Jean Barker

Background and... action

2014-07-25 08:42

Jean Barker

"Their music sucks, but I love that Pussy Riot can never be defeated. Putin sticks one member in jail and another woman just puts on a mask and joins the band." I say, staring down the road into a desert mirage as I drive the last few miles to today's film set. "It's genius."

"Who's Putin?" Asks my passenger, a young skater-chick we'll call Lila*.

You meet the oddest people working background on film sets. As a screenwriter, this is just one of the things I love about being paid to sort-of act. The other person in my car, listening to his headphones in the back seat, is Cash* (*his real name is much stranger), who recently quit slinging drugs after a stay in prison to join the ranks of LA's movie extras.

Later, Lila says the dry, tan So-Cal mountains remind her of "the jungle".  

She was recently an extra on a porn set, where she and the other fully clothed background actors playing restaurant patrons had to clap and cheer for the actors getting it on. I instantly decide I'll take one porn set job, just to be able to say I have.

We spend the rest of the day dressed in 60s clothing in the desert, with sand blowing in our eyes. During the long periods when I'm not needed on camera, I work on a script. Keeping the dream alive is what it's all about, right?

What? Me? Act?

Background acting is the last thing I ever saw myself doing to make rent in Los Angeles. I'm not hot, and I'm not young. I'm a writer / director with some art chops. I can build a human-size pig with a working jaw out of papier mâché.

I can create a human foetus from a formaldehyde baby pig dissection kit. I can operate a power tool, and shape story from script to screen as a director. But acting – even background acting? Never occurred to me.

It's not all I do to make money (I also do script coverage, 2nd AD, build sets, and whatever else is needed) but it's been my major source of income in the last two weeks. I've even been booked on a sitcom as regular background, I've been groped by a blind dwarf, and just this morning I was asked to audition and told to go get head shots done for a speaking role.

The other side of the camera

What's most unexpected about my new occupation is how much I'm learning.

As a director, I've always loved actors. They're probably the only people on set (unless you luck out and find a true producer) who care just as much as the director does about the film's artistic integrity. Other people care about organisation in pre-production, or the budget, or about the look and feel of the film in production, or about the cut and finishing elements. 

They care about their jobs, and that's how it should be. But the director and the actors are represented in every aspect of a film and judged by everything on the screen. It's deeply personal to them, and only they understand that you as director can never, for a moment accept mediocrity. Your job is to fight it, or hate yourself forever for not doing sticking to your guns.

As a screenwriter, I've always loved actors. The script isn't finished until you hear them speak the lines, and often the best edits I've made have been based on improvisation in rehearsals, or even on set.

But I've never loved or understood actors as much as I do now, after only a few weeks of walking in their shoes, more more less accidentally.

Only an actor...

Only someone who has auditioned knows how weird it is to be looked at in a way that would be rude if it weren't the casting team's job to do it. Only homeless people get stared at that much, and some of them once wanted to be actors when they arrived in Hollywood.

Only an actor knows what it's like to line up with 20 people who sort of look like you, some of whom are a lot thinner and prettier, and not lose your nerve.

Only an actor knows how personal it is to be told you are right, or wrong for a role, because it feels like there's no separation between your self and your work sometimes.

Only an actor knows how hard it is to stay "in the scene" after the AD screams at the sound guy for 10 minutes in the last hour of the shoot.

A cameraman I'm working with on another project joked: "Don't talk to background. They're all crazy." I laughed, because it's sort of true. I guess there's nothing like trying to make it as an actor for decades, and never getting a line of dialog, to push even the sanest sucker over the edge. But I've come to love the craziness. I'm meeting people I would never run into in the privileged film-schooled world on the other side of the lens.

I expect to move on from this gig pretty soon - into production if my plans come true. But none of the acting classes I took could have prepared me for how much I've learned doing a job I never thought I'd want, or be hired to do.

Jean earned an MFA in Directing and Screenwriting and works in the LA film industry. She tweets as @jeanbarker and blogs pictures of signs and more, here. She will be back.

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