Posted by eliza galeon June 19, 2012 – 12
Posted by eliza gale on May 30, 2011 – 11:29am
When I first came to California, I found myself unemployed due to a series of unfortunate events. I ended up working several jobs in the entertainment industry simultaneously. I got an interesting view of Hollywood from the bottom rung. It was kind of like watching sausage being made. In my first six months here I worked as an audience member, a background extra and a brainwasher.
I arrived in SO-CAL in March of 2008 promptly losing a work at home job because my internet service failed me. I had to get another job and fast. One day, while coming home on the bus from an interview, a man told me about paid audience work. This is where one sits in the background of shows such as Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and a variety of talk and game shows and pretends to enjoy them. I was shocked to hear they did this. As a life long Midwesterner, I was not hip to the layers of bullshit of which Hollywood is comprised. I secretly wondered to myself if I was going to be aesthetically acceptable for the job. As a pale, plump, 42-year-old who vaguely resembled Tom Petty, I had good reason to be concerned. I called the number he had given me and found myself booked on a game show in which regular folks competed against professional body builders in a variety of feats of strength. The show was taped in downtown Los Angeles in a big arena. My concerns about my looks were put to a rest the second I got there. There were at least 700 people there. Many of them were homeless people from skid row that had been packed into vans and transported there with the promise of up to $100 in cash (A crack heads dream). There were also a variety of toothless public assistance recipients and nearly homeless aspiring whatevers. We stood in line for a good hour before being let in. A production assistant with enormous Krusty Clown hair pointed at my seat while handing me a giant Styrofoam finger. I sat in front of a group of gentlemen who appeared to be in the same social club and behind a woman with a radical facial deformity who had happyfeet and kept dancing a butt thrusting dance. To my left was a gentleman who gallantly offered me a swig of whisky from his flask, which I declined. The spaced out woman to my right told me that she was gonna go to Macdonald’s at lunch and beg for some french fries.
The show began and it didn’t take long to figure out that it was rigged or at least staged as the outcomes were on the TelePrompTer nanoseconds after the contests were over. We weren’t given a toilet break or any water for five hours. At the end of the show we stood in line for two hours before being given our paltry salary. When I complained about all of this to a co-clapper, saying that the network producing the show was exploiting poor drug addicts she laughed at me. She seemed to take my comment as a personal affront. She told me that she was actually a journalist. She told me she was just doing audience work for three more nights until she earned enough money for a new computer. I asked her what paper she worked for and she said she was with the online media. As angry as she was I never felt so sorry for anyone. She was a blogger- like me. She had gotten it confused with an actual profession that people work hard at and have to have some talent for.
I continued to do audience work as I was desperate for the money. Most of the shows required you to be 18 to 35-years-old, forcing me to lie about my age to survive. This made no sense to me as the at home audiences for these shows tend to be retires. I worked on a judge show where I met an attractive, but plump young woman who told me she was an Internet porn star. At first I doubted this was true – why would she be doing audience work for minimum wage? But a man I was standing in line with told me that he had seen her and many of our co-clappers in porn films. He told me they made $700 a scene and they averaged three scenes a month. This was not enough money to support the drug habit that most of them maintained. This young lady tried to recruit everyone she met into porn no matter what they looked like. At first I thought it was some strange scam, but, I think she was just lonely. One day a very nice woman I met while cheering on Dr. Phil ( I am going to hell) told me that I should sign up with a certain agency that booked extras for television shows. I went to Burbank and walked straight in to the office. (hint, hint.)
In order to get a job as a minimum wage background extra one had to stand in a registration line at the casting company for an hour and pay a $25.00 registration fee. After this, one had to call a line listing available jobs. One then called the casting director to see if the casting director wanted to use them. This entailed calling over and over and getting a busy signal about a hundred times before finally getting a hold of them. A “smoking hot” person who is 18 to look younger would find many jobs listed. There were few roles for anyone who looks like me. I was repeatedly told, “I can’t use you for this one.” by every casting director there. Every once in a while I would get lucky and they would be casting a huge crowd scene where they just needed color and motion in the the background. When this happened I would get to lug several outfits with me on the bus in order to arrive on set at 6:00 AM. Background work was a little better than audience work in that the other extras were a bit more professional, they fed you good food and you got overtime if you had to stay over eight hours and you almost always worked at least twelve. It is an easy job – all you have to do is stand around and pantomime a variety of different activities.
