By TJ Gerlach
The patron saint of extras is Kevin Costner. You know the story. How in 1983 the budding young actor was tapped to play Alex in The Big Chill, the character whose untimely demise provides the occasion for Jeff Goldblum and the rest of the cast to drive around soulfully in their BMWs in order to ruminate about their marriages and their new, middle-age awareness of their own mortality. Unfortunately for Costner, most of the scenes involving Alex ended-up on the cutting room floor, his screen time eventually whittled down to just a few seconds of lying motionless in a coffin. But Costner was undaunted. What could have been one of the greatest missed opportunities of all time, turned out instead to be one of Hollywood’s most legendary big breaks as Costner parlayed that inauspicious start into a career that saw him become the number one box office draw in the world for the better part of a decade. To date his movies have raked in $1.5 billion in domestic gross alone.
It’s the first day of shooting and while I’m thinking about Kevin Costner, the A.D. is up front droning on about OSHA updates. I look around at the four hundred or so other people on the lot who have been cast as extras and wonder what exactly it is I’m after here. I know it isn’t fame. And at the S.A.G. mandated $130 a day it certainly isn’t fortune either.
When the A.D. finishes her spiel, the director appears. He is a famous director. In his trademark baseball cap and aviator sunglasses he is at least as instantly recognizable as the actors, sequestered somewhere in their trailers, that we’ve been told have been cast as the leads in the film.
“Indispensable,” the director says to us as he steps up to the makeshift podium. “That is what I consider you. Despite the nomenclature you are not background you are not extras. No detail in an artistic endeavor is superfluous. No part more or less significant in its relation to the whole. You are fundamental to the process and to our eventual success. I thank each and every one of you for the time and talent you are contributing to this little undertaking of ours.”
This is my thirty-fourth film and on the first day of shooting almost every director has said more or less the same thing. Of course there are exceptions. There was the director of Suicide Camero II who shouted “Fuck off you sponges!” into a megaphone and then threw it at a grip. And there was the director of Always Already who during the entire shoot never once came to the set for fear that seeing any of the scenes before they had been committed to film would corrupt their purity. But the thirty-two other directors I’ve worked with have all offered up a variation on the theme that we are not “extra.”
After the director’s speech we are herded into Make-Up and Wardrobe and then onto the set. The first scene we are shooting is the movie’s last. It takes place in outer space, at an interplanetary ceremony honoring the hero of the film who has toppled an evil dictator and ushered in a new dawn of democracy to the galaxy. It is a complicated scene. Various facades are hoisted-up and repositioned with cranes, and there are lots of long-shots of speeches which are then followed by their corresponding close-ups. While continuity checks this and that, and rushes are matched to storyboards, the rest of us stand around in our futuristic jumpsuits wearing thankful expressions reflective of our fresh liberation.
I get home after midnight and when I open the front door I smell something burning. Ever since Jess got pregnant she’s been liable to fall asleep anywhere, anytime. If we rent a movie, she’s out before the opening credits are over. I found her once out on the back patio, snuggled-up to the grill. There have been two separate incidents involving grilled cheese. As I catch the distinct smell of smoke I curse myself and for the umpteenth time make a mental note to buy replacement batteries for the fire alarm. The old ones were swapped out long ago on account of their being the same size as the ones in the TV remote.
Mercifully, in the kitchen all is well. The oven is off and on top of the stove sits a pan of cookies that, while scorched, are none-the-less identifiable as chocolate chip. Craft Services provided a taco salad bar on the set for lunch and Thai for dinner. But that was hours ago. I use a butter knife to pry a couple of cookies off the baking sheet and pour myself a glass of wine from the box on the counter.
The cookies are pretty good. Dunked for a minute or two in the wine and they could almost pass for biscotti. I eat them on the sofa and surf the TV stopping on a late night Telemundo-type soap. On the screen a guy is lying in a hospital bed, wrapped head-to-toe in a full body cast. As I fall asleep beautiful women come and go from the room, shouting at each other and gesticulating over his motionless body. The guy’s no Kevin Costner, but he isn’t half-bad.
