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Hollywood from the Inside, as an Extra

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

It is Hollywood, it is fame and fortune. If not the movies, then certainly television. Writer Marcos McPeek Villatoro recently made it to the small screen and he was ready for his close-up, but if you blink you might miss it.

MARK MCPEEK VILLATORO reporting:

This Friday night I'm gonna be a star. You'll see me on the television show Numbers playing the role of an FBI agent. Well, maybe you won't. It depends if the camera caught me walking across the set.

I worked this job as an extra. We call it background in the business. On that cramped set the glamour of show biz died quickly.

We extras showed up at six in the morning with three changes of clothes and then we waited and waited in a dark holding room drinking coffee, reading novels and talking extras gossip.

Nate's 24, been doing this for four months and loves it. Just gotta hang in there, you know, dude? Get my SAG union card then move on up. Then, well, and you see it in his eyes. Someday he'll be the new Leonardo DiCaprio. But that dream is over for Chuck.

A big guy with his head in his hands. What am I doing, he says. After tomorrow, no more work until July. Then after two hours, someone yells, Background on set.

We rush into the simulated Los Angeles offices of the FBI. We stand five feet from Rob Morrow and David Krumholz. They're acting out an intense conversation about a serial killer. Two cameras are on them. But us? We're background, we walk. All day we walk from one cubicle to another, round and round we go until nine, ten at night. I carry a file and rub my beard.

At first I'm nervous, but by seven in the evening I'm flipping that file like an obsessed cop. I look around the room with anger in my eyes, trying to top Rob's gaze. Maybe, just maybe, yes, I could be a star.

Or not. I and my fellow extras are not the celebrities. We're Hollywood's working class. Bossed around, moved from marker to marker, ordered back to the holding tank for two hours.

Much later that night, at home, I watched a repeat of Law and Order, but I couldn't keep up with the story. Instead I stared at all those folks in the background and thought, They've stood for sixteen hours to make a 45 second scene. Once I envied them.

ADAMS: When he is not on television, Marcos McPeek Villatoro teaches writing at Mount Saint Mary's college in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marcos McPeek Villatoro
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