@loripalminteriTweets by @loripalminteri
It would probably not surprise you if I told you that background actors (and I use the word “actor” here very loosely) are mostly batshit insane. I’ve never claimed nor pretended to be sane myself, but I self-indentify as the “good kind of crazy,” if such a thing exists. And it often horrifies me when I’m the sane one in the bunch.
But I don’t hate it. The background work. Half the time (if not more than half the time) you’re in holding (an area where they keep background, if not in studio, then in a church, a basement, etc) waiting to get called to walk across the street or sit in a cafe or something of that ilk. While spending hours in holding, I read, write, or nap, which are three of my favorite things to do and probably what I would be doing if I were home anyway, so it’s not bad to get paid for such things. The biggest drawbacks are the call times are generally very early (6am and could be anywhere in the boroughs which can be a pain in the ass) and that you never know when your day will end. I’ve worked 3 hour days (great because I’m union and they have to pay for 8 hours anyway) and 14 hour days (also great because I’m union and you get overtime for that shit).
I became SAG (union) eligible after my “principal” role in Louie, which, I laughed at when I got the letter that said I was “principal” since you can barely see me in the scene (to be clear, I’ve never seen CK’s dick, in case you were wondering, actually, he was very nice and gave good comedy advice). Anyways, the initial SAG fee is $3000.00 and I was 23 or 24 and didn’t have a cool $3000.00 to spare, so I saved the letter as you don’t lose your SAG eligibility.
I moved to Queens when I was 25. I was working full time, doing comedy every night, and I quickly became exhausted with a mere 3-4 hours of a sleep every night which inevitably led to a depression. It seemed there was never a moment I could catch up on sleep. I would fall asleep at my desk, or sometimes, head to the basement to “file” and try to sneak in a quick nap. I got kicked out of a Panera Bread for napping between work and a show. Every day I was more stressed out than the last and I was losing my shit.
At this time, I was seeing an actor who did a lot of background work between auditions and modeling. He was a really sweet, smart and honest guy. I told him all my expenses and asked him if thought I could get by/get enough BG (background) work to survive. “I don’t see it being a problem,” he said, “you’re a cute girl with an all American look. You’ll probably get booked as much as you want to.” He supported the jump. His whole outlook on life was about increasing the quality of ones existence. If people, places, jobs, etc, were decreasing your quality of existence, do something about it. I think most people subscribe to that theory of thought, but few actually apply it. His (completely spot on) point of view was that if I was that unhappy at the office job, it would negatively effect not only my life but stifle my comedy.
Still, I was dubious. He was an optimist. I am a realist/borderline pessimist. Though, my biggest concern (besides never knowing how much money you’ll actually be making month to month) was that on the days I did background I would never know when I would be wrapped, and therefore, would miss gigs. Comedy was my priority and that wasn’t going to change. None the less, I needed a change.
But there was still one glaring problem.
I didn’t have $3000.00.
The most obvious option was asking my parents to borrow the money. But even the thought of asking them for the money hurt my stomach. I told one of my cousins about pitching the idea to my parents and she offered to lend me the money, but I refused. I hate owing anyone money, but if it was going to be anyone, it would be my parents. It’s their fault I exist anyway.
The thing about my parents is, they both came from relatively poor families and worked their ass off to climb to middle class. And so, they wanted their kids to do the same. All three of us had jobs since we were 14 and we paid for our first cars and took out college loans on our own. My parents view of the world was “work harder.” The only thing my parents consistently paid for was clothes. And this was mostly because my mom wanted me to “dress more like a girl and less like a middle school boy because how will you ever get a boyfriend.” Graphic tees and flannel shirts aside, our parents gave us the gift of a strong work ethic, which is priceless.
And yes, my parents were always willing to lend us a few hundred dollars here and there. When I they did, I always paid them back as promptly as I could, so I had good credit with them. But $3000.00? That would be a tough sell. Plus, I simply wouldn’t be able to pay them back soon. My rent alone took 80% of the money I was making.
Before I would ask my Dad for the loan, I prepared a speech. I actually made of list of points and reasons I wanted to get to. I rehearsed it and did everything short of making a power point presentation (which I considered). Even approaching my Dad about lending me the money made my stomach hurt. I’m easily made anxious.
