As a writer, I can’t help dreaming about having one—or more—of my novels made into a film. And I know I’m not alone. Just go on the Listopia section of Goodreads and you’ll discover that one of their most popular list is “Books that Should be Made into Movies.” Because let’s face it: almost everyone writing today has been influenced by movie culture, and although many writers are shy and reserved, lots of us have big, glamorous dreams. Imagine being asked by a movie director what actors you envision playing your characters. Your characters: those people conceived in your mind, growing to larger-than-life proportions and commanding silver screens across the country—maybe even around the world.
Therefore, a few years ago, when I heard that director David O. Russell was filming a major motion picture in the Boston area, and that a local casting company was seeking extras to do background work, I jumped at the opportunity. Not only was I star struck—I’d heard through the grapevine that some of the film’s stars included Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Christian Bale—but I also secretly hoped I might be able to slip a copy of my recently self-published book (Living by Ear, which is now published by Booktrope Editions) into Mr. Russell’s hands. After all, I could totally see Amy Adams playing the role of my protagonist, Boston musician-turned-frustrated-housewife Christine Daley. And wouldn’t Christian Bale be perfect as Chris’s gorgeous, talented, long-lost lover, Curt. So I filled out the forms on the casting company’s website and had my daughter take some head shots. I didn’t expect anything to happen—as I had zero acting experience—but the opportunity was irresistible.
So imagine my surprise when I got the call! The timing was especially interesting, as I was at a local animal shelter, adopting a dog. Our family had wanted a dog for years, and then—just as we were finalizing our decision to take Spencer home—my cellphone rang and it was a casting director. Could I go in for a fitting the following day, then be on set for two days the following week? I wasn’t sure what to say, but my amazing husband told me to go for it. He said he’d work from home on the days I’d be busy, and would make sure the kids and new dog got the help and attention they required. I was so excited. As I got ready to go to work on my first day, I made sure I had a copy of Living by Ear in my purse.
So what happened? Well, as you might’ve deduced, the film was American Hustle, and as an extra, one of the first things I did was sign an agreement, stating that under no circumstances would I fraternize with, or speak to the stars or the director. Any violation of that rule would result in instant ejection from the set. So much for slipping Mr. O’Russell a copy of my novel.
I will say, however, that I was very lucky, because on the days I was selected to be on set, most of the major actors were there as well. In fact, there was one scene—most of which ended up on the cutting room floor—in which I got to spend several hours in close proximity to Mr. Cooper, Mr. Bale, Ms. Adams, Ms. Lawrence, and a few other A-listers. That was extremely surreal, and a memory I’m sure I’ll carry with me forever.
As for the work? Well, first of all, I learned that acting—even as an extra with no lines at all—is difficult physical work. I’m sure you’ve heard that said before and perhaps have your doubts, but it really is. And I’m a pretty active person. I jog a couple of miles every day; I keep the house clean; I do the laundry; I walk the dog; I handle most of the food shopping and all the cooking in our house; I run errands; I transport the kids to their various weekend and after-school activities. Oh, and I write books too. But after two twelve-hour days on the film set—in three-inch spike heels, no less—I could barely move, let alone think. I have no idea how other parents manage to do that type of work, but plenty of my coworkers during those two days—both famous and non-famous—were parents.
I also got the tiniest sense of the psychological challenges film actors must face every day. After all, movies are all about projecting images, which—by nature—aren’t real. So all day long, an actor is required to be someone he or she isn’t. Not to mention that there are seemingly endless touchups to hair and makeup, hundreds of wardrobe adjustments, and ultimately thousands of attempts to make everything look and sound perfect. And then, after the final cut of the day, the actor walks out the door, and goes back to his or her normal life. Again, this may seem pretty obvious, but in my case, after spending twelve or more hours in evening wear—with a glamorous hairstyle and makeup, surrounded by Hollywood A-listers—it felt extremely strange to change into jeans, get on the T, and return home in time to get the dog out for a late-night walk.
In any case, I was quite grateful for the experience, which taught me a lot and altered my perspective for several days. In some ways, being an extra in a movie is like taking a brief vacation from your actual life. You become immersed in a world that exists only to the other people on the set. For example, the American Hustle scenes I was in were filmed in Boston’s Wang Center, but I don’t think anyone walking by the building would’ve suspected that much of anything was going on inside.
But indoors? The various backstage rooms, corridors, and staircases of the beautiful old theater had been temporarily transformed into beauty salons, eating areas, holding areas, and dressing rooms. And, because all the extras were required to wait in line for at least an hour each day to have their hair and makeup done, I got to meet so many interesting people! I also think the nature of extra—or background—work encourages an immediate openness between peers that you don’t find in most other industries. Everyone’s aware that the world they’re currently immersed in isn’t going to last much longer, so why not enjoy the time and have some really good, intense conversations?
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I keep my name on the casting company’s mailing list, and whenever I get a request for availability, I check my calendar and let them know if I’m a potential candidate for work. So far, I haven’t gotten called for another film, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
On the other hand, I have no more illusions about slipping a director one of my books! I think there’s a better chance of a filmmaker finding one of my novels on Amazon or stumbling across my blog! Not only are extras not allowed to speak to the director, but purses and other personal items—including cellphones—are strictly forbidden on set.
Oh, and did I get on the screen in American Hustle? Um…yes, you could say that. Of course I ran out to see the movie as soon as it was released, and was disappointed to find how many of the scenes I was (remotely) involved in didn’t make the final cut. However, there’s a part of the movie when Jeremy Renner (as Carmine Polito) makes a speech about never giving up. If you look at the clip below and pay special attention to the lower left section of the screen from about 0.41 to 0.47–and don’t blink!–you might notice a tall,blond woman in a pale green dress dancing with a white-haired man. That’s me!