don’t post about the days they weren’t working at all, sitting in front of their computers submitting for everything, something, anything, dear God, let the phone ring, all stressed out about money and image and the whole shebang. Acting-slash-“anything” means that we have to juggle great with not so great.

So I try to keep perspective, watch closely and listen with both ears. And if an opportunity comes disguised as a “crappy” job, let’s all remember that it beats the hell outta diggin’ ditches.

I saw a friend recently at a tradeshow we were both working in Los Angeles.

“How are your gigs going?”

“Aw, you know”, he grinned, “some days I’m the king, and some days I’m shoveling shit”.

Sure, there are days we’re on top of the world—lead in a commercial, live event host, or plastered on a billboard—and other days, we’re third guy from the left in the background of an ice cream commercial that will only air in South Korea. When the rate is sixty-four dollars for eight hours, and they forget to tell you to bring sunscreen, your melting mind begins to fantasize unhealthily.

Any minute now someone will discover me. Aaaaaany minute now. (Crickets chirp)

I had both kinds of days quite recently, one after the other.

On the first shoot, the folks in charge treated me like a Total Rock Star Princess Pants. I was fussed over, given all the VOSS water I could drink, and allowed to program my favorite tunes on the Pandora while we prepped.

They lavished me with praise, and tipped me handsomely for finishing up early. Then they gifted me a full set of professional makeup brushes (worth lots of clams) and a huge bottle of their best night cream.

Ten minutes after I left the set, the client had already emailed my agent to rant and rave about my mad skills. Total Boss, I thought as I belted songs of victory in the car ride home.

But the very next day, I worked as an extra in the audience of an infomercial. So I mentally prepared myself to become a nameless, faceless applauder/ooher/aaaahhher.

It’s not a fancy job. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. Working on infomercials gives an aspiring host a golden opportunity to watch working hosts and evaluate their style.

The hosts are often celebrities, and witnessing the process is worth more than money. We barely clear minimum wage, but all we have to do is sit in one spot for hours on end, nod in agreement, and clap on command like trained seals. Then they give us snacks. Owr, owr, owr! (Seal noises)

Having come straight from Rock Star Princess Pants world, my ego was in full force. Fred was on fire, y’all! (Fred is the voice of ego inside my head—see my first post). He was like a nine year old kid. Fred did more eye rolling, sighing, whining and pouting than a little bit.

I’m tired. I don’t know anyone here. It’s too early. The only things to eat are sugary snacks and wilted veggies. We aren’t getting a lunch break until four pm! My butt hurts from sitting! This room full of extras is driving me crazy! I’m bored. Why, WHY do I have to sit in this holding area for seven hours?

Side note: that’s not an exaggeration for effect. The extras were kept in holding until three pm, and some of us had a call time of eight o’clock in the morning. That’s showbiz, folks. Wait seven hours to even walk onto set.

But like anything else in life, every experience on a set is as valuable as we make it. That day, I was quickly reminded that I was getting a paid education. One that people can’t get when they dwell in “I don’t FEEL like doing extra work” land.

This gig did not disappoint.

Our hosts were two celebrities: one movie star, and one television personality who was known as an infomercial host/TV host/author/supermom (talk about a slasher!).

I can’t speak too specifically because the network will sue me. Pesky non-disclosure agreements. But the insight I received watching these ladies work—invaluable!

Both women were beautiful, with dynamic personalities. But no one in the studio audience could deny the delivery styles were like night and day.

Our “movie star” host spoke to us, and the camera, like we were her best friends. A warm demeanor graced her lovely face, with genuine care and concern sewn into her words.

I was ready to order two creams plus a backup after hearing her pitch, and I have no signs of that particular skin problem. Because she was honest, credible, and clearly wanted the best for me. I mean, she knows me, right? Exactly. That’s a great host, a great salesperson.

Our “TV host”, on the other hand, was having trouble sounding authentic. Hands swirling around her hips and face as she “acted” her way through the teleprompts, I was pretty unimpressed by her fakey-bakey spiel.

She reminded me of Jenna Maroney from 30 Rock. Emphasizing predetermined words each time, she grinned and said, “Nobody wants to HIDE their skin, they want to FLAUNT IT! Amirite?”

The director kept cutting. “Another take please”. “Just one more”. “A little more genuine this time”. “More like girlfriends chatting, and less like a sales pitch, please”.

We shot for a total of three hours, and recorded enough takes of usable material to create about twelve minutes of television. Everything else they recorded without an audience, the day before.

But my favorite part? The doctored up “audience reaction” shots.

Oh, yeah. Those times the camera pans the audience, and they are nodding in approval, clapping, and laughing? That’s recorded at the end of the day and built into the show later. Think about THAT next time you’re watching Oprah.

Near the end of the day, two male models brought out a huge table of attractive looking gift bags. Payday! We’re getting product!

The cameras were rolling, and the hosts announced that everyone in the studio audience would take home the product to try. Everybody went wild. It was great television.

Once the cameras were off, the stage manager came out to make an announcement.

“So, you WILL be getting to take home some product today, but these bags are just props. Five bags have full size products for the final shot, but when you head home you’re only receiving about an ounce of the product, ok? Sorry guys”, she smiled.

There was a collective moment of, “Wah, wah”.

They passed out the bags, some of which had light bulbs and small pieces of wood inside, and other weird stuff that was just lying around set, to make each bag look substantial on television.

“Don’t open the bags unless you have real product!” the stage manager barked, training the cameras on our bewildered reactions. We dug deep and pretended.

Who says this isn’t acting, I thought.

When it was all over, we checked out and collected our pay. I was issued a very elaborately wrapped, tiny plastic jar that held about a teaspoon of cream.

Cream meant to be rubbed over our entire body. The tall gals would be lucky to cover one calf.

There were five different ribbons, layers of tape, and three large sheets of tissue paper to tear through before finding the treasure inside. It was like Rowan Atkinson’s gift-wrap bit in the movie “Love Actually” but with a much, much smaller payoff. They clearly didn’t want us knowing how little we’d received until we were miles from the studio.

Yet it was a most valuable day. I got a paid to learn, and a dollop of expensive skin cream too. (And a fantastic recipe for curried lentils from a beautiful Indian woman while we waited together. Boom!)

Even on my worst days on set, it beats the heck out of digging ditches. I might get ants in my pants if I’m not feeling challenged, but somewhere, someone in the world really is scooping poop.

This is what it means to live the dream. We don’t have to wait until we book that sitcom or land that co-star, or sign with Creative Artists Agency to be happy. Ups, downs, and loving it all—the dream is here and now.

I won’t wait until the next time I’m the host to feel like a boss. Even if I’m cleaning out the cat box, I’m a boss.

I might just not post about it on Facebook. :-)

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