The murderous shooting rampage in July of last year at a crowded Aurora, Colorado movie theater forced Warner Brothers to immediately pull the trailer running in theaters depicting an eerily similar scene from the upcoming film Gangster Squad. What I'm sure was a painful, expensive decision for Warner Brothers to re-shoot that pivotal scene was only made worse by the experience background actors felt on set.
I worked five fairly grueling days on the first cut of the Warner Brothers movie, in the notoriously removed Grauman's Chinese Theater scene, then again, nine months later on the re-shoot, where the goodwill of the production team seemed to fall apart completely.
I became a background actor in August, 2011. After surviving breast cancer, my husband's mid-life crisis and a subsequent divorce, I decided to pursue a dream of scriptwriting and I moved from San Jose to Los Angeles to work in television. I had owned a successful video production company for many years produced corporate video and commercials for Silicon Valley companies. I was able to get freelance reporting, writing and field producing jobs but I wasn't getting near any television production until I became a background actor.
I was excited to work on Gangster Squad and ended up next to many of the stars, most especially Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin. I'm happy to report they were all top-notch, charming and kind to background artists.
Sadly, when I think of Gangster Squad, the trailer that plays in my mind is a memory-montage of blistering feet, exhaustion, hunger, thirst, burns from hot gun shells, ringing ears from constant explosions, no earplugs, breathing smoke for days, stressed-out crew, freezing outside on wet pavement at the Chinese Theater and the crowning event that nearly turned me into a mini-Muhammad Ali (being shoved by a very sour assistant director for no reason), all for a minimum-wage paycheck. Not even memories of Ryan Gosling's angelic charisma or Josh Brolin's fun-loving charm can erase these images.
I'm not a complainer and I wish I could say the mistreatment of background is rare, but after doing it successfully with a cheerful attitude for a year and half while I write a book about it, I'm sorry to report that isn't the case. This might surprise those who are under the impression that Hollywood is a town full of liberal, pro-union, up-with-people, studio executives. From my perspective, there is a caste system on set and non-union background actors are frequently at the very bottom of it, right below prop furniture and wardrobe.
Background is frequently fun, but for non-union actors it pays extremely low wages of $8 per hour minus expenses. Non-union background is not reimbursed for traveling, providing wardrobe, the dreaded "walk-away lunch" (you pay for it) and other necessities, so working long, multiple days on a movie, where you begin to make double-time pay is a blessing. You will rarely hear a background actor complain about working a 14-hour day, especially on a big-budget feature, which usually will provide a decent holding area and feed you well. Eating is a very practical concern of people living on $8 an hour.
Period pieces typically begin with a costume fitting. This is tough for background artists due to the unpredictability of working hours on set, you can't book work on anything else the day of the fitting and you are only paid $16. It's basically a day of work lost where the wardrobe people, frequently known for having the personalities of prison guards, poke, pull, grab and look your body up and down disapprovingly until the top decision-maker comes by and finally gives the thumbs up.
We were required to wear everything from the '40s period, including girdles, garter belts, pointy bras, seamed hosiery, slips, hats, gloves, jackets, coats and the horrible shoes and jewelry of the time. Hair and makeup people can be just as bad. When the styles are intricate, it really depends whose chair you end up in, whether you'll be smiling or crying, infected with germs or disinfected with harsh burning chemicals, and ultimately looking pretty or pretty ugly. It took hours to go through wardrobe, hair and makeup on Gangster Squad.
The Grauman's Chinese Theater scene was pretty standard as far as grueling background experiences go. We earned our money. It included all-nighters with temps ranging from 36º to 42º. Approximately 300 freezing background artists walked up and down Hollywood Boulevard. till dawn, with wet shoes from the constant spraying of the water trucks to make the streets pretty.
The second we heard "cut" we would all run to one of the small lights set up on the street and attempt to warm our hands and feet. We weren't allowed to use the heaters set up for top production crew and actors.
Many of the ladies were complaining about their feet, but I couldn't believe it when I saw one girl ask wardrobe for another pair of shoes -- after showing them that her feet were actually bleeding. The wardrobe lady curtly refused, handed her a band-aid and said, "Your shoes have been established on camera now, we can't change them." The girl went away nearly in tears with the band-aid. This ridiculous comment was a turning point for me, considering there were probably 300 people and several stars in scene.
All of this so far is pretty typical of what background deals with all the time and frankly I was having fun, laughing with Josh Brolin about his habit of taking his chewing gum out of his mouth and sticking it on buildings between takes. Things intensified when we were finally called to work inside the theater. I was happy to be out of the cold and overjoyed when they picked about a third of us to work the rest of the days in the shoot-out scene.
We were told we would be working with live gunfire in and outside the theater. We were given some safety instructions and foam ear-plugs. After receiving several announcements from the director, Ruben Fleischer and the first assistant director, I feared there was genuine concern for our safety.
