Extra, Extra!

The trouble with working holiday visas is that they run out. At some point, you have to return to your home country and earn some money before you can go traveling again.

Going home can be hard. You’ve heard of ‘reverse culture shock,’ right? Well, it’s true.

Seeing your family and friends is easily the best part of coming home, but after that, things get a bit hairy. It’s tough to reconcile your recent time abroad with a return to a familiar lifestyle, where you can always flush your toilet paper or hang your clothes in an actual closet.

At first the ‘old life’ is a welcome novelty. Then it becomes easy. After that it gets dull. Sure, you’ve got all your stuff, the stuff you thought you missed. But it doesn’t take long to realize that no one needs six pairs of pajama pants, an original nintendo, stacks of old magazines, or a fleece blanket from college that’s covered in cat fur.

You need to live. You need that buzz, something to make your surroundings light up, a life that keeps you on your toes and not wondering what Friends rerun you’ll watch tonight.

And for me, that something is travel.

But sometimes, there’s an intermission. Sometimes you have to go home and get a job.

My last intermission came in March of 2007, after a year working in New Zealand. I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I definitely needed to earn some money, but I wasn’t ready to stay in Indianapolis.

Luckily, I had another option: Jacksonville, Florida.

I know. It’s random.

But my parents bought a condo there to be close to my mom’s family in St. Augustine. It was near the beach, and, most importantly, it was reasonably unfamiliar to me. That way I would be able to learn about a new city and pretend I was in an exciting new location.

I approached Jacksonville like I did a foreign country: got online and started looking for interesting work. That search brought me to Background Entertainment. Apparently, a movie was filming in the Jacksonville area and they needed extras.

Well, that sounded way more interesting than waiting tables or working in an office.

I filled out the form and waited for my call.

To my amazement, it came. I was on board as an extra for a movie called ‘Eliot Rocket,’ starring Jimmy Fallon and Lucy Liu. If I remember correctly, the pay was $75 per shift and included meals. I was pumped. I didn’t care that a shift could be upwards of 10 hours.

My instructions were to dress ‘normally’ and drive to an airplane hangar in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes away from home. I had to be there at 3PM.

Even though it sounded like the start of a bad horror film, I went. A guy checked off my name and let me in.

“Have a seat,” he said. “They’ll call you when they need you.”

I sat in one of the millions of red folding chairs against the wall and took in the scene. The fuselage section of a plane was set up in the hangar, surrounded by blinding lights and men with cameras and fuzzy microphones. It had been sawn in half, so you could look right into it.

Nothing seemed to be happening. I didn’t see Lucy or Jimmy. I saw some guy who could have been the director. Mostly, I saw people, ‘normally’ dressed, milling around looking bored.

A bald man wearing a black t-shirt appeared.

“Extras,” he said. “Here’s the deal. You wait here until we call you. Do not approach the actors. Do not take photographs of the actors. When the food comes out, you do not eat until everyone else has eaten. I will give you the OK to begin. Any questions, see me.”

What he didn’t say was, “Extras, you are scum. I spit on you.” But he meant it.

And that is what we did for the next four hours. At one point, the caterers came in and spread white tablecloths over some long tables. The tables were quickly laden with food, way more food than people.

The extras hung back, watching as the important people made their way through the buffet table. Murmurs rippled through the crowd when Jimmy Fallon and Lucy Liu passed by.

I sat as the rage bubbled up inside. I always like to be first at a buffet table.

Finally, after we collected the scraps from the cast and crew, they started to call up the extras. The man in black came and pointed at people, seemingly at random.

“You,” he said. “You, you, you, and you.”

I was one of the ‘yous’ and filed into the cut-open airplane. Very naturally, I might add. Some might say Oscar-worthy.

The scene involved Jimmy Fallon’s character bursting onto the plane, begging Lucy Liu to forgive him. It was about two minutes long, and took approximately two hours to film.

