Extra work is often thankless and tedious. You usually show up with a bag of your own clothes, sit around for hours on end until you’re taken to set and told to sit and pretend to talk or drink or eat or walk by ‘casually’. It’s an easy job but can be a long and dull one. Some do it for a career. Some, like myself, do it to gain experience, screen time, and just be in a movie. Somehow in the projects I’ve worked on, I’ve come away with the best experiences. Experiences I never dreamed of having. Noah was one of those experiences.
I have been working on Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky. It’s a retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark. It’s very trippy (very Aronofsky) and dark. It stars Russell Crowe as Noah as well as Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson. I was cast as a refugee.
On Monday, we were shooting in the camps. They built a “tent city” of probably close to 100 tents with real and fake fires scattered about. They placed the refugees, soldiers, and other characters throughout the camps and gave us all actions. The scene was Noah walking through the camps and seeing the horrors that exist there.
I was handed a massive piece of prop meat as big as my body almost. As I was standing on my one (the place I start my action. Movie term, very fancy), Russell was on his one, looking at me. He started laughing and said to me and his stand in, “Look at that piece of meat they gave you. That’s a Flintstone piece of meat. Why would they give you that?” I panicked and tried to play it cool, the entire time thinking “Holy fuck, Russell Crowe is speaking to me.” I said something along the lines of “Well, maybe they thought I had a big appetite.” It was one of those moments where you say something and then think “No. No, that was not funny.” He smiled and we were setting up the shot for the first take when he yells “Ok, we gotta get this girl another piece of meat!” Another extra behind me said he’d trade and handed me his smaller piece for my large one. “Ok, mate, now you’re dead. I just saved your life,” he said, turning to me. He explained how in the reality of the movie, I would have never gotten far with that meat and would have been attacked and eaten. He’s very into this movie.
As they were setting up the shot for another take, he stepped up to me again. He said ‘What’s your action?” I replied it was to run. He responded, “Ok, when you run by me, turn over your shoulder. The camera is right there and we’ll see your whole face. Got it?” I said yes, again completely tingling with the fact this man was speaking to me so casually and kindly. So we did the take. I did the look. After the cut, he was coming back to one and said to me ‘Did you do the look?” I told him I did. ‘What shoulder did you use?” I turned and showed him how I did it. “Good job, girly,” he said, winking at me. Throughout the rest of that angle, every time he walked by, he would smile at me. It was one of the most surreal moments of my life.
Earlier that day, he had taken it upon himself to talk to the extras during a large group scene by the ark (yes, they built a REAL ark). There was a secondary camera on the group of refugees as they shot another scene with Russell and Ray Winstone. He came over and gave a speech about how we all need to stay alive on camera. He told us his character, our characters, the plot, and started to swear before he realized that there were children in the group. “I wish there weren’t kids here so I could swear and give a more passionate speech,” he joked. He called out individuals he had been watching and corrected them on what they should be doing and thinking. He pumped the shit out of this group. It was that moment that I saw how much he loved this film and his job. I have never seen an actor, especially a huge star like Russell Crowe, speak to the extras or any one who is not the director or crew for that matter. Everyone else agreed they had never heard of this happening. It’s usually the second second assistant director and PAs that tell you what to do and give you direction. Here was the star of the movie coming over and talking to us as peers, as fellow actors, as a part of the film. It was so motivating and so special, I don’t think I’ll ever have that type of moment again on a set that huge.
After Monday, I became known as “the girl Russell Crowe talked to.” I was telling to story to a fellow extra while we waited in the woods to run out to the ark in fake rain and 5 or 6 people turned and go “Oh my God, that was YOU?!?! What did he say??!?!” The girl I was talking to told me I looked very calm and cool talking to him and several others thought I knew him for some reason the way we were speaking to each other. I felt better about it after hearing that because the whole time he was talking to me, I was having an out of body experience thinking “Be cool, don’t freak out, this is normal, this is awesome, don’t freak out.”
I am writing about this because it is totally incredible and because it was a moment I have frozen in my heart and has a personally meaning to me. When Russell Crowe won his Oscar, the Burlington Free Press wrote an article on the show, featuring a quote from Russell’s speech. I took this quote and put it in my scrapbook from high school. I almost have it memorized.
“If you grow up in the suburbs of anywhere, a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. This moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings, and for anybody who’s on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage, it’s possible.”
It was this quote that I thought of as he was speaking to me. I was standing there, on a set, in a badass costume, with Russell Crowe speaking to me, giving me direction, as a peer and helpful buddy. Yes, I had thought of turning my head as I ran by but it was him suggesting it out of nowhere that inspired me. He had no reason to speak to me at all after he had the prop meat switched. I’m not sure if he thought I was bummed I didn’t get the huge piece of plastic flesh or if he just wanted to help an aspiring actress out a little bit. Or maybe he thought it would look great in the shot. I’ll never know his motivation and I don’t need to. It was a moment that I can relive over and over again. It was a moment where I truly believed that dreams come true. If you work hard enough and find the opportunities that arise, you can pursue and achieve anything. I was on a set with Russell Crowe and he spoke to me as if I was part of it all. Not as a number, not as a body. As a performer. As an actor.
It is a crazy dream. One that many will give up on. One that maybe doesn’t turn out the way you wanted such as I don’t think I’m going to marry Leonardo DiCaprio any time soon or be the next “It” girl. But it’s moments like this one where I feel I’m on the right path. Even if it doesn’t get any bigger and better than this, I have this moment to remind me that this is what I am meant to do. That the A-list movie star that spoke to me on set was in my position once. That he dreamed of being an Oscar winner and making movies. And now he does it. So why not me? And that’s all there is to it. Why the hell not? If I keep at it, keep loving every set I work on, keep loving the costumes and running through fake rain alongside gladiators and shampooing my hair 4 times because the black grease won’t come out, and don’t stop smiling for the week post shooting because I got to be an actress, why can’t I tell this story on an Oscar podium someday?
It’s all happening….