I overthought high school. During my senior prom, for instance, a whole host of gestures seemed to be called for and I performed only a portion of them.When my date and I hit a lull in conversation or a group dance number began, I waited for cues that never came as to how I should proceed.I excused myself for a drink I didn’t want.The trips to the punch bowl provided the illusion that I knew what I was doing to an audience I imagined might be watching my every move.

Then, fifteen years later, I stepped toward another table spread with a fresh confidence.I swaggered in my tux like I should have the first time.My elbows knew how far out to jut.I lifted one of the glasses from the white tablecloth.My new date smiled, on an unspoken toast.

We needed to begin all over again though.Stop, goddamnit.According to the assistant director someone was staring directly into the fucking camera.The audience, no longer imagined, wouldn’t buy this.

I’d moved across the continent to Los Angeles with loose and uproariously unoriginal ideas about getting into movies.Not so much as an actor, more the writing, story and dream-tinkering end of the bargain.I’d held a few jobs that never took, the longest of which had me replaced by the nephew of the man whose name was one part of the Productions on the door to the La Cienega office.So came the dashing of hopes I’d been warned about, often by various Hollywood movies themselves. But it was too late to blame Barton Fink.

One evening while watching dry wind beat the palm trees outside my apartment window, I dialed a casting hotline number for movie extras I’d found taped to a streetcorner telephone pole.From there, with my young face and commendable aspiration, I began work as background in recurring roles as a teenager.They had endless need for teenager.Sometimes I had to bring along my own backpack to walk the school hallways and sometimes the catering truck set up in the cafeteria.I once sat in the back of classroom bored to pieces for eight hours straight.I once had a locker beside Ryan Reynolds.And then, only weeks into this line of work, the hotline called for participants in a prom.

This production began at seven in the morning for the scene at an area high school in Whittier where the real students must have been off for the day, a Tuesday in spring.

Upon checking in at the bus loading docks, a crewmember announced that everyone had ten minutes to find a date.The group of one hundred extras threw themselves into a desperate, spontaneous matching procedure.The polished ones gravitated toward one another, united by their mutually increased chances of getting a line or close-up.

I happened upon a single woman in the center of the flurry, with wide-open eyes and a pretty face.

“This is weird, but…do you have a date?” I presented myself like I might actually be apprehensive and working myself into a ball of juvenile nerves.

“Yeah, I guess right?” she shrugged, acknowledging that the shrug was a tired gesture but one that communicated her solidarity with my slight adolescent sarcasm, as we both descended into behavior age-appropriate for the scene.

She took my arm.We promenaded toward the wardrobe trailer where fastidious people from the costume department outfitted her with a blue satin dress with spaghetti straps and me, a tuxedo pre-stapled with a matching paper boutonniere.

“So are you SAG then?” my date made conversation.

“No, I’m not much of an actor.”

“Oh, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself.”She said, concerned.

“What I mean is, I don’t want to be an actor.I just saw this ad and I called expecting it to be a joke.Then I ended up here.It all seemed very easy.”

“Oh no, I’m afraid the movie business is very hard.” I’d overestimated her sense of irony.I asked her more about herself.

She’d quit college in her sophomore year in order to pursue a career in entertainment.She’d been working steadily as an extra for two years since.She had a closeup in Austin Powers, she proudly informed me.

***

The extras spent the whole of the morning sprawled over bleachers, adjusting our clothes, waiting.After lunch, crew members at last called us into a larger gymnasium that held the action and the cameras.Rose McGowan, newly minted famous from the Scream films, sat at the middle table with her eyes closed while lighting technicians removed filters from the incandescent bulbs that evaporated the shadows and lines in her long white dress and washed them together with the tablecloth and her own porcelain skin.With her hands in her lap, it became difficult to trace where her arms stopped and the dress and the background began.Her black hair and long lashes stood out like ink letters on a title page.

