By Eric Rickstad
Gadfly Jan./Feb. 2000
May, on a whim, I answered a casting call for
Me, Myself and Irene, the latest
Farrelly brothers project, starring Jim Carrey
and Renée Zellweger. Snapshot of myself
in hand, I drove to the designated hotel.
I arrived, a line of several hundred people wound
along the sidewalk. Somehow, naively, I had not
expected such a crowd, nor had it occurred to
me that anyone, particularly in northern Vermont,
would come for any reason other than simple curiosity.
there they were: well-dressed, freshly coifed
children standing alongside Parents of Suburbia,
photo portfolios in hand; Harley
riders, arms folded, head shots tucked under their
biceps; waify actresses in half-shirts that exposed
bellybutton rings with casual purposefulness,
sitting on the curb sipping bottled water and
chittering about commercials in which they'd starred.
And there were the Carrey wannabes, boring and
embarrassing those around them with appalling
impersonations of Carrey, as if the Fire Marshall
Bill shtick were their own or they shared a unique
bond with Carrey because they knew every line
of his movies or, worse, they hoped to be discovered
themselves by an incognito talent scout.
an hour of waiting, a casting director appeared.
Everyone perked up, preened and accorded erect
postures as he doled out a sheet. When he left,
the crowd buzzed with speculation. Did the casting
director know Jim? Did he discover
stars? Would there be speaking lines? How many
roles were available? What were the odds of landing
I realized that coming to the casting call wasn't
enough. I wanted a part. And all
the freaks around me were my undeserving competition.
looked down at the sheet. It addressed on-set
NO autograph seeking
NO going near the actors or speaking to them unless
the hotel conference room, I sat with ten others
at one of a dozen tables. Apprehension and anticipation
lurked. I filled out the provided application;
I gave my physical attributes and clothes sizes.
Under the Special Abilities section I wrote "moonshining."
An actor needs a gimmick."
was lined up against a grey curtain, shot with
a Polaroid, handed my photo and told to wait with
the others in a row of chairs. Something was going
on behind a curtain. Were we going to have to
read lines, unrehearsed? Would it be decided right
there, behind the curtain, if I had the goods?
What if I was off and lost the opportunity to
convey my true potential? What was happening to
turn came. Behind the curtain, a friendly, professional
woman stapled my questionnaire to my photos and
said thanks. And then I was guided out into the
went home and waited.
weeks later, at 11 p.m.,
I received a call. "We need you. Tomorrow.
Bring a dark sports jacket and light blue shirt,
the camera doesn't like white. And a tie. You're
a federal agent." Would Jim be there, I wanted
to ask. Would I get a make-out scene with Renée,
get to put my semen in her hair, something raunchy
went to Ames department store and bought a light
blue button-up shirt.
day, on set, I was escorted by the casting director,
Kevin, past the wardrobe and make-up trailers,
beyond the catering trucks and sound and lighting
equipment, to the basement of a church, to join
two fellow Feds, Kyle and Bruce.
like me, had no acting experience. But Bruce.
Bruce was an actor. He was tall,
dark and handsome, chiseled and weathered, with
a wry smile. He had slightly vampiric teeth, and
his network-anchorman hair greying at the temples
suggested, the casting director in me thought,
eyes gleamed. He leaned back in his folding metal
chair and said, "You never know what they'll
use you for. They could tell us we're no longer
Feds, tell us we're angels and give us wings.
You have to roll with it. We may be given lines.
But don't sweat it; if you can take directions,
you can act. It's the look they're
had varying versions of the same story: "You
know so and so," and he'd name an actor I'd
never heard of. "He played the lead role
in Eddie and the Cruisers?"
or "He was Manson in Helter Skelter,"
or "He's Pattie Duke Austin's
stepson. I worked
with him," and he'd name a movie with a name
like Assassin's Kiss. "Well,"
he'd say. "He's just a regular guy."
got called to wardrobe. I looked for Jim and Renée.
We all did. Inevitably, almost helplessly, we
talked about Jim. That's what we called him: Jim.
