A Little Extra

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A story from the less glamorous end of the film industry


In Lincolnshire, there's a famously tall mediaeval tower, the Boston Stump, which is visible from miles away and is actually part of the parish church of St. Botolph.

I lived in London and had to drive to Boston one morning to be an extra in a film which was being shot there. It would tell the true story of John Cotton, the charismatic vicar of Boston throughout the 1620s, whose non-conformist preaching led to some of his followers, and eventually Cotton himself, emulating The Pilgrim Fathers by sailing off to a new Puritan life in America.

Film extras tend to be chosen to fit particular roles and my niche is playing rough kids, street urchins and ‘Artful Dodger’ types. I’ve been in films and on TV fairly often over the last few years, playing young teenagers despite me now being twenty-five, so obviously I’m a bit short and skinny — and I'm getting rather old to play thirteen, to be honest.

That day I would be playing another street urchin in a key scene which would be filmed right in front of the Stump, with lots of us extras milling about, all dressed as common people. The ‘followers’ would then have to make their way through this throng to reach their boat.

After we’d all been made up and dressed ready for ‘action’, there was a problem when the actress playing the minor speaking part of an angry – and rather tarty woman, had some sort of seizure while in the makeup chair and an ambulance took her off to hospital. That could mean losing half a day of filming, and since her role was crucial to the plot, the director was faced with losing both time and money, no matter how the problem was resolved.

He then decided that the quickest option would be to find someone else who could fit the actress's costume and actually mouth her few words, which she could then overdub when she was recovered.

We extras were called together on the offchance that one of us might fit the costume — shades of Cinderella! And since there wasn’t a woman amongst us of a suitable size but there was a man, I got the job.

I pointed out that I was actually male but that fell on deaf ears as I was rushed off to have whatever done that was deemed necessary. The costume and makeup people just got on with it as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. Twenty minutes later I was back on set with long hair, rouged cheeks and displaying a large amount of silicone bosom. In the circumstances, the director decided he could live without the street urchin.

In the scene, as the followers made their way to the boat, I was to be heckling them and reading my lines from large boards which would be raised above and behind whichever follower I was supposed to be heckling at the time, and I would actually have to shout for real in order to give the correct face and chest movements.

With my experience as an extra, plus what I’d learned from watching lots of professional actors on set, I was able to say “No problem.” when the director asked if I could handle it.

We did a couple of trial runs then went for a take. I thought it went well but the director made us do it three more times before he was happy.

So that was the end of my role in the film, or so I thought, until the director sent for me.

“That was excellent, young man. You were very convincing. However, I’ve had an idea that might enable us to reinstate the street urchin. Have you ever been involved with CGI, green screen and all that?”

“No I haven’t but I'd like to give it a try some day.”

“Good man. But would you be available to be in a film studio in north London tomorrow?"

I said "Yes, I live there."

"Well, I think we could film you doing what you would have expected to be doing as a street urchin, but in front of a green screen. Then we could drop the new footage into an existing take with the green screen background removed, so you could be playing two parts in the same film. And absolutely nobody would be any the wiser!”

“And," he continued, "I’ve just had another green screen idea for a little scene as the boat sets sail. So, since you'd already be at the studio, you could also play the angry woman again.”

“So would I get double pay?”

“Well, let's just say that for your flexibility we'd add a bonus to make sure that you'd effectively receive that.”

I wasn’t going to turn down work or a bonus so I agreed to do it.

So early the next day I was dressed as the street urchin and standing in front of a huge green screen in a London film studio. I had to run across the screen, looking a bit shifty, with the back of my head mostly towards the camera, so I would appear to be behind everyone else in the finished scene. My original role would have meant my weaving in and out of the crowd but this way was easier.

Half a dozen takes later the director was happy so I was whizzed off to get ‘tarted up’ as the angry woman again. The original actress had now been passed fit but couldn't even be considered for today because the character needed to be identifiably the same woman as in the previous day's footage.

This time it would be a shot across the harbour channel with me being filmed so I could be superimposed on a previously-filmed clip of the view from the moving boat. I didn’t have to do much but stand there, shaking my fist.

“Money for old rope.” I thought.

But I hadn’t realised that the famous actor Paul Woodridge would be in the scene as well, leaning against a mast in the foreground and looking pensive, as his character watched mine, obviously having had history with this particular woman.

We had a rehearsal then a lamp blew, requiring a short break, and I got chatting with Paul and the director about our roles, and I felt much more important than an ordinary extra – an equal, almost.

As soon as the lamp had been replaced, we tried again and managed two takes but the director wasn’t happy. In fact he decided to change the camera position, meaning that our previous lighting setup would have to be redone, so we took our lunch break while that happened. Paul and I had lunch together while the cinematographer and lighting people were no doubt cursing the director.

So, having been involved in artistic conversations with Paul earlier, he and I continued in similar vein but at one point I was wondering if he was actually hitting on me. He was certainly looking at my silicone chest more often than my face. It occurred to me that Paul may have been unaware that I wasn’t actually a woman as he may never have seen me in my urchin costume. But, to be fair, I’m not sure I would have wanted to look at my face with its blacked-out teeth!

Anyway, we both enjoyed our little artistic discussion but then he, despite being a renowned actor, began asking me about my life as a lowly extra. I explained that for my main job I worked from home as a website designer, which more than paid the bills and allowed me the flexibility to follow my dramatic leanings as and when required, but that I’d really like to do some ‘proper’ acting.

When we finished lunch we returned to the green screen and swiftly nailed the scene in only two takes so were then allowed to leave. We said goodbye on the set because Paul had to dash off due to being in a West End stage show that evening, but he said he’d get me a ticket if I sent my details to his agent. Then, before leaving, he said, “It’s been delightful working with you, darling!" ...and he kissed me! Actors, eh!