Other principal roles joined her at the table.I couldn’t construct the story from the scene we were in, nor place it as part of the beginning or end, but Rose McGowan and her date along with another couple were playing bitchy with Rebecca Gayheart, the only other performer anyone recognized.At the time none of the extras could remember her name, calling her simply Noxzema Girl, based on the commercial aired when our acne was real.

We gazed carefully from all around the nucleus they formed.Over the background players, a warmth had been cast that I could only think to interpret as school spirit.A woman pinched the rear of someone else’s date.A manic-looking guy beside us with hair gelled into bellicose spikes passed around a Gatorade bottle of vodka, acknowledging its immaturity, making it a good idea.

The scene started and restarted all afternoon.The assistant director called for places and gave the go ahead for the first couple to cross the shot, followed closely by two more.My date and I were waved.We passed into the heat of the lights.The lone voice in the room of hundreds came from the Noxzema Girl.Then, the assistant howled at the background about staring into the fucking camera.Noxzema Girl asked if she could have a break and an aspirin.This was followed quickly by the bullhorned instruction that all background needed to adjourn outdoors to the parking lot.We saw the aspirin tablets arrive with a bottle of water.I overheard one of the extras betting it was Percocet.

We waited for three more hours.Actors without lines, pantomiming previous roles, surrounded us.Cliques formed.A group wearing heavy eye makeup and cheek piercings looked as though their boredom might soon turn and they’d try to pants the token stags, whom the assistant had approved as fitting for the scene.One couple spoke through the fence with two kids on Huffies who asked for autographs.“That’s very sweet, but we’re not the stars,” an extra broke it to them.But when I turned back moments later, I saw the guy scribbling on the boys’ mini-basketball.

They announced that we’d be going late.We reentered the gym for the evening.The principals had arranged themselves around a new table.More people watched from the side.I noticed a man with greasy hair and white jeans I hadn’t seen before, standing alone by the back wall.

“It’s Marilyn Manson.Must be here to watch Rose.”I would never have recognized him without the makeup and the goth codpieces, I thought, but indeed it did look like him. In our high school tonight, he was the wallflower everyone hoped to hear from, though he never said a word or moved a muscle.

The director himself called for places while the assistant designated them for us on the dance floor.The pierced kids need to be visible but not in front, he instructed.One couple had been ordered to simulate making out against the wall.He wanted the rest of us to dance but with as little noise as possible and without any music, which would be dubbed in later.

This could be the last shot of the night, maybe the last of the production.It wasn’t clear yet if we’d be needed for tomorrow.

“Ok, let’s have our front row couples, girls facing” the director stopped us.His eyes scanned the girls on the dance floor.“You,” the director pointed his finger at a girl who instantly parted the crowd leading her date by the hand.“And you,” he indicated to my date.She squeezed my arm.

He placed us beside the center table, the girls facing the cameras and the guys with their backs to the action.“Now a slow dance,” he declared, “romantic, senior year’s coming to a close.”Everyone locked into innocent embraces.

Music poured out of us.The rhythm everyone heard ticked inside our heads, turning gears at knees and hips.We stood within inches of Rose McGowan still seated.My date peered over my shoulder with her chin out. While we moved, I confessed quietly that I worried about losing my grip on reality in this town.How do you actors do it, I wanted to know.My date laughed like it was a cute question and turned slightly so that our profiles were facing.

“We should do something that we can remember to look for later on.Like a little move or something.You know, that shows it was us,” she whispered.

“Listen, how about, at the count of three, we kiss? Then we can both get the hell out of here, just the two of us.I’ll drive you all the way out to the ocean where we’ll sleep the night on the beach in our prom clothes.We won’t even need to pretend.”

But I didn’t say that.That night could have been the night my date got discovered.Soon enough, the universe would be watching us, cast way above their heads in the dark.

“Listen, how about, at the count of three, we spin? Ok, one, two…” She mouthed “three” for me.In our very own slow motion, she did a full turn, swirling on an axis she’d divinated in the floor, out and away.

