Until a few weeks ago,when I served as an extra in the film adaptation of Charles Bukowski's Factotum, my last acting experience had been in eighth grade. I was discovered during a Friday night dance at James M. Bennett Junior High School in Salisbury, Maryland, when I got up on stage and "rapped." Apparently one of the chaperones witnessed this performance and determined that I would be perfect for a role in a Mike's Carpet Warehouse commercial.
The commercial featured me--a very short white guy--and a rather large African American fellow. We lip-synched to this rap--"The place we live we think is fine/But our feet get cold when we sit to dine"--and jumped around rolls of carpet. The ad aired a couple of times one weekend and then disappeared. Mike's Carpet Warehouse was notorious for its poorly produced, obnoxiously loud commercials, but apparently this one was beneath even those standards.
I didn't bother mentioning this adolescent flirtation with stardom to the folks casting extras for Factotum. I didn't want them to think my ego would prevent me from tackling the humble tasks required of an extra. Instead, I told them that I like to drink, gamble, and hang out at racetracks. Those seemed like good traits to emphasize. After all, the plot of Bukowski's autobiographical novel basically consists of the protagonist drinking, gambling, and getting fired from menial jobs after World War II. (And fucking--but I didn't tout that as being one of my skills.)
Apparently the casting department was impressed, because I was told to show up at Canterbury Park at 8:00 a.m. on a Monday in late June. Factotum is being directed by Norwegian Bent Hamer (Kitchen Stories) and will star Matt Dillon, Marisa Tomei, and Lili Taylor. They've been shooting in Minnesota since mid-June, and the film is slated to be in theaters next spring.
I've been working on my outfit for weeks. I've got the perfect shirt: a tattered, tan guayabera that was probably being worn by someone at a racetrack somewhere or other at some point in the '50s. This is accompanied by army-green shorts, brown socks, and scuffed wingtips. My beloved baby-blue fishing cap, however, has been left at home: items containing blue, red, white, black, or anything brighter than whiskey have been prohibited by the filmmakers.
I arrive shortly after 8:00. The atmosphere in the open-air concourse where the extra cattle call is taking place feels akin to a pep rally. The aspiring extras are much younger, more female, and better-looking than any group of racetrack skells I've ever encountered. A chipper woman wearing a headset gets up every few minutes and makes barely audible announcements. She informs us that--although we won't be getting a red cent for our labors--the filmmakers have assembled a raffle for us. The booty includes free massages, four tickets to see the Pixies, and a glossy 8 x 10 photo of Amy Grant.
A handful of folks are selected to participate in a bar scene. The rest of us wait. I drink bottle after bottle of water so that I can pass the time walking back and forth to the loo. I wander over to the poker room and briefly contemplate ditching the whole endeavor in favor of Omaha Hi/Lo. I peruse a New Yorker profile of Arnold Schwarzenegger that includes the following anecdote:
Once, when Schwarzenegger was shooting a movie in Mexico, he went to the home of the Mexican artist Francisco Zuniga, to look at some sculptures, according to someone who was at the Zuniga house that day. At a lunch served by Zuniga's wife, Schwarzenegger was seated next to the young girlfriend of Zuniga's son; he began stroking her arm, this person recalled, and then he remarked, to his lunch companions, "You know, the thing I love about Mexican women is how furry their pussies are."
After a few hours my identity as a journalist is sussed out. This is probably due to the fact that I'm the only extra to have a photographer show up and take my picture. The movie's publicist summons me for a chat. I'm introduced to producer Jim Stark, an affable man who seems genuinely smitten with the Twin Cities as a movie locale. He explains that Los Angeles, where much of Factotum actually takes place, now lacks sufficiently skuzzy bars and factories to create the proper visual backdrop. (Potential new slogan for the state film board: "Minnesota: Sleazy Enough for Bukowski!")
I abruptly excuse myself when I realize that Star Tribune gossip diva C.J. is on the prowl. A few minutes later, another PR person stops me and threatens to set up an interview with Matt Dillon. I start contemplating questions for the actor. What exactly have you been doing sinceThere's Something About Mary?
Lunch is served around 2:00: sandwiches, chips, fruit, pop. Still no word on when--or if--we might be summoned to actually do something. I watch the races being simulcast from Delaware Park. I watch taped replays of yesterday's Canterbury races. I read a story in the New York Times, headlined "14 Afghans Killed for Registering to Vote"--and decide that things could be worse.