A Weekend in the Life of an Extra

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007 11:46 AM


7:15 p.m. Call time. The "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" people have set up headquarters on the blacktop desert at the old convention center site at Ninth and G streets NW. Beside a cluster of white tents, the costume crew is approving what we extras are wearing. I was told to dress like a young lawyer researching a case. Navy slacks, white shirt, subtle tie. For me, this is a nightmare. But I repeat to myself: You're doing this for the picture. It's all for the picture.

7:16. A jogger makes his way through the lot and actually mutters "crazy extras" as he passes us. What's crazier: being an extra or bothering to jog through a closed-off area for the chance to mutter "crazy extras"?

7:30. The hair and makeup ladies vet our appearance. The hair lady asks one willowy woman to take her wig off.

"But why?" the woman asks.

"Because it looks like a wig," the hair lady says.

The woman complies, removing her billowing, wheat-colored wig to reveal a head of troubled, bleach-blond hair. In 10 minutes, the hair lady makes it look voluminous and photogenic as the woman sits in front of a vanity, holding her wig in her lap as if it's a slumbering pet.

"Cellphones on vibrate!" bellows Maryellen Aviano, the extras casting coordinator.

8:10. Still under the tents, waiting to be transported to the Library of Congress. One extra is clipping coupons. Another is doing a crossword puzzle. Another reads P.G. Wodehouse.

8:39. In a big white van heading to the library. One extra talks about the shooting of the Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" a few years back and how difficult it was to use portable potties while wearing a hoop skirt.

9:02. The marbled halls of the Library of Congress are clogged with heavy cables snaking their way from equipment to outlets and generators. The gaggle of extras that has just passed through security is gossiping about working on "The Bourne Ultimatum," which shot here in February.

9:47. After waiting in the background holding area at the library, we readers are positioned at desks around the circular reading room. The camera is a couple of floors up, pointing out over the balustrade and down toward us on the ground floor. A crew member hands out books for us to "read." I get a 1966 edition of "Society and Prostitution Today."

10:15. Our first roll, three hours after call time. "Action." It lasts seven seconds before "Cut." Then more waiting. Everything is happening above us and behind bookcases. It's not a good view.

10:20. Nicolas Cage's voice echoes from above. Then, a glimpse of him in a tux. Something important is happening, plot-wise, but we're all just readers reading.

10:25. Another take. More reading.

10:35. Camera needs to be reloaded with film.

Midnight. After the crew moves the camera a few feet for the second setup, we roll again. More reading. More waiting between takes. Time drags. It's about time I made conversation with the person nearest to me, Sandy Powers, a figure skating instructor at the Naval Academy.

"Have you seen the first one?" I ask, referring to "National Treasure."

"I was in the first one," Powers says.

"But have you seen it?"

"No. I have a list of 20 movies I have yet to see to see if I'm in it." A pause. "Is that Nicolas Cage up there?" she asks, pointing to the maze of bookcases several floors up.


"He's a little shrimp."

"Oh, really?"

"He was only a little taller than me." The speculation over Cage's height continues.

12:10 a.m."Society and Prostitution Today" isn't as illicit as I'd hoped, so I sneak to a stack between takes, extract a tome on philosophy and try to pass the time by reading the chapter "Spinoza: God Exists." The Dutch philosopher writes, "In eternity there is no when, nor before, nor after." I'll say.

12:20. We break for lunch. Yes, lunch. (It may be lunchtime in California, but it's bedtime here.) Nevertheless, after a tedious Saturday, lunch is an extravagant welcome into Sunday. We are herded like cattle outside -- one of us actually makes a mooing sound -- and under a white tent. There's a sushi bar, a big pork roast and plenty of fixings -- salads, desserts and, thanks be to Bruckheimer, some caffeine.

I sit next to Cliff Goulet, a Manhattanite and 20-year veteran of the Screen Actors Guild who made the trip down for the whole two-week D.C. shoot. "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" will be able to use him in a variety of settings, as long as he's not "established" (prominent enough in the scene that viewers will remember him).

"A monkey could do what we're doing," says Goulet, who says he has extra'd in 250 episodes of "Law & Order."

Then why do it?

"For the chance to work with someone like John Huston on 'Prizzi's Honor,' " Goulet says. "You can get upgraded on the set. On occasion, you do get lines."

