When I first made the decision to pursue acting professionally, I was very blessed with great timing. South Florida had become a mecca for film and video production, all sorts of movies were being shot here, and it wasn’t uncommon to have road closures or witness planned explosions and other pyrotechnical effects. I was taking a TV commercial class in the heart of Miami Beach, with other students eager to break into the field. My instructor, Anna Panaro, taught us everything we needed to learn to become successful TV actors… how to audition, how to find agents, how to find work and even how to make sure you didn’t get ripped off. While taking the class, an opportunity was presented to me to be an extra on the set of “Random Hearts,” a film starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas. It would be the first movie set I would be on, and an amazing way to start me off in the right direction. Although the pay was only $75 for over a twelve hour day, what I learned and the memories of the experience will last a lifetime.
If there’s one rule in acting, it’s probably “be on time.” Next time you watch a movie, make sure to watch the credits and see if you can count how many people are listed. There are often hundreds, sometimes close to a thousand names on the scroll, and every single one of them is being paid. Extras like myself aren’t listed, so there’s even more people involved in the production than is actually shown. Being on time is crucial when so many people are waiting for so many people (the repetition is intentional and true) to be a part of a very intricate and well planned event. Every aspect of film making is meticulously thought out, and when so much money is on the line, the production can’t afford to have people showing up when they want to. It just can’t succeed that way. Our call time that day was 6 AM, pretty much standard for anything, be it a commercial or film, and when you arrive there are already people on-set waiting for you. Finding my way around, I quickly located the sign-in table for extras and my amazing day was about to begin.
My friend and co-worker Tiffany was with me that day, as were a couple of others from the office. While Tiffany and I wanted nothing more than to be career performers, the rest desired to be part of the excitement, and of course a shot at the possibility of meeting the leading man, Harrison Ford. We were told how to dress… bright colors, shorts and t shirts, and it couldn’t be more perfect since the day was sunny and cloudless. “Season” as it’s known to actors and the tourism industry, is the time of year when it hardly rains in South Florida, the humidity is low, and the temperatures are mild. This was most certainly a perfect day for filming, the location known as Watson Island, was a little tiny piece of detached land in Biscayne Bay, hardly used for anything at the time. Basically just a wide open space with some patches of grass and lots of concrete. A beautiful set, which looked exactly like a market place, was constructed complete with fresh fish and Latin food, all considered props and not to be eaten or touched. The term Hot Set is used to describe such a place… in other words, keep your hands off of everything and don’t mess with it.
I’m really great at taking direction, and know my place in a production. You basically don’t move a muscle unless you’re told to do so, and that’s really hard for some people to keep in mind. You need to have this kind of mindset when you’re hired for a gig, and you need to know your place in the ecosystem of the film industry. As an extra, you’re basically on the bottom rung of the ladder, and you don’t have creative freedom or a say in anything. You’re there to perform a service, which is doing what you’re told, and that’s it. As it was described to me that day, “Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.” And that pretty much sums it up perfectly. While there’s no reason to be treated with disrespect, I have found that the bigger the budget, the nicer you get treated as an extra and an actor in general. The lower the budget and the amount of extras needed, really affects how your day is going to be. You should be prepared as an actor for this, and never take it personally unless some serious lines are crossed… it’s Hollywood after all.
After a while we were escorted onto the actual set, and placed into positions by production assistants. It doesn’t take long for you to figure out if you’re going to be in a shot, or if the camera is facing the opposite direction. Some extras have a huge problem with this, and go out of their way to be in scene, which can hurt the continuity during editing. Like I said it’s really important to listen and follow direction, so I just stood where I was told, and was placed not in front of the camera, but right next to an amazing director, the late Sydney Pollack. Sitting elevated behind the boom camera and smoking a cigar, he looked so like the traditional Hollywood you often think of. I was standing right next to the line of usual folding set chairs, custom labeled with each director’s name on them. One of the directors asked me if I needed sunblock so I wouldn’t burn, and I thought that was exceptionally kind of him. The atmosphere on the set was super nice and everyone was in a great mood which I’m sure had lots to do with the weather. The day went on and I watched the filming process patiently, and was eventually placed in front of the camera, in my “first position,” a term used to describe where you’ll return to after the shot is completed.