It was a way to save saying his entire name every
time. It was a way to make him familiar, even
though he wouldn't speak to us.
college kids on their nearby apartment porches
and rooftops, watched us with binoculars.
wardrobe, several women full of breeze and expediency
fell on us and fitted us with new sports jackets
and shirts. Flicking lint from our shoulders,
they turned us around to get a good look at us.
"Feds," they said. "Go to make-up."
make-up they cut Bruce's and Kyle's hair. They
dyed Bruce's greying temples. My cut, a summer
buzz, was already federal enough.
we waited. We did not talk of Jim or Renée
while among the crew. We were part
of this. We felt very cool.
sidled up. "Today should go smoothly,"
he said. "No Jim. No Renée. No problems."
guys might as well wait in the church."
in the church basement, I realized how removed
we were from the action.
waited three hours.
is how it goes," Bruce said.
rolled in at noon. "That's it. They're done.
They cut the Feds out of your scene. You can sign
was it. No Jim. No Renée. No part. Go home.
week a woman called at 10 p.m.: "We need you, and your truck,
tomorrow. Bring two changes of clothes. Summery
stuff. No black. No white." In a secretive
tone she revealed the name of the motel where
the shoot would be.
were twenty extras that day, full of the good-natured
bantering that takes place when strangers acquaint
themselves under fortuitous circumstances: we
were all chosen from the droves for a specific
quality that was not outwardly identifiable.
waited, for hours, outside, behind a rectory.
It was hot; in the 90s. We lunched, Hollywood
style. Pan-seared scallops with caviar. Duck á
l'orange. King crab legs and beef medallions.
Banana torte. Chocolate mousse. Opera bars. Crescents.
Fresh breads. Salads and ice cream and pie.
was sitting near the catering truck, catching
my breath after lunch, when Renée appeared,
affecting a strong Texas drawl and requesting
king crab legs. She seemed a foundling. So slight.
Maybe 5'2'' and 105 pounds. A body like an adolescent
boy's, but a darling, womanly face. She was barefoot
and tripped in the grass. A starlet.
Not really a fan of hers, I still found it odd
that I was not allowed to say hello. She looked
sort of lonely. She might have liked someone to
say hello. She tripped away to her trailer.
I drove my truck onto the set. And there he was:
Jim. He sat in a chair at the base of a lighting
crane, sporting a crew cut and tight faded jeans
and a shirt printed with cowboys. He was rubbing
his palms on his knees with a nervous energy.
was told to leave. They needed my truck. Not me.
sitting around for six more hours, reading and
napping, I was finally released at 1 a.m., not a second of screen time.
came my break.
was told to be at a train station at 6:30 a.m.
was there. He was wearing a sports coat and a
Hawaiian T-shirt. I told him he was one dapper
son of a bitch.
eight a.m., thirty of us were taken to the set. I was seated at an
outdoor cafe and given an empty Coke can. Bruce
was paired up with a woman who was now his wife.
Others were given porters' uniforms, or lemonade
and pretzel stands, with attendant aprons and
were suddenly passersby, commuters and vendors.
train would pull in. Jim, whose character was
a Rhode Island state trooper with a split personality
and an obsession with Renée's character,
would throw himself from the train and beat himself
up. When this commotion began, we were to gather
was called. The train rolled in. I drank from my
empty Coke can. The lemonade guy poured lemonade.
Bruce and his new bride stepped off the train. We
all pantomimed, moved our mouths in conversation
without speaking, as directed.
two cars down, Jim threw himself from the train
onto an air mattress. He was shouting and cursing,
his face contorted. I edged over to the commotion
as he flailed and spit, then grabbed himself by
an ear and dragged himself toward the station.
train backed up. We took our marks. Action was
called. We did it again. A woman shielded Jim
with an umbrella. Another misted his forehead.
Another wiped the mist. We shot the scene again.
And again. Ten more times. Morning became noon.
But no one tired. Instead, the extras, feeling
integral yet utterly replaceable, did their best.
was then that I learned that Jim Carrey is a serious
is, even when shooting this ridiculous scene,
he hit his mark. When he missed it, he grew frustrated:
"Sorry," he said to cast and crew, as
if apologizing for his $20 million price tag.