After lunch, we're led back to the holding area, where we wait. And wait. Some people stretch out on the floor. Others tell dirty jokes or cobble together a makeshift bed of furniture. One woman defiantly reads and rereads the same section of newspaper until . . .

3:30. That's a wrap.


4 p.m. Call time. Beefy, crew-cut men stand around in the tent headquarters at Ninth and G. They are extras that fit the description of "police officer" or "SWAT." Once in a uniform, they look like the real thing.

4:35. One guy who's playing a SWAT team leader is talking to a fellow extra about how he wants to be Dennis Quaid's double.

"He's 17 years older than me," the Quaid look-alike says. "His birthday's the 19th of April, and mine's tomorrow. I've submitted to Dennis Quaid's agent. John Travolta's double pulls in $150,000 and gets a daily." Meaning Travolta's double has a minor speaking part in all his films.

4:45. Talk turns, as it tends to do, to Cage's hair. "I heard he puts a toupee on and brushes plugs back over it," one guy says.

5:40. At the Library of Congress, the sprightly second assistant director gives us some direction. "I don't want to give the story away, but I kind of have to," she says. [SPOILER ALERT!] "One of our characters has kidnapped the president." The cop extras are instructed to have their guns drawn but not raised. And for us readers: "You'll be, like, 'What the hell is going on?' " We all spread out at different desks across the reading room and wait. What the hell is going on?

6:08. The stand-ins for Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha (co-leads who were in the first "National Treasure") race down the aisle of the reading room and sneak down a stairwell.

6:20. The real Diane Kruger and Justin Bartha race down the aisle of the reading room and sneak down a stairwell.

7:00. One of the assistant directors positions me at a different desk, and I'm given some direction. On "background," I'm supposed to get up, close a book at my desk and walk directly in front of the camera just as Kruger and Bartha run up the aisle. It's choreographed so that they just miss me. With each take, they adjust my cue so a collision seems more and more inevitable. We do this about a dozen times. Each time I come within two feet of the lens. I am focused on exuding young lawyerliness. I feel . . . a part of something.


11:17. Back in the reading room. The crew is busy shooting without sound. Cage leans over the balustrade a few floors up and reacts dramatically, whipping off his glasses in alarm. "More urgency!" director Jon Turteltaub calls after one take. They probably do 20 or 30 takes in total. Cage whipping off his glasses with more urgency. Cage removing his glasses with great anticipation. Cage whipping off his glasses and then sprinting away from the balustrade.

11:30. They reload the camera with 40mm film and do the same thing again.

11:44. I overhear a snippet of conversation between two techies as they move by my desk.

"Where do you want to go?" one asks as they hoist the dolly track.

"I want to go to Burbank, but that's out of the question."

11:50. Cage's stand-in (same height, same hair, much more youthful-looking) walks in. His name is Mick. I imagine his business card: Mick, Fake Nic.

12:33 a.m. I am assigned to peruse stacks in one of the upper tiers. I pick out a volume of New York Times film reviews and look up criticism of Turteltaub's previous movies. The first "National Treasure"? Stephen Holden called it "a piece of flotsam" and "so inconsequential that it amounts to little more than a piece of Hollywood accounting."

1:40. Reprising his role as a lead FBI agent, Harvey Keitel walks onto set, looking grave, his face seeming to say, "This again?"

1:45. We repeat the movements of earlier in the evening, but for a wider shot. We add the SWAT team to the mix and extend the action. This means I'm crossing from my desk and continue on around the librarian console and practically meet the SWAT team head-on.

We readers are corralled toward the librarians' desk in the center of the rotunda by law enforcement officers who are urged by the director (take after take) to be more forceful and commanding. An extra playing an FBI chief addresses us. Note: He is not wired for sound, the camera is nowhere near us and this exchange was never supposed to appear in the film in the first place. Yet we do it to maintain the authenticity of the whole scene.

"Please come over here quickly, ladies and gentlemen," the chief says. "The president's been kidnapped."

We flutter and gasp. And then fellow extra Cliff Goulet says:

"Is that such a bad thing?"

Bear in mind: There is no chance any of this will make it into the movie.

2:25. Between takes, readers put their heads on their desks. Everything is hazy. At one point, I put my head down and wake up in my bed at home at 4 a.m. (Dream?) Either way, it's now legitimately Monday morning. Soon it's time to go to real work. With a serious Hollywood hangover.

Read More ...

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