“Dad,” I said, “I hate my job, and I want to quit and try doing background work for a while to make money but I need to join the union and the initial fee is $3000.00, and I would need to borrow the money.”
He looked at me, and I was gearing up to go into my well rehearsed soliloquy when he said, “I’ll write a check.”
Wait. What? How could that have been so easy? Also, I have a dissertation I worked hard on because I thought this was going to be a 20 minute back and forth.
“You have to follow your dream,” he said. I nearly burst into tears from gratitude. And then, oddly enough, I tried talking him out of it.
“You know, I won’t be able to pay you back for a long time.”
“And it’s unsteady work, like it might not even work out.”
“You’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”
And he was already writing a check for $3000.00. I was a SAG member.
Now, I got to quit my loathsome office job. Behold, the thought of quitting made my stomach twist with anxiety. My friend met me for lunch and we had a few drinks. Subsequently, when I returned to work I was a little more than a little drunk. With boozy confidence, I marched into my bosses office and told him I quit. He asked why and even offered me more money to stay (this has happened to me at a few jobs I quit— ya know, that priceless work ethic). I declined. My mind was made up. Then, later that day, when I was sobering up, I realized they were trying to hire a part time office assistant. So, I returned to my bosses office and asked if I could apply for the part time position. He said, “you can just have it.” But I had terms. I promised a certain amount of hours but I wanted to be able to change my days week to week if needed. He agreed.
Moral of the story. Get drunk at work.
Yes, I didn’t fully quit my office gig. And I was in SAG. This way, on days I had stand-up shows, I could work in the office because I knew I’d be done by five. The other days I could do BG. And also, I could take a day off in the week to rest when I needed it. What luck! And what a good Dad!
So, that’s the story of how I got into doing background in the first place in case you were interested, which you probably weren’t, but there it is.
Let’s go back to the batshit insane background people though. There’s a variety of stereotypes. Perhaps the most annoying are the wannabe actors who brag about their auditions, namedrop, claim they are only here cause “things are slow right now,” and talk about what theater productions they did in college. Eye roll. No one cares. I mean, no one. There’s a lot of middle aged women who do it because maybe their kids moved out and they needed a hobby or when the recession hit they needed to make more money or they failed at making it “big time” and these women don’t stop talking. I hate to give into gender stereotypes here, but I was once sitting next to a middle aged woman who didn’t stop talking to me even though I was literally reading my book in front of her and clearly not listening. There are a lot of “regulars” who all know each other from regular background work from other shows, and they are a bit cliquey and when they see each other they are excited and embrace like one of them just returned from the war and was deemed dead. Possibly the most entertaining to me is the wannabe comedians. Because they usually do stand-up “occasionally” and “totally killed it,” which is not a thing. If you do stand-up occasionally you’re not a stand-up and you’ve never killed. One time I was privy to two guys talking comedy and admiring the likes of Colin Quinn, Dave Attell, Louis CK (who never masturbated in front of me to be clear again), all of whom I opened for. It made me feel good and also like a loser at the same time. Sure, I had made some strides in comedy and got to work with some of my comedy heroes, but I was still stuck in holding with these comedian wannabes.
In holding, people always assume I’m a struggling actress because I’m blond and skinny which is presumptuous but I get it. Yes, I am struggling, but as a writer, not an actress. First and foremost, I always have been and always will be a writer.
A lot of PA’s (production assistants) are assholes to the BG. Conversely, a lot of the BG are assholes to the PA’s. It’s almost like there’s a turf war between the two. I find it extremely unnecessary for either party to be rude to the other. Though, I sympathize with the PA’s because I used to be one of them (for a young person, I’ve had a lot of different jobs).
Right after college I worked as a PA for Law and Order SVU (albeit working as a PA for SVU for a season and a half and doing numerous BG work for the show, I have never seen an episode of SVU in it’s entirety). Of course, being on the production side, I was already subjected to how crazy, annoying, often times delusional the BG could be.
