Copyright 2008 Neill Fleeman

Yeah, it was THAT kind of a picture...

Don't Shoot - I'm Only An Extra!

“Are you going to read for Taxi?”
It's my Leatherheads gal pal Laura on the phone. Now that we're such veterans of the silver screen, she wants to jump up a notch on the cinematic totem pole and try to get a speaking part. And there's an indie film casting in Winston-Salem, something called Taxi written by somebody named Ramin Baharni.
“Naw,” I tell her. “I saw an article about it in the paper. I think all they want are kids - and mostly minority kids at that. I don't think they're looking for any old white guys.”
“Well,” she says in that I'm-way-ahead-of-you tone she has when she's way ahead of me, “I called up the Casting Director - Summer Somebody - and she's sent me some sides.” For those of you not hip to filmland lingo, “sides” means pages of dialogue. “The character is a fifty-year-old teacher named Madelyn.”
Laura is thirty-something and with her Leatherheads flapper haircut looks more like Louise Brooks than Our Miss Brooks. (Sorry. You have to be over 85 to get that one. Louise Brooks was a silent film star and very hubba-hubba in her day. Our Miss Brooks was an early TV series. Veteran character actor Eve Arden played the title role of school teacher Connie Brooks. Eve Arden, if you remember… oh, well, never mind…)
Anyway, I don't think anybody's going to buy Laura as an old maid schoolmarm, but I have sense enough not to tell her that. And besides, the part might get rewritten before it goes to camera. “Will you go downtown with me?” she asks. “I could use some moral support. It's Saturday at 10:30.”
“Sure,” I say. “Maybe I can get on as an extra.”
So at 10:30 Saturday we walk into the production office and meet Summer, a personable young woman who is probably in her mid-twenties but looks about twelve years old to me. One of Summer's Production Assistants is over in a corner reading a book - I'm not making this up - entitled “How To Make A Movie.”
Welcome to the world of indie films.
Laura introduces herself. She and Summer chat briefly. Then Summer turns to me. “Who are you?” she asks rather suspiciously.
“I'm not reading. I'm just here to keep Laura company and see if you might need any extras.”
Summer looks me up and down like she's trying to guess my weight. “How old are you?” she wants to know.
 I tell her.
“What have you done?”
I tell her and pass along a CV and headshot. Laura chimes in: “He worked one whole day with Renee Zellweger.”
“Well,” says Summer, seeing me in this dazzling new light, “we do have a part that's age appropriate. Would you like to read for it?” (For “age appropriate”, read “geezer.”)
So, long story short, Summer hands me sides for a character called William. On the face of it William is trying to get a ride in a taxi to a place up in the mountains called Blowing Rock, a real place in North Carolina between Winston-Salem and Asheville. Willam and the taxi driver aren't on the same wavelength. “He's a little grumpy,” she tells me.
Grumpy. Got it.
This is what's known in the business as a “cold read.” I have about two minutes to learn the lines -- but during this interval I'm interrupted three or four times by a blue-haired lady who really looks like the character Laura is reading for. Ms. Blue Hair overheard Laura's Renee Zellweger comment and now wants to hear directly from The Guy Who Knows what Renee is really like, if Renee's really nice, if Renee is really that tiny, if Renee really has blue eyes, that sort of thing. Between interruptions I get through the lines a couple of times and then I have to step in front of a video camera and be William, the grumpy businessman.
To say I was under-prepared would be something of an understatement.

A month or so later I find a synopsis of the Taxi plot online in an interview with Writer/Director Barahni. Barahni, it turns out, is a big noise just now, having done two films (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop) that critics like Roger Ebert think are hot stuff. The title of the film has been changed to Solo (and will be changed again, later, to Goodbye Solo). And William, good old William, turns out not to be a grumpy businessman after all. William, it seems, is more or less an escapee from a home for raving loonies and wants the taxi driver to take him up to Blowing Rock so he can bungee jump off a nice tall mountain - minus the bungee.

I read William as a grumpy businessman, a role that, I may say, I have played more than once in real life. I thought I brought a certain elan to the reading, if not downright esprit, especially the bits in which I got to use salty language to tell the driver what I think of him. As a grumpy businessman I thought I was pretty good for a non-actor in his first cold read, more convincing, I thought, than Summer was in reading the part of the forty-year-old male Senagalese taxi driver. But as a suicidal escaped lunatic? Well…I can see where my performance might have been considered as lacking a certain indefinable something.
I was not cast as William.
Laura was not cast as Madelyn.
And so it came to pass that a couple of weeks later Laura and I find ourselves in a semi-seedy restaurant on the wrong side of the tracks in downtown Greensboro, NC doing a night shoot not on Solo, but a little no-budget direct-to-video epic called The Dogs of Chinatown. We're playing a nice quiet couple out to have a nice quiet dinner at a nice quiet restaurant, all dressed up in nice clothes. That our waiter (“Hi. I'm Richard. I'll be your server tonight. Can I start you off with something to drink?”) happens to be a hit-man-in-training becomes apparent when the local gangland boss walks in and the prop guns start splattering blood capsules against people's chests, foreheads, the walls, etc.  Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-splat-splat-splat-splat-splat.
You get the picture.
Between takes, while the prop guys reload, I promise myself that next time I'm offered a cold read I ask a few more questions about the character. See, I figure with a speaking part the production company has to pay your dry cleaning bill.