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VOL. 36 | NO. 52 | Friday, December 28, 2012

Extras bring authenticity, energy to productions

By Tom Wood

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In early September, taping of episode four of “Nashville” hit high gear at Hillwood Country Club, which served as a stand-in for Belle Meade Country Club.

Following a syrupy introduction by Lamar Wyatt (actor Powers Boothe) of son-in-law and mayoral candidate Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), daughter Rayna James (Connie Britton) bounced onