A (Freezing) Day in the Life of a Background Actor

by Laura Yan

4:34 a.m. Slept for, maybe, two hours? Alarm wakes me (“Take Me to Church”). Call time is 6:15 a.m. for an exterior shoot today. I’m not sure if the confidentiality agreement lets me say what exactly we’re shooting — let’s just say it’s a crime show, and one you would know.

4:54 a.m. Run out of the door a few minutes after schedule, according to Google Maps.

4:58 a.m. *Just* miss the 4 train uptown. Refill metrocard. 14 minutes until next train…

5:05 a.m. Early morning panhandler wanders the platform, asking everyone for change. It’s too early for my defense mechanisms to spring in. I give him a dollar, but he lingers. Can you give me a twenty? A ten? A five?

I politely shake my head but he keeps at it. His aggressive persistence sets me off. I woke up at 4 a.m. to get paid minimum wage while I work for 10–12 hours, I say, so, no. I cannot give you five dollars.

Oh, okay, he says. Thanks for telling me.

A woman on the platform overhears us and laughs. Did he ask for more? She says. You shouldn’t have given him anything. THAT’S RIGHT LADY. Mistake #1.

5:11 a.m. He’s made a round of the platform and astonishingly accosts me again! He wants five dollars for a hot sausage egg and cheese sandwich, apparently. I tell him that sounds fucking delicious and no he cannot have five dollars. It’s too fucking early to be sympathetic.

5:13 a.m. Daydreaming about better comebacks I could have said to him. He didn’t even say thank you!

5:34 a.m. A man on the 4 train is doing early morning evangelizing. He’s got a beautiful voice and a powerful cadence of speech. He speaks like he’s reciting poetry.

Such a shame he’s going on about God, though.

5:46 a.m. Have no idea what transfers I’m making anymore. Playing it by ear. Also, the New York subway system before 6 a.m. is not New York at its best.

6:06 a.m. Call casting company to let them know I’ll be late. Is this a train platform or a giant freezer?

6:11 a.m. Subway art, pasted in segments on arches throughout the long walk from Port Authority to Times Square: Running late. Tired. Why do it? Just go home. Do it again. A picture of a bed.

6:38 a.m. Holding (which makes me think of a holding pen, which is appropriate, because it’s a holding pen for actors. It’s where you sign in and register and hangout in between actual time on set) is beautiful, inside a hall with high arched ceilings, chandeliers, oil portraits on the walls. The Ivy League study hall I never had. I fill out a bunch of paperwork as always while eyeing the breakfast.

Breakfast for nonunion: oatmeal, sausage patties, pancakes (but no syrup?), potato hash, fruit, coffee, etc.

Union gets crispy bacon, freshly made omelettes, bagels with LOX. And the like. It’s a little painful to see the hierarchy outlined so precisely.

The number one thing you’ll notice as soon as you start doing background work is this talk of union and non-union. Basically union (SAG) members get paid a ton more, get more respect, wait around less in line, and are generally treated as superior beings while non-union extras are totally disposable.

7:31 a.m. We’re off to set! It’s an exterior shoot of a protest scene. Have I mentioned that it’s BITTERLY cold? Every conversation revolves around the cold cold cold. It’s probably the only thing we’re really equipped to protest about.

7:45 a.m. I definitely can’t feel my toes. A PA is passing around packets of hand-warmers. I stare at them longingly.

7:48 a.m. I chat with other non-union extras. This girl reminds me of my roommate from undergrad. In fact the whole thing makes me feel like I’m back in undergrad. We are playing college students, after all.

8:05 a.m. They send us back to holding for a temporary warm up while they continue setting up.

8:09 a.m. Still can’t feel my toes.

8:14 a.m. And back out to brave the cold we go!

8:32 a.m. A PA takes away my sign (it’s blocking the way). Hands in my pockets! Horray!

Someone’s poking his head out of the window from the building before us. We resent him, for his heated room, his privilege to be an onlooker.

Our conversation revolve around frostbite experiments. It’s in the single digits. Nothing makes you feel more alive THAN THIS WEATHER.

8:49 a.m. JUST KIDDING BACKGROUND BACK TO HOLDING. I think there is ice in my socks.

8:51 a.m. What if that panhandler from this morning switched places with me instead?


9:49 a.m. My feet are blocks of ice. We joke about cremation, which sounds appealingly warm right now.

Weather apps says: seven degrees, feels like -2.

Isn’t this inhumane working conditions or something? Minimum wage, guys. MINIMUM WAGE.

10:01 a.m. Having fun? Inside holding, someone at my table asks. I can only laugh.

11:08 a.m. I’m getting too tired to track our coming and goings, but we repeat this pattern. Out on the steps where we stand, there are now patches of glorious sunshine. We huddle in a circular penguin formation, staring at our shoes. A PA passes by, holding a single boiled egg in his palm. It’s hot! He says.

Inside holding, we hold hot packs to frozen toes like soldiers addressing wounds. A girl is wrapping her socks in a gauze of toilet paper.

11:12 a.m. Types of actors you’ll see: the pretty aspiring actresses, perfectly (and overly) coiffed, blonde tresses, heavy mascara or fake lashes, looking miserable and aloof in the cold. The unions, sitting with an air of easy, secure superiority. The rest of us, laughing and joking about our pathetic fates. If one of us died on set, they might laugh it off. Oh, non-union, they’d shrug.

11:14 a.m. Every time they call us out to set it takes longer and longer for us to take action. Conversations continue. Coats are buttoned very slowly. Socks struggle to be pulled up. We shuffle out.

11:34 a.m. Every time we go back it’s its own kind of torture. We run across the street on our frozen trapezoidal ice-blocks and pause in a patch of sunlight on the corner before the safety of holding. The relieved sighs of slipping off our shoes and icy socks, kneading back circulation and life.

12:25 p.m. Did we wrap the main scene? Are we done for the day? Half of us are out and half are waiting, not knowing, hoping.

A girl in the bathroom asks for help to unbutton her jeans. Her fingers are too frozen to do the job.

12:40 p.m. A brief respite in holding. Folks are napping, curled up against tables, sprawled on the floor, huddled on top of the heaters by the window, checking their phones, reading, writing. It’s a sleepy, tired, slightly charming livingroom-cum-studyhall atmosphere. It’s probably my favorite part of background work.

12:49 p.m. There is a beautiful actor here who hasn’t been on set at all. When did he arrive? Who is he? Dark skin, dreadlocks and cheekbones. He’s reading a book, but I can’t tell what it is. I admire him from afar. I’d say hello but I can’t muster the energy. Plus I look terrible.

1:16 p.m. It’s a wrap! Just in time for them to deprive us non-union, one-scene extras out of a hot, catered meal they’re in the process of setting up. They must be breaking some labor laws…but if we did complain. Well. Non-union. Shrug. (The benefit: extra work always pays for up to ten hours — so though we wrapped early, we still get paid the full rate, which brings our earnings to just above minimum wage.)

Total earnings: $71.77
Hours worked: 6.5
Average temperature: 8 degrees
Total layers worn: 11

Laura Yan writes, wanders, and sketches strangers on subways. She lives in Brooklyn, and yes, can work as an extra in your film.

Photo: Ralph Hockins

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