Sunday, January 21, 2007

Background work is cool

And by cool I mean really great to do and also very cold when you have to do it outside.

On Tuesday, I did my first session of background work for the new year. This time is was for the TV show Six Degrees, which has been on hiatus since early November. For those of you who don’t know, background work consists of many actors creating the atmosphere of a scene by filling in the gaps with “extra” people. This time around, I was in 4 different scenes:

1) I walked down the city sidewalk, pretending to talk on a cell phone, crossing between camera and the main action (for both a wide establishing shot and the close up).

2) I sat inside a coffee shop, pretending to talk to a friend while the main actor ordered a coffee at the counter.

3) I walked outside the coffee shop window while an actor, in a different scene, welcomed someone into the coffee shop.

4) I sat with my back to the camera while these two actors had a chat over coffee.

Normally, doing background work outside is not so bad, but this was the day that started at 50 degrees and then promptly dropped to under 30 degrees throughout the day and was quite stormy. And we were in Tribeca on the water. Not fun. Luckily, the crew gave us hand/feet warmers which we could stick in our shoes and/or gloves. They were awesome.

When not on camera, we sat around talking and reading books & magazines or doing sudoku puzzles. Compared to other temp jobs (which is really what this is) you really cannot beat it. And if you’re lucky, you get to be around really fabulous actors who make you feel very lucky to be working in this industry. And you can get star struck.

Case in point- the first two scenes I shot were with Campbell Scott. Now, obviously, I didn’t get a chance to talk to him because we were working, but how cool was it that I got to see him in person, working? He is a really nice guy (and cute!)- said hello to each of the crew members and kept the energy light and fun. You could tell he was happy to be back on the set. As we set up for the shot, I saw Mr. Scott walking with another recognizable actor, Tony Goldwyn. Soon I realized that Tony would not be acting in the scene but he would be directing it (!) This was a pleasant realization, as this meant that I would be able to look at him for hours while we worked (he is very hot in person, yo!) Plus, he has directed a number of great TV episodes and a few movies and I think he lends some credibility to a show that has a tough time in the ratings (though I have been a fan of the show from the beginning, as well I should have been. I did background work on the pilot!) In the last two scenes I got to see Hope Davis work. She is really great on the show and I have always been fond of her work (make sure you see “Proof.”)

I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

And the pay is pretty good- SAG actors get $126 for the day, which averages out to about $16 per hour for an 8 hour shift (though they don’t always keep you all 8 hours, in which case you still get $126- awesome). Plus, you get time and a half for every hour over 8 hours, double time for hours over 12, and you get free meals. Plus, you get other perks if certain criteria are met: 1st- if you are not fed within the first 6 hours of work, you get what is called a “meal penalty” for every additional 1/2 hour you do not get fed. Think of it like an employer getting fined for not giving you a break during your shift. 2nd- You also get premiums (read: extra pay) if you work in the rain, if you work in fog, if you work past 8pm (with an extra premium if you work past 1am, and so on). And these extra payments are no extraneous- they all make sense. The union has negotiated the terms with the producers so that the actors are protected, and it is much cheaper for the producers to keep the actors late than rescheduled them for another day, so it is a win-win.

It’s not glamourous, and it doesn’t feel like “real” acting work because we don’t create characters or contribute to the plot. But it is a very real part of the industry and it allows me the opportunity to spend my days on the set instead of at home or in an office somewhere. So, when you watch the show and you notice some coffee shop scenes, see if you can find me!

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