I still remember the lines:

Jimmy Fallon: “Anne, I’ve changed.”

Lucy Liu: “In the last three hours?”

As I sat there next to a sweaty stranger, wishing I was actually going somewhere, it dawned on me.

This movie is going to be terrible.

A lot of brooding looks in this film. Too many, in fact.

By the time they finished shooting, it was past midnight. The fanatical extras clustered around the actress who played the flight attendant, lavishing praise on her and simpering for autographs. I recognized her as one of the singing bridesmaids from the opening scene of My Best Friend’s Wedding, which I had seen at least 73 times since high school. It was weird to me that we’d ended up at the same place, in this cavernous hangar in the sticks of Jacksonville, Florida, on the set of a really bad movie.

The next day—my second and final day as an extra—filming took place in the Jacksonville airport, another cruel reminder of how I wasn’t traveling. I mostly sat around and chatted to the other extras, some of whom took it very seriously.

“Well, we’re all lined up for Sydney White,” one lady said. “I really hope Rachel here gets some screen time. We’ve been extras for several films, but all you can see is an arm or a ponytail.”

It took me a while to figure out that Sydney White was another movie coming to Jacksonville. Rachel was the woman’s impeccably groomed teenage daughter. They both scared me a little.

I was in several scenes, but the highlight of the day was easily the red velvet cupcakes that came with the catering. I wanted to put an extra one in my pocket but black t-shirt man was watching.

I had gotten chummy with a young married couple who were also extras. We three, along with an older woman, were chosen to walk down the hallway while Jimmy sprinted past.

The director looked at us, then frowned.

“No,” he said. “You and you, switch places.” He pointed at me and the wife from the couple. We awkwardly swapped spots so that I was standing with her husband and she was next to the woman.

“That’s better. Pretend you’re on your honeymoon or something.”

Our only concession to his honeymoon suggestion was to walk next to each other dragging empty suitcases, but I could feel the wife’s eyes boring into my back.

We didn’t talk much for the rest of the night.

I drove home, craving a red velvet cupcake and strangely exhausted from all of the standing around and waiting.

My checks came in the mail and I retired as an extra, turning instead to substitute teaching. Equally as glamorous, slightly better pay. At the end of the summer I went to London, relieved and anxious to resume traveling.

For the next four years, I occasionally kept an ear out for the movie’s release. I read that the title had been changed to

Christopher Rocket, then just Rocket, then The Year of Getting to Know Us.

Finally, at the start of 2011, I saw it on iTunes, available for rental.

My suspicions were confirmed. It was unavoidably bad. Please, never watch it. I wound up fast forwarding to find my scenes.

Predictably, they had all been cut. The side of my nose was visible for a split second during the airplane scene, but that was the end of my bid for stardom.

Living in Florida and moonlighting as a movie star was an effective way to temporarily satisfy my wanderlust. It kept me out of a reverse culture shock funk, and reminded me that there are plenty of unusual experiences to be had at home, too.

Even when you’re not doing exactly what you want to be doing, you can at least entertain yourself while you get there.

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  1. I love your outlook on making the most of your time in transition. It’s true, there are so many interesting things we can try to make life interesting back at home before it’s on to the next big adventure. Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    1. Even though it involved a lot of sitting around, I really enjoyed the chance to play with movie stars for the day. It reminded me that there is still plenty to see and try at home. Thanks for reading!

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  3. I was stand-in for Jimmy Fallon on The Year of Getting To Know Us for 2 weeks. I spent lots of time with Jimmy and Lucy and had lunch with them every day.I also spent time with Tom Arnold,the director Patrick Sissam and the writer Ethin Canin on-set. Now I am a film director for Jaxproductions1.com in Jacksonville,Florida. Some of our clips are on youtube under “Jaxproductions1” Yes, we cast extras and we have phone numbers.

    1. Crazy! I must have seen you filming. To be fair, the principal actors always struck me as polite, though I had very little direct contact with them.

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