Noel Bartocci: Background Talent

We convene in the basement of the First Unitarian Methodist Church in Center City. A wide-open, tiled space with no air condition. There are giant fans in each corner, doing their job to circulate the hot air like warm dog breath. I’m trying to use the power of my mind to prevent sweat from beading on my forehead. It’s not working.

There are a hell of a bunch of people here this morning; a solid mix of aspiring actors, SAG members, local professionals, and noobs (like me), just spending the day at fictional cocktail party. Regardless of looking for fame or just a way to spend the day, we’re all here bright and early.

One of the first things I noticed were people introducing themselves by their first and last names - to everyone. Each individual gets a handshake and a proper introduction, regardless of being in close proximity of the last one or standing in a singular group. It’s genuine, but a little sales-y at the same time and definitely throws me off.

Hi, there. Jack Connelly.” Shake, smile, move on.

Hello, Jack Connelly.” Shake, shake, show some teeth. Next.

Jack Connelly. Hi.” Shake, shake, shake. Grin, who’s next. And so on…

This fictional example of an actor-man doing this to a group, all within earshot of one another renders individual full introductions moot… but dammit if he doesn’t commit.

There are so many names and introductions that it’s already difficult to remember what to call the person next to me, but I don’t feel bad about it after I’m referred to as Nolan the first time.

The next chunk time is like a surreal meet and greet comprised of people who love attention. The subtle competition to be remembered never comes off as desperate but simply more fascinating to watch. Their jobs are to make an impression, so it’s to be expected. Parking is the topic of conversation and the great equalizer in any introductory situation. Where people parked, how much they’re paying, where the cheapest meter parking is located. I’m passed over quickly during the conversation when I simply note that I took the bus. I then learned that I was one of the only locals here. These people have traveled from Jersey, Harrisburg, Delaware, Atlantic City, and the Poconos. Suddenly the annoyance I had about one transfer seemed pretty miniscule.

After having full domain of the church basement for the last 45 minutes, they corral us to one side of the space and turn the other half into a make up and dressing room for the lead actors. Actress Sarah Megan Thomas is getting her hair done about 25 feet away, visible to all until a modest barrier is constructed between the “background talent” and the leads. I wouldn't want people gawking at me while a man blow-dries my hair, either.

We queue up to collect a form and relinquish the rights to our personal visages. Oh well, maybe it'll be put to better use in someone else's hands. I loan out pens like a dollar store Santa Claus, since none are provided. Being a writer, I always have my bag on hand - computer, notebook, and writing utensils. Sure, I'm that guy waking around with a messenger bag, but these strangers appreciate it in the moment.

We were instructed to wear cocktail attire for the day; men in full suit and women in dresses or business suits. Also to bring options of shirts and ties in case Wardrobe thinks you suck. We’re told to get in a line and lie out our clothing selections so Wardrobe can approve what we’re brought. I wait. I'm also thinking I should've gone with my back up shirt and tie. I hope wardrobe likes that better than what I’m wearing. How does that make sense...why didn't I just wear that? You know what, I'm just being antsy. Go back to waiting, Noel.

Ugh. I only brought one other option of shirt and tie. I'm such a noob. These other people have hangar bags filled with clothes. Screw it. Send me home if you don't dig it. That's combatitive, isn’t it? It's the heat talking. I’m already irritable and the day hasn't actually started, has it? Shit. I'm starting to think that this just mulling about is going to wear thin-ish after a few hours. Here's hoping there's at least air conditioning when we get to set.

Rita, the very busy wardrobe coordinator (maybe that's her title, I didn't ask) is running around answering so many people’s questions that my first instinct is to just get out of her way and not contribute to her strife. She comes back and forth, and each time I'm skipped because more people come and lay down their clothes for her to approve. I mean, I could be done by now, but these are not things to worry about.

As I stand there in front of my clothes, like a cat laying its slain prey in front of their owner for approval, another lead actor passes by me. Lee Tergessen is in this movie? Whaaaaaat?! I'm really close to geeking out about a favorite character actor of mine. I start to think, un-ironically, that if I got to ask him a question, would it be about levity on the set of OZ (if there was any) or taking over the role of Chett Donnelly after being made famous by Bill Paxton. Yes, I’m talking about Weird Science, the movie and the forgotten TV show. Keep it together, Noel.

Time to finally head to set. They shuttle us over to the Capital Grille on Chestnut St., shoulder to shoulder in a passenger van. It’s here I learn that many of my fellow background ac-tors had previously worked on Creed, the quasi-sequel that wrapped up earlier this year. I retreat to the cocoon of silence and just listen to all these stories around me. Sitting behind me is the referee for the final boxing match in the film and they talk about how he’s in the trailer for a split second. A gentleman in front of me pulls the Creed preview up on his phone and shows the rest of the passengers. For the first time all morning, it really felt like a community celebrating each other’s achievements, big and small.

We’re finally on set. Walking into the Capital Grille, I pass by award winning actress Anna Gunn, who is getting her hair touched up while she elevates her booted foot. I assume it’s a real injury, because if it was for her character, I’m not sure she would go so far as to elevate the phantom injury between scenes just to stay in the zone. Then again, what do I know about acting?

We’re ushered past the main camera set up and taken to a side dinning room. I'm placed in a chair with my back to the camera and instructed that I’ll be on a date with the woman across from me. Just act normal and talk to her. The very sweet lady across from me is nervous, so I start to crack jokes, one of course being about how her husband would feel about her dating a younger guy. It got a laugh and we proceeded to talk about her kids during our fake date.

Producer and actress Alysia Reiner just walked onto set with a box of Federal Donuts for the crew (s’cool, I didn’t want one). First scene is filmed; an establishing restaurant tracking shot that starts on my head. I sit and pretend to talk up this mother of five, ages 13-18. During each take, we lip sync and whisper full conversations to one another. She's an inquisitive woman and I answer almost everything I've learned about filmmaking over the years. Prop Master, first AD, PAs, etc., pointing them all out for her. It literally does take a little army to film just one scene. It's quite an impressive feat. The director, Meera Menon sits down at the dining table next to me to go over script notes. She's a deliberate woman, task oriented, but not at all unapproachable. She is steering this crew and exudes the quiet gravitas to do so successfully.

The props department is running in and out of the kitchen, setting up half eaten food in front of me, and filling our wine glasses with red or white grape juice. Seeing as though it’s a fish dish they put in front of me, I opt for the white. I was clearly getting deep into my role… Who drinks red when consuming fish or fowl? Not my character. After a few passes, we’re ready to roll. The camera begins its shot on us and passes through to the main table. We have to act for a few seconds and then can watch the scene transpire. It’s really quite surreal.

After a few takes, they reset and prepare for the other side of the scene. This will no longer require us, but we’re asked to hang tight in case they want more coverage. For the rest of the day, I stand in the back and just watch everyone work. After a short time, they even move the video village into our side room and I get to watch the director do her thing. She holds back laughs with another crew member as a particularly humorous scene is filmed over and over again, featuring different mannerisms and dialogue tweaks employed by Tergessen. It’s kind of awesome watching her and her team piece the scene together, out of order, and from every angle like puzzle pieces. It clearly requires patience and fortitude to capture a moment in fractions.

After a few hours, the main cast is cleared out and we’re asked to all convene in the large dining room for coverage and recording background chatter. The First AD asks us to have normal conversations about money, sports, and politics. Just talk. After a few rounds of that, we’re released and my adventure is over. Or so I thought.