So I duly sent an email to his agent with my details but didn’t expect Paul to receive it, let alone for him to reply. However he did, and asked which day I’d like to see his show and he also wondered if I perhaps might join him for supper afterwards at a little restaurant near the theatre.

Now ordinarily I might have smelled a rat, but this was a famous actor with a string of awards who might be worth cultivating as a contact because, these days, without parental money or good contacts, you’ll struggle to go very far in the business. And at my age, playing boys won't result in a long career.

But thinking back to that lunchtime and Paul’s reaction to me, I started to wonder about him. I’d searched on the internet and learned that he was married with kids but there were also hints that he swung both ways, so that was no help. And his current show was a revival of a musical comedy in which he was playing a gay drag queen pretending to be a macho man. So that didn’t help either.

But then I thought that going to meet him as my male self might be ok, yet might confuse or annoy him if I’d got the wrong end of the stick, whereas going as a woman might have much the same results but could also give a talking point and show my acting skills. So that’s what I decided on. Now all I had to do was to convince my sister – she and I shared a flat – to go along with it.

Lauren was a bit sceptical of the whole thing and thought it could be a ‘Me Too’ scenario either way, but I was able to convince her that things have now moved on since the scandal erupted, and anyway, underneath it all, I would be a man who is physically stronger than he looks. And my karate might also come in useful, if it came to that!

So she went along with it, trained me in all things girlie and sorted out some suitable clothes for me to wear. We then proposed to have a trial run, by which time our hairdresser cousin had been involved, so I ended up with pierced ears and highlights in my now, not-quite-so-shaggy, urchin hair.

The trial run consisted of the three of us having a girlie pub night out, including a meal. I was made to do all the ordering, make several visits to the ladies’, sort out the bill and interact with the bar and waiting staff – and do some flirting with a bunch of lads who were showing interest in us. So after we’d left the pub without any obvious disasters, there was an inquest, resulting in a lot of compliments and only a short list of things to be improved.

A few days later I had to do it again, but this time in a gay bar, with only my gay brother for company. And I was hit on several times by some of his lesbian acquaintances who seemed slightly disappointed by my tactful disinterest, but I managed to carry it off. My brother was very complimentary about my ‘performance’, and didn’t think I’d have a problem on the night.

So I now felt able to take up Paul’s offer, and on the following Saturday evening if possible. He emailed back, telling me to pick up my ticket at the stage door and to return there after the curtain call, when I would be directed to his dressing room.

Lauren had me in a smart, mid-thigh floral dress that showed off my legs, as did the high heels. Our cousin ensured my hair, makeup and everything else was perfect before I went via the Tube to the theatre.

It all went swimmingly. I collected my ticket, was shown to my seat by a very eager young man and thoroughly enjoyed the first half.

At the interval I picked up my pre-ordered gin and tonic from a tall table at which a man — who looked about my age — was already standing and holding a small beer.

“So, what did you think of the first half?” he said.

“It was excellent, so I’m very glad I was able to get a ticket, especially for a Saturday night.”

“Yes, it has been good, hasn't it! When I booked online I got the very last ticket so I’m quite lucky to be here, as well as being lucky enough to be talking to such a lovely young lady — I’m Alex, by the way.”

“No doubt you say that to all the girls, but thanks anyway Alex! And I’m Ashley.”

So we had a little chat about the show, then others we’d seen, including some we’d both seen, until it was time to return to our seats – where a tap on my shoulder revealed that Alex was in the seat behind mine. So all through the second half I could hear his laugh above everyone else’s.

We were thrown together again in the crowded side aisle as we headed for the exit after the curtain calls, so we quickly exchanged equally positive views on the second half. Then, before we went our separate ways, Alex said “Look Ashley, I’ve really enjoyed meeting and talking with you. If you have the time, would you like to continue our conversation at the pub round the corner?”

“I’m really sorry Alex, but, although I’ve enjoyed chatting to you too, I’ve arranged to meet someone else after I leave here. Without that I may well have accepted your invitation, but perhaps we’ll meet up at another show.”

And then I impetuously kissed his cheek and quickly rushed off in the direction of the stage door before he had a chance to ask for my phone number.

I went through the stage door and asked to be directed to Paul’s dressing room. A phone call was made and someone soon arrived, but rather than ask me to follow him, he said, "Unfortunately, having already done a matinée performance earlier, Paul felt unwell during this evening’s interval and only just managed to complete the show. He is most disappointed to not feel up to doing anything now but sleep."

The messenger then asked me to accept Paul’s sincere apologies and told me that Paul would contact me when he was feeling better.

“Well, what a total waste of all that effort!” I thought, “And it may be a plausible excuse though I’m not sure I believe it. But at least I got a free ticket to see an excellent show, and to have an enjoyable chat with a nice ... rather attractive man.”

So, being disappointed and annoyed at the same time, I went out of the stage door and I, distractedly, almost bumped into a passing pedestrian. I looked up at his face to apologise, and said “I’m so sorry ... Alex??”

Paul Woodridge never did contact me again.

Not that I cared!

[John Cotton became the spiritual leader of his new community in Massachusetts. It was he who named it Boston, and it grew to be a place now fifteen times larger than its English namesake.]

A Little Extra ©2024 Suzie Dalkin

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Nice One

joannebarbarella's picture

I'm not sure about Paul Woodridge's expectations or sexual proclivities. You danced around that very adroitly. I do wonder if Alex got what he expected!

Keep posting, Suzie.

Not that I cared..

Lucy Perkins's picture

Because I was now in a "couple" with Alex?
Lovely story!
Lucy xx

"Lately it occurs to me..
what a long strange trip its been."

It seems that Paul . . .

Emma Anne Tate's picture

. . . was the better Artful Dodger! Fun story, Suzie!