Working background made me see the strange social system that exist in Hollywood. I have never born witness to such a hierarchy of human life. On a typical set there are the actors, the extras, the director and assistant director and the crew. Extras are to the film industry as Untouchables are to Indian society. You were not to associate with the cast and crew at all. They even had two separate food lines one for extras and one for humans. Talking to a star was considered a mortal sin punishable by life long black balling by the casting company. Once you were on set the assistants to the assistant Director would tell you were to stand and walk. If a PA messes this up he will point a finger at the extra. I was once told to walk straight ahead wheeling a baby stroller into a crowd. When I nearly bumped into a famous actor due to following this direction, I was taken out of the scene. Another time a woman playing a nurse was told to put some medical tools on a table in a certain order. When she did exactly what the PA told her the AD got mad at her and took her out of the scene saying she couldn’t follow directions. Apparently the PA got the directions backwards. The people from the casting company, who only make slightly more than the extras, went crazy with power. Once, after standing in a long line to be out processed at the end of a long day a casting director told me that I had forgotten to write down my address. I absent mindedly reached for the pen that was lying in front of him. He grabbed it away and looked at me a if I just killed his family. I took out my own pen and wrote in my address. Another time someone spilled a splash of water on the floor and the pretty blonde casting director tossed her head in the air and screamed “Jesus Christ.” I once walked over to the Kraft service coffee table to get a cup of coffee and said “excuse me to the writers who were standing right in front of the coffee machine. They looked at me as if I had asked for an organ donation. Background works gives you a birds eye view of how silly Hollywood can be. I was once on a set where the director and the AD spent fifteen minutes arguing over wether I should be carrying a purse. I was in the deep background! Absolutely no one would every even see or notice me. After much wrath and acrimony the purse stayed in the picture. The show, one of the most expensive ever made, was canceled after one season. Maybe it had something to do with the Rhodes Scholars who were in charge.
The most amazing thing about doing background work was seeing how duplicitous Hollywood was. Hollywood presents itself as progressive and liberal, but that is not true at all. The movie business is the most racist and age biased business on the planet. The vast majority of calls are for Caucasians who are under 30. Although there are many people of color who are professionals with money in real live most casting calls for “upscale” people are for Caucasians. They also don’t seem to think that people who are overweight or unattractive can possibly have an success in life. When they call for upscale people they do not mean well dressed, they mean hot and thin. Their stereotypes are inaccurate. Whenever the casting agency wanted people to play doctors in an LA hospital they would always ask for mostly Caucasian. I would love to show them my HMO list as all the doctors have Asian surnames. They also wanted thin people to do do background for a show set in Chicago – one of the countries most obese cities. They didn’t want any female over a size 8 on set. They cast 18-year-olds as cops and 30-year-olds as detectives. You have to be at least twenty five to be a cop! Come on guys, if your gonna stereotype people at least get it right.
In the middle of all this I got a job doing telephone surveys at a very well known market research company that compiled ratings for movies and TV shows. I felt at home there. my co-workers were as odd as I was. a bunch of misfits in the mist of Hotocratic Hollywood. The group included a short bald man with a bad comb over, a television obsessed plastic surgery addict and a collection of aspiring actors who were not young or attractive enough to ever make it in Hollywood. I could relate. I had always fantasized about being an actor, but I did not have the good looks or charisma. I had written several screenplays, but they were not formulaic enough to ever sell. We feed off each after fantasies. Telling each other fairy tales of how any day know we would have a job that didn’t numb the mind and steal the spirit. The job itself was tedious. We would spent all night calling numbers and looking for the perfect dupe. Although I had at least five people a night who were willing to take a survey with me, I was only permitted to interview the very lowest common denominator. If someone liked independent movies and did not patronize the multiplex we were not permitted to interview them. We only interviewed people who liked commercial crap, hence the research was slanted and invalid. I had always thought that the reason there were so many bad movies was because that was what people wanted. I thought stupidity put butts in the seats. But, doing this job made me realize that the powers that be only wanted to make people aware of a certain kind of film. Many of the people we called told me that movies had gotten so bad and expensive they didn’t go to them any more. The film industry is suffering for this reason you would think they would want to talk to people who had stopped going to the movies and find out why. This was and still is the really puzzling part to me. They didn’t seem to care what people wanted they just wanted to know how they could get them to see more bad movies. I could go off on some conspiracy theory tirade here. But, a good conspiracy has to have a motive and I’m not sure what the motive would be.
My Hollywood experience ended when I finally got a real job. some might say that If I don’t like what Hollywood puts out I should just be glad I don’t have to participate in it anymore. If you don’t like what’s on TV you can always just stop watching it, right? But, how realistic is that? We all spend more time then we would like to admit watching TV and movies. It is a part of our lives and our society. I believe Hollywood has an enormous effect on the attitudes and beliefs of the average person. As long as we are fed inaccurate stereotypes of people we will continue to be prejudice. As long as we see glamorous looking people in every situation we will continue to see ourselves reflected in an inaccurate light. Television and film have the potential to reach millions of people and make them think about a multitude of topics. It can takes us places we have never been and show us the world though the eyes of people of all cultures, shape and sizes. It can inform us about the planet and every species on it. Sadly, somehow it has become a bullshit dispenser teaching us to judge more and understand less. I would suggest a rebellion, fifteen minutes of a national turn off or something, but I know this would never happen. The only thing I can do is tell you what I saw – draw your own conclusions