With the 2019 Oscars upon us, here is a short extract from my Hollywood memoir, Adventures In Tinsel Town, based on the 5 years I spent there between 2000–2005. They are five years I will never forget.
‘Hollywood’s a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss, and fifty cents for your soul’.
I will never forget the time I was cast as an extra on the Al Pacino movie Simone. It was a two day booking on a cattle call, which meant hundreds of extras and all the crap that came with it in terms of trying to gain access to changing facilities, bathrooms, and so on. The movie was not one of Pacino’s best, it has to be said. In it he played a movie director who creates a virtual movie star, named Simone. I was booked both as a fan outside a movie awards show, cheering Pacino’s character when he shows up outside in a limo and proceeds to walk the red carpet. After this scene, I was a guest at the same movie awards show after-party, thus entailing a costume change into a black dinner suit. On the first day — which would also turn out to be my last — the temperature was blisteringly hot with a brilliant white sun venting its fury on every living thing below. As we stood around waiting to be called onto set for the first shot, I got talking to this guy I’d seen on various bookings but had never spoken to at any length before. His name was Bill, he was around my age and been in LA ten years by this point.
“You can tell there’s a lotta extras on this booking by the amount of beat-up cars in the parking lot,” he said, smiling. “Extras drive shitty cars and wear cheap clothes.”
He was right, of course, but it was uncomfortable hearing it being articulated so in such a forthright manner all the same.
“How long have you been in LA?” he asked me.
“Just over a year.”
“Did you come here with savings?”
At this I couldn’t help but squirm. I had no savings left; they were gone on living expenses and keeping afloat between jobs.
“This city’s economy relies on people coming here with their savings to try and get in the industry. Once their savings are depleted they’re forced to work any job they can get in order to survive. It works like a charm.”
Shit, he was depressing me. He was right but all the same he was fucking depressing me.
“Where do you live?”
“Extras drive beat-up cars, wear cheap clothes and live in shitty apartments,” he said, laughing like a man for whom cynicism was a narcotic.
“What’s your story?” I asked, pushing back, pissed off but trying to conceal it.
“My story’s the same as yours and everyone else’s. I came here for acting from St Louis fifteen years ago. Now I’m stuck here doing this shit.”
“But…,” I began to say.
“We’re losers, that’s all there is to it. Losers.”
“Come on, now you’re being…”
“Look at this fucking guy.”
I turned my head and looked in the direction he was looking. Around twenty feet away and old guy, an extra, was shuffling along carrying his wardrobe under his arm while eating a muffin from craft service. He looked a pitiful sight.
“Only difference between him and us is twenty years,” Bill said.
Later that afternoon during a break in shooting, just after we’d changed into our evening wear for the start of the next scene, I left my fellow extras in extras holding, deciding to take a closer look at Pacino, sitting on his chair behind the monitor in what they refer to in the industry as video village. He was waiting to do another take of the scene they were working on, enconsced with the director and producer amid the usual mayhem you encounter on a movie set; flunkies buzzing around, lots of people with radios and baseball caps — the usual crap.
I sat myself down on a crate around twenty feet away and from there proceeded to scrutinise a verifiable and authentic legend of the silver screen. As I did, Bill’s words returned. “We’re losers, that’s all there is to it. Losers.” Not me, I thought. Not me. I’m going to make it.
And with renewed determination I stared at Pacino, determined to figure what it was he possessed that had turned him into a Hollywood legend. Whatever it was I needed some and fast.
There he is, I thought, Michael Corleone: the Godfather himself. Eventually he noticed me staring. How could he not? By now my eyes were boring a hole right through him.
Serpico, I thought. Serpico’s looking at me — at me. I smiled and waved. He didn’t respond. Instead he returned his attention to the director and producer. Whatever he said to them, they responded by likewise looking over at me. Again I smiled and waved, excited at being noticed by Michael Corleone and his men.
Fifteen minutes later, on my way back to extras holding, I was approached by the First AD and two uniformed security guards. “Excuse me sir,” the First AD said, “could you grab your things and come with me please.”
“Nothing. I just need you to get your things and come with me.”
I looked over his shoulder at the security guards, eyeballing me with serious intent. Fifteen minutes later I’d changed back into my own clothes and handed back my wardrobe to the First AD. He handed it over to one of the production assistants before turning back to me with the announcement that I was wrapped and free to leave.
“Do you mind telling me what this is about?” I said.
“Mr Pacino’s made a complaint. He doesn’t want you on the set. Said you keep staring at him.”
I looked at him.
“These gentlemen will escort you to your vehicle ,” the First AD said, referring to the security guards, whose eyes never left me throughout.
All of a sudden I knew what Tessio in Godfather II must have felt like - about to be taken away by Michael Corleone’s men at Tom Hayden’s behest.
“Tell Mike it was only business. I always liked him.”
“Say what?” the First AD came back, blinking with incomprehension.
“Tom…can you get me off the hook? For old time’s sake.”
“Sir, are you okay?”
I lowered my head and walked off, security guards in tow. Nobody fucks with Michael Corleone. Nobody.