Published in the January 2017 issue of the Kerby News
You Oughta’ Be In Pictures
About two years ago, one of my daughters, a recently retired ballet dancer, convinced me to accompany her to a group photo opportunity or “cattle call” as it is sometimes known. The purpose of such an event is to provide casting and talent agencies with images of people who might be useful in upcoming film productions and stock photography. I dutifully tagged along to the Sunnyside Community Hall, completed a form, and stood in front of a camera holding a card with my assigned number. And thus began my very brief career as a background actor or “extra” on a couple of locally produced television series.
The first opportunity to take part in this newly discovered world was to be an audience member listening to president-elect Ronald Regan, played by actor Bruce Campbell, as he addressed an American VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) post. This was an episode for the television series “Fargo”. Both my wife and I took part but we were placed in different parts of the Forrest Lawn Legion Hall where the filming took place. From where I sat, deep in the background, I observed the science and art of making motion picture magic, from the elaborate lighting setup to the cameras, some mounted on tracks and others on hoists to capture scenes carefully scripted by writers and directors.
Before we went for our debut performances, we were instructed concerning motion picture etiquette. This meant understanding that as background folk, we were the lowest of castes and were never to intrude into the lives of the real actors and crafts persons. So we did our best to be obedient to the directions of the extras “wrangler”, the person responsible for getting the required number of bodies with the required looks onto the set in time for the next part of the production.
Come lunchtime, however, we committed a major booboo. All of the cast and crew, extras included, were to be bussed to the Max Bell Arena for lunch. My wife and I stood waiting to be directed onto one of several minivans. Across the yard sat a van partly filled with actors and crewmembers. “I’m not leaving ‘till I’m full,” the driver told the wrangler. We were sent over to board the van, even though we were clearly not meant to be there and were somewhat resented. Common sense from my real life, however, overrode the reception. There were seats on the van, the driver wouldn’t leave until the van was full, and we were all going to the same place anyway.
Early this year, CBC’s delightful production “Heartland” needed “older cowboys” for some episodes of season ten. My newly acquired agent, Jay Fox, wondered if I could manage to look “western”. My wife photographed me in the back yard wearing my ancient Stetson and suitably worn shirt, jeans and boots. The photograph found its way to the Heartland folk and I was asked to be on the set in High River very early on a May morning. There, I joined a queue to complete a tax form and a contract after which I was sent to the wardrobe folk, makeup artists and hair stylists. All seemed to approve of my general appearance. Afterward, over to the caterers for a very nice breakfast!
Called onto the set at Maggie’s Cafe and Feed Store, several of us “older cowboys” were directed to take seats at tables around the edge of the room. Someone then came and moved me to a stool at the counter. As lights were adjusted and cameras positioned for the shot, I was given a cup of coffee and a slice of pie. “Eat this very slowly once we begin the scene,” I was told. Two young women, principals in the show, came and sat on stools beside me facing each other. “Action” said the director and they began their dialogue. I began my pie and coffee. Slowly.
And that’s how I came to be on an internationally syndicated television program, in the near background as the two girls spoke their lines and then left the restaurant, with the camera on me sipping my coffee as the scene ended.
I worked on Heartland on one other occasion, a recent episode where Grandpa Jack, played by Shawn Johnston (no relation), is inducted into the Foothills Rodeo Hall of Fame. I represented one of Jack’s friends and was placed far back on the set, located in the main room of the Southern Alberta Pioneers building. I guess I wasn’t meant to be one of Jack’s close friends. Shooting at that location took almost a full day for the main cast and the crew. For the extras it ended early in the afternoon. But for the few seconds that I can identify myself on-screen, I was paid for the full day and provided with a very nice breakfast and lunch.
