Angelica Huston's black bob swings back and forth, keeping time with the click of her heels on the sidewalk. As the Oscar-winning actress passes, she throws us a warm but impish smile and then fades into the nighttime air. Her departure cheers the crowd, which has been waiting in the cold and will finally be called to fill the ground floor of VBH Luxury on New York's Upper East Side. The high-end showroom serves as an on-location site for Smash, the new NBC television show produced by Steven Spielberg about the birth of a Broadway musical.
Along with approximately 75 other people, I've been hired as background for a big party, which means we'll be seen but not heard in the episode, human props moved around to create an enthusiastic and festive atmosphere. The casting company told us in advance that we, along with lead character Tom Levitt (played by Christian Borle), are portraying gays and lesbians attending a Republican fundraiser for major donors. The men are outfitted in dark, pinstriped suits and somber ties, while the women are dressed in conservative business attire accented with expensive-looking scarves. I can't help but think we look like Ann Coulter groupies, fresh from a day slaving away in our Wall Street closets -- er, I mean cubicles.
Positioned at the head of the waiting line, I'm one of the first extras to enter into the two-story building. Living in Manhattan, it's easy to become immune to luxurious spaces, but the towering ceilings, plush, earth-tone furniture, and polished wood floor featuring my middle-aged reflection make even my jaded eyes pop. It's no surprise when the Second Assistant Director warns us not to sit on anything.
"No, no, no. That's not allowed either," he runs over and tells a woman rolling up her black overcoat and laying it on a cream-colored couch. I don't blame the A.D., since he's only following orders. No doubt VBH only agreed to the TV shoot under the proviso that there's no damage to the interior.
As I look around and take inventory of the other background actors, my gaydar barely bleeps. Maybe 10 percent appear to belong to the LGBTQ community. It's a surprise, as I figure there'd be a lot more of us, especially given the assignment.
"You," a crewmember points at me. "And you," he says to a handsome, silver-haired man. "Come with me." Gesturing to the gorgeous orange knot around my cast mate's neck, I bestow the "Best Tie of the Evening" award on him. Soon I learn that Stephen works as a banker, not as a professional actor. Like me, he is doing this for the adventure.
My new friend and I are instructed to act like a gay power couple, gripping and grinning as we work our way through the mass of guests in a specific sequence that we're to repeat for every take. With the long- and medium-shots, close-ups, reverses -- and numerous retakes -- we'll spend a great deal of the 10-hour shoot together. Fortunately, he's a charming conversationalist and seems comfortable putting his arm around me and playing the role of my date.
We agree that I'll wait for him at the top of a staircase, and in order to enhance the realism of the scene, he'll come up and "surprise" me at the start of each take. My position puts me behind two 20-somethings who've also been paired up. They're about three feet in front of me, so I'm close enough to hear their conversation, but not so close that they're aware of me.
"Which one of us has to be the girl?" jokes the blond.
"You're shorter than me. You lose," replies the dark-haired guy.
"All right, but only if I have to."
"Too bad, dude!"
They both start punching each other on the shoulder and even let out a giggle or two. Meanwhile, blood rushes to my face. I take in a long breath and then slowly exhale. Angered by their exchange, I want to let them know I find their attitudes both homophobic and misogynistic, but the director calls for quiet on the set. I hear the sound of the black and white clapboard strike. The high-definition camera begins rolling, and I hear the crew cry out, "Action!"
I try to focus on our cues so that Stephen and I cross in front of the camera at exactly the right time, but I'm struggling. It seems ironic that people can be so ignorant, even on the set of what will probably be one of the gayest TV shows of all time. (I mean, please, it's about Broadway.) Moreover, this is a scene where everyone is supposed to be queer. For actors, this is as gay as it gets.
Though I didn't speak up when I first overheard the offending comments, I want to say something during our next break. Part of me feels it's my obligation to educate these two young actors and let them know there is no "woman" in a gay relationship -- and no "man" in a lesbian one.
Another thing that angers me is their assumption that the shorter partner in a same-sex couple automatically assumes a more passive role. True, some couples use the 1950s model where one calls the shots, but many of us have created a new paradigm where both partners come as equals, and neither dominates the other, regardless of height, age, income, or any other metric.
But, maybe I should mind my own business. I don't want thought police attacking my every private conversation, and that's what this was -- a tête-à-tête that I happened to overhear.
I remember that many of the world's great religious and philosophical traditions admonish us to look within before finding fault with someone else. Jesus of Nazareth says, "How can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:4-5 NKJV).
On the same subject, the Dalai Lama writes, "Rather than criticizing others, we should evaluate and criticize ourselves. Ask yourself, what am I doing about my anger, my attachment, my pride, my jealousy?"
Even from the world of psychology, Carl Gustav Jung advises, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves."
While I believe that it's always important to stand up for social justice and speak truth to power, even when inconvenient, this situation on the set of Smash doesn't fit that mold. The 20-something actors are mere extras, not authority figures, nor are they intentionally trying to hurt anyone. They're two nervous straight guys confronted with playing characters outside their comfort zone. Since the duo knew before accepting the background assignment that they'd portray gay men, I need to give them credit.
When I ask myself why I became so outraged with the brief verbal exchange, I don't like the answer. As a guy of medium height (5'9" in shoes on an especially tall day), I've mostly dated men whose pants-length is much longer than mine. I have to come clean and admit that I fear that people will think I'm the more passive one in the relationship because of my stature. Plus, it really bothers me that others might think I'm feminine or womanly.
Whoa! Who's the real misogynist and homophobe now? With gritted teeth, I wave to the fellow I spy when I look down into the shiny parquet floors at VBH Luxury.
The Hindu sage Mohandas Gandhi tells us, "Be the change you wish to see in the world." If I want to live in a planet without prejudice, then I should start by eliminating my character defects before lecturing others.
Throughout most of the shoot, I've been so focused on working through my judgment that I haven't paid any attention to the two young actors. During the last take, shortly before the crew calls out "checking the gate," which signals the final workday wrap, I notice the taller one has his arm around the other's shoulder -- not like a lover, but like a brother. Still, it's obvious they are trying to play gay as best they can. I doubt the viewers at home will be able to tell the difference.
Have you ever accidentally overheard a homophobic comment? How did you react? I'd love to hear your story.