"I can do better." Even when the Farrellys
were pleased, Jim offered to do it again, improvising,
feeling his way through, his energy level clearly
rising, his eyes growing alert with the brightness
of someone who has worked to get to the place
where suddenly the ideas are flowing and who wants
to stay there. His own twists were often funnier
than the script, and the people around him seemed
no longer cast and crew, but a live audience to
play to. When he dreamed up a subtle, but significant
slant, they could not keep from laughing and applauding
when cut was called. I was on set with an actor
who made a role, a movie, his own, one of the
most highly paid people in his field, and someone
who, when he worked himself up to it, was as funny
and natural and ingenious as they come. Jim
was called, and the affable and lunatic actor,
who moments ago had seemed engaged with those
around him in a necessary reciprocity to reach
the place he needed to reach, followed his bodyguard
swiftly to a waiting Cadillac SUV, replete with
blackened windows, and was driven away to his
rented penthouse condo, across the street.
remembered being unable to say hi to Renée,
and again thought it peculiar, this deliberate
isolation. To be hounded by obsessive fans must
be hell, but why not eat lunch with
fellow professionals? Why remove oneself? Do stars,
in some perverse, self-fulfilling prophecy, do
exactly what's expected of them to add to the
mystique of stardom, I wondered. In a way, is
it part of a star's job? Would they be lesser
stars if they were too approachable? I thought
of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Michael Jordan, celebrities
beyond their talent, something other than themselves,
to the public, at least. Their names are brand
names, trademarks that possess more weight and
meaning than simple identification. But isn't
that what celebrity is all about, what we all
wish we could do: be doted on when we desire and
then remove ourselves from people and places when
again, maybe Jim was just back at his condo practicing
lunch, we shot a scene in which Carrey's character
jerks off on a bench full of elderly women, asking,
"Wanna see my weasel?"
women, all extras, were supposed to run away,
but they could only laugh. Jim told them, "Look,
you're scared, I'm a crazy man, whipping his thing
out, and if you don't get up and run, I'm going
to get it all over you."
He liked to affect seriousness, while inciting
laughter. He suggested it might be funnier if
all the ladies ran away, except
one, who seemed to like what she was seeing. They
tried this version, but unable to nail it in several
takes, reverted to the script.
women were still not acting shocked enough for
the Farrellys, who, throughout my days on the
set, were never anything but patient, professional
and pointed with the extras, allowing the process
to be enjoyable, but efficient. Jim told the women,
"Imagine it has two heads."
This tactic didn't work. They did take after take.
Jim chased the women off the bench, pretending
to jerk off on each one of them. He would pace
by me after every take, always whispering to himself,
"I got it all over them that time" or,
"This is sick," as
if it just dawned on him.
frustration set in, Jim conferred with the Farrellys
and crew members off set.
next take, when Jim unzipped and whipped it out,
he pulled out a huge rubber dildo the prop man
had given him and waved it in their faces as he
slobbered and howled.
threw the prop high into the air and shouted,
"First one to touch it is gettin' married!!"
was on set four more days, playing in shoot-out
and getaway scenes. I wore different clothes,
but looked essentially the same. If a viewer knew
what to look for, they would see that the gawker
was later the lemonade stand guy or the man at
a phone booth. But no one ever pays attention
to background scenes. No one notices our nuance,
our acting, except other extras.
I can't watch a movie now without noticing the
background, knowing the extras are pantomiming
and not really saying anything, looking for them
to appear elsewhere. It's a curse.
last days, I fell into a routine. Sometimes, when
not in a scene, I no longer watched as Jim performed
or Renée tried to get him to act like a
person with one personality. I was
getting used to the lights and cameras. I saw
the directors and stars out in restaurants and
bars at night. On weekends, I glimpsed Renée
on the waterfront and at the farmers' market—no
bodyguards, no boyfriend, just ambling along in
a bandanna and sunglasses, sans make-up, contentedly
walking her dog and shopping. I could have gone
up to her and said hello. I could have explained
that I was an extra in her film. I could have
pretended that I didn't know who she was and walked
right by her without looking at her. I could have
struck up a conversation. But of course I didn't.
She was a star.