When I told my friends about my stint as a background actor (“extra”) on an episode of “Ugly Betty” they thought I was the luckiest person ever. Imagine getting to mingle with the stars on this wonderful show, to be surrounded by the exotic trappings of Hollywood. “Was it exciting? Was it fun?” they asked. Well, it was a lot of things: terrifying, ego-squelching, boring, exhausting, and, yeah, kind of fun.
I'm the least likely person to get involved in show business. I have a full-time “real” career that pays well. I have a lumpy middle-aged body that normally runs from cameras and their extra 10 pounds. But here's the lure of background acting: you get to go behind the scenes, get into secret places, and see and do things that are normally off limits. And when you see yourself on TV you jump up and down shrieking ecstatically and then show your friends the tape.
My husband, who's done several background gigs (resulting in shrieking and jumping when he appeared on screen), egged me on. The first step was the ego-squelching part: signing up at the agency and getting my picture taken. I have never felt so old and fat as I did standing in line with those twenty-somethings.
After that I was too traumatized to try to get a gig for months. But finally, when I had some time off from work I called the job line and got hired for the “Ugly Betty” episode, as one of about 80 theater-goers seeing “Wicked.”
Bring your own wardrobe
We were supposed to wear “elegant dresses.” I have one dress: a $30 polyester number from Target. I worried that I'd be rejected upon arrival. “Are you kidding with that thing? And you're too ugly for ‘Ugly Betty’,” I imagined them saying. Luckily this didn't happen.
Then we sat for hours until we were called to the set — the lobby of the theater — where we were given prop drinks and “Wicked” programs. I was placed on my entry point by friendly Second Assistant Director Courtney, then assigned a series of “crossings” between souvenir kiosks.
I was so focused on my instructions that at first I didn't notice the cameras, lights and principal actors. Now, I'm not star-struck but I was surprised to feel a jolt of excitement when I saw them. Observation: America Ferrera is much more slender than they make her out to be on the show. She'd only be considered “fat” at a fashion magazine. And she's so pretty! Those braces, glasses and eyebrows have to work hard to turn her into “Ugly Betty.” By the way, background actors don't talk to the principal actors, and if you stare at them you might as well hold up a neon sign that says “I'm a giant dork.” So there's no “mingling” with the stars.
The next surprise was how nervous I was. My heart was pounding and my legs were trembling as the director yelled “Rolling! ... Background!” (Background actors start moving a few seconds before they call “action” for the principal actors.) We did our background business silently, so the crowd noises will be added in later. As I did my crossings and pantomimed buying souvenirs, I strained to hear the dialogue but only caught a few tantalizing bits. Ironically, I couldn't tell what was going on just a few feet away from me. Another observation: If you're hoping for some dish about on-set tantrums or ego trips you'll be disappointed. This was a thoroughly focused, professional and businesslike set.
Then Courtney told me to cross directly in front of the camera. There went my heart again. I was certain the director would yell “Cut! Who's that idiot getting in the way?!” But finally tedium overcame nervousness and eventually I was strolling into the action as coolly as a professional (but secretly thrilled that I might show up on camera).
By the end of the 10-hour day my feet were killing me and I was thoroughly sick of those souvenir kiosks. But the second day of shooting made up for it. This was the day after America won the Emmy, and when she walked onto the set — carrying it — we all applauded. It felt very special to be part of that. Later she took a call from her father on her cell phone and suddenly she wasn't the big TV star anymore, just a daughter basking in her father's praise: “Thank you, Daddy … I love you.” That evening she hired an ice-cream truck for the cast and crew, and after hearing how disappointed the background actors were not to be included she sprung for all of us too. So now I can say “America Ferrera bought me ice cream.” Thank you, America!
The location that day was inside the theater, where we got to watch the three stars of “Wicked” perform several scenes, which I could have happily watched all day — especially since my seat was right up front and center. My daughter is a mega-fan who's seen this show six times, and while at age 17 she pretends total disinterest in her mom's activities, she was openly impressed by this. I was too, actually. It made up for the eight hours we spent sitting in folding chairs waiting. And for the long day that ended at midnight.
I've cashed my checks already: $67.55 for the first day and $112.87 for the second. So now it's all over but the possible shrieking and jumping if I show up on screen. And if I don't, well, I still got to do something pretty cool.
Kim Foreman lives in southern California.