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.
Then, suddenly, there's a flurry of activity. The much-ballyhooed raffles are beginning. I realize that I've failed to deposit my tickets in any of the brown paper bags from which the winners will be drawn. I quickly put in for free putt-putt golf, tickets to see the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and the glossy photo of Amy Grant. Local Waits-ian crooner Mike Gunther wins a gift certificate to Kennedy Transmission. I win nothing.
Finally, around 6:00 p.m.--10 hours after we first assembled, and seemingly apropos of nothing--everyone begins squeezing through the doors into the main concourse. We're herded up the stairs and the casting folks begin picking people out of the crowd. I try to look my skuzziest. After being passed over several times, I'm finally waved through and directed toward a bank of seats overlooking the racetrack. I plop down in the fourth row next to a chain-smoking guy in a ratty blazer who claims to have already served as an extra in another scene. I ask him for pointers. He ignores me.
The scene features Dillon and Fisher Stevens arriving just as the race that they've bet on is concluding. Our role is to track a pickup truck as it comes around the racetrack and cheer on the (nonexistent) ponies. Some of us have props: racing programs, glasses of ersatz beer, and (for product placement?) Caribou Coffee mugs. I play the part I know best: loser. I curse under my breath and shake my head dejectedly as the poor horse that I'd bet on limps to the finish line. Dillon and his buddy fare better. After they win, Dillon says, not surprisingly, "Let's get a drink." We repeat this exercise a half-dozen times and then move on to the next shot.
This time Dillon and Stevens are seated just one row behind me and one seat over. I believe that my moment of screen stardom has finally arrived. The faux Bukowski's face is covered with red blotches, presumably to indicate alcoholism and acne scars. Unfortunately, the shot is framed extremely tight on the two stars. When the camera begins rolling, I go through the motions of dejected loserdom again, but it's obvious that I'm not going to be onscreen. The girl sitting next to me believes that her ear might make the movie.
They shoot several more scenes in the grandstands outside. Unfortunately, I remain inside to serve as background fodder. During one of these shots, Dillon strangles some guy.
By 9:45 p.m. the mood among the extras has disintegrated from that of a pep rally into something approximating an airport lounge during a winter blizzard--minus the booze.
We're ordered outside for one last task: to make "wild noise." This will apparently be used as filler during the horseracing scenes. On the first go round we all scream like banshees. But then the director reminds us that we shouldn't sound so happy, since not everyone at the racetrack actually wins. This is an observation that I have found to be demonstrably true. In fact, over the last three years of attending the racetrack--approximately 100 bets--I've cashed just one winning ticket: a two-dollar bet that paid out $11.50.
So when we're cued to again make some "wild noise," I realize that I've finally found a task for which I'm peculiarly well suited. "C'mon, Three horse!" I scream at the imaginary beast. "C'mon! Jesus fuckin' Christ! Get movin', Three! What the hell is your problem?"
Listen for me.