by Jennifer Squires Biller
I’m back from my day as an extra on the set of We Are Marshall and had a blast kicking it 1970s style! Don’t worry, I haven’t let stardom go to my head. Yet. (I’ll be signing autographs later.) My experience as an extra was — in a word — spectacular. Now, on to your burning questions:
Did I meet Matthew Fox or Ian McShane? No and yes. Sadly, “Foxy” was filming Lost and wasn’t in town the day I was working. (He must not have gotten the memo that I would be on set or clearly he would have changed his plans and brought “Sawyer” along. he he he.) I did get to work with McShane in several takes. He stood directly behind me in one of the press conference scenes. He has a cool accent and was nice enough to share his hand-held fan with a few of us extras who were slow-roasting under the lights in our turtlenecks and wool garments.
Will I be in the movie? I have no idea. If they get my bribes, perhaps. (Kidding.) I can tell you that I filmed three separate scenes and worked almost 17 hours (4:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m.) I played a member of the press in several scenes. (I know, typecast again!) Then, in another scene, I was a fan walking by the coach’s house on the way to a game. Still, there is no guarantee I’ll make it into the final version. So, send those bribes to Warner Bros. Pictures, in care of….um, sorry, where was I?
Oh, the recap of my day as an actor in my first major motion picture. Yes, I said first. A girl can dream, right? I told you Reese Witherspoon, I’m coming for that Oscar!
Getting ready for my closeup
My call time was 4:30 a.m. Despite a horrible experience starting at 2 a.m. with setting my hair on sponge rollers for the first time ever using directions I gleaned from Google, I made it on time, rollers semi-intact. Extras were to meet at ACF Industries parking lot, near the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 23rd Street and board the bus. A lovely gal named Gina was my seat mate, and we quickly bonded over our difficulties of using hair rollers and offered a quick prayer of thanks to the genius who invented the modern-day curling iron.
Upon arrival at our “holding area,” otherwise known as a church recreational facility a few blocks from Merrill Avenue, we were herded into a long line to fill out paperwork. Gina and I left a trail of sponge rollers in our path, as they refused to stay in our hair. Then, we were shown to another long line outside, where we waited in the dark and cold, to be fitted for wardrobe. It was here I met Trina, a fellow extra who would be my cohort for the day. I was told I would be one of the Marshall fans walking by Coach Lengyel’s house (McConaughey’s pretend house) on the way to a game.
I finally made my way to the wardrobe trailer. It literally is a tractor-trailer full of clothing. The wardrobe lady seemed frazzled by the time I got there. (I was one of the last people to come through, I think.) She gave me a brown, plaid wool coat, approved my jeans and shoes and sent me to the line for hair and makeup. Trina was given polyester pants and a heavy plaid winter coat. She looked cute. By contrast, my coat was hideous, and as it turned out, lethal. While waiting in line, I began to feel itchy and hot on my chest and shoulders. I started scratching and asked Trina if my neck and throat looked OK. The look of panic on her face told me otherwise. I apparently was having an allergic reaction. (As far as I know, I’m only allergic to cats, so I’m not sure if the coat had cat hair on it, or if I’m just allergic to bad fashion.) I flagged down a wardrobe person and showed her my dilemma. She barely had a glimpse of my beat-red neck, shoulders and chest, before calling for the medic. A dose of cortisone later, all was well, and I had exchanged that ugly shapeless brown wool coat for a long gold jacket over my blue jeans.
So, in what I’m sure is an oversight, it turned out that I’m the only extra going to the game dressed in gold and blue (the colors of Marshall University’s in-state rival, West Virginia University.) Trust me, it’s funny.
While in line for the wardrobe trailer, the sun finally came up. Crowds of people had gathered along the street with cameras. They started snapping photos of me. I smiled and waved and tried to explain, “I’m nobody. Don’t waste your film!” But they weren’t having it. The click, click, click continued. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is what it feels like to be a celebrity?
Tube Talk Girl outside the hair trailer, in the infamous gold coat. Hair stylist, Mr. P, strikes a pose in the background.
After the wardrobe fitting, a lady gathered several of us and put us in a van to get our hair and makeup done at a different location. We waited in line again at the hair trailer for what seemed like hours. The little boy playing McConaughey’s son in the movie was there with his parents. He was sweet and had a head full of curls. We enjoyed chatting with him and his parents. I also met Scarlett in line, who I worked with for most of the day. As we continued to “hurry up and wait” someone decided that we were running out of time and weren’t going to make it to set on time, so they sent a van to pick us up and take us back to the other hair/makeup place. But just as we got inside, another lady told us to stay there and they’d get to us shortly. So, we exited the van and waited in line again. I finally made it to the makeup side.
The casting lady who had called me a week earlier had instructed me not to wear any makeup to the set, so I had complied. Big mistake. The makeup lady told me I looked great “natural” and decided I only needed some eyeliner and lip-gloss. Now, for a woman in her early ‘30s, the thought of appearing on screen with a “natural” face is pretty much my version of Hell. I practically begged for a little foundation, but she said my skin was gorgeous. (Frankly, I’m still baffled at this. Was she too tired at this point to do me?) So, I was ejected from the makeup trailer to wait in the hair line, hopeful I’d fare better. Boy, did I.
