Have You Started Your Holiday Shopping Yet?

In two days, Halloween 2014 will be a memory and CHRISTMAS SEASON WILL BE IN FULL SWING!  Forget Thanksgiving, that’s a holiday without gifts or decorations to speak of (yet).  Well, not to give anyone any ideas, but I haven’t seen a blow-up turkey on anyone’s lawn yet.

Time to get going on that holiday SHOPPING!  Buy, buy, buy and buy some more.  I’ve heard tales of people paying for their holiday purchases for months into the New Year?  Huh?

As I think back about all the Christmases I’ve experienced (a lot), what stands out in my mind are the experiences.  I grew up in a family of five kids and we got stuff but I don’t remember anything specifically unless it’s in a photograph somewhere.  I had four kids of my own and now have five grandkids.  I remember them having fabulous holidays with lots and lots of decorations and lots and lots of presents for everyone.  I don’t recall much of what I got for them and I know they don’t much remember what was in any of those brightly papered boxes either.

What we all remember are the experiences we had together.  Every year, we’d give them tickets to an event post-holiday.  For example, the ice shows came to Chicago in January and we’d give them tickets for Christmas.  It made the holidays last so much longer as they anticipated the event.  We’d still be celebrating long after the tree came down.  IMG_0108We started doing that for birthdays, too.  One year, we rented a fishing charter and all went salmon fishing on Lake Michigan to celebrate the summer birthdays.

Now, when we sit around reminiscing at the Thanksgiving table, the stories that always appear are, “Remember the time we had that whipped cream fight – when was that, two years ago?”  “Remember when we all went to Stomp and stomped our feet til they were numb?”  “Remember the salmon we had smoked and ate for an entire year?”

I’m already thinking about what’s coming to town after the holidays so my grandkids and I can have a memory to re-live on future Thanksgivings, even when I’m not there to reminisce with them anymore.

Published in: on October 29, 2014 at 8:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Be a Star!

Tomorrow I’m going to be working on Starz’s “Shameless.”  Nope, I’m not a big star.  I’m an extra.  Or “background” as it’s called in the biz.  It’s one way I make a couple extra bucks when I can. Here’s the thing, though:  I have spent my life feeling I’m rather < (less than or equal to) ordinary.  I don’t like having my picture taken, nor do I think I look that good.  Being even background is really out of my personal box, but now that I’m older, I’m trying to do as many things as I can that are out of my comfort zone.

Being Background can be a lot of fun.  There’s the opportunity to gawk at the real stars, if that’s your thing (it’s not mine; I’ve never been “star struck” at all).  Better yet is the opportunity to meet new friends, spend some time learning how TV and movies are made, and seeing how many gazillion different job descriptions it takes to make the thirty seconds that actually gets shown.  It is, however, a LOT of  waiting around.  Reading or chatting with your peers in the holding area or off-camera on set can pass the time easily.

Several background casting agencies are here in Chicago and they are always looking for “new faces.”  To register, go to the various websites and enter your information.  “Casting calls” are posted on Facebook, so if you don’t have a Facebook account, you should definitely get one and “like” the casting agency pages. They look for people of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, etc.  Don’t hesitate to register because you think you can’t be Background; you definitely can.    Because I’m older, gray, and overweight, I might not get as many calls as some others, but I get enough!  When you answer a call (via an email address given in the post), you will usually include at least your name and phone number and some personal statistics.  If you fit the character they’re looking for, you’ll receive a return email (or a phone call, confirmed with a follow-up email), informing you that you have been scheduled and asking you to confirm.  Do this ASAP.  Just prior to the workday, you will receive information with the who/what/where/why/how.  You will need to respond to this email as well to confirm.  You will be required, in most cases, to provide your own wardrobe and will be asked to bring several changes for the costume department to approve.  Hair and make-up are usually on your own as well, though I’ve had the luxury of having both done for me — what a treat!  I’ve also been re-costumed so to speak and that’s been fun too.

In alphabetical order, here are the background casting agencies I’ve worked with in Chicago:  4 Star Casting, Atmosphere Casting, Darling Series (aka Joan Philo Casting and Chicago Fire background casting), and Tail Sticks Casting.  With these companies, I’ve worked on NBC’s Chicago Fire and Chicago PD, Starz’s Shameless and Boss, and Sense8 (a new sci fi show that hasn’t premiered yet), and the Onion.  Others background actors I know have done movies and commercials.  My eleven-year-old granddaughter has worked on Chicago Fire.  There is one other agency, with whom I haven’t yet worked, and that’s Extraordinary Casting.  The companies with whom I have worked are upstanding, ethical, honest, and fun.  I’ve never had a problem with any of them and, of course, do not hesitate to continue to answer calls.