When I wake up the TV has found its way to a sports channel. Replays of last night’s victories flicker sickly in the early morning light. I switch it off and go to the kitchen in search of coffee.
Jess is making toast, her six-month belly a taut globe. Keith is sitting at the table with that vague look of panic he always has. Keith is thirteen. His dad sent him here to live with his mother four months ago. Jess’s ex had fought a hard custody battle for Keith when they divorced and I don’t have a clear sense of what suddenly changed his mind. But I can’t help thinking my coming into the picture had to be part of the mix. I can imagine it’d be pretty easy to get carried away torturing yourself with distorted visions of some guy drinking away the alimony payments while porking your ex-wife.
“Late night?” Jess says to me when my presence in the kitchen registers. She doesn’t look at me when she says it but stares instead into the glowing red coils of the toaster.
“Mmhm,” I say, taking a coffee mug out of the sink and giving it a rinse. “I fell asleep. I didn’t want to wake you up.”
The toast pops. Jess cuts the bread into triangles, stacks them on a plate, and puts the plate in the middle of the table. One of Keith’s hands darts out and grabs a piece. He sits slumped, elbows on the table, holding the piece of toast with both hands and nibbling it at the center.
Jess goes to the fridge, takes out the milk, and splashes a bit into a shallow bowl. Then she takes the bowl to the back door, kneels down, starts making a little clicking noise with her teeth and tongue. “Here Spot,” she says.
This is new. When the stray started hanging around by the back screen a few weeks ago Jess had been adamant about not encouraging it. She had enough on her plate, she said, what with a teenager, another kid on the way, and “all the rest.”
I had a good idea who “all the rest” was aimed at, so I kept my mouth shut. But after the third straight morning of mewing I’d said, “Shouldn’t we at least feed it or something?”
“Go ahead,” Jess said. She was on the way to the washing machine in the garage, her hip cocked against a load of laundry. “I’ll throw rocks at it later.”
But she’s the one who eventually ended-up feeding it each morning, even bringing it home the occasional can of tuna. And now, apparently, she has given it a name.
“Is that Spot because of the mark on his back or is it ironic because he’s not a dog?” I ask in what I hope is a neutral and supportive tone.
“It’s as in Out, Out damn spot!” she says. “You know, theater? Acting?”
The sarcastic jab she brings to the word acting is not directed at my movie work, although she doesn’t think much of that either. No, any mention of “acting,” or “actors,” or anything related to “pretending” is code that is meant to echo what Jess, in her less delicate and forgiving moods, refers to as my “lying” or specifically my “lying about other women” or even more specifically my “lying about sticking my dick into other women.”
When Jess says “women,” plural, it is a bit unfair. It was really only one. Or, technically, one-and-a-half, even though as I keep telling her, the “half” isn’t really worth counting. But Jess doesn’t want to hear that, and as to the basic gist of her sentiment I have no defense.
I glance over at Keith who is bolting down a plastic tumbler full of milk with big, goosey gulps. The clock above his head says it’s almost eight o’clock. I pour my coffee and take it out to the front steps.
The landscaping on our corner lot is a less than inspiring affair. The back is all dirt, enclosed by a six-foot tall wooden fence that seems intended more to keep you in than to keep others out. The front lawn is a rectangle of tight crabgrass not much more plush than the concrete sidewalk that borders it. But the yard has one redeeming feature. A palm tree. The only one on the block. Sure, the leaves are more yellow than green and insects have serrated the edges with tiny bites. And yes, the trunk is fuzzy in a way that doesn’t seem quite right. But it is spectacular none-the-less. The fronds are thick, as wide as helicopter blades and they rise up a good six feet above our roof, arching out over the neighborhood like a giant sea anemone or the beneficent arms of some multi-limbed, shaggy Jesus.
I take my spot on the front steps where the palm tree is already stippling the morning sunlight. I take a sip of coffee which is still hot enough to give my tongue a pleasant little scald.
Then, right on cue, Miguel emerges from the house across the street. He’s pushing a stroller inside of which sits his three-year-old daughter, Teresa. Miguel sees me on the steps, smiles, gives me a wave.
