The Extra Experience: Or Pretending to Party on Detroit's Streets

From the curb, under the unlit neon sign of Greektown's Plaka Café where I was standing, 200 or so heads looked like buoys in an ocean of shoulders.  Their bodies were walking short distances back and forth along the sidewalk and street, their heads were bobbing up and down, and arms and hands would frequently jut out into the sky from inside the sea, waving small orange flags or holding empty cups or beer bottles (and sometimes both).

"We need more party," a man on a bullhorn screams out. "And we need more quiet please!"

Last week I spent the day as an extra on the set of the "American Virgin," a moving being shot here in Detroit and starring Rob Schneider. Some of it was pure Hollywood. Some of it was just surreal (like quiet partying).

Once more with feeling

There were cords and carts everywhere. Wardrobe was hanging from racks that were pushed off to the side. There were bright lights and an enormous camera, and a half dozen people had bullhorns. Three times that were holding walkie-talkies.

"ROLLING," a voice rang out. "Rolling … rolling, rolling," a young guy standing next to me in a Detroit Tigers hat yelled, adding at the very end, "QUIET!"

There was the snapping sound of the slate, and there it was, the most Hollywood thing I've ever encountered. The truest movie moment you can imagine: "ACTION!" the director yelled out. "Just like in the movies!" I thought. "Wait, this is the movies."

And then those 200 people, me included, partied in complete silence for about 10 minutes. We waved flags, sipped our empty beer bottles, swung our hips, smiled for no reason, and silently threw up a dozen high-fives. All the while quiet, library quiet, pin drop quiet -- after all, they were filming.

From what I can tell of "American Virgin," mostly being shot in Greektown, this movie is about "partying."

Being an extra isn't exactly the hardest thing I've ever done. But, at the same time, it's not exactly easy either. Like standing in the cold for eight hours pretending to party. That's mentally tough. To high five so it doesn't make a sound 17 times or to continually hold an empty bottle of beer for 12 hours because the camera caught you on tape with it and for continuity purposes you can't put it down -- that's work, in it's own little way. And the hours aren't exactly cake, either. Being on set from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., no matter what you're doing, is going to wear you out, especially if you are doing it for nothing.

Waiting …

There is a lot of waiting when you're an extra. I'm waiting to sign in. I'm waiting to be called to set, I'm waiting for "Action." I'm waiting for lunch. I'm waiting to be called back to set, and I'm waiting for "Action" -- you get the picture.

This was an open casting call. A few hundred people of all shapes, sizes and colors showed up to wait around. And though the production company hoped for 700 people to show up to shoot crowded outdoor "Oktoberfest" scenes, these hundreds are enough.

"I had nothin' better to do today," a younger guy says to me. We were both leaning up against the same beige, hotel wall. "So, I thought I'd come down and check it out." His beard was trimmed perfectly, his hair was gelled, and his sweater looked brand new.

"I've never done this before," a middle-aged woman tells me. "I'm unemployed right now, so I gotta do something. I know we're not getting paid to do this but, you know, gotta get used to (working on) these movies."

I get the distinct feeling, waiting in this room, that everyone felt they were two conversations away from getting discovered. In fact, a few even break out into song when asked by a production assistant if there were any special talents in the crowd.

"I can sing 'Me and Bobby McGee,'" a woman says. People clap along. Finally, after more than an hour of waiting and watching one of the weirdest talent shows I've ever seen, an assistant comes in. "OK everybody," he says holding a clip board and a walkie-talkie, "we're going out to the set. Get ready."

The set is magnificent and bright. It could have been a set on a Warner Bros. lot, minus the 40-degree weather and the People Mover.

We have to keep moving when they yell action but cannot look at the camera or actors, and we cannot make any noise unless told to.

I look around. There's hair gel guy, the Bobby McGee singer, and the guy who told me he was Steve Urkel's uncle – not Jaleel White's uncle, Urkel's uncle. They are all smiling, drinking from empty beer bottles and empty red plastic party cups, and dancing all around me.

This is weird, but this is a movie. And a party. Beads swing from necks, skirts are short, beards are trimmed, and there is a feeling of enthusiasm and excitement pulsing through the crowd, despite the continual shout of "QUIET PLEASE!"

It continues like this til dusk. Rob Schneider shows up just after lunch for a few scenes.

He's shorter than I anticipated. He is buried by the "partying" extras. Every now and then the bobbing heads would part like the Red Sea and I catch a glimpse. But never mind that, I have a job to do. I need to party, silently. Not just for Schneider and his picture, but also for Detroit.

Terry Parris Jr. writes for Model D and will do pretty much whatever we ask him. He once gave up his car for a month for us. Have an idea for Terry? Send feedback here.

Signup for Email Alerts