Copyright 2008 Neill Fleeman

The interview scene from Goodbye Solo: Neill Fleeman, Jim Babel, Souleymane Sy Savane

The Extra Speaks!

     “It says here you speak French.”

     You've all seen those old movies in which the star gets sick or drunk or run over by a truck and the understudy has to go on in their place at the last minute. MGM made a whole bunch of those backstagers - All About Eve, with Bette Davis, was the best one. RKO made some, too, and Fox, and of course Warner Brothers, with 42nd Street and the Golddiggers series.  The common character in almost all of them is a cigar-chomping producer who shakes the panic-stricken Sweet Young Thing by the shoulders, points to the stage and yells: “Kid, you're going out there a nobody, but you're coming back a star!”
     In this piece, I play the Sweet Young Thing.
     Those of you who have been bored enough lately to be au courant with the happenings in this south-east corner of Filmland may recall that back in July my Leatherheads chum and fellow budding thespian Laura and I read for parts on a Ramin Bahrani film that turned out to be called Goodbye Solo.
     The readings didn't go well.
For either of us.
But much to my surprise Bahrani cast me as an extra in what was known as the “Diner Scene.” I gratefully accepted, hoping that I might get some bit of business to do, like walk across the screen, or talk to a waitress or something. Actually, I felt lucky just to get anything - Laura didn't get called for extra duty, nor did our other Leatherheads buddy Edd.
The week following casting I was called in to talk to Bahrani and the production people and about a week after that the Wardrobe Designer had me come in and bring some clothes to try different looks. Once Wardrobe was selected, I sat back to wait for the “shoot”, as we say in the biz, which was scheduled for a Saturday night in mid-October.
So there I was, about eleven o'clock on the designated Saturday morning, minding my own business and moving along toward our seven PM call time, when Alexandra of the Casting Office phoned. “We're shooting a scene at Smith Reynolds airport at three this afternoon,” she says. “We need a last-minute replacement. The part is an airline worker. No dialogue. I don't know what the wardrobe is but I can check and call you back. Could you do it?”
Needless to say, Rule One for people at the bottom of the Show Biz foodchain is to never turn down anything you're offered. And somehow, too, I've got a weird premonition about this shoot. . . “Sure,” I tell her. “I'll be there.”
OK, now we have to back up a little.
See, the week before this I had read for a part in a University of Southern California Film School production to be shot in Mt. Airy, NC.  A nice story and a good crew. There was only one part for a geezer like me - Mr. Bruin, the Plant Manager. Having known dozens of Mr. Bruins over the years I thought I could do him justice and after studying the lines for a week I thought I was pretty hot stuff. But when I read for the Director in the Andy Griffith Theater in Mt. Airy that Sunday, somehow I got off on the wrong foot and never recovered.
That disaster, following hot on the heels of mis-reading for William in Goodbye Solo, made me think my destiny was to be a non-speaking extra my whole life… unless…somehow in this airport scene…
Twenty minutes before I have to leave for the airport I'm standing in my knickers in the closet waiting for the call from Alex. She finally gets word from Wardrobe and we go over what I have available, picking out a sort of executive-casual look that should photograph well. I throw on the clothes, clip on an ID badge to add an authentic touch, jump into the car and, thanks to a break in traffic, get to the location with time to schmooze a little with the crew.
In the scene we're going to film, three airline Human Resources people, of which I am to be one, are finishing an interview with Mr. Solo, the main character. Mr. Solo is hoping to get out of the taxi driving business and into a flight attendant position. The lady playing the head of the interviewing team does all the talking while another guy and I sit there, taking notes and looking attentive. Simple enough.
When the interviewing crew is assembled in the holding area, the Dialog Coach comes over to run lines with the head interviewer, and here's where I start getting that déjà vu feeling all over again. The part isn't too large, only three cues, four lines, and seventeen words altogether, but her reading doesn't go well. They try again. Pretty rough. A third time. No better. The dialog guy goes away for a minute scratching his head, whispers to director Bahrani, comes back. "OK," he says, looking at me, “maybe it would be more realistic if we tag-team this interview. You do the first line. She'll do the rest. The line is -- "
I jump in: “It says here you speak French."
“Yeah, that's it.” He looks at me a little funny.
“I was listening to you guys run it,” I explain. “To be up on the cues. You know, to figure out some bit to fit the dialogue.”
He looks at me again.
We run the lines.  The Coach goes away again. When he comes back he puts his arm around me and walks me off to the opposite side of the terminal, out of the hearing of the other actors. “You're going to do all the dialog,” he says.
Just for the record, he wasn't smoking a cigar at the time.
And so, about an hour later, in a little office off the airport lobby, as the film rolls, Solo finishes his please-hire-me speech: “I get all kinds of people in my taxi,” he says. “I know how to make them happy. And I know how to handle the ones who aren't.”
And then I utter those immortal words that are recorded for posterity as my first lines in a moving picture: “It says here,” I say, indicating his application, “you speak French.”
     The Extra speaks!
      Of course the lady who was originally supposed to do the lines was a little…well…disappointed would be the polite word. But I couldn't feel too badly about it. When one person gets a break it usually means somebody else gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop.
     That's show biz.