The alarm buzzer pierced the darkness of my New Westminster bedroom at 4am that Tuesday morning. Quickly shutting it off lest I wake my roommates, I rolled out of bed and donned the suit of clothes I had laid out the night before. Now dressed to the nines, I grabbed my backpack and set out into the pre-dawn for my long journey to UBC.
It was not a daybreak class I was heading to. It was a graduation for myself and at least 500 others. A curious occurrence since I was actually enrolled in the Vancouver Film School downtown at the time, which itself was shut down for the holidays. Not only would I be graduating from a school I had never attended, but I would be paid for it as well. The class I was graduating from was in fact merely a collection of background performers for a day of shooting the film Fifty Shades of Grey, which ironically had us graduating from the University in Vancouver, Washington.
The email I had received from BCF casting had tried to disguise the name of the production as they often do by dubbing it “The Adventures of Max and Banks” in the subject line. Google knew better.
One Skytrain and a 99 express bus saw me safely to a complex of tents buzzing with activity on the UBC campus. Like my fellow background performers, I had arrived just in time to sign in and prove my identity as a Canadian citizen six ways from Sunday (you’d think some of those billions that Hollywood spends up here would go towards a bloody database). Once the wranglers were satisfied that I hadn’t jumped a border to be here, the customary breakfast buffet was served and from there, it was straight on to the costume department.
Now one thing about being background is being expected to bring at least some of your own costume elements along. Three different outfits is the standard request, but I usually settle at two-and-a-half including what I wear to set. Clairvoyance would not be an unwelcome gift in this arena as although I had worn a complete suit along with alternate shirts and pants in my carry-on, a simple shirt and tie would have sufficed as I was promptly draped in a PhD gown and topped with a cap that would be my costume for the remaining ten hours.
I don’t recall sitting in a makeup chair for this particular show as my recent haircut and shave left me camera ready enough for the hair & makeup departments to focus their precious minutes on the ladies in the crowd. From here, it was time to pick the pace and hurry up….to the waiting room (or “holding” if you prefer).
Our holding room in this case was a smaller theatre in the larger Chan Centre for Performing Arts where that day’s scenes were shot. Aside from strict reminders to leave our phones off or else (I would later learn not every show is that strict off-set), we were mostly left to wait until we were chosen to ascend to set. I found myself enough time to gain a few new Facebook friends and finish George Orwell’s ant-communism fable Animal Farm before finally being escorted to the auditorium. I’m sure lunch happened too at some point.
My first scene as background was simple enough. Just sit in the audience and witness rising star Jamie Dornan (whatever happened to him?) deliver the commencement address to fake faculty and students. Aside from the cameras, cables, mics, crew and giant inflatable light hanging overhead, it was almost the real thing.
Two more scenes followed. First, a brief jaunt with Ana (Dakota Johnson) and her father (local boy Callum Keith Rennie) as they headed inside. A simple enough scene if not for the fact that the usual mild west coast winter was unseasonably cold that day. The fake green leaves affixed to the surrounding trees did nothing to quell the chill felt in the performers who promptly piled on the heaters just inside the doors between each take. I was fortunate enough to be placed inside feeling only the occasional draft from the door.
The last scene of the day presented the first true challenge from us as it required some actual acting on our part. It’s unreasonable to expect the assistant directors to give hundreds of people direction on what exactly we should do so we were left to ad-lib our actions during a post-grad reception.
I was fortunate enough to be placed alongside several friends I had made that day so we had little trouble in concocting our own mini scene to be constantly replayed over many takes. Coordination between other performers cast as servers and photographers made our modest efforts come alive.
Not too lively mind you as we had to be constantly reminded to mouth and not whisper any fake chatter. Turns out hundreds of tiny whispers can drive any sound mixer up the wall. But soon enough there sufficient clean takes to satisfy director Sam Taylor-Johnson and we were soon wrapped.
Costumes were returned, makeup was removed (I assume) and sign out papers were approved, allowing us to return to the outside world. As the sun had risen on my first day on a real Hollywood set, it now descended behind us over the western horizon. The only thing left to do was board the bus for home and wait to see if I made the final cut.
14 MONTHS LATER…
“One for Fifty Shades, please.” I intoned to the theatre cashier. It was another Valentines Day and I was single again. I’m not sure even a date would have delivered me to pay to see the watered down cringe-fest had I not had a chance of appearing in it. Having not read the source material, I had no idea or sense of when my scene(s) would appear, leaving me to instead be content with recognizing local landmarks and actors (“I know that guy!”) until the inevitable graduation.
First scene…no dice. Second scene….maybe, but too small to pick out. Third scene, last chance….there I am! It’s hard to discuss the rush at seeing yourself for the first time on the screen of a local cineplex. There I am again! My whole days work had yielded me about 6 seconds of screen time, but for me, that time is immortal.
It would in fact be my last big screen appearance as my future background work was almost exclusively for TV and streaming. But that’s another story…
The scenes in question can be viewed HERE