If I looked terrified in this scene (and I did because I saw the screening), I wasn't acting. I was not prepared for multiple days of unbelievably loud, real gunfire over my head, sawed off shotgun explosions, getting hit with red-hot shell casings that were flying everywhere in the theater, being trampled running out of the theater and falling numerous times on the slippery wet pavement in soaking wet shoes. Lack of sleep becomes a factor when you are required to return to the set eight to 10 hours later and do it all again. By the last day we looked like the 1940s zombie apocalypse. I suddenly understood why more experienced background opted out of the shoot-out scene.
Still, I considered all of this more or less acceptable and the memory faded by the time I was booked on the re-shoot. What happened then was completely unacceptable and highlighted the huge differences in treatment of the union vs. non-union background artists.
When I returned to Gangster Squad for the re-shoot, I was prepared for a long day of gunfire, uncomfortable clothes, walking and running. I wasn't prepared for all of the above plus a 15.5-hour day on a smoky set without breaks, hours of thirst or any food at all. This was a first. I was not allowed to go to the parking lot where food had been set up for the crew when we arrived in the afternoon. I tried and was quickly kicked out by a stressed-out production assistant who told me all non-union females had to be in makeup immediately, even though I explained I was 15 minutes early.
Photo Credit: Cassandra M. Bellantoni
Once I went through wardrobe, hair and makeup, I was taken directly to an extremely smoky set in Chinatown where I stayed until I was wrapped when the sun came up. I bring water with me everywhere I go due to a medical condition, but was not allowed to during this shoot. This was the first time (not the last) I had ever been on a set with no water for background actors.
Production crew were eating food and drinking bottles of water in front of us on set, knowing we were all thirsty, but I was told by both production assistants and assistant directors, even when I explained I have a health condition, we couldn't have the bottles of water they had, for fear they would show up in the scene and water would soon be coming. I wasn't alone, many people were asking for water, but we did not receive a drop of water until we had been on set for four hours. At hour six it also became clear there would be no break for a meal for the background artists. We are used to waiting past six hours for a meal, but there were correct rumors going around that there wasn't going to be a meal at all. To make matters worse, we kept hearing from assistant directors the re-shoot was costing Warner Brothers a lot of money.
We were without our cars, trapped on set, in costume and it was the middle of the night. The crew did receive a hot meal and were going in shifts to eat because production never stopped, therefore background actors were not released for any breaks.
Here's where a giant difference between union and non-union BG shows up. If we are not given a meal by hour six, non-union background receive one $8 meal penalty and that's it.
Union background received meal penalties every half hour. In this case, union background received 18 meal penalties resulting $217.50 on their checks, according to the rates listed on the SAG/AFTRA website. That leaves a better taste in the mouth.
Unlike the Chinese Theater scene, on the re-shoot we had no safety meetings, no inspirational messages from the director or ear plugs, for that matter. I almost had a heart attack when without any warning production threw extremely loud firecrackers at our feet while we were walking. I heard another rumor that a few hungry union background artists got angry and called the union representative to complain. Later, they passed out some earplugs and brought tiny cups of water for us. Near the end of the 15.5-hour night there was a cheese tray passed around by catering. I grabbed a couple of cubes.
There were other rotten things that happened on that set but the worst part of the night was when a female assistant director, who had been yelling at people all night and seemed generally pissed off at the world, even the stars of the movie, grabbed me forcefully and shoved me in front of the camera. This was it for me. All night she had been grabbing people who were doing crosses and giving them little rude shoves when she wanted them to cross in front of the camera lens.
I had noticed her doing it to her group of extras, but I was in a different group, working with a nice assistant director, walking in another direction with a pretend husband and Josh Brolin.
I happened to walk past her because I was searching for water and I had already done my cross. The cameras were still rolling. She suddenly grabbed me without looking at me. I thought it would mess up the shot because of the direction change, so I pulled away from her and she grabbed me again harder and actually shoved me. I couldn't believe it. Right then the director yelled, "cut." And she said to me in the nastiest way imaginable, "If I tell you to go... you fucking go."
The truth is, I had been smiling and working hard all night, but I had it at that point. The girdle, the shoes, the thirst, the hunger, the money and my smoke-burned eyes were like a volcano about to erupt and I was ready to throw down with her then and there. I guess she realized I was probably her mother's age and I was filled with a fury she didn't want to deal with because she suddenly disengaged and literally ran to another part of the set.
I was left questioning why I would ever be doing this stupid job. It was all I could do to finish out those days even with a few improvements being overseen by Warner Brothers executives the next day, which resulted from many of our complaints to the casting director and the union. Complaining or speaking out about anything that happens on set is deeply frowned upon by casting directors and production. The SAG/AFTRA union representative was contacted and declined to comment about the events on Gangster Squad.
Background actors deserve better treatment than what happened on Gangster Squad. Extras are the human beings behind and around the actors, who provide the atmospheric illusion of the director's vision. Although directors frequently tell us how important we are to "sell the scene," many times those same productions treat us with less care than the prop furniture. It's sad because there's no protection for non-union workers, less and less protection for union workers and background artists are incredibly grateful when they are treated well.
This experience and others, inspired me to speak out and in addition to writing a series of upcoming national feature stories about the business of background, I have now launched a Kickstarter Project for a book Deep Background-Living Life As An Extra In Hollywood which is up and running.