My hair stylist was named Mr. P. He was a big, burly guy who I immediately took a liking to. Seeing what he’d done for the ladies in front of me convinced me the guy was some kind of a hair God. I apologized for the state of my “rolled” hair, explaining that I’d never set my hair in my life and had to Google instructions on how to do so. He seemed to get a kick out of that and empathized with my situation. He immediately set my hair in hot rollers and assured me my ‘do would be gorgeous. We chatted about his work as a hair artist. (He had a photo on the wall with Justin Timberlake.) I asked if he’d ever had to do hair on this many people so quickly, and he said yes. The most he’d ever done in a short amount of time was for the film Mississippi Burning, he said. Mr. P let me steam on the rollers and explained he was giving me a pageboy fluff ‘do. When he finished, he sprayed me down with enough hairspray to damage the ozone. I felt like he’d transported me to another decade, just with a hairstyle. The back of it was gorgeous. Sadly, I didn’t get a good photo of the back, only the front. Mr. P was kind enough to take some photos with us while we were waiting for the van to pick us up.
Trina (left) and Tube Talk Girl (right) show off their 1970s hairdos with the man responsible for the barrel curls and the pageboy fluff, the one and only Mr. P.
When we eventually made it back to holding, all the other extras were gone. We all started to panic a little. The wardrobe lady told us everyone was already over on Merrill Ave. so to get going. We took off in a rapid walk.
Scene 1: The “walk to the stadium” and Matthew McConaughey
When we rounded the corner to Merrill Avenue, it felt like we’d stumbled into a 1970s all-American neighborhood. Cool vintage cards in every color imaginable lined the brick-paved street. Two-story houses with big front porches completed the picture. Hundreds of extras dressed in vintage clothes carried green-and-white pom-poms. Some had MU cushions. We weren’t sure where to go because we got there late and missed the instructions, so we positioned ourselves near a blooming dogwood tree, across from a two-story house and waited for instructions. We were to be a part of the crowd walking to the football stadium past Coach Lengyel’s house.
As we chitchatted, McConaughey walked out of the house wearing a tight white t-shirt and even tighter plaid polyester pants. We were all a little shocked. We didn’t actually think we’d be filming with him.
The director, McG, gave us directions for the scene. He told us to start walking to the game, but not to be too celebratory. (Another extra told us that the game we were supposed to be going to was the second game of the season and that the team had lost the first game.) Lengyel (McConaughey) was supposed to emerge from his house, playfully chasing his son, to get the newspaper. He was supposed to see the fans on the way to the stadium and was supposed to be amazed at the overwhelming support he was witnessing.
I arranged Scarlett, Trina and myself like Charlie’s Angels with the tallest, Trina, in the center. We were positioned right in front of the coach’s house, close to where the street split. The director told us to ad-lib dialogue, as if we were really going to the game. With the set-up in place, finally, the director yelled, “rolling.” “Don’t look at the camera,” he said. No problem. We didn’t even see the camera. A better instruction would have been, “Don’t look at McConaughey,” as everyone kept turning around and watching him between takes.
The house on Merrill Ave. used for filming
Each time the director yelled "rolling," we would take off on our stroll down the street. We ad-libbed lines such as “Go, Herd!” and “Let’s go Marshall!” We talked among ourselves, as if we really were going to a game, adding comments such as “How do you think they’ll play today?” and “The community really needs a win.” Where the street split, we went to the left, as a truck carrying several guys sitting on the tailgate and holding a Herd banner went to the right. I high-fived one of the guys during several takes.
The best part of the scene was walking by the coach’s house. Somehow, the three of us timed our “stroll” just right and actually got to speak to the “coach” while passing by. By the time we got up to the house, McConaughey had crossed the sidewalk and was holding the newspaper, just gazing at the crowd with awe. Trina, Scarlett and I took turns saying, “Good luck today, coach” and “Good morning, coach” in take after take. During several takes, McConaughey said “Good morning” back to me and my pals. Several times he looked us intensely in the eye, depicting his amazement of the crowd support. It was cool to watch him acting in this scene. His intensity was a beautiful thing. We did the scene over and over, at least 20 times until we heard “Cut!” Each time, the cars would have to back up and start over at the same point for continuity, just as we started walking from the same place in each take.
About 300 extras were used in the street scene. People were positioned on porches, the grass, the sidewalk, at picnic tables and of course, driving the vintage cars. It truly felt like small-town USA. A crane was used to shoot aerial shots of the scene, so I’m sure it will look really cool on the big screen. I’m still not sure how they’ll get the blooming dogwood and cherry trees out of the shot, but I guess that is Hollywood magic.
Here are a few more interesting tidbits from the morning shoot. At one point, the little boy playing McConaughey’s son fell while running out of the house down to the sidewalk. He wasn’t hurt, but we all had an “awwww” moment for him anyway. Then, a white vintage car, that was in the parade of cars, started smoking and wouldn’t run. The driver added water, but more steam came out. The driver eventually had to pull the car out of the lineup and park it along the street. We all felt really bad for the couple in the car. Next, a photographer with a lens longer than my arm was booted from the set. One of the assistant directors told him he couldn’t be there and he had to go. The director asked who he was with, but I couldn’t hear his answer. I’m not sure if he was paparazzi or from a news publication. And he wasn’t the only person trying to get photos. The people who actually live along Merrill Avenue were sitting on their porches and looking out their windows trying to take pictures of it all, but they were being seen on camera, so the assistant director asked them to go back inside because they were in the shot. (I’m sure they fired off a few pictures before having to go back inside, though.)
We finished the scene by noon and were told to go back to holding, return our wardrobe and head home. Despite being told that I would probably be working 12 hours, it seemed as if my day was over. Not quite!
Coming up - Part Two: My big line to Matthew McConaughey and working with Ian McShane
(Thanks to my fellow extras who contributed photos for this post. Don't worry. I won't tell anyone you took cameras to the set!)