I used to frequent film sets in NOLA as background talent. It’s easy money as long as waiting hours and hours for forty-five minutes of work doesn’t bother you and as long as you don’t have much of an ego. Chances are, as background, you’ll never be seen in the movie for more than a second if at all.
Yet, that doesn’t stop the Wardrobe and Hair and Makeup teams from pretending that you will be seen.
On one project I worked repeatedly. It was ABC’s “Astronaut Wives Club” and I played a nameless Apollo wife. I worked twelve-hour days, spending great chunks of time in Hair and Makeup. This funny old guy, Mr. Albert, was assigned to my hair and meticulously teased, pinned and coated it with copious amounts of hairspray. I swear, I spent an hour in his chair alone, feeling pampered and important. The makeup team was just as doting, mixing my own shade of pink lipstick, a color so precisely 1963 that when they got it just right, it was marked with my name. Yet, I was just background – a mere face blur beside a whole bunch of frosted and bouffanted space wife blurs. I wasn’t integral to the picture. If I had called in sick, they would have gone on without me. Still, they treated me like I was crucial. My costumes were perfectly pressed, fitted and maintained. Once, it was noticed that a thread was hanging from the hem of my blue shift dress just before “rolling” and a dresser was called in to snip the loose thread. The attention was a nice change from my seemingly normal existence, but I always wondered about the fuss.
Would anyone have noticed that tiny thread?
I returned to background work again recently, settling on one day a month to deviate from ho humness, to people watch, and to marvel over how the most intimate scenes on film require masses of people, materials, and elbow grease to keep it intimate. I was on the set of a bar scene, one of those swanky types where the booths have deep, soft cushions, and the drinks are twenty bucks. As I have many times before on set, I watched a production assistant polishing and setting in place with such care and accuracy props and set decorations that no one would likely notice. Why bother polishing the glasses behind the bar? Why hide the tiniest LED wire in the glass case? It can’t possibly matter.
But that P.A., Mr. Albert, the dresser with the handy scissors, and the makeup team are paid to bother. I suppose the theory is that if we, the audience, are expected to make that leap and believe that what we are watching is real, then everything has to matter. Even a loose thread and a foggy glass have the power to break the fourth wall.
I didn’t get home until midnight after that shoot, having put in fourteen hours of work that will lead to my pausing the television and saying to a friend something like, “You see that elbow jutting out of that booth? That’s my elbow.”
And my friend will say, “And it’s only ten feet from Hugh Jackman. That’s so cool!”
But back home, entering my bathroom, I exhaled greedily, taking in all the tranquility I experience each time I enter my bathroom. When we remodeled it, I splurged on white marble floors and teal subway tile from Italy that curves upward and over onto the ceiling above the bathtub, creating a waterfall effect. Sconces flank the glass sinks, a crystal chandelier gives the false pretense that life beyond is just as luxurious, and fuzzy seafoam mats greet my feet when I step out of the shower. It is my sanctuary, an investment, and no one ever sees it but me and my little family. It is the background talent of my house, so far from my front door it is almost always missed, but detailed and doted upon as if every guest will pass through.
As tired as I was from fourteen hours of sitting and standing, crossing to marks and sitting again, I stood in my secret bathroom and thought about that dumb thread. If a tiny thread had the power to ruin a movie, what in my own life, deep in the background, bears such importance to my bigger picture? And if it’s so important, why isn’t it front and center?
Looking at my life in a glance, I am slapped with my most obvious elements – mother, wife, writer. If I were to glance in your direction, I might see daughter, best friend, sales rep, or father, widower, small business owner. They are the leads in the story of us on a daily basis. We put effort into those images so that the narrative isn’t lost. Of course I want everyone to know I’m a writer! It’s who I am. But past our sight line is always a bigger picture. Some of it is beautiful. There’s me in my fuzzy socks, alone in the house on a Tuesday after everyone has left for the day. I’m in my orange chair with a second cup of coffee and I’m taking ten minutes to do nothing – absolutely nothing. My life is noisy and chaotic and I need that quiet as much as the second cup of coffee. Some of the bigger picture is ugly, though. There’s my crying myself to sleep as if my father had just died that night. You won’t ever see these Annies unless you pry, ask, or happen upon them. But my story goes well beyond what I put forward. And so does yours.
What flows in the background of our lives is as important to who we are as what we do put front and center. You are more than the obvious, as am I. What got us to where we are is as important to what we’re doing now. We forged friendships and relationships. We studied and excelled. We plotted and planned. We followed passions and succeeded. Our hearts were broken. We failed. We gave up. We started over completely. None of it was useless. All of it is integral to our story. We wouldn’t be us without the good and the bad. So maybe when it comes to the background in the greater picture of you and me, we aren’t investing in ourselves for other people’s further understanding of who we are. We are investing in ourselves for our own further understanding of ourselves. What’s more, maybe it’s the only way to be truly authentic. For like any good director knows, if we continuously focus solely on our featured parts, how effective is our story?
In a film class I took in college, our professor showed us the shower scene in “Psycho.” As always, suspense got the best of me and I gripped the arm of my chair and watched through partially shut eyes. Then he played us the same scene without the score. There were screams and sounds, but no music. Without the music, it was boring and just sort of gross. The music strung the emotion along, carrying the actions on its shoulders when the actions weren’t strong enough to convey the circumstances on their own. Such is whatever we hold in our background. Like the score of a movie, they carry us, sometimes swelling when placed beneath our surfaces for too long. Maybe that’s the magic of a good cry or a belly laugh? Maybe that’s proof that the background matters as much as the foreground after all.
I know enough to know that most often what you see of me is purposeful. It’s how I want to be remembered and thought of, but even in my forefront there’s more. You don’t see all the struggles of motherhood, the tests of marriage, and the times when I think it’s easier to quit writing altogether. You also don’t see the triumphs of A’s earned, goals achieved together, and the days when I write through my personal blocks. I need all of it. I would be less effective if I were perfect because I certainly wouldn’t be me. However, there are pieces of me that no one will ever see because why would I ever want to give it all away? It’s good to have secrets. There’s a certain advantage to understanding yourself in a way no one else can. Secrets can be an unstoppable drive if nurtured properly.
Like a loose thread snipped before “rolling” or a custom shade of lipstick, our background – what got us here, what keeps us here, and what makes our music swell – is worth the fuss. Even if a blur to others, we have to remain focused on our bigger picture. After all, lead actors grow tired, scripts are rewritten, and scenes are reshot. And in our own lives, when the story changes, and it will, we have to be ready for our next close-up.
And now this blog is two years old. Thank you for reading. Thank you to a wonderful editor, Kelly Massicot, my Ren Pub cheerleader, Melanie Warner Spencer, my sharp-eyed proofreader, Mary Argus, and many thanks to Todd Matherne for taking a chance on a mother and wife when she decided that writing needn’t remain in the background. I am eternally grateful.