Way back in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis, I suddenly found myself unemployed for the first time in my adult life. And by "suddenly" I mean all three film projects I was booked to work on (as a screenwriter) were canceled virtually overnight. So, what was I to do?
Like so many other people during the financial crisis, I groped around for anything that might possibly lead to some sort of income. Seeing as I lived just outside of Vancouver, a.k.a. "Hollywood North," one of those options was signing up with an extras agency.
I got one day's work as a submariner on the set of 2012. I was supposed to appear in a scene with John Cusack, which would have been cool. However, I never made it onto the screen. Turns out they had hired more of us than they needed, and only the extras who were buddies with the second assistant director assigned to oversee us got the call. Lesson learned: get chummy with that guy. The highlight of that day? Walking past an open studio door and seeing a full-scale Viper fighter from Battlestar Galactica. If only I had had my cell phone.
My next call was a bit more exciting. It was to audition to double for Michael Rosenbaum, the actor who played Lex Luthor on Smallville. Michael had left the series, but they wanted to include Lex--or a Lex clone--in the script, so they were looking for someone who could fool the audience into believing the character was actually Michael.
In preparation for the audition, I shaved my head right bald, removed my five-day's growth, and even shaved my chest. I was committed.
When I showed up to the holding room for the "look see," I met about six other guys who all looked pretty much like me: white, thin, and bald. Furthermore, two of them had already doubled for Michael in the past, so I figured my chances were nil. Nevertheless, I stuck around until it was my turn to be trotted out in front of the producers.
Figuring there was no way I had gotten the part, imagine my surprise a couple of days later when I received a phone call saying not only had I gotten the part, rather than simply double for Michael, they wanted to know if I'd be willing to speak some lines. Would I? Did they really need to ask? Minutes after I hung up, they emailed a few pages of the script, and I was suddenly bumped up from extra to actor.
What did that mean? For starters, about a 1,000% increase in pay. I also got my own trailer on the set, my own contact lens person--that's right, she stuck with me all day--multiple makeup tests (Lex was horribly burned and on a breathing machine for my episode, which meant I had to spend hours in the makeup trailer prior to going on set), you name it. Plus, when the trailer for the episode came out, I was prominently featured, and now I have my own page on the Smallville Wiki and the all-important imdb.com credit. The only down side? They dubbed in someone else's voice over mine. Hello, David Prowse.
I was called back a few weeks later to double for Lex once again. No lines this time, which meant no trailer and no contact lens person. Instead, I was stuck in the holding room with all the other extras. Unfortunatley, they didn't have time to film my scene that day, so they put it off until later that month. The probme was, I had to fly to Brisbane to teach a screenwriting course, so I wasn't in town when they called. Thus ended my brief career as Superman's archnemesis.
Why do I share this story now? Today I had the privilege of speaking with an actor who had a similar experience to mine--signing up to be an extra and then being bumped up to an actor. Only instead of a couple of days' work, his opportunity turned into a career-defining role on the X-Files. That's right, I'm talking about William B. Davis, a.k.a. "The Cigarette Smoking Man," a.k.a. "Cancer Man," a.k.a. "The Smoking Man," a.k.a. "C. G. B. Spender," a.k.a. "Carl Gerhard Busch." He started out as a silhouette in the pilot episode and wound up being Special Agent Fox Mulder's archnemesis throughout the series.
Why was I talking to William? Because he's just written a book about acting. Think of it as an actor's answer to Stephen King's On Writing. And William should know, having acted on radio, stage, and screen for over 70 years! Once again, I just happened to find myself in the right place at the right time, and now I have the privilege of editing William's book.
Another strange connection between William and me: my wife and I actually appeared as extras on an episode of the X-Files called The End when they did a huge cattle call for an audience to watch a chess match. To be honest, I never did watch that episode to see if I could pick myself out of the crowd. And to be really, really honest, I've never watched the entire episode of Smallville I appeared in either. I don't think that's too uncommon for people in this biz. I don't like to watch my own movies after I've completed them either.
Even though the 50-year-old version of me tends to downplay these experiences as no big deal, the kid inside me who grew up on a farm outside of Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, dreaming about being part of the entertainment biz but not really believing it was possible can't help but admit it still feels pretty "smokin'."
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life