Miguel can’t be much more that twenty-one, and you might not guess it to look at him—with his flashy bandanas and baggy pants, his tag-spattered forearms and razor-sharp sideburns—but he’s one of the most doting and loving fathers you’ll ever find. I watch as he and Teresa turn left at our corner and head down Bontera, then lose sight of them when they turn up Paseo.
Our neighborhood is on a bit of a slant, a slope really, one whose pitch it seems steepens with each passing year. The evidence is in the networks of cracks spidering up the outsides walls of all the houses and the unusually high rate of broken water pipes. Mr. Collinsworth, the founding and sole member of the Neighborhood Preservation program, badgers the city enough about it that once in a while a handful of engineers come out. They spend an afternoon standing around and peering through heavy lenses mounted on tripods, doing a little triangulation before walking away scratching their heads.
In ten or fifteen minutes Miguel and Teresa appear in miniature form four blocks up on Barelas, the crest of our little butte, the empty road a licorice tongue leading back down to our houses. Miguel starts walking down the hill. As gravity begins to do its thing on the stroller he starts walking faster and faster, then he breaks into a trot, then a flat-out run.
It is at this point, about halfway down the hill, that Miguel lets go of the stroller’s handles. It is an act of absolutely gratuitous recklessness, and it is, quite frankly wonderful. The stroller rattles wildly over the nubbley asphalt and Teresa cackles with delight while Miguel puffs along behind. Then, just when you think the stroller is going to lose integrity with the road altogether and flip-over or possibly even go airborne, Miguel grabs the handles. Step by step he slows the stroller down and brings them to a stop in front of their house where he wheels Teresa inside.
When he comes back out I give Miguel a short round of applause. He smiles sheepishly. Raises a fist in the air. Then he gets into his truck and drives off to the big appliance store up the interstate where he works the loading dock.
Which reminds me that I too have work today. I go inside and in the bedroom strip down to my boxers in preparation for a motivating shower. But I end up on the bed instead.
The house, like the neighborhood, is on a slant. At least that’s my contention. Jess doesn’t believe it. One night I took a marble which appeared from god knows where in the utility drawer and tried to show her. But all the floors are carpeted, and my little demonstration in the carport proved unconvincing. So Jess got to keep the bedroom arranged the way it is now with the bed up against the east wall, where it makes unquestionable aesthetic sense, but where it gives me migraines at night as I feel the blood slowly trickle towards my head.
So I’ve taken lying on the bed upside down, with my feet where the pillows are and my head at the foot of the bed. It is a simple and elegant solution and it’s how Jess finds me when she comes to check-in.
“When do you leave?” she says.
I tilt my neck back to look at Jess. Even upside-down she is beautiful, her belly a big pop-fly floating in the doorway. We met at the grocery store. I saw her in Produce amongst the pyramids of genetically inflamed tomatoes and those dazzling melon halves, Saran Wrapped and exhibited like geodes from outer space. She was wearing a strapless sundress and gave me a shy, toothy smile. We zig-zaged past each other a half a dozen times as we went about our shopping and by the time we got to Cleaning Supplies I was ready to get down on one knee and propose. Instead I asked her to get an Italian Ice with me from the little rainbow colored stand in the parking lot. It was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. Probably the only brave thing I’ve ever done. But I knew if I didn’t at least try I would regret it the rest of my days.
“Noon,” I say to Jess’s question about work and then she rattles through her schedule. She works part-time as a temp at a legal firm. She also picks up hours cutting hair at a local salon. Once a week she does yoga. On the first and fifteenth of every month she conducts phone polls for a political activism group focused on immigration and water conservation issues.
“And we have an appointment with Dr. Karney on Tuesday, right?” she says. “You can make it?”
I nod. Jess leaves. When I hear the front door close I turn my attention back to the ceiling and its sparkly popcorn topography.
