WELCOME TO EARTH-4
A Column by J. Torrey McClain
In theaters now, if you look quickly and listen closely, you can see my profile and hear my voice in the fantastic new movie from Shane Black, The Nice Guys. I recommend seeing The Nice Guys, not only for me, but because it is a dry, fun, and interesting movie that has a number of laughs. But, as usual, the movie is the background to my musings and in this case, my personal experience.
On my birthday in 2015, I got a text and a phone call on my way to meeting with friends. Since I was in the car, I didn’t pick up, my preference, and waited until I was walking along the sidewalk to my destination, expecting to see calls and texts with well-wishes. As I looked, I got another call, from my call-in booking service. I answered and immediately gave my acknowledgement that I was available to work the next day. It was only after this that I was able to look at the text and see that it was my first union gig, as a photo double.
To understand this all-new stage as a background actor, I must explain my normal experiences. As a friend once relayed to me from a recent L.A. Times article, background actors are known as props that eat. Generally there are at least 20 of us descending upon a production to provide atmosphere and a realistic look of city streets, courtrooms, bars, malls or wherever the protagonists need to be. We sit, we walk, we mime talking, we run for cover, we sit in a Ferris wheel, we play at eating food and generally try to be as real as possible with several cameras capturing the moment. In between the scenes, we descend like locusts on craft services, lunch catering and our holding area, eating, talking, reading, writing, playing music or whatever we do to make the eight, ten, 12 or longer hours to pass by while assistant directors and production assistants try to corral us and keep us to a mild whisper so as not disturb filming. I love the job as the time in between gives me moments with graphic novels or whatever I’m reading at the time, but it can be stifling to many others with low tolerances to being told exactly what to do, wanting to talk, preferring not to listen and expecting the spotlight. If you’re happy just fading into the background and realizing that your issues are the smallest in the world of a production with many moving parts, days pass wonderfully well.
My days on The Nice Guys were so much different. My first day of my first union gig, I was nervous. When I met the production assistant checking me in and he said something along the line of these words, “Great, glad you’re here! This day is all about you,” my nerves shot up a notch as it became apparent that I was the only background actor there. Instead of being sent off to hang with the other extras, I got to eat at the same time and table with the crew. I felt guilty of impostor syndrome as I sat among the people there on a daily basis with specific jobs to make the production move forward. After finishing my food, I got a full haircut from the people in the hair department along with some grey added to my dark brown hair to match the original actor. A special suit of specific clothes awaited me at wardrobe. Once ready for the camera, I arrived on set, ready to exit the production van, one of the PAs opened up an umbrella for me and held it over me until, feeling very sheepish, I took it from him and walked toward set.
Impostor syndrome continued as the production figured the best place for me to wait and stay out of the rain was inside the taxicab. My nerves and excessive amounts of body heat caused the windows to start to fog and so I rolled them down a little, but then rain started to drip inside. So, my first interaction with Ryan Gosling was that of a harried fake trying desperately to wipe the rain off his seat with my non-absorbent fleece and ending up smearing water around as he told me they had someone that could take care of that. It was the exact opposite of how Paul Rust describes his moments with Brad Pitt in the great I Was There Too on Inglourious Basterds.
Still reeling from that, Angourie Rice and Russell Crowe joined Mr. Gosling in the taxicab and I tried to keep my composure as Mr. Crowe started telling me about the driver they had in Atlanta and how much of a nice guy he was. Finally Ms. Rice interrupted him and told Mr. Crowe he was going to give me an inferiority complex. At that point Mr. Crowe offered his hand and introduced himself and then Ms. Rice did the same, but my nerves kept interjecting and I kept repeating “Gary” after she introduced herself as Angourie and after Mr. Crowe said it to her again, I got the feeling it might have been a running joke for the shoot. Finally the rain stopped long enough for us to film a couple scenes of me pulling in, dropping them off and then pulling out of the cul-de-sac.
Once darkness approached, we wrapped from this location and I got a ride back to base camp and was told to be ready to do it again next week as the production still needed to finish some shots. My heart leapt as this meant another day of union pay and that meant one step closer to having the qualifications to apply to the SAG/AFTRA union.
The next week came and after a misunderstanding regarding the location and a race across town in about 30 minutes to get to the proper one and impressing people with my driving ability, I went through wardrobe, hair and makeup again and prepared to shoot for a second day feeling much more comfortable as I had an idea of what to expect. I arrived on set on a beautiful day and as I sat in the cab, “my” riders approached with Mr. Crowe calling out, “Hey, Lindsey, right?” I called back, “Jason,” and he immediately replied, “It’s great to see you again, Lindsey.” It seemed like name games were the joke du jour for the production, so for the rest of the day with all three actors I was Lindsey. We did a couple more shots of the same action with some fun back and forth in the cab and soon I was done and the rest of the production continued to move forward.
That’s my story about The Nice Guys with two nice guys, several cool production folks and a young lady. (I couldn’t figure out how to fit in getting direction from Mr. Black on hitting my mark while driving the taxi, but I had that happen as well and now I’ve added it as a parenthetical aside.) As far as brushes with greatness go, I will always have a story when people ask me if I’ve met a celebrity as I drive Lyft for the tourists and locals around L.A., the 2010s version of my role in the movie.