1023 hrs. “Listen up! Everybody who’s a soldier, I want you to stroke your chin,” the man yells. “If it doesn’t feel soft and kissable you’re going to have to shave.”
I’m standing in a deep hole outside Hamilton, Ontario, with soldiers, scientists and directors. Huge piles of sand surround us on all sides.
Yesterday I was walking up Yonge Street on my way to buy fresh soil for my dying flowers. Some guy stopped me and asked if I wanted to be in a movie. Apparently, I look like a soldier—or an extra. And just like that, I enlisted in a labour force that’s more than twenty-five thousand strong in Toronto alone: show business.
Now, twenty hours later, I’m in a quarry. This is less glamorous than I imagined. The movie’s called Zoom, starring Tim Allen as a superhero. I think we’re supposed to be in the desert.
1035 hrs. I line up with the other extras outside a big white tent. Inside, a wardrobe man, skinny and bald, is handing out fatigues. He asks in a Caribbean accent what size boot I want. I tell him and get a pair of size twelves thrown at me. I grab the rest of my costume and dart my eyes to see where everyone’s getting dressed. Someone in front of me drops his pants and starts changing. “What the fuck are you doing?” the wardrobe man yells. I find a hiding spot between two tents and change quickly: green T-shirt, desert camo pants and jacket, a helmet and goggles. Body armour and a sidearm (another lineup) complete our costumes.
The patches on our jackets give us new names: Ryder, Skidmore, Scabices. My name is Thomas. The guy behind me gets to be Hammer. I turn my vest inside out and read the tag: “Outer Tactical Vest (OTV) with all soft ballistic panels installed provides protection from fragmentation and 9mm or lesser threats. Made in Vietnam.”
A crowd of people dressed exactly like me passes by. I follow. We go to the main tent and meet sixty more of me. We are the grunts of the movie industry dressed like the grunts of the military, here for nine bucks an hour and a free lunch.
1055 hrs. From what I understand of my role, I’m part of an army unit that discovers some unknown evil in the desert. Presumably, the military fails to conquer this evil, at which point it resorts to superheroes. I might be wrong though. They tell me what to wear and how to act, but never why.
The quarry is desolate and huge. Or it would be if it weren’t for the maze of white-walled trailers sprung up in its belly. I get lost wandering around, peeking into actors’ trailers and daydreaming about my apartment, my bed, my flowers.
The wardrobe tent is now the lunch tent for unionized actors. I’m no longer allowed in. Next to it, about a hundred feet long, is the tent for guys like me. It’s filled with collapsible tables, folding chairs and lounging soldiers. In the far corner a game of table hockey is underway. Beside them there’s a crowd huddled around a portable DVD player watching Monster-in-Law.
Newspapers on a table report suicide bombings in Baghdad yesterday: more than 150 dead. Someone points to a picture of a solemn American soldier: “Look, it’s exactly the same uniform!” I take a seat with the grunts and wait for my call to duty.
1230 hrs. Sitting in the tent, the soldiers start to distinguish themselves. Across the table is Oswald. Or at least that’s what the patch on his chest reads. He looks like Vin Diesel. He’s intimidating at first, but the longer I’m here, the more I see a strong, accepting quality to him. Next to him is Ryder, a stout Palestinian who constantly cracks terrorist jokes about himself. Nearly asleep in his chair is a skinny black guy named White. He eyes me jotting this all down in my notebook. “Look at this guy, he’s writing home to his wife.”
In the centre of the group is Green. Green looks a little like Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man. He has a wife and son and works weekends as a bouncer. He’s been an extra for years, and has plans of moving up in this business. He wants to start setting up locations for movies.
We are all non-union workers, or “cash guys.” The people you see crossing the street over Mark Wahlberg’s shoulder, the faces in the stands at Hilary Duff’s football game, the man running Wayne Campbell’s watermelon stand. Short-term, no benefits, no stability—every face you don’t remember.
1435 hrs. “Move out, soldiers!”
We line up for costume inspections. The wardrobe man and a woman in a reflective vest walk up and down the line, buttoning buttons and scrutinizing haircuts. “I think your sideburns are too long,” the woman says to the kid next to me. “I think we should cut them back.”
“I actually can’t do that, I have a photo shoot for a band on the weekend.”
“Maybe we can hide you in the back. I’ll have to talk with my bosses. If they can’t, they might ask you to go home.”
I turn to the guy on the other side of me, “Hey, I wonder if this is how the army gets people to Iraq. ‘Come on, you’re gonna be in a movie.’” He doesn’t laugh. Further down the line I hear the wardrobe man yell, “You can’t work a belt? Your mama dress you in the morning?” I pass my inspection with flying colours—I look real. Back in the tent, some downtrodden soldiers are getting their heads shaved at the makeup tables.
Then we wait.
“Yeah I build bombs all the time. Me and my cousins blew one up at the other side of this quarry once.”
“I’m ghetto, baby. I don’t even have a barber, I just sharpen a chicken bone to cut my hair.”
None of it means anything. It’s just talk to kill time.
1500 hrs. A man walks in wearing a reflective vest and a baseball cap. “I need nineteen guys,” he yells. “You. You. You,” he says, pointing at my table. Good news for the regulars—it’s a small shot, a chance at a decent spot on camera, maybe even a film credit. The directors will need us back if they do any more shooting for this scene.
We walk out of the village and deeper into the quarry. “Don’t kick the rocks,” the man tells us, “some of them are props.” We stop by a cliff face and they place us behind General Larraby (Rip Torn) and a scientist (Chevy Chase). Walk here, here, and here, they tell us, and look soldierly. We do it once, then again, and again.
No, the director says, something’s wrong. We go back to point A and a director juggles us around to get the proper aesthetic. “You know what he’s doing?” Chevy pipes in. “He’s putting all the black guys in the back.” I get moved up and Green gets stuck in the back, hardly on camera.
1815 hrs. Our final shot is big: all the extras come out of the tent for this one. In this scene, a giant alien attacks our base camp—or maybe that’s just what they’re telling us to get the reaction they want. The soldiers’ job is to look busy, and then surprised. The directors position us around the scene like chess pieces.
Rip Torn waits in a chair that says “Rip Torn” on it. He’s joking around with a group of soldiers positioned in front of him: “There are kids your age in Iraq for real right now. And you guys get to be here, pretending. Chicken shits.”
1840 hrs. The directors call a wrap. I wander back to the village and line up to turn in my uniform. While I’m waiting, Chevy Chase drives by in an SUV. He calls “ten-hut!” out the passenger window and some extras salute. Our bus pulls off at sunset. My life as a fake soldier disappears. I find comfort in the approaching city lights.