I Play Dead People: The Humble Beginnings of a TV/Movie Extra Obsession

TWD headshot1 smawlI was a movie extra in The Walking Dead, season 1. I have been an extra in a few productions, but this was far and above the most fun I’d ever had working on a set. I want to relay my perspective on being a  digital production extra.

Let’s go way, way back to high school, where struggling under the heavy mantle of being an extremely bookish and awkward nerd, I attempted to transform myself into an extrovert. Outgoing people seemed to have lots of fun, as far as I could tell. They had self-confidence,  a quiet courage I desperately wanted to possess. I took a drama course and ended up taking the lead role in the course production, a one-act play called Mike’s Case where I played the role of stage director for the production, setting up scenes for the audience, and slipping into background roles in a series of vignettes designed, in my character’s eye at least, as pivotal scenes teenagers all dealt with. Frustration in the home, frustration in class, and frustration with peers. The scenes gradually begin to misfire more and more, the other kids in the troupe break character, argue with my character, and finally mutiny and just desert the production in order to go do something more meaningful. I exit the stage literally carried off, albeit on their shoulders, by the exasperated drama crew. Killer fun. I think I had a half page of lines for every line that anyone else delivered. i memorized it, put on shows, had a blast.

Five years later, I’m slaving as a stalwart manager in an off-campus pizza parlor in Atlanta, smoking tons o’ weed, drawing weird pictures and wasting my nights in bars. I’d traveled across Europe and lived in Greece for a year, had many adventures, and was trying to figure out what to with myself. Miserable. Flipping pizzas. A couple of the employees were moonlighting at The Shakespeare tavern in town, and got into Andersonville, a sprawling TNT epic production of the infamous American Civil War camp where thousands of people died in horrific deaths from starvation, disease and violent confrontations with the guards and each other. They were really excited to be in it and asked me to come along and be an extra. Why not? So, like the high school production, they carried me away. I worked one day on set and quit my day job immediately.

I was in line for registration, had my W-4 in hand, standing in the cold of a  November morning outside Peachtree City around 4 am, about an hour south of Atlanta. Frost was covered the overgrown grasses of the immense parking lot when we pulled up. There was a sea of cars and vans, hundreds of people lined up outside huge tin roof barns where I could hear generators roaring, a few floodlights strung into the trees burned cones of light down where I could see a very long line of extras, going through check-ins. I  followed my two buddies Charles and Philip down the hill and got in line. I was bundled up in a British Redcoat jacket, which was entirely wrong. It was also a woman’s coat, and too small. I was twiggy thin at the time, so, inside the jacket, I looked cadaverous. That’s why a wandering PR pulled me from the line and, after hurrying me into my stinking costume rags, walked me to a make-up trailer. Heated, music playing, people going into make-up sipping hot coffee. Being a featured extra is like being in a VIP room of  strip club. It’s really not that special, but it’s different.

I was transformed into my role as a “Scabie”. I had oatmeal and a glue of karo syrup, rubber cement and dye applied to my face, neck, hands, and scalp, which had been shaved down to irregular bald spots on my head. Oatmeal was dribbled down upon me and it stuck in the fake open bloody wounds on my head, making them appear to fester with pus and parasites. my eyes were sunken, my lips cracked and bloodied, my skin whitened and my clothes shaped to expose my bones a bit. Then, I slipped into my shoes, walked to set, removed my shoes, and wandered into the 1/3 scale prison barefoot, in half-frozen mud between campfires of regular extras, looking for my buddies. I drew appreciative glances and expressions. “Dude, you look fuckin’ nasty!” and stuff like that. By the end of the day, I’d done nothing but stagger down a slope, over and over again, shivering, crawling, and so on. I was muddy, and in between takes I crowded around a campfire and warmed up. I’d found Philip and Charles. They were really excited for me.

Over the next month, I was placed in the foreground of many scenes. I was murdered, lined up to gawk at new prisoners, thrown on heaps of dead people, carted around on dead carts, slung onto dead people in ditches, and so on. During all of this, despite the 12 hour day shoots and 12 hour night shoots, I was  having a blast. Between takes I played cards with my friends in muddy pits to escape the wind, took nips of whiskey when it was passed my way, got murdered and tossed around.

I’d have to say it was extremely fitting for someone as cavalier as I was to be a scabie in a prison movie. When I left set, I got to keep my make-up. I’d stumble into gas stations and fall on the floor, shrieking. I was real asshole. I’d sit in a restaurant and make a show of eating as though I’d not for weeks, then stagger outside and collapse in the bushes or the parking lot. It was, up  until then, the best job I’d ever had. The magic I felt on set never left me.

The years would pass and I left all of that on the back burner. I got into journalism, more problems, more bouts of homelessness, heartbreak and misery, trying to get a break. People kept urging me to get a “real job”. But, for me, those “real jobs” seemed to be the source of not only my misery, but that of other people’s as well. I kept quitting shitty jobs only to wind up in more shitty jobs. after a while it just sort of became a legacy. It’s like a catch-22. People won’t hire you unless you have experience in a job, but to get experience, you have to get hired. Absurd.

Fifteen years later I got my casting call for zombie school. The feeling never changes. It’s like an electric shower of emotions. I went to Zombie School, tried out, and got on set. Best job I ever had, again.

Two years have passed since I did The Walking Dead, and I’m only writing this to keep my next adventure in perspective, because I’m going to once again go back into the business. I live outside Pittsburgh and the city is getting friendly with studios that want to make movies here. I recently moved here after helping family through some difficult times, and I think I have a shot at getting some work. Part 2: The Zombie Summer is forthcoming. I’ll detail my experience working on the best zombie show ever.

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I did work on The Walking Dead, Vampire Diaries, For Colored Girls…, Lost Valentine, Christmas Cupid and Hall Pass in 2010. If I hadn’t had to help family and leave Atlanta, I’d still be at it. Wish me luck.

I play dead people.