On Being An Extra in “The Dilemma”

On July 21st, approximately 700 extras arrived at the United Center to play Blackhawks fans in Ron Howard’s “The Dilemma”. I was one of them…

My journey begins at 4am, when I step outside to catch the Lawrence Bus. The quietness of the city was new and I instantly imagine myself embarking on an adventure. Two fellows the police could easily typecast as up-to-no-good are the only people out. The streets were so still, the water main over on Damen and Lawrence is deafening. After transferring to another bus, I meet a fellow extra on her way to the United Center.

We arrive at the United Center at  5:15, the loneliness of the early morning a direct contrast to the group of people already gathered behind the glass doors. The weather has grown warm, but when I enter the doors at Lot K, the AC inside is so strong I recoil from the cold.

I decide to bum a cigarette (yes, I know, I am trying to quit. To quote Mark Twain, It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times). A man I would describe as the love-son of Vince Vaughn and Bruce Campbell gives me one and we get to chatting. He tells me he has worked as the body double for Vince Vaughn before. I don’t know why this man isn’t an actor – he is handsome and has incredibly soft hands I still remember vividly today. I remark about his soft hands, but he  claims to be a bartender. I know bartenders and their hands are not that soft….

As the day progresses, many of the extras in attendance I soon identify as “pro extras”: they all know one another and talk gossip in that clique-y exclusionary way. As the line to get inside the building grows longer, I can’t help but notice how heavily made-up and well dressed everyone is. I am self-conscious of my clothes. I am wearing faded black corduroys, an old hoodie a different shade of faded black, and a borrowed red Blackhawks t-shirt two sizes too small (taking the hoodie off is a no-go). I am not wearing make-up or contacts. My hair is in a messy ponytail. Almost everyone came with a friend. I came alone. I feel fat. My confidence drains.

Once seated in the stands I small-talk with those around me. The girl next to me is a seasoned extra and is starring in a series where she gets stalked. I start to talk to her about Perfect Blue, but think better of it- I don’t want to scare other females off by my nerdiness so early in the day. The woman on the other side of me is in real estate, and loves the Blackhawks so much she is taking time off work to be in a hockey comedy. She confuses me by telling me Ron Howard directed “Inception”.  I find other first-timers, but they are all die-hard Blackhawks fans too.  My Blackhawks knowledge begins and ends at them winning the most recent championship and in celebration the Museum of the Art Institute put giant Blackhawks helmets on the lions framing the main entrance.

I am in the 5:30am group, so I sit there, soaking in the situation for 4 hours as more people get placed in rows and the film crew sets up. Had I know it would have taken 4 hours, I would have gone exploring,  maybe spent more time chatting with the man in charge of all the blow-up dolls. I look at the clock frequently, expecting each minute to be an hour. The DS I brought with me does not work. I am not in the mood to read the book I have in my bag. Writing doesn’t want to happen. The Vince Vaughn double waves at me from a couple rows away and I feel better.

Filming begins around 9am. Vince Vaughn walks on the ice, and he is less attractive than the body double in the stands. I am shocked by this realization. Ron Howard is short, energetic and I want to hug him. Jennifer Connelly walks out on the ice at one point, and her anorexic figure depresses me instantly. Conversations about Jennifer’s weight spread like wildfire among the women around me, and the phrase “camera adds 10 pounds” is repeated here and there. Even if the camera did make subjects 10 pounds larger, Miss Connelly looked sick. The man helping her walk in high heels on the ice adds to her feeble image. Seeing one of my favorite actresses this way makes me self-conscious about my weight again. Is that what women must look like to be successful? Why is it ok if Vince Vaughn is portly? Also, Vince Vaughn would crush Jennifer Connelly if they were to have sex – were thoughts that flitted through my mind.

My job as an extra was to jump up and down, scream, wave a towel, or boo depending on directions. Most of the time, we extras were pantomiming. We pantomimed the shit out of that word for 12 hours. Ron Howard called us “background artists” at one point, but I think he was flattering us to raise morale.

After a while of this cheering and waving, I decide to have fun with it. On one occassion, when I go to hug the girl next to me in mid-jump, her elbow knocks off my glasses. On another occassion, the high five I jump into is so powerful I get knocked into the glass barrier. I celebrate silently, heckle obnoxiously.

In the 15 hours that I was there, approximately 5 minutes of the movie was filmed. I stand (or bounce) there watching the same shot being taken over and over again, but from completely different angles…. every 10 second action had at least 3 angles. Will this movie have a cut every 3 seconds? Is this why we have high rates of ADD in our society?  Or is this problem of our 3 second attention spans a chicken or the egg question?

Either way, as extras we were required to move to fill in the seats for each angle. I wouldn’t be surprised if I show up at least 3 times in 3 separate spots (optimistic me says 10 times in this 5 minute scene)……

During scene set ups (moving through the bleachers, climbing stairs, etc), I try to get answers on this silly Blackhawks towel business. Why would hockey fans have a tiny towel? Why would fans spin the towel, instead of waving it like a flag? What does this tiny towel have to do with hockey, or Blackhawks, or Native Americans? Did Native Americans even play hockey? No one understood my confusion. “It’s just a Blackhawks thing….”

I find myself smoking more than I normally would, just to get outside and be warm …. plus cigarettes make great conversation starters. The temperature inside the stadium is freezing, and many extras begin to grumble as the hours tick by. Few came prepared for the cold. I no longer hate my hand-me-down hoodie.

The food served was passable. Breakfast was a fancier McDonalds breakfast sandwich, and lunch was a gourmet soggy sandwich. As dinner time approaches, PAs begin throwing bags of chips at the extras, creating a mad dash. There wasn’t enough for everyone. I remember being hungry, tired, and dehydrated, laughing maniacally at the spectacle.

I don’t remember much else as by the time I got in line to leave I had been up for more than 30 hours. Bad move on my part, but I was too excited to sleep the night before. Also, without a day job, I naturally revert to going to bed at 4am and waking between 10 am and noon.

I didn’t talk to any of the “stars,” as it was announced on blow horns if I did approach them I would be kicked off the premises. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the stadium, but I did take the above photo of the blow-up dolls on my cellphone…

5 Comments on “On Being An Extra in “The Dilemma””

  1. Your portrayal of Jennifer Connelly, sadly (or perhaps thankfully), destroys my lukewarm admiration of her. Besides this, what a fine piece of writing. As always, a pleasure to read the one-and-only Fruzsina. 😀

  2. Hi just thought i would tell you something.. This is twice now i?ve landed on your blog in the last 3 weeks looking for completely unrelated things. Great Info! Keep up the good work.

  3. Mark Drinnenberg says:

    I was an extra on this film, too. I was in the auto show scene. Kevin James is one of my favorites due to his hilarious work on “King of Queens” and his “Sweat the Small Stuff” stand-up routine. I stood right next to him (and the other stars) many times over the better part of an hour and said nothing to him as we had also been instructed not to approach the stars. At one point, we were pacing between shots, and as we passed each other, he looked up and made eye contact with me. He then looked back down at the ground. It was a very awkward, unnatural moment. Vince Vaughn was goofing off, running around and shouting stuff to his co-stars. At one point, he circled around and squeezed between me and another extra. We just stood there like statues. In no other setting would I ever have that kind of experience with another human being. I’m not sure these actors would have minded a brief comment or response during a break, but the casting agency had said not to interact with them, so I didn’t. I can’t wait for January 14 to see if I made it onto the screen. Good luck on that yourself.

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