Part of what I enjoy about these experiences is meeting fellow backgrounders, some of whom have appeared on several locally produced films and series and others, like myself, who are pretty green. I found folk were happy to pass the hours spent waiting to be called to the set by talking about working around famous actors but also about their “other lives”, the ones lived daily when not making movies. Those other lives are fascinating in their own right. Quite a few of the people I have met are retired and have taken up background work because it is really quite fun, provides a modest cash compensation and keeps them busy interacting with others. Eric Armitage is one of these, him of the famous handlebars moustache, who in his real life has worked as a baker, an auctioneer and a sign manufacturer. He has appeared in “Hell on Wheels”, “Heartland”, “Wynonna Earp” and “Tin Star”, among other shows, and has portrayed a blacksmith, gambler, townsperson, doctor, and sawmill operator. Other retirees I have encountered include an RCMP inspector, a millwright and lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, and a former television performer in the person of Ron Barge, once and for always known to Calgarians as CFCN’s Buckshot.
Ron's long career in Calgary television began on CFCN in 1967. He was hired as studio manager and cameraman but came up with the idea of Buckshot in 1976 when the Canadian Radio and Television Commission mandated that stations had to carry more Canadian content. Ron and fellow cameraman Jim Lewis worked up the program with Ron onstage as Buckshot and Jim handling the role of Benny the Bear, Buckshot's faithful companion. The show ran locally for years until the station was sold and the program was cancelled. Ron continued making guest appearances from time to time but began background acting with the first season of Heartland. He highly recommends it. On my first visit to the Heartland set, there was Ron, happily signing autographs for many of the cast and crew that were fans.
Not all extras are retired. They range in age from children to senior adults and many are employed elsewhere. One of the peerage is Terry Roy who left the set of a locally filmed production one day to return to his day job, high up on the Calgary skyline. "Up" was the top of a 27 story high-rise building downtown where he commenced washing all the exterior windows. He keeps the Encana building shiny. Next time you visit the Calgary Tower, you will get a clear view of his outside work there as well. Terry has had appearances in “Heartland”, “Revenant”, “Tin Star” and “Bird On a Wire” as well as appearances in several commercials.
Most of my experiences have been on the television program “Tin Star”, a British production being filmed around Calgary. The show stars Tim Roth as a British constable who emigrates to Little Big Bear, a fictional Alberta oil town, to serve as the new police chief. The role of his wife is played by Irish-born actor Genevieve O’Reilly.
The setting for one day of shooting was along the Elbow River near the falls. This was to be a community weekend celebration featuring a race down the river by toy rubber ducks. The idea was that bets were placed on which duck would win. All of this, ducks and extras, formed the backdrop against which the principal actors performed a major scene.
Before filming began, we extras were formed in a large circle and numbered off. Another extra, a woman of about my age, was paired up with me to form a set of "grandparents". Along came an assistant director with four children in tow and asked if we would "adopt" them for the scene about to be shot. So we now had a family to interact with as the ducks rushed past on their way down the river.
To open the scene, the duck wranglers, who had the rubber ducks in large plastic bins, carried the ducks to the top of the river in the shot. When “Action” was called, the ducks were dumped into the river and floated rapidly downstream, past the cameras and with all the extras running along the shore or just standing and cheering for their favorite duck. Downstream of the shot, the duck wranglers netted the toy ducks and returned them to the bins for the next take.
Behind us in the scene the principle actors were involved in dialogue that concluded with Ms O’Reilly walking quietly down to the shore, near where my adoptive grand daughters and I were standing. The director called "cut". Ms O’Reilly stopped walking and then waited quietly, perhaps reviewing the scene in her mind and thinking about her part in it.
That's when a little movie magic happened. The elder of my adoptive granddaughters, perhaps nine years of age, happened to be standing just beside Ms O’Reilly. The girl looked into the face of the actor and said, "You're very beautiful". The actor turned and looked at the girl and replied, "And so are you". A private little conversation ensued between the two, one that I trust the girl will remember for a long time.
I remember this little scene so clearly because of the very personable connection the actor made with the child, a background actor who shouldn’t have spoken in the first place. It’s part of an inventory of experiences gathered by taking part, in a very small way, in the production of two television series made here in Alberta.
It’s been quite a learning experience for me to have had a small part in Alberta’s movie industry. Calls from my agent, however, have tapered off to zero and my new career is at a standstill. Not to worry, though. If more opportunities present themselves, I will try to take part. In the meantime, I can enjoy memories of rubber ducks on mountain rivers, kindly principal actors, new friends made on set and yes, some pretty good meals.