We all want to be on TV, but as Ricky Gervais' show "Extras" has taught star-hopeful viewers, being an extra, a person who hangs out in the background to set the scene for the main actors, isn't pretty. The pay is low, the hours are long, and the work can be simultaneously boring and embarrassing. Knowing all this, you may be wondering why I signed myself up to be an extra on "Trauma," but there's a good reason-- save for my freelance work here at 7x7, I'm unemployed, and the good people at "Trauma" have been providing important supplements to my rent payments. Considering the show is on life support in the ratings, however, my good times have likely come to an end. Unlike the many patients it features, "Trauma," a vapid NBC drama about EMTs and Medevac personnel in SF, seems doomed to a quick and painful death. (Its timeslot doesn't help, either: you try competing against "Monday Night Football," "Two and a Half Men," "Lie to Me," and "Gossip Girl" simultaneously.)
I got the idea to become a "Trauma" extra this past July, my eighth month of unemployment, when I saw a promo for the show during a "30 Rock" rerun. Unlike some shows that boast a "San Francisco" setting but are actually made on an L.A. soundstage, "Trauma"'s promo had an action scene that was filmed on the stretch of the 280 I regularly drive. Maybe they really do shoot this show in San Francisco! I thought. (Little did I know they'd start shutting down my street repeatedly for location shoots just a few months later.) A quick Google search revealed the show's casting agency, and telling myself that I had to spend money to make money, I bit the bullet, paid the $25 to sign up for their website, and posted a flattering photo of myself from three years ago. A few weeks later, I got a call from the agency, telling me I'd been hired to play a tourist the next day.
I had few illusions about this job being glamorous, but even my jaded self was surprised at the number of hoops potential extras had to jump through. I was told of my casting about twelve hours before my call time, which was 6 am, an hour I hadn't seen since the day I received my pink slip. I was told to wear neutral colors (red might distract from the main actors), to feed myself breakfast, to prepare to work a twelve-hour day if necessary. All this for the $9.79-an-hour glory of San Francisco minimum wage. The number of instructions was only outmatched by the amount of idiocy assumed on the part of the prospective extra; the long-suffering receptionists at the casting agency seemed to radiate generalized annoyance at a DMV-employee level.
My first day at "Trauma" was an outdoor scene, where I shivered in the cold of the early morning hours at the Fisherman's Wharf cable-car turnaround. I was expected to look shocked and horrified at a fight scene, the cause of which I didn't figure out until they had the extras shift positions four hours later. (Cutting in line, in case you were wondering.) The thing about shock and horror is that they don't tend to translate well over extended periods of time; by the fourth hour, I could barely be called upon to notice that guys were punching each other and spitting up fake blood 20 feet away. When the fight scene wrapped, I was placed in a cordon of people walking back and forth at timed intervals by the window of the leads' ambulance, to create the illusion that the street outside was actually busy.
This was by far the hardest work I had to do at "Trauma." My subsequent two days were spent indoors at the show's Treasure Island soundstage, a former aircraft hangar. My role was "waiting room," a person presumably waiting for a family member in the show's fictionalized version of SF General. ("Try to dress down-on-your-luck," the casting agency receptionist advised. Oh, casting agency lady, if you only knew.) The fake waiting room is behind the main reception area where the show's characters have most of their scenes, and the camera came nowhere near the room on either day. (It was so distant, in fact, that the makeup artist, hairstylist, and several production assistants were hanging out in there with me.) It was the best job I've ever had: I sat in a real waiting room, waiting to be on TV, reading a book. Then I sat in a fake waiting room, on TV, reading a book. Occasionally, I'd get involved in my reading (Nathan Rabin's The Big Rewind, an excellent companion), forget where I was, look up, and think, "Hey, I'm in a doctor's waiting room. Wait, what am I waiting for? Oh yeah, nothing."
"Nothing" also turns out to be an apt description for my visibility in last night's episode, which was the episode at hand on all three of the days I filmed. My grandmother, who has been asking for weeks about when I'll make my TV appearance, will be very disappointed, but I find it essentially just that I didn't show up on TV after three days of getting paid $80, eating tons of free, catered food, and chitchatting with fellow extras. Getting to be prominently featured on a major network show would just have been too much to ask from the universe after such largesse. It was fun, though, to pick out the couple that was ahead of me in line and the guy I ate lunch with, both of whom got quick establishing shots.
I'm also kind of glad that I wasn't on "Trauma" because it is a really, truly terrible show. The visual style is headache-inducing, the dialogue painfully bad, the characters pre-packaged. I'm still scratching my head as to how a show that is primarily about watching people about to get cut up, blown up, or set on fire got picked up in the first place; it's kind of like if they compiled a show entirely out of the first five minutes of various "Six Feet Under" episodes. That said, I do feel badly for the numerous San Franciscans who work on the show, many of whom were putting in 15-hour days and still managed to be understanding, cheery, and professional. The show's likely cancellation means the end of their work, and it's certainly not their fault that they've hitched their wagons to a red dwarf. I, too, will continue to hope against hope that the show survives: even if it makes me want to claw out my own eyeballs, it's an important contributor to San Francisco's economy and my own personal economy, and I'll be sad to see it go. If it does, however, and anyone else out there wants to pay me to pretend to be aghast, read, and eat donuts, you know where to find me. I'll be sure to send my three-year-old headshot.