Being a PA taught me two things:
- New Yorkers are actually mean. See, I had long thought we weren’t a mean people, we were just a “didn’t want to be bothered” people. But we’re mean. At least to PA’s. One of the jobs I frequently had as a PA was to direct foot traffic to walk on the other side of the street when filming on location. When doing this, I was often told, “fuck off,” “Fuck you,” “You don’t get to tell me what I fucking do,” “who the fuck are you,” “go fuck yourself,” “are you fucking kidding me,” “I fucking live here, asshole.” And then, in my headset, the 2nd AD (assistant director) would yell, “why the fuck are there people walking on set?” That’s me. That’s my fault. No one respects me as an authority figure and no one is listening to me except this little old lady and even she’s not listening to me as much as I’m listening to her complain about gout. Then my stomach hurt from anxiety.
2. From looking at paper work, I learned that SAG BG gets paid more than PA’s. Significantly. And a PA’s job was much harder, and longer hours. This knowledge would prove helpful for me later.
Because I know that being a PA is a stressful job, and often times they are hearing chaos in their headset and/or getting yelled at, I try to be as courteous as possible even when they’re rude to me (this is a good life rule too, as you never know what sort of shit people are dealing with in their lives behind the scenes). I’m always thanking them and apologizing for being in the way. Actually, most the time I have no idea why I’m thanking them or apologizing. That is usually the most I speak on set. My lines: “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.” “Thank you.” “I’m sorry.”
I have made rules for myself when I do BG. The first is a general life rule: Make No Eye Contact. When getting to set, it is my primary goal to check in, go to wardrobe, and then find a corner to read in and not make eye contact with anyone.
The rule I struggle with more: Stop Fucking Smiling At People. If I’m uncomfortable (which is a lot), I tend to smile. And even as I’m smiling, I’m thinking, “what are you doing with your face? You’re not even happy right now. Stop it. People will talk to you if you smile at them. Stop it. Turn that smile upside down. Yes! Frown at people! No wait! Don’t do that people might ask you if you’re okay. Look angry. Angry, dammit, not riddled with stomach pain from anxiety!”
Because that is the worst part of doing BG. Small talk. I fucking hate small talk. I fucking hate it. God forbid I stupidly smile at someone accidentally and then I’m caught listening to someone talk about the weather, other shows they did BG on, what they did over the weekend, etc, etc. Kill me now. BG people are very needy. And they love to complain. Usually how broke they are (we’re all broke, we’re doing BG, we’re not exactly winners), how they should be more successful, issues with the wife, issues with the husband, issues with the kids, issues with the weather, issues with politics and so on and so on. It’s a lot of complaining. I do not care.
To be fair — I have met some really cool and funny people in BG, though it is rare. Maybe if I made an effort to socialize more on set I’d meet more cool people but I generally assume I won’t like anyone, because science.
BG are usually ignored. Which I love! God, do I love being invisible. The cast and crew act like you don’t exist at all, which is pretty demeaning, but it brings me great joy to be the silent wallflower. What a gift. I can observe and eavesdrop. I can exist in my head and no one really gives a shit about me, and I’m still getting paid to be daydreaming.
One of my big pet peeves on set is when one of the “stars” of the show/movie makes a bad joke and everyone, cast/crew/BG, laughs. Everyone is laughing except me. The expression on my face akin to an expression one might make if someone farted. That joke sucked and you’re all ass kissers and I hate you all.
Probably my biggest pet peeve is when I want to give script notes. This is kind of pretentious of me, but if there’s anything I’m good at, it’s writing jokes. Sometimes I’ll read the sides or listen to the lines that are supposed to be “funny” and think, “if they move that word to the end (punch) and cut out those words (fat), that joke will land a lot harder.” It’s tempting for me to tell someone on set how to fix their dialogue, but I’m sure if a BG actor was script doctoring it would be frowned upon.
Despite it all, it’s not a terrible way to make money. I’ve had worse jobs. They feed you. There’s a lot of down time. I wrote this blog while in holding. It’s mostly alright if I can read a book and avoid eye contact/smiling. There are things to learn just by being on set and observing. Of course, I do want to be part of production — as the screenwriter. And if a background actor ever told me that my joke wasn’t properly formatted, I would tell him or her to go fuck themselves.