Nov. 26, 2008 12:00

An extra's identity crisis

Last week I was hired as an extra. There were sixty of us, all attractive men and women in our late-teens and early twenties.


We’d been chosen to populate the college campus set of The 5th Quarter, a movie currently being shot around Wake

Forest University. As I stepped onto the quad, I knew that this meant more to me than the quick fifty dollars advertised on Craigslist. Here was a chance to reinvent myself, a momentary second shot at college.

Who would I be? The strict dress code for extras — generic college clothing in subdued colors, with only approved logos — meant identity tabula rasa. In my Nike basketball shorts and long-sleeved gray shirt, however, I looked particularly like an athlete heading to the gym. Perhaps they would match me with an athletic and beautiful female extra. She and I could jog, hand in hand, through the back of the scene.

But when we lined up for casting, I grew nervous. The set manager looked over our group with dispassionate eyes. After muttering something into his Bluetooth headset, he began to pick. He matched the tall Eastern-European girl with a short and stylish white guy. He paired the two black girls. Four beefy white guys were placed on a wide stone bench, and a fifth told to run up behind and punch his buddy. A few white guys were given a Frisbee. Finally, he told me to walk toward the library by myself. I cringed. Of all the parts in the world, I was cast as myself exactly.

As I walked to the starting position, I pondered the unmistakability of my character. Was it stamped on my forehead that I should be a loner? Was it in my facial expression, my clothes, my posture? My true nature, which normally took weeks to uncover, had been revealed in ten minutes. I considered going rogue. What if, during my route, I stopped to talk with one of the black girls? What if I called for the Frisbee? No, I didn’t dare. My part was set forever.

In fact, everyone had been typecast. For many this meant the most tedious role. Surely my friend Ruby was bored with the role of Chinese Student #1, which involved reading a Biology textbook for the entire shoot. A beefy white guy might have been sick of the role of Jock #4. He would rather play a sensitive boyfriend. Perhaps one of the Frisbee players wished to trade in his disc and play my part instead, The Lone Walker — Byronic hero of the background.

But the director didn’t give us a chance. Of all the extras, only one snagged a real acting role. He was a School of the Arts graduate (as I’d overheard). With his dark eyes and coarse purple shirt, he struck me as introverted and artistic. At one point, while we stood in the big group, I noticed that he was quietly shuffling his feet in tap-dancing steps. But he seized the opportunity to act. “Who can throw a football?” the set manager asked, tossing a pigskin from hand to hand. The artist’s hand shot up. He walked onto the grass, where he was joined by a few beefy extras. They were real jocks. He wasn’t. But next to them, the artist looked like Tom Brady. In a moment, he became confident, handsome, tall, artificial and new. The transformation was complete, as he threw the ball with a perfect spiral.

That new and exciting person could have been any of us. But we’re too close-minded. We carry our identities like permanent thought bubbles, like characters in The Sims: “I am a loner,” or “I am pretty and popular,” or “I’m uneasy around white people” or “I’m emotionally vulnerable,” and especially “I hope he doesn’t call on me.” Who is surprised with the roles that we get? It’s comfortable that way. The choices that make up our character — geek or jock, liberal or conservative, quiet or loud — were made a long time ago, and we are content to let them stand.

Aren’t we all very dull? So I thought as I waited, one of 60 extras spread about the quad in weird, immobile sets. Then a voice called “Action!” and I began to walk. Suddenly, the intricate pattern of motion, of a campus filled with young people, of Frisbees flying over autumn leaves, resembled rich and unpredictable life. Then, “Cut!”

To comment on this story, e-mail Gus Lubin at guslubin@gmail.com.

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