Extra! Extra! Read all about filming a TV show

January 04, 2009|By Deborah Stone | Deborah Stone,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Picture this. It's 7 a.m. on a weekday. You're in formalwear. You drive into downtown Baltimore and board a bus with other people in gowns and black tie. You look like leftovers from an all-night bash, but nothing could be further from the truth. You are, in fact, a bus full of television extras.

That's the kind of thing that happens when Hollywood comes to Charm City. Executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker was in Baltimore filming scenes for the pilot of a new show called The Washingtonienne. If TV execs like it, this pilot will kick off a new series on HBO.

The Washingtonienne is based on a book by Jessica Cutler, a young woman whose sexual escapades in our nation's capital led to her firing as a congressional staff assistant.

But sex scenes weren't on the agenda when the extras showed up. Instead, the show's crew was filming a fancy party staged in the turn-of-the-19th-century ballroom of Baltimore's Belvedere Hotel. Extras (myself included) played the powerful and connected party guests.

Who were the other 200-or-so extras at the Belvedere that day? Some were aspiring actors. Others apparently make a regular habit of "extra-ing." They have their head shots on file with local casting agent Pat Moran, and when the call comes, they're on board.

Here's how the day unfolded.

On arrival, we headed into a large room filled with tables and chairs, and sat to fill out paperwork. There was breakfast, but if you weren't a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the food was off-limits. Lines formed at designated areas for hair, makeup and wardrobe.

Extras had been instructed to arrive "camera ready." That meant fully dressed in formalwear with complete makeup. But not everyone was considered up to par. The wardrobe folks handed some of us different clothes to wear and people headed behind curtains to change.

Hairstylists painstakingly created elaborate up-dos for many of the women. Makeup artists touched up faces.

It was almost noon before everyone headed to the ballroom for filming, and just getting up to the 12th floor took forever. The Belvedere's elevators hold only nine at a time. When extras finally made it, crew members bustled everywhere. There were lights and cameras, and a whole lot of Hollywood mystique. People in charge instructed extras where and with whom to stand, creating little chatty groups like those you would see at a party. Everyone was given a fake cocktail.

Before long, there were whispers. Sarah Jessica Parker was "right over there!" She was dressed casually wearing little or no makeup - you know, like a real person.

On the other hand, the star of the show, Aussie Rachael Taylor, was done to the nines, and yes, she's really pretty.

With everyone in place, the director yelled, "Action!" Holding the make-believe cocktails, extras made silent pretend conversation as the actors did their scene. Over and over again. At some point, there was some hushed complaining about aching feet and hunger pains. But a meal break didn't come until about 3:30 p.m.

After eating, everyone headed back upstairs for more filming and a lot of waiting.

By now, you're getting the picture. Being an extra is much less glamorous and a lot more tedious than you might expect. Oh, it starts off exciting enough, but as the day wears on, the bloom comes off the rose. Before you know it, you don't even care that Sarah Jessica Parker is right over there. You begin wishing you could go home, take off your high heels and watch a TV show instead of making one.

Shooting that day at the Belvedere didn't wrap until about 7 in the evening. Crew members broke down equipment, preparing to move to another location for more filming. Extras were herded back on buses and returned to their cars.

I made it home at 8:15 p.m., more than 13 hours after leaving the house. I wondered how all those other extras felt. Maybe they were ready to do it all again. For my part, I was exhausted, finished, caput. Be an extra again? No way. My Hollywood career was over before it even began, with total earnings of $106.20.

Fame, as they say, is fleeting.

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