After ‘The Sinner’, I basically tried to take any job so that I could learn more how to not be a complete waste of space on set. Every minute that I was being used on camera, I’d be tucked away in every department that would have me. Whether it was wardrobe, set dressing, lighting, photography, even craft services, there were people that knew infinitely more than I did and I could learn about how a set ran. After a solid month of working, I laid out basic guidelines about how I wanted to behave on set.
Terence’s Commandments for On-Set Behavior:
1. Tell the truth when asked.
2. Don’t be a dick to the PAs, they have a worse job than you.
3. Do not date anyone you meet on set.
4. Do not fuck anyone you meet on set.
5. Be a decent human being.
6. If you mess up, apologize. Apologize first and apologize sincerely.
re Commandment 1: You can ask anyone that I’ve worked with, I am a troublemaker on set. You have a lot of free time on set when you’re an extra, and if you know me even a little bit, you know that me + free time = shenanigans. The worst part is that I actively recruit to my cause. What ends up happening is on sets that I frequent the PAs know that I’m actively the ringleader and usually try to have eyes on me at all times. That, and add to the fact that I know the process by rote and can time when the crew call actually is, I’m not the best with arriving on time. I usually get away with it, but the times I get caught, I just tell the truth. You can be forgiven if you’re honest with the PAs, you’re a scamp, but you never disrupt a shot and you always do your job. The second they catch you in a lie, all trust is broken and you can kiss whatever rapport you had good-bye. You can be a scoundrel, but be an honest scoundrel. The community that does this in New York is small and once you sell your integrity and your word upriver, you’re toast.
re Commandment 2: PAs, or production assistants, are essentially the bottom rung of the ladder on the crew side. Some of them are younger than you are, which can be a bit thorny when they’re in charge of you, but I roll with it. Some of them are staff with the show, but a lot of them roam from production to production trying to get enough days to qualify for whatever union they’re trying to break into. They get paid less than extras and have to get there before us and clean up after we leave. I don’t envy them, so when extras blow up at the PAs, it always pisses me off. They’re in the same boat we are, and they have to deal with all the shit coming from the directors, who are the people that actually matter and can 86 a career just like that. Help each other, make each other’s lives easier.
re Commandment 3: I’ll be blunt, the average New Yorker is better looking, better dressed, and better groomed than the national norm. This isn’t an opinion, these are just facts. Now add another level of self-selection to that and the realities of the industry and you have incredibly attractive people (myself not included). If you’re shooting any club/party scene, it’s peppered with models who are outfitted with the skimpiest dresses possible as mandated by wardrobe. Don’t be that guy, the set is your workplace, and there’s nothing worse than someone leering at you when you’re trying to make an honest buck. I always just think of it this way: if wardrobe ever decided that I had to be in a skimpy dress, I really wouldn’t want anyone telling me anything about my appearance, or my dress, or anything. Just be fucking normal sauce, set isn’t a singles’ lounge.
re Commandment 4: There’s a sign that hangs on the set of ‘Blindspot’ that says “SEXUAL ACTIVITY ON THE PREMISES IS ILLEGAL”. While that might be blindingly obvious, it’s still necessary. I don’t want to say that sexual harassment is rampant, but it 100% exists on set. I can tell you for a fact that every actress I know has been subjected to it on set and it’s fucking obnoxious. It’s always a few guys that are in that predatory mindset and once they’re exposed, they stop, but they need to be embarrassed. Do you sometimes have chemistry with someone you meet on set? Absolutely. Have I ever flirted with anyone on set? You bet. But that’s as far as it goes. I’ve exchange contact info all the time, but I make a conscious effort to keep it professional. My biggest line in the sand is that the set is a workplace. When you blur those lines it’s never good for anyone. By extension, I’ve done love scenes in short films and student films, if I can blur the lines when I’m on set, how do I keep my boundaries when I’m shooting a scene? How do I genuinely tell people that I’m a professional when I need to be when I’m don’t demonstrate that professionalism all the time?