The next scene we shoot is on earth. It takes place in a café where the hero and heroine are meeting for the first time. The hero at this point is not the hero, he’s just some guy. Or at least that’s what he thinks he is. The heroine is telling him differently, is explaining to him about the evil dictator and how the hero is the only one who can help. At this stage in the script they are wary of each other, but it is the kind of smoldering distrust that you know will end up with the two of them between the sheets.
We were told to come dressed “semi-casual” but Wardrobe has me switch from the short sleeve knit I came in to a button-up oxford, and Make-Up switches the part in my hair from right to left. After that I am positioned with a woman at a little wrought-iron table and the two of us go through the motions of a date.
On just my second movie I met a woman who had an MFA from UCLA and who told me that in theater classes they’d been taught to say “peas and carrots” whenever miming pretend conversation. Apparently the phrase picks up just the right mouth movements and is just the right length to make for a typical fragment of natural dialog. However, the woman I am paired with today obviously did not go to the same school. She’s on some sort of Method kick. As soon as the director yells “Action!” she’s on about this and that in her character’s clearly traumatic past and is asking probing questions into mine. At every “Cut!” she abruptly stops, and won’t even make eye contact with me until the director yells “Action!” again. Then it’s back at it with the interrogation.
“What was the name of your first pet?” she says. “How would you say your relationship with your father differs from your relationship with women? Would you say that your political convictions are based on what would be best for the world, or are they a vision of a world that would be best for you? If you were to make love to a person, of either sex, with a significant disability what disability would you choose for that person to have, and would your answer change if the gender of the person changed?”
“Peas and carrots,” I reply.
It’s a short shoot and I’m home with a six-pack by five o’clock. There’s a note on the kitchen counter from Keith that says, “At the mall.”
We’ve tried to make Keith’s transition as easy as possible. What complex and contradictory emotions are running through him at being suddenly shuttled from one parent to another I can only imagine. We gave him the back room and told him to make it his own, but so far that has consisted only of a lone Star Wars poster and an aquarium filled with silvery fish, slender live nerves as skittish as he is. Each day he comes home from school and sits splayed in front of the TV until Jess or I join him at which point he disappears into his room. In the months that he’s been here Keith has never mentioned any friends. So the mall, I think, that’s a good sign.
I go to my spot on the front steps. Sit with my back against the door and open a beer. When Miguel’s truck pulls up at 5:15 I lift my beer up and wave him over. He raises a finger to indicate just a second and shortly after disappearing inside the house he comes back out with Teresa.
Before crossing the street he takes a moment to lift a magnum of Gatorade out of the ice chest strapped to the bed of his truck and when he reaches me he clinks it to my beer can.
“Que tal?” he asks.
“Todo y nada,” I say. It is a phrase he taught me and which I now use every chance I get.
Miguel is a good listener. In the days when Jess and I were going badly, when it looked like things might not hold together, when she was sleeping at her mom’s and I was losing myself in a fifth of something or other every night, Miguel would come over and sit on the steps and let me try and talk myself through to sanity.
I tell him now about the movie I’m working on and he nods respectfully. “Eehola,” he says, when I tell him the name of the female lead.
Teresa starts to fuss and squirm a bit. Miguel stands and tosses her in the air a few times. She quiets down. Then he takes hold of both her feet in one hand and raises her into the air, balancing her like a fat rolling pin. Reynita… miñon… boloquito mío he coos up to her. It sounds like a hymn.
My cell phone rings.
“Can you come get me?”
It’s Keith. Keith has never called me before. He has said maybe two full sentences to me since he’s moved in. I had no idea he even had my number. But apparently he does, and knows it well enough to use it to call me from the South Canyon Mall’s security office.
When I get there Keith is on the verge of tears. The security guard on duty is clearly loving this. No doubt most teenagers these days give him the finger and dare him to call their parents, but he’s got a live one in Keith and is going to milk every second of his fifteen minutes as Dirty Harry.
