Tuesday, July 12, 2005

I prefer ‘background actor’, thankyouverymuch

Thursday morning started like any other day – I pretended I was too sick with bilharzia to go to work, and headed over the set of a Hollywood movie filming in Uganda, for my day’s work as a movie extra. Just like I do every Thursday.

The set was conveniently located near my house, at the Makerere University library, a hallway of which had been converted into a 1970s-esque airport lounge and duty-free shop. After inadvertently wandering onto the set, (come on, next to the signs everywhere that say ‘to the set’, they really should put up signs reading ‘not where you go, extra’) where some actor in a wheelchair was getting wheeled down the hall towards some cameras that always stayed a tantalizing three feet out of his reach, I was directed down to the wardrobe tent-thingy outside. There I slipped into my gorgeous pink (“Actually, I think that’s really coral”) polyester dress, and waited for half an hour for my turn outside the hair/makeup area. After my wait, one of the hair/makeup people looked at me and said, “You look fine. Who’s next?” And then I headed over to “the hang out and wait and drink coffee tent.” (There, I spent the next several hours chatting with Kelly, who I had previously met once before, last year on the night my phone got stolen.)

At around 10:30 am (a good three and half hours after we arrived) they were ready to start filming the scene with the extras. By this time, they’d somehow managed to swell the male-extra ranks from zero to about seven or eight guys. (I think they might have literally been dragging white males off the street. At least one guy had just arrived for his Ugandan vacation about 12 hours before.) With about 25 extras in total, I guess this was enough for realism. When we arrived on the set, I was greeted by the World’s Bitchiest Makeup Person, who raked my hair back into a half-ponytail (thank god I have curly hair, I think I was the only woman who didn’t get either the Farrah Fawcett or Uptight Librarian treatment), and ordered some minion to remove my mascara, the only makeup I’d put on when I’d left my apartment at 6:30 that morning. I jokingly protested that I looked so much better with mascara, a statement I was immediately lambasted for with The Bitchiness of all Bitchiness. I yelped ‘but I was joking!’ and she informed me that “well, [she] was working”. In one of those shining moments where you actually think of the appropriate retort at the appropriate time (rather than three hours later), I informed her that at my work, we’re allowed to make jokes.

(Apparently the mascara had to be taken off because I was supposed to be a hostage who had been lying on the floor of an airport for two days, and we were meant to look tired and generally crappy. Fair enough, but I must say: if your audience is actually paying attention to the extra’s eyelashes, then your movie has way bigger problems than my makeup.)

Anyways, for about an hour and a half, myself and 24 other people lay on the floor, alternately looking ‘tired’ and ‘anxious’ and ‘scared’. Every once in while a group of terrorists would walk past (‘anxious’) and then a bunch of shooting and running happened (‘scared’). Even though we filmed the same seven seconds of movie over and over again, it was actually really interesting to watch how a movie gets made, with the various directions and camera angles and equipment and staff. I think I enjoyed listening in on the directors and crew more than I did the ‘lean against this planter and look tired’ acting.

Around 12:30, we broke for lunch and we all got into a line up for what looked like a delicious lunch – 4 different salads, beef or chicken, potatoes and rice, a few choices for dessert. Then somebody from the crew looked at us and said, “Oh, the lunch for the extras is over there.” And pointed us towards two guys with ladles – one for serving us up a plate of white rice, and one for serving us a scoop of beef stew out of a bucket. The vegetarians were forced to resort to tears to get food from the crew lunch, and the rest of us were forced to sit and complain and feel like demoralized second hand citizens while we watched the crew all around us eat what looked like a great lunch. It sounds dumb, but it made us all feel crappy/angry enough that a bunch of people threatened to leave, or to not come back the next day, and it certainly did nothing to engender good will between the extras and the crew. (Not a good move on the crews’ part, as they were already in a situation where they had only about half the number of white extras they had originally anticipated needing.) Apparently, this was the first day they’d filmed with white extras, the Ugandan extras had apparently been happy to eat the ‘extra lunch’ since vegetable dishes, salads, and desserts are not a usual part of the Ugandan diet anyway. I also don’t think they realised that the amount of money they were paying us was low enough that most of us expats considered ourselves to be essentially volunteering our time, and that a crappy lunch was enough to tilt the balance of good will away from wanting to do that. But anyways, long story short: Crappy lunch, annoyance.