The things I’ve heard are atrocious. I had a friend who was portraying a bar patron. A guy easily twenty years her elder goes up to her and says, “Hey, I’m going to make out with you on the next take.” Of course, she refuses. His response: “Aren’t you an actress? How about you get into character?”
Go and fuck yourself. Truly.
Even when it’s consensual it doesn’t work out well. I was on set and there was a group of us that had been working together for weeks. One of the PAs asked out an extra and she was into it. She gushed about it to everyone, yet the awkwardness was palpable through the cast and crew. As extras, we all immediately lost respect for the PA and his credibility dropped to zero. Any time we saw him on another production, he’s a running joke. As for the extra, not only did she seem like a rube to the rest of us, but the PAs and the crew dealing with the background didn’t know how to deal with it.
There are eight million people living in New York City, you have other options.
re Commandment 5: I feel like being a decent human being should be a pre-requisite across the board in life. Help people when you can, clean up after yourself, you know, normal things. Most importantly, just be yourself and understand the rules. For example, the blanket rule is that you don’t talk to the principals. Okay yeah, but they’re also human beings. If you’re hanging next to them for eight hours, it’s okay to make some small talk. Don’t distract them from their work and don’t make it awkward, be a decent human being. Key point: Don’t be an ass-kissing sycophant, those you can spot from a mile away. But being mindful, attentive, and compassionate (in addition to doing your fucking job) is the best way to get through the day.
re Commandment 6: Sets, even on a normal day, are high stress environments. I kid you not, every minute the camera is rolling costs thousands, if not millions of dollars depending on the production. Add in limited times on location, the need to get all the scenes you need to get done, not to mention getting the right lighting conditions, and the stress and tension are almost always at a boiling point. Everyone tries to keep an even keel but people have a breaking point. I’ll be honest, most cast and crew understand the daily chaos and are pretty good at keeping calm but there are limits, and even I’ve snapped on occasion. The best remedy I’ve found is to just apologize. It really doesn’t matter who’s right or who’s wrong, we’re both just trying to get the job done. In addition, we’re both wrong for losing our temper. Get your head right and be sincere in your apology. You’ll earn more respect in the long run and they’ll want to work with you, integrity matters.
At this point, it was only a month, but I felt like a veteran of the background scene. I worked 3 or 4 days a week grinding it out, trying to grab my SAG waivers. I had met a lot of the same people, asked for advice, and gotten contrarian opinions from almost everyone. It was hard, spending at least 10-12 hours on set and getting $100 a day. Not only does your mind take a beating, but your body does too. Everything ached all the time. Transitioning from a desk job to a career where you’re on your feet and roaming all day makes you realize how terrible a sedentary lifestyle is. I took in everything like a sponge, it really was a trial by fire. I sat down with as many people as I could and absorbed every bit of knowledge they had to offer me. I had notes about how set worked, even down to budgeting and things that I would never need to know as an actor. I knew that I was starting at a huge disadvantage and knowledge was the only weapon that I had to move quickly, aggressively, and successfully.
That’s all I had to bank on, my training. I was working my ass off, and I liked to think I had a modicum of talent. I realized early on that anyone saying that they ‘worked hard’ and that they were ‘talented’ as their qualifcations for success in acting would be destined for failure. Hard work and talent are the absolute minimum you need to be successful. If you don’t have those things you don’t even get to dream of success. What else makes you stand out and worth hiring?
That was what I had to figure out.
I’m a scientist by training. I need data and then I extrapolate. That was my first month, learning everything I could. I quickly identified the people that I admired on set: which principals, which crew, and even which extras I enjoyed working with. I thought: What qualities do I want to emulate? How do I acquire these qualities? How do I differentiate myself from the rest of the pool? I kept my mouth shut and kept listening to everyone on set, diving deep into what made a production successful, how a fast day versus a slow day worked, how they scheduled cast and crew, why they used certain shots. At no point did I think I had figured it all out, but after a month of being in the industry, I had a super barebones outline of how a production works, what I could do to be a unique voice, and more importantly, how to be an active contributor on a working set.
Then I got my first audition…