There’s nothing like your first time on a movie set and I was on cloud nine. I felt like part of an amazing team, and it’s awesome to hear those familiar words shouted.. “speed… background… action!” While we were being moved and placed around under the hot sun, Harrison Ford was no where to be seen. He had a stand in, an actor his height and weight, wearing the same costume, standing and sweating in the sun, while the real actor was in a trailer having their makeup and hair preserved for the shoot. Of course, there’s a part of this that has to do with personal comfort as well. Then we saw him… the star, walking onto the set and all the extras started whispering stuff like “It’s him!” and “Oh my God, there he is!” I’m really not a star struck kind of guy, and so I didn’t say or do anything, not to mention that I believe it’s incredibly unprofessional to do so on a set. Yet there he was, looking somewhat different than I had remembered, very much human and very very quiet. The scenes we would film that day did not have him speaking, he was supposed to just walk through the marketplace, his character keeping to himself while re-tracing the last steps his departed wife took. The awareness that I was literally “working” and being paid with Harrison Ford started to sink in, and that was for me, the moment that really made me light headed. It only got worse when I returned to my first position after a take, and a makeup artist walked up to me and patted the sweat off my forehead. “We can sweat but we can’t drip..” she said in a very sweet voice. Holy shit, this was Hollywood, and that was the real deal.
During the morning shoot many of us were given props… plastic cups with ice and watered down Kool-Aid in them. We were told not to the drink them, but as we socialized between takes, some of us started sipping on them without even realizing it… and finishing them. Production assistants started running around shouting “Don’t drink your drinks!!” and started re-filling them. I quickly started to make friends with the extras around me as the sight of seeing Harrison walking around became very normal, and that in itself was pretty cool. Like you were just on a movie set with Harrison Ford and yeah, it was no big deal, it was a gig as they say. Since the mood on the set was a nice one, which is not the norm as I would discover in the not too distant future, everyone was having a wonderful time and we were getting the hang of resetting to first positions, knowing what to do and not to do, getting the feel of what the director was doing… it started to seem so very natural.
Lunch time came and we had seen “Harrison” walking up and down the market place more times than I could count. That’s what they called him on-set… Harrison. Not Mr. Ford, not some nick name, just Harrison. We were told not to speak or bother him unless he did it first, and it annoyed me when I saw people not following that rule. I didn’t know what was on the menu for lunch, but we were escorted to an area, past a huge BBQ setup, to find a place to sit and enjoy our meal. The food was amazing for an extra gig, it was BBQ pork and chicken if I remember correctly, the “talent” on the set had a different area, which was mostly filled with thick steaks, etc. Still I wasn’t complaining and in retrospect, was the best meal as an extra I had ever received. During lunch I had the opportunity to sit and speak with other extras, some also aspiring actors giving me advice on who to get my head-shots done with. “Bob Lasky… he does everyone..” an actress sitting next to me explained. I was totally living in the moment, taking in every aspect of this entertainment world, where even the conversations seemed to be different. Eventually lunch flew by and we were back on the set, eager to see what we’d be doing next.
“It only got worse when I returned to my first position after a take, and a makeup artist walked up to me and patted the sweat off my forehead. “We can sweat but we can’t drip..” she said in a very sweet voice. Holy shit, this was Hollywood, and that was the real deal.”
Back in the general area of where I was orginally standing, the camera would be facing opposite me, so we had nothing to do but watch and see people walking around as if by random… Harrison silently walking and doing his thing, uttering not a word. Then something suddenly changed and the camera was going to shoot something very new. A tighter shot of Harrison walking, and for that, they would need extras directly behind him… like six to eight feet behind him. “You, you and you, follow me.” a production assistant said while pointing straight at me. I was like floored, how did this happen? I was just picked out of hundreds… what would I be doing? Turns out my job, along with my newly discovered friends Jorge and Barbara, would be to follow Harrison as his background, for the remainder of the afternoon. Yes, follow Harrison and be in the shot! Holy fuck! I was so excited because this would guarantee I would be seen in a motion picture! And I had just started as an actor! WOW WOW WOW!!! So take after take, we followed Harrison, only feet away, chatting with other as we were told to do, pretending he was just another guy in the street while we enjoyed a market place in the South Florida sunshine.