After lunch, we were told that we would be back on set within about 20 minutes, and not to go anywhere or do anything. So we sat and we waited. (Insert the ‘do do do do do do dooo’ waiting-music from Jeopardy here.) We chatted and got to know one another. We got more bored and plotted how we could smuggle some beer into the waiting area in order to alleviate the boredom. We got more bored, and started several hours of card playing. We got so bored of cards that we actually resorted to playing the geography game, the one that kids play on long card trips. (You know… Kentucky… Yugoslavia… Arizona… Anchorage…) Finally, at 5:30 (!) we were told they wouldn’t need us and we could go. GRR!!!!! That meant that from 12:30 to 5:30 we sat around doing nothing for no good reason, we could have left hours earlier! Why!! WHY??? (Well, it turned out that the star of the movie, a young Scottish actor named James McAvoy had fainted during the filming of the scene we were waiting for them to finish. They’d been trying to see if he was better, if he could keep going, etc, and so didn’t get to us.)

So I walked home with my new friend Nate, who just arrived in Uganda a week or so ago and lives near me, and who was lying on the floor beside me for two hours while I leaned on a planter, and then played cards for five hours with myself and Kelly and a bunch of other people I’d never met before but am now on fairly friendly terms with. So the upside of that long long boring day was at least that I’ve met some new people to replenish the friends that are gushing away from Uganda (no more drip drip drip of friends leaving anymore, now it’s a gush. 3 people leaving this week alone!)

Went to work on Friday, and had a quiet night in, in preparation for the 5 a.m. start time for Saturday’s filming. A day I will write about later, because this entry has gotten long enough as it is.

(Footnote: I actually DO have bilharzia, by the way, I just wasn’t that sick from it on Thursday. I took the medication on Sunday night, and the medication made me feel genuinely horrible enough to legitimately miss work yesterday (Monday) and by the time you read this I will hopefully be parasite-free.)


At 5:15 a.m., Blogger kellyshowker said...

Whoa, bilharzia. Thats what you get for sailing ha ha, sorry to hear that. Speaking of being alone, you know I'm coming back in exactly one week and Kristen I hear is coming back friday, and I heard from Paul that there is a new Canadian guy in town for a long time... Conveniently Paul wouldn't say whether or not the new guy is hot. Maybe you've already met him. Anyway, see you soon

At 12:55 p.m., Blogger Deanna said...

Yes, i know your coming back!! I've been horrible about keeping in touch, but between Katie, Paul, and your blog I feel like i've been kept pretty up to date! Shoddy excuse, I know... I've always been bad at keeping in touch, its practically pathological!

How long are you going to stay for? Or heck, you can just tell me when you get here!

At 5:03 p.m., Anonymous Kate said...

So my university degree wasn't useless. In my third year, I wrote a paper on bilharzia, or the more entertaining name, schistosomiasis - wow, its just rolls off the tonge. So because of four years and tens of thousands of dollars, I already knew what you were talking about. What, were you building a canal?

At 3:10 a.m., Blogger Gillian said...

Arleigh and I were just 'background actresses' in a movie being filmed here in Victoria. It was some Meg Ryan/kid from the OC movie that I doubt I'll see when it comes out, but I can think of worse ways to earn $9.27 an hour.
On a side note, I just got back from your parents' cottage and it was lovely. It was nice to see them again and the lake was beautiful.

At 10:42 a.m., Blogger Deanna said...

Gillian, I'm sure being an extra for 9.27 an hour seems much more fun then when you're practically volunteering your time! I think that when the production team figured their budget, they didn't take into account that 40 000 Uganda shillings (about 20 bucks) per day isn't very much to the non-ugandans. Can't really be motivated by the money when you're earning less than two bucks per hour!
Glad to hear the cottage was nice - I haven't been able to go there much (obviously!)

Kate, that's incredibly random that an Arts degree would include papers on bilharzia! No canal building for me though - it was either from sailing or from my weekend at the Hairy Lemon.

At 1:12 p.m., Blogger Deanna said...

Hello to all you people coming to this entry from Idealists Haven - glad you like my blog! How 'bout you guys do some of that commenting here instead of over on that discussion board of yours?! ;-) Welcome!

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