I suppose an interesting (to me, at least) topic to inaugurate my shiny new WordPress blog is my recent experience working as a background actor (extra) on the set of “Leverage”. Back on June 18th of this year, I was called to perform my nondescript duties to film a few scenes at the Oregon Convention Center. The call time was 9:30 AM, and I was there and checked in in plenty of time. It was apparent from my paperwork that I would be working on episode 12 of season 3 (later to be known as “The King George Job”). The convention center was made up to look like an airport, specifically Boston Logan airport. By 10:00 or so, the PA’s started rounding up batches of us and taking us to the set.
They had most of us set up as travelers with baggage, and I had brought one of our rolling bags containing a few different clothing options. We were taken to an area on the east side of the convention center, at the bottom of the escalators. It was soon apparent the real “action” was at the top of the escalators, as that’s where the lights and cameras were set up.
Looking up the stairs and escalator
A gruff, but likable man was charged with placing the extras and directing our movement. My first directive was to walk across the floor below the stairs, and meet up with 2 other gentlemen. We did a couple of takes, then the scene reset slightly. My next job was to walk up the escalator and continue down the hall. Before we could film that scene, an electrical problem with some of the lights had to be resolved. That resolution took about half an hour. On my first run through (after the lighting issue had been fixed) I could see that the group of main characters (Hutton, et al) were all congregated near the top of the escalators being filmed by a Steadicam rig that circled them as they spoke. I walked right past them on several takes. That was my first view of the stars, and got a little thrill to see them all up close.
Another view up the stairs - you can see them working on the lights
By about noon, we finished this scene and were herded back to the extras holding area. After a short break, we were all led into a large meeting room in the lowest level of the convention center. This room was made to look like the customs area of the airport, with roped off areas for line management and customs booths and inspection tables. The first order of business was the distribution of props to most of us. I was given an airline ticket and passport.
Hmmm... Flying from Iraq to Boston through London
A British subject? OK - I can pull that off.
Umm... OK - I look just like Kate Winslet!
It appears the prop passport I was given was used by Kate Winslet in the movie “The Holiday”. That’s pretty cool. There’s a good chance a major celebrity has actually held this in her hands. Seemed kind of surreal.
The PA pairs me with a woman about my age, and we become “travel companions”. Her name was Patty, and seemed to be a very nice lady. That was good, because there is lots of downtime between takes, and its good to have someone to talk to. It was fun chatting with the other extras, because they all had cool stories to tell about the previous work they had done. The first scene we shot in this area had Patty and I standing at a Customs Booth showing our papers to the agent sitting there. They did several takes from behind us. We pantomimed our interactions with the Customs agent, with him pretending to go down a checklist, and we responded. With each take though, a “FREEZE” command was issued by the director. We, of course, froze in whatever position, while the camera operator with the steadicam rig moved quickly from the back of the room to the Customs booth next to us, manned by Aldis Hodge (Alec, in the series). If you’ve ever seen an episode of Leverage, you’ll see this “zoom” effect used quite a bit. It should also be noted (for the lady readers) the camera operator was quite a hunky dude. Think Viggo Mortensen-y.
After several takes they released us for lunch/dinner. In my previous experience as an extra, my meal experience was very favorable, and I was not disappointed this time. They had set up a very nice hot buffet with a nice array of options. I had some beef stroganoff, scalloped potatoes, rice pilaf and a green salad. It was 5:00 by the time they released us for our meal, so we were all pretty hungry. Luckily, I had stashed some homemade bacon chocolate chip cookies (yes, you read that right) in my roller bag, so I wasn’t ready to pass out. After half an hour, we trundled back to the “Customs area” and set up for new camera angles.
This time, my “travel companion” and I were directed to sit along the side of the room next a pile of baggage. As we sat there, Beth Riesgraf (Parker) came over to man a cart of more luggage right next to us. As we waited for the scene to start, she chatted with us briefly. She was very nice, and seemed cognizant and appreciative of the long hours we had already put in. We shot a few takes from this angle and set up for the next shot.
The view from the "Baggage Area".
We then were moved to the front of the Customs area, the next logical step from the Customs booth we were at earlier in the day. There were 4 tables set up, each manned by 2 uniformed Customs agents. We could see the table next us (literally just 2 steps away) was going to see some focus, as the performers there were getting some very specific direction for the next shot. The crux of the action was that an unescorted young girl (9 or 10 years old?) arrives at the inspection area carrying a small backpack. When the agent searches the backpack she discovers what is determined to be a smuggled art object and raises an alarm. When the alarm is sounded, several uniformed (and armed) ICE officers rush forward and escort the girl off for arrest. We are told to react to the alarm with surprise as all this is happening. Except there is no actual alarm, just the director shouting “ALARM”! I had to dig deep for my acting instincts, but I think I pulled it off. It should be noted my only previous acting experience was on the set of Extraordinary Measures, and as a shepherd in the 1965 production of my Bible school’s Christmas play. Yes. 1965. Get over it. While resetting the cameras for another angle, the actress portraying the young girl sat on “our” Customs table and we chatted with her a bit. She was very sweet and told us about the audition process and how she got the part. I didn’t find out until later she was portraying an Iraqi refugee, though she didn’t seem particularly Middle Eastern in appearance. She had a couple of lines in (ostensibly) Arabic. We finished the scene with me walking off camera as the girl is shuffled off by the ICE agents.
Behind the scenes with James Frain & Oliver Trevena
It was now about 9:00 and we were all pretty tired, so there was a short break while the cameras were reset. I think we were all hoping that we close to wrapping but were disappointed when we were called back to the customs area. We spent another hour shooting from different angles. The highlight was when several of us (including Christian Kane) were standing off camera waiting for the take when Christian asked “Isn’t it beer-fucking-thirty yet?”. All of us in earshot heartily agreed.
We broke again to the holding fairly certain that we done for the night as it was now about 11:00 PM. We were wrong. Some of the uniformed extras were let go, but the rest of us got to stick around for one more scene. Timothy Hutton and Gina Bellman were sitting in a common area (under a very cool pendulum in the Convention Center). It was our job to look busy in the background for another hour. Finally, at 12:15 AM, we wrapped for the day. It was long day, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.