It is important to remember when you sign up, that it is a JOB.  If you commit, you must show up.  The production is counting on you.  You will be paid in a week or two by check from a payroll company, not from the casting company.  When you arrive to a work day on the set, it’s important to bring a driver’s license or ID and know your social security number.  You will be required to complete your “voucher,” your payroll paperwork, including an I9.  It’s simple:  If you don’t complete the paperwork, you won’t get paid — well, actually they’ll send you home; you won’t work.  You’ll spend a great part of the day in the “holding area” w-a-i-t-i-n-g.  This is where you’ll meditate, practice patience, and meet some great new friends if you want to.  When and if you’re called to the set, you will do the “take” over and over again until the director is satisfied.  This is not a bad thing.  When you watch yourself back on TV, you will see why.  Sometimes you’ll even wish they’d done it again, just one more time!  If you’re working around mealtime, you will generally be rewarded as well.  The food I’ve had has been excellent!  We’ve had beautiful dishes created by excellent chefs.  Think prime rib and crabcakes on occasion.  Cheesecake.  Smoothies.  Background eats LAST.  This is probably the only time you’ll feel like a second-class citizen, but I’ve heard that it’s in the union contracts of the cast and crew that they eat first.  This is also common sense since these hard-working folks work longer, much harder days than we do and, even if it weren’t in the contract, it would simply be courteous to them to wait.

Children have a different set of rules.  If under 16, they MUST have a work permit, and the permit must have the name of the casting agency (or the kid’s agent if applicable).  To obtain a work permit, you will get the “Letter of Intent to Hire” from the casting agency’s website.  Here in Wheaton, Illinois here’s how I did it, and I imagine it’s pretty much the same anywhere else:  You will need a doctor’s okay.  I used the recently completed school physical.  Take the Letter of Intent and the doctor’s okay to the local high school where you will complete yet another form. That has to be taken to the principal in the child’s school for approval.   I then had to take the completed paperwork to the School District Office where the actual permit was issued.  In our case, we had to get two different permits as we registered with two casting agencies.  Sounds like a lot of running around and it did take up half a day, but I thought the experience for my child was invaluable.  She learned, in particular, about many of the jobs that people have in film (or television) and how difficult it is to get a show to air.  Children do not work a full eight hour day.  There is a maximum amount of time they can be on set.  There is a “teacher” available to them on set.  I haven’t really seen one “teach” anything, but they cater to the kids, making sure they get to the bathroom, have plenty of water and snacks, and have things to do during the downtime (games, art projects, etc).  I enjoy watching a bunch of kids huddled together on set playing together.  They are for the most part unusually well-behaved children.

Do not become an extra to become friends with celebrities.  Do not become an extra hoping to be discovered by Spielberg.  It isn’t going to happen.  Background is like wallpaper.  That’s all.  It’s against the laws of this game to chat up the actors or ask for autographs, photos, or in any other way act like a jerk.  This is a work environment and everyone is expected to behave professionally, including the wallpaper.  It is expensive wallpaper from a production standpoint.  Anyone who doesn’t follow the rules risks being at the least admonished in front of EVERYONE, to being sent home, to being blacklisted.  (I would, however, LOVE to be Blacklisted as regards being able to work on that show.)  Respect for one another should be inherent in this context, not learned.  For me, this has never been a problem as I could care less if I had my picture taken by myself, much less with a more attractive human being.  I have, however, seen major actors run across the street to take photos with fans or take a few minutes to speak with them.  I do remember each and every actor who has done this and count these among the times in my life that I have enjoyed watching the delight of others.

The photo accompanying this post was taken by the Production Assistant on NBC’s Chicago Fire.  My dog, Madeleine, was also on the show and enjoyed the prime rib gifted to her by the stand-ins.  It was, indeed, a great day for us both.  I did my own hair and make-up here, but can thank the costume department for the duster and sweat pants.  Thanks to Joan Philo for the work and for allowing me to have fun!


Published in: on August 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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