As part of the full treatment he plays the security camera footage for me. There’s a bank of screens and on one in the upper corner Keith and a group of kids are slouching together. Then Keith separates from the pack, appears a split-second later on a lower screen. He picks-up a cap of some kind, the insignia of a rock band or maybe something to do with skateboarding emblazoned across the front with the psychedelic flair of an infected tattoo. After a moment or two of holding it, he stuffs it under his shirt. I’m sure he doesn’t want the cap. He’d look completely ridiculous in it even if he did. The scene is all too clear. He’s tagged along with some cooler kids and gotten in over his head. Or even more likely they’ve invited him along for this sole purpose. Put the dork up to something. Watch him squirm. Get a hat out of it or see him get busted. Either way, win-win.
“Well?” the security guard says. He’s replayed the footage three or four times and is expecting a response.
“I think his technique is fine,” I say. “The transfer’s good. It’s just a matter of projecting better. He’s got to work on the body language.”
It was my idea, the pregnancy. The baby was supposed to be a fresh start, our new leaf. I was so in love with Jess and had messed it up so badly. Not just with the lies about other women, but the lies about work and money and a million other things. I wasn’t who she thought I was. I knew that. At times it felt as if maybe the only true thing I had ever said to her was on that first day, when Jess and I were leaning against the trunk of my car, her tongue navigating a scoop of mango swirl and the sun catching the front of the grocery store in such a way that its windows were one big mirror amplifying everything around us.
“I don’t deserve this,” I said.
Now as the three of us eat a quiet dinner at the kitchen table my silence feels like a lie in my mouth. Keith glances up at me every few seconds and then goes back to staring down at his plate as if trying to burrow a hole into his mashed potatoes. I know the question he wants to ask, but can’t. Am I going to tell? Jess for her part snaps her way through a magazine, occasionally spearing something from her plate with a fork and raising it to her mouth without taking her eyes off the page.
Then she says, “So what were you up to today?”
Keith and I look at each other. It isn’t clear which of us she is talking to. My mind runs through a catalog of lies and half-truths. I think of a pregnant woman contemplating a sip of wine or a puff on a cigarette. Of course just one little one won’t hurt. But how much will? Where is that line between harmlessness and catastrophe?
Just a handful of us have been chosen for the final scene. A dozen men who will be CGI-ed into twenty thousand for the climactic battle scene. In skin-tight suits we stand on a tiny platform above a foam pit.
“You are in the belly of the planet Zokon,” the director tells us. “At the lip of a great precipice. Molten fire funnels down into the pit below, sparks rain all around like swarms of wasps and hornets.”
I try hard to envision the apocalyptic inferno he wants us to see. But my mind isn’t there. It’s with Keith. When I’d told Jess the two of us had gone to the mall. That we were thinking about maybe getting Keith a stereo for his room, the look he had given me was less appreciative than I might have hoped. No doubt he saw it as a clumsy stab at male bonding. One I’m sure he thinks cost me nothing. And maybe he’s right. If the truth comes out it will be nothing new. Jess will just chalk it up as one more reason to be disappointed in me.
And in a way I am disappointed in myself. Not because of the lie. But because of what I didn’t say. What I really wanted to do was to take Keith aside and tell him about the period just before I met his mom. How I was getting old enough that life no longer felt liquid, but had started to settle in, to feel real. How nights became long and sleepless and how I began to spend them compulsively play-acting at time travel, rewriting my memories, recasting the past. I did it so often and in such detail that the alternate scenarios I spun out at night followed me into the day and I’d have to stop and remind myself they weren’t true. I even set rules for myself. No making millions off of predicting the World Series. No conniving with twenty-twenty hindsight to steal the prom queen from the captain of the football team. No heroics. No Hollywood B.S. It wasn’t that I wanted to go back and change things completely. That wasn’t it at all. I just wanted to go back. To go back and maybe say this word instead of that. Or else listen more closely. Pay more attention. Be less fearful. Less awkward. To handle myself and my life with just a little more grace. That’s what I wanted to give Keith, if even in just a small way—a chance to hit rewind.
Then the director yells “Action!” and I step up to the edge of the pit. My body is strobed for motion capture and the celestial pulse of the blue-screen is at my back. I take a quick breath, close my eyes and then, with all I have, I launch myself into the three short feet down to hell.
Copyright Gerlach 2011