Silently I mouth the names of as many fruits and vegetables as I can. It’s a strange one-sided conversation to have with a guy I just met 30 seconds ago. In between vegetables, I smile and fake laugh. Maybe this would be our first date? I think. On the table, the floral centerpiece blocks our view of each other. The frozen soft serve is made of styrofoam, the blackberries are plastic. I try to control my shivering. Feigning that it’s springtime in San Francisco isn’t easy, considering it’s actually a frozen November day in Michigan.

“CUT!” yells the director.

For a moment we’re relieved of miming. “What were you saying?” I ask the guy I just met — Mark.

“I was asking you about the menu. ‘What do you think of the steak? How about dessert?’ What were you saying? I thought I caught a ‘mango’ in there somewhere.”

“I was listing off produce. We used to tell our extras if they found it hard to come up with things to say to list the names of vegetables… broccoli, carrots, zucchini, corn… I worked with background when I was a PA.”

“You were a PA?”

I was. And as a Production Assistant, I empathized with the extras. Sometimes they sat for hours without being called to set. But, it wasn’t all bad. The extras’ catering was pretty tasty, and snacks were usually around. And free time, let me tell you, they had hours of it. Like to read books? Be an extra.

But now, being on the other side of the call sheet (as a PA I was part of the crew, as an extra I’m part of the background) isn’t so much strange as it is disheartening. All I want to do is chat with the PAs and the crew and talk about the film and the process. I want to be on the inside. Strangely, as an extra, even though I am actually in the movie, I am not part of the crew, and therefore I am stuck — on the outside.

I kind of feel like a cow in a herd of cattle. The room where the extras sit is called “extra’s holding.” It’s hard for the average background PA to treat extras like anything but cattle, or children. “Ok [children], it’s time to get your props and head to set. Come on [kids], hurry up, now!”

And the pay? It’s crap. The rate is $64/8, meaning a minimum flat rate of $64 for a full workday of 8 hours. If you work less, you are still paid $64, if you work more, you start making overtime – $12/hour.

The outdoor café scene where I mumbled vegetables to Mark lasted only 15 minutes. Afterward the PA tells us we need to change into our second outfit. Café Patron by morning, Park Jogger by afternoon.

But, I’m never brought to set. I sit in my metal folding chair with the rest of the herd, shivering in my 3/4 leggings and zip-up jacket. The holding room isn’t heated, and it’s only 40 degrees outside. Since we should be ready to go if the director calls for us, I avoid putting on extra clothes to layer up. So, I turn over another page of my book, and shiver.

At 3PM, my phone rings. “Hi Lauren, this is Jenna from Real Style. Did you get the email about working on Detroit 1-8-7 tomorrow?”

“Um, no…?” I am the only person I know in the movie business — or any business, for that matter — without a smartphone. And once again, I’m out of the loop.

“Oh… Well can you work on 1-8-7 tomorrow?”

“Um… sure.”

“Ok great. I’ll send you an email, please be sure to respond so I have your reply, OK? You’ll be playing a waitress so wear black pants, OK? We don’t know the call time yet, so, yadda, yadda…

After hanging-up, I stand up to stretch my cold muscles. Another day of this?

* * *

Not remembering the last time I was required to rise before 10 in the morning, I am a bit groggy after two days of getting up at 5AM. I arrive at the check-in for Detroit 1-8-7, an impromtu set-up in one of the Masonic Temple’s theaters. After giving my name, I’m told I need to see wardrobe and make-up. Oooh, now this is exciting. Normally extras don’t see these departments unless they have a specific role. Today I’m special (and so is another girl, who is a waitress too). The rest of the extras will be patrons in the diner.

The set at the diner is bustling with ACs fiddling with cameras, electrics atop Genie lifts adjusting lights, grips laying track and props delivering pipping hot falafals with waffle fries to tables. The AD herds us up the stairs to extra’s holding on the second floor. We have just enough time to set down our bags, then fellow waitress Mira and I are called to set.

The AD gives us starting marks and specific actions to be performed on script cues from the actors. I am told to cross paths directly with Shaun Majumder (who portrays Detective Vikram Mahajan) as he makes his way through the restaurant to meet an already seated James McDaniel (Sgt. Jesse Longford). Now, I’ve had experience as a waitress in real life, and also plenty (and much preferable) experience behind the camera, but how strange it is for me to be acting as a waitress in front of the camera.

Of course, my ‘role’ wasn’t much of a role at all. It garnered the necessary amount of attention from the crew — none whatsoever. Except for (restrained swooning!) the pleasantries of Shaun, the detective: he walked right up to me, introduced himself and said, pleased to meet you. I was mildly floored. And get this — an hour later, on one of our last takes, he referred to me by name.

I warmed up. I started to enjoy myself. I stuck up mini conversations between takes with the ACs next to me and even recognized a couple of the grips who I worked with on LOL. No longer feeling like just another cow in the cattle herd, I decided being an extra could be — even just a little — fun. ☼