***

The movie was called Jawbreaker, I’d learn much later.It registered low on the hierarchy of sardonic teen movies that crowded theaters in the late nineties.Rose McGowan split from Marilyn Manson not long after.Rebecca Gayheart eventually hitched up with a t.v. doctor and starred with him in a viral internet video.I left the city of Los Angeles, assuming, perhaps a little too quickly, that I didn’t belong.

I never remembered the name of my date.  And our spin never made the final cut.  Though I went looking for it one night years later when I rented the movie.  I saw instead her silhouette and mine for the last time walking to the punch bowl.  Between the lights and campy soundtrack I caught myself watching with something I could only call nostalgia.

 

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

20 responses to “Background Wattage”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    Love this! Anyone who enjoys movies has got to have a fascination with how they’re made. I have a friend here in San Diego who, out of boredom, sent a head shot to a casting agent on Craigslist. He now has a recurring background role on General Hospital and has done a few commercials. It’s sort of bizarre how this stuff can happen.

    Thanks for sharing this extremely well-written and funny story. I look forward to the next one.

    Oh and:
    >>I excused myself for a drink I didn’t want. The trips to the punch bowl provided the illusion that I knew what I was doing to an audience I imagined might be watching my every move.<<

    Cell phones are the new imaginary drink.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Yes, becoming an extra is (or at least was) weirdly easy, the pay is even half decent and the food free. Tell your friend not to let go of the General Hospital gig.

      Thanks for the kind comment.

  2. Alison Aucoin says:

    Oh you could not pay me enough to redo my senior prom. Then again, with 15 years more experience under my belt it might not be so bad.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Reliving prom years later when you’re wiser and less riddled with hormones helps sweep away any bad memories. It also helps when you have people telling you what you’re supposed to do.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Nicely told – nostalgic and sweet and funny and interesting!
    My only experience of proms is through the movies…

  4. Slade Ham says:

    For some reason when I read the lede for this story, I saw “high school porn”. I obviously clicked on it anyway.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Don’t worry, Nathaniel, that’s how Slade sees, he’s just off a tiny bit.

    This was fun. A look into the life of movie extras who are actually hoping for the stars.
    Well done, Nathaniel.

  6. Thanks, Irene, glad you liked it.

  7. Ah, Rose McGowan, the reason I occasionally find myself watching 6 minutes of Charmed instead of continuing to click around the dial. Thanks for the dose of reality.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      Sometimes, when relating this story to friends, Rose McGowan is my date and I advise her on how she’d be perfect to play a girl with a machine gun for a leg.

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    Man, awesome! I was reading this and thinking Wait… that’s got to be Jawbreaker. Missildine was in Jawbreaker.

    “The trips to the punch bowl provided the illusion that I knew what I was doing to an audience I imagined might be watching my every move.”

    Ha ha ha ha… nailed it.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      I’m impressed you remembered the movie as you were reading, I think that makes you one of the seven people worldwide who actually saw it. You should be in pictures.

  9. Thomas Wood says:

    Lovely bit of memoir. My closest relatable memory is being asked to walk in the background of some ab-machine infomercial. I took this to be a great honor to my 15 year old physique and nothing to do with being the only relatively tan person who showed up to that particular beach at 9 in the morning.

    • Nathaniel Missildine says:

      At age fifteen, ab-machines are dreamy. And, you never know who could have watched that infomercial later and said “I wanna be that tan guy.”

  10. Great story! Did you ever work as an extra again?

  11. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Thanks Jessica. I did appear in a straight-to-video movie where I was a pedestrian for a day after that, but soon I moved out of the city, thus ending an illustrious career.

  12. Marni Grossman says:

    Everyone should get a chance to relive prom from the vantage of adulthood. And, of course, with the added bonus of a makeup trailer.

  13. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Yes, it could be part of the high school reunion experience, and they could even provide a script.

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