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  • Writer's pictureLizzy Shannon

Extra, extra! Read all about it!

A movie is coming out sometime next year, which was filmed in Northern Ireland during my time there. Due to privacy until its release, I can’t say which one it is yet. Having been an extra in shows in the States, like Grimm, Leverage, and my favorite, Wild with Reece Witherspoon, I’d enjoyed it so much that I signed on with the local Irish extras company as soon as I learned it existed.

Almost two years went by, and I heard nothing, so forgot all about it as I got increasingly enmeshed in caring for Dad as he succumbed to dementia. Then, just after he died in November 2019, I got a text on my phone, asking if I were available for some filming in a local coastal village. Excited at the prospect of seeing how filming was done nowadays in the UK and Ireland, I replied in the positive. By day’s end they’d booked me for one day of shooting, starting at the ungodly hour of 0700 on a frigid, winter morning.

It sounded akin to what I was familiar to in the States: bring a couple of suggested outfits to let wardrobe choose from, do your hair normally, and wear make-up, just not the mineral kind as it shines on camera. I got up a 0430 to get myself ready, then drove the twenty minutes over to where basecamp was.

A single decker Ulsterbus with all lights blazing sat at the center of the action, with tents huddled around it, sheltering an open-air kitchen and I assume equipment. The extras ‘wrangler’ met me with a huge smile, told me to help myself to a cooked breakfast, and join the others in the bus. I forwent the breakfast as I’d had a gluten free version at home before I left, but filled up on coffee.

About five people sat chatting together on the bus. It looked like they all knew each other. Feeling a little nervous as this was my first time, I introduced myself and sat near them as I sipped my coffee. Which was surprisingly good. We were all of an age, but I was the only woman.

Looking around the bus and listening to the good-natured ribbing between the guys, I couldn’t stop grinning. I felt like I was in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ Extras. But no one appeared to take themselves too seriously, which was nice. It’s one thing to do your job well as an extra; it’s another to think you’re going to be discovered. I enjoy extra work because there’s no stress at all. I get a little whiff of the acting world, which usually brings back good memories, get paid for it, and go home and forget about it at the end. Career acting was extremely stressful for me. I’d never go down that road again. I look back at the person I was back in England when I was a professional actor, and I cringe. I was a selfish, narcissistic, practically unhinged person. The lifestyle did not suit me at all. I think to navigate a career such as that, being selfish and narcissistic is a necessity. And the unhinged part is, too. Look at people like Heath Ledger and Judy Garland, dying so young of drug overdoses. They couldn’t cope and I totally get it.

Another woman climbed onto the bus, and I smiled in greeting, glad to see another female. She was about my age, with long dark hair and a slim build. We got to chatting and the time passed as she told me about all the previous things she’d been in as an extra. I never bothered mentioning my acting history; it was irrelevant. For those who don’t know, I’d navigated my way through an acting career from 1983 to 1990, working pretty consistently. I’d had a blast … it was so much fun to be a German dancing bear in a clown troupe, or play a wide range of roles in a touring repertory theater. My very last performance was when I first arrived in the States, and played an ingenue in an English comedy stage play. That led to me becoming a writer, but that’s a story for another day!

Our wrangler appeared in the bus doorway and announced we’d be heading over to the location now. He herded us out and across the parking lot to a minivan that was to ferry us there. Just as we were about to pull out, a young blonde woman carrying a breakfast plate clambered on and tried to balance her meal as the bus navigated flooded, pitch-black country roads. She looked stressed, and I learned later that with rain causing so much flooding, it had taken her twice as long to drive from her home than she thought it would.

We pulled into a tiny town that I knew well. (But can’t say which one until the film is released!) The minivan parked behind a picturesque old pub that looked out over the bay. I had just been there a few months earlier with an American friend, as the owner has a famous connection with one of the US presidents. (Again, I’ll fill in the details when the film comes out.)

So far everything mirrored how things were run in the US shows I’d been in. But then we were ushered into a little tent pitched outside the back of the pub. It had plastic windows so as the gray dawn slowly crept in, we could just about make out each other’s faces. I had to laugh. The difference between us and the main actors was now glaringly different. They stayed warm and cozy in the heated building, while outside the rain still fell and the wind cut in from the Irish Sea, causing us all to huddle together, shivering. Finally, a gas space heater appeared, and we began to thaw in front of it, sucking down the free coffee to warm up.

We began chatting amongst each other, and I found it fascinating to learn what people did in real life. The younger woman who’d arrived late turned out to be a hairdresser. I pointed to the unruly thatch on my head, and she laughingly gave me her card. The dark-haired woman was still talking about her acting experience to the rest of the group, so we sidled away so we could talk about other things.

Then the tent flaps pushed open, and a friendly woman with a Northern Irish/American mix accent addressed us. She turned out to be the director and asked if any of us had any acting experience. Without thinking, my hand shot up. So did the dark-haired woman’s. She said she’d had amateur acting experience. When the director turned to me, I played it down, just saying I’d had a couple of speaking roles in various things.

She withdrew and anticipation grew amongst us as we knew we’d be called on set any moment. Sure enough, soon the wrangler led us out of the poky tent and into the pub. My role was to sit at the bar with one of the main actors and react to the scene as it unfolded. The director ordered me to mime an animated conversation, which I gladly did. The dark-haired lady was placed at a table in the bar and given a line to say! For a second, I felt the old sickening tug of rejection, vividly reminded of one of the reasons I got out of proper acting years ago. I stifled laughter. Of course the director would never have considered me, what was I thinking? Ginger hair. Freckles. Not stick-slim. The old, old story. Thank goodness I didn’t care anymore, but the little momentary pang unsettled me.

I had a fun time with the morning’s shoot, and got along well with the actress, who was from Dublin. I can’t wait to see the film, regardless of whether my ugly mug can be seen in the background or not. I suppose the moral of this little tale is that our insecurities never leave us. But as time and experience hone who you are, hopefully you’ll be able to see it all in perspective. I mulled over my momentary feeling of rejection for some time, surprised it had surfaced like that. I remain steadfastly grateful I got out of that industry long, long ago. I am suited so much better to writing. Rejection is usually by proxy with editors or agents, and it’s never personal. I like to say: “Being the puppet-master works so much better for me than being the puppet!”

Not that I’m dissing those who do act for a living. They have my utmost respect as it is an exceedingly difficult life to live.

On the set of Grimm, USA. Another bar scene!


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