By Abby Wilkerson
City of Suwanee
Let me just come out and admit from the start: I love television. The weaving of stories, plot twists and complex characters – my old dream job was a writer for Saturday Night Live or a smart, funny sitcom (until I learned that they frequently stayed up all night writing; to say I get cranky after 9:45pm is an understatement). I’m not too proud to admit that, when the location manager for the CBS remake of 80’s national treasure Dynasty called about possibly shooting at Suwanee City Hall, I squealed into the phone.
The cast and crew of Dynasty have, for the most part, made Suwanee their filming home. Carrington Manor and many other recurring locations are situated within the 30024 zip code. Suwanee City Hall has served as two Dynasty locations: FBI headquarters and Atlanta City Hall. It was the second location – in the Christmas episode – when I made my national television debut.
As the Public Information Officer for the city, part of my job is coordinating film crews interested in city parks and buildings. My interactions with scouts, directors and managers of all kinds emboldened me to ask if I could be a background extra. After providing my headshot and vital statistics, and mentioning that I felt I would be really amazing at throwing a glass of champagne in someone’s face, I was given my call time for my scene at Suwanee City Hall as a non-union extra (i.e., the lowest rung on an extremely tall ladder).
The next day, I arrived at a tent large enough to host Barnum & Bailey and met my colleagues for the day. Extras are a really eclectic group: retirees, college students, people interested in the film industry, aspiring thespians and people like me, who are just curious to see how an afternoon of filming unfolds.
I was told to dress in business attire appropriate for the Christmas season, and to bring a few back-up options as well. The extras in my scene stood in front of a wardrobe team as they tucked and pulled and smoothed and critically looked us over, making sure that no one was dressed exactly like someone else, there was a variety of colors, and no one’s outfit would stand out too much. One assistant commented that I wasn’t dressed at all like someone who worked at city hall (I was wearing the same outfit I’d worn to work that morning…in city hall).
We were then scooted to the lobby of City Hall for my big moment, and the real work began: waiting. And standing. And waiting. When you’re an extra, you spend most of your time waiting for the crew to set up for the next shot. There are no less than a bajillion people on a major film set, and they each have one, very specific job to do – and they are absolutely amazing at that one, very specific thing.
Extras aren’t supposed to talk during a take, or after a take for that matter. Quiet little conversations inevitably pop up while the set is being put back to exactly the way it was two minutes prior, but assistant directors nip those in the bud, even though some of the “talent” (a.k.a., real actors) sing loudly for no apparent reason. (Perhaps they are part-elf.)
Thanks to having friends in high places, I was given the prime extra role of having an actual, brief scene with one of the actresses. For my part in this incredibly vital, pivotal scene, I was to nod with concern as the actress expressed dismay over end-of-the-year budgetary issues.
Another unfortunate rule for extras is no talking to the actors. This is presumably to keep people like me from fangirling all over the place, but also because these are professionals trying to get their jobs done. Thankfully, the actress I was working with was incredibly nice and we had a delightful conversation about our childhoods playing travel softball. (She is also the most beautiful person I have ever seen IRL.)
We performed our brief scene (which will be no longer than one minute on the actual show) approximately 250 times over the course of four hours, capturing every possible angle, tweaking every possible movement, and then doing it all over again for sound purposes. I was finally released to go home at a reasonable hour; on that particular day, the actors and a crowd of extras would remain on set until 5 a.m. to shoot an outdoor Christmas night scene while wearing winter coats in 82-degree weather, officially taking all of the glamour out of the job for me.
I arrived home that evening, exhausted after my day of standing and waiting, proud of myself for wearing flats, and excited to tell my husband that there was at least a small chance that I was going to be seen on television. I described my scene and the background story I’d made up for my character to provide motivation, and showed him the ‘look of concern’ for the City of Atlanta’s budget issues. Then I went to the mirror to see how I looked, only to discover that he was right: I didn’t look so much concerned as constipated. Which, arguably, is a very concerning state of affairs.