You're not going to make me look like a doofus?
I once earned $18,000 for a Heineken commercial in America. I was hired as an extra on a few hundred dollars but got what is called "upgraded". To be upgraded is Nirvana, Oz, the Holy Grail. It is the road to riches, exposure and possibly even a decent agent.
How did this happen? How did the gods of the upgrade pick me out? How did they enable me to play Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Feste in 12th Night in Washington Square Park for almost no money for a whole summer? How was I able to perform in the 2 most influential plays of my career in terms of satisfaction, personal development, physical fitness and teamwork? Well, it was surprisingly straightforward.
The usual form when employed as an extra, or what is more politely referred to as background, is to suck up to anyone and everyone who could possibly have even the remotest influence on you getting an upgrade. Beautiful actresses spending an enormous amount of time with the 6th production assistant whose job is to watch the car park. Everyone smiling hugely like the Stepford wives to anyone with a walkie-talkie or a clipboard. Or in my case making full use of the fact that I was English to get myself noticed. As one of my values is integrity I always found it a little unnerving but needs must.
But how did I get my upgrade? Well, I was employed as an extra on a film called 200 Cigarettes starring, among others, Ben Affleck, Courtney Love, Paul Rudd and Christina Ricci. It was set during the punk era and as I was English and had some scruffy clothes I was employed to be in a small bar scene shooting at the Ace bar in the East village. Ben Affleck was the bartender.
Ben (not really on 1st name terms but...) had just won his screenplay Oscar with Matt Damon for Good Will Hunting and was uber arrogant and cocky. He was the king of Hollywood and boy did the rest of us hear about it.
On the wall behind the bar was a dart board and Mr Affleck thought it would be funny to throw the darts at it as hard as he could. Of course he missed and a couple of darts bounced off the electricity cable box next to the dart board and onto the bar a foot from where I sat.
Now the job of the 1st assistant director (1st A.D.) on a movie set is huge. He is employed directly by the producer to ensure that things run smoothly; that union rules are maintained, budgets kept to and also for directing the background artists. The 1st A.D. needs to be tough but fair and unafraid to stand his ground.
The 1st A.D. on this movie was the hugely experienced Vebe Borge (Goodfellers et al). Vebe saw the darts incident and said "hey Ben, please", in a gentle but slightly admonishing manner.
"You wanna take this outside? You wanna take this further? I know who will win!" Said Mr Affleck with an incredible show of alpha male, type 1, totally unnecessary bravado.
"Sorry Ben, it's just that the dart almost hit someone." Ben puffed himself up and stared at him but the incident passed without further conflict.
2 weeks later I was in a different New York bar, once again as background but this time on a Heineken commercial. Vebe was once again the 1st assistant director. "You were so right the other week with Ben Affleck. What a knob." Said I.
Vebe looked at me and thought for a while. "Can you play pool?" "Yes" I replied. "Are you sure? You're not going to make me look like a doofus?" "I promise. I played a lot of pool throughout my college days and I still play now". "Come with me".
To my delight Vebe took me over to the pool table where the principal actor on the commercial was standing. I had been upgraded. I was to play pool with the main guy and get my face on the commercial. As it transpired, it was to be the 1st commercial to be aired on national television during the football play-offs with the New York Giants and my face was well and truly recognised. I had made it! I signed a contract, was recognised by all of humanity and earned a bundle of money. And of course I got an agent too.
So what is the moral of the story? Well apart from whatever you may get from it:
- You have to be on the pitch to play. Put yourself out there.
- Be friendly to everyone. You never know!
- Take risks
- Slag off Ben Affleck
Daniel Dresner – Actor and Tutor at the Actors Centre