Every day that you’re on a production, there’s something called a ‘call sheet’. The call sheet is essentially the schedule for the day, who’s doing what, who is the key contact for each department, and who’s in what scene and where. As an extra, we don’t exist on the call sheet. We’re relegated to a separate list that a background PA checks off. Only the real actors get a number on the call sheet. To make it even more competitive, the number that you’re assigned is essentially the order of importance to the shoot. If you’re #1 on the call sheet, it means you’re the main character, the star, and it goes that way down the sheet.
On March 28th, 2018 I officially became a real number on the call sheet.
It was an ad for Asian-American depression awareness for the New York Department of Health. I had to sign paperwork allocating the precise amount of time my image could be used on all sorts of media, and then finally, I had to sign my contract specifying my pay. Working that one day would be the equivalent of doing a month’s worth of background work.
By the time that I was showing up to this principal gig, I had put in three months grinding it out as an extra. Day-in, day-out, often twelve hour days, doing as many jobs as I could, for essentially minimum wage. I knew how a set worked, and I knew the type of person that I wanted to be on set. And for the first time ever in this new career, I wasn’t the worst. I showed up, got along with the crew, and whipped through hair and makeup.
I had seen what the principals go through by and large so I thought I was pretty prepared for what was coming. What I was not prepared for was the complete lack of personal space. When you’re a principal you are the key factor in every shot and every second that you’re not camera ready is a second that’s wasted from the production. As such when you need to be touched up by makeup, they go straight in with little to no warning. Hair will sneak up behind you with a can of product before you can notice, and you just learn that it’s part of the deal. While this is going on you have the director giving you notes while the sound guy is either taping down your mic or threading a wire down your pant leg.
It’s a lot.
Anyways, the scene was basically supposed to show a husband overwhelmed with the responsibilities of dealing with a family. He needs to show that he’s depressed and is afraid to reach out for help. For this scene, I was the lead, and after going through hair and makeup, I met the rest of my ‘family’. I had a wife and two sons, a standard family of four. Of course, they were all Asian, because this is America, and minorities only marry other minorities (insert ENORMOUS eye roll). It was odd, as if I saw an alternate universe version of myself who did the traditional thing. I immediately introduced myself to the other actress and the child actors. The kids were adorable and we were a genuinely charming fake family. Once they got us to set we started with the actual filming.
As you’ll find as a recurring theme, I was not great. I was actually very okay with the pressure, I enjoyed it. They had me done with bags under my eyes, basically me looking as haggard and tired as possible. I was supposed to be the exemplar for undiagnosed and untreated depression. The problem was though, I took the example of being a positive force on set a bit too much. I was making the kids laugh too much and we were messing around throwing cereal at each other. My ‘wife’ was exasperated, but between takes, I was definitely being way to personable. Finally, the director told me to cut it out and look more forlorn. Then I overcompensated and apparently I looked like “I was going to murder my family”.
Who says I don’t have range.
I’m going to spoil it for you. This ad didn’t air. My image was not plastered on buses and subways along with a toll-free number to call. They ended up re-casting the role a few weeks later. Such is the life in this industry. But a job is a job, and I got paid, and the confidence that I got in booking that gig was incalculable. It was a proof of concept that I could do this. Yes I had stumbled out the block, but that’s not a novel concept for me. I had booked it, and I survived a day as a principal without alienating anyone and leaving relatively well-liked.
Here’s the problem, the shoot was supposed to end at 3pm, the bus out for the night shoot for ‘Manifest’ was leaving at 4pm to shoot on location in Newburgh. I had plenty of time to make the bus, until the shoot ran late and I was wrapped at 3:50pm. I was basically stuck with this choice: Call it a day and walk home with my principal rate for the day (what I would make working a month of BG) or pay for a $150 Uber up to Newburgh to keep my word.
It was a long Uber ride.
Overnights are not fun, it’s even less fun when you’re in an offseason shoot where you’re freezing your tits off on an airport tarmac in shorts when it’s literally freezing outside. Luckily, there was no traffic and I landed at the same time that the rest of my compatriots got there. Little did we know that they hired about 200-300 local extras. God, I hesitate to call them yokels, but they were yokels. I’m not sure what happened but I swear, the lot of them thought that this was their big break. I had never seen so much diva behavior, demanding to have camera time, to little stuff like being in line be seen for hair and makeup. The 50 or so of us that had been brought up from the city were pros, we understood the job and that it wasn’t about us. We also had been featured for multiple shots already so we were established. As such, we had to be rushed through hair, makeup, and even food because we had to establish the world on camera and there’s only so much darkness that we could shoot in. The hate that we got from the local hires was palpable, they thought that our priority was due to preferential treatment instead of the facts, that we were rushed because we had the most work to do. It was my first actual taste of the ridiculous pettiness that could permeate a set even at the most basic level.
At the end of the night though, things got interesting. The group of us who had been driven up from New York were told to line up, and we had no idea what was coming. All of a sudden the director of the pilot, David Frankel, stopped by and looked at the lot of us. Frankel has an Oscar and an Emmy under his belt, but he’s perhaps best known for ‘The Devil Wears Prada’. You almost never see the director, they’re usually hidden away in video village (where all the monitors are set up) and talking to the principals. However, late in the night, he personally came over and starting to pick people out of the plane passengers. When his finger landed on me and we were moved over to a separate group, I knew something interesting was about to happen. As quickly as the director appeared, he disappeared, and we were whisked away to wardrobe in a rush. The wardrobe people were stressed and angry, we were to be completely changed into an autumn wardrobe of which the director gave them no notice. After some creative style choices and makeshift tailoring, we were sent back to a new set.
Frankel came down to us and revealed the last part of the pilot, the cliffhanger that would provide the impetus for the rest of the show. It was an incredibly validating moment, rewarding my choice to essentially work for no pay that day in awful conditions by taking that $150 Uber up from Manhattan. In that instant, I knew that I had made the right choice. Yes, it took luck, but being able to work on such a critical moment in the pilot was a revelatory experience as well as being able to learn from the dynamic of working under the director. We had one more night at that location, but by then we were ‘the fence people’ and had been designated for a more scenes than usual.
From there on, that group of us became the ‘Montego 20’ on ‘Manifest’, and that simple act of showing up would play an enormous part in the development of my career.