I had always seen people talking in the background in films and I wondered if they were actually saying anything. And you know what? Sometimes they are! Jorge and I, along with Barbara, were talking about our lives, what we do, basically everything while following our leading man. It was amazing and so much fun, however I could literally feel the jealousy of those actors standing around. Some people wanted so badly to be in the shot, they crossed the entire set and walked right in font of us, almost pushing us out of the way. Jorge got super upset and said “What the hell?!” and the scene was cut and reset, the offenders told to get back where they were supposed to be. We continued to do our thing, and eventually we got a ten minute break while they reset the camera. Jorge suggested we check out the rest of the set, and Barbara and I agreed since we were feeling super confident with our position following Harrison. We walked to the areas we hadn’t seen, marveling at the detail, and just taking in this surreal moment. Jorge was very handsome, and being a single gay man, was starting to hope he would show some interest in me as well. Although that never happened, I will never forget both of them and the experience we all shared that day.
As we were walking and making our way around the set, we noticed Harrison was walking straight toward us, and that awkward thing began to happen when you’re trying to avoid hitting someone and you’re both making the same movements to avoid the other… and BAM, we smacked right into Harrison Ford. “Oh my god, we’re so sorry! We’re so sorry!” we said loudly as we nervously anticipated his response. “Oh no, not at all.” Harrison politely responded as he continued on his way. Mind you those were the first words we heard him speak all day, and suddenly I realized I smacked into Hans Solo. It was him… the voice, the inflection…. all him. We must have all had the same realization because we started laughing under our breath as Harrison walked away, whispering to each other “Oh my god, we smashed into Harrison Ford!” Soon it was time to return to our positions, and follow Harrison some more, without the fear of other extras trying to steal our spot. For the purposes of continuity, we had that secured and no one could take it or interfere. We were golden, at least for a little more, as the sun started to sink low in the sky The day was over and it was time to leave.
I met Jorge and Barbara in the parking lot and he asked me if I was going to film the next scene, they had asked for some volunteers with cars to work some extra hours. I was so tired and since the day was already so perfect, I told Jorge I would skip it but thanks for offering. I shook his hand and I never saw him again. As I drove off the bridge of Watson Island and saw the City of Miami skyline, I was experiencing the biggest natural high ever. I was literally a paid actor, coming off a movie set after spending the day with Harrison Ford. Yeah that was me. I started to recite our TV commercial actor affirmation that Ms. Panaro had taught us, she was always big on positivity and I even created my first vision board under her tutelage. With my window down and the wind blowing, I began to shout out to the beautiful Miami skyline “I’m a good and natural TV commercial actor….” As I recited the words of the affirmation, goose bumps covered my arms and I felt the Universe was listening to me directly. It was one of the most incredible feelings of my life and the experience of that day will live inside me forever.
When the film finally completed post-production and was out in the theaters, my friends and co-workers had to see it on opening night. We ended up taking an entire row in theater, and people sitting next to us overheard our conversations and asked us if we were in the film. We shared our experience, and they were equally as excited, asking us the number one question anyone ever asks… “Is he nice?” As the movie played, Harrison’s character talked about the market places his wife went to, and there were scenes of him walking on South Beach, with extras placed behind him… the same distance as we were. I couldn’t believe I was about to see myself on the big screen, I was almost getting a panic attack. However the scene never came, and I learned a very important lesson about acting…. the cutting room floor. During the editing process, so much is removed, and there’s a really good chance you’ll never be seen or spotted as an extra. A couple of years later I found the DVD of Random Hearts in an airport book store and purchased it after seeing “Contains Deleted Scenes” printed on the label. Yet apparently the market place scene wasn’t even good enough for that, as it was excluded even on the DVD version. Oh well, that’s Hollywood I guess.
As I’m writing this, I glance over to the shelf on my right and see the light blue notebook from my television commercial acting class, something I hold dear to me. It’s an example of following your dreams and being able to accomplish anything you want to, no matter how strange or far fetched it may be. After completing my course, there were lots of auditions, I had a couple more experiences on movie sets, one of which was spending a day shooting with Andy Garcia on an HBO film. I was also a principle in a couple of commercials, and did camera and radio work for local news and government. I made the choice to step away from that path momentarily, knowing it would be there if I decided to return. If anything, my experience as an actor taught me nothing is impossible if you want to do it. Just do it, plain and simple, and don’t listen to anyone that says it’s too hard. I actually made more money as an actor than I put into it, but that’s not even the point. The experience and journey are priceless, and I can literally say “been there, done that.” And of course and that I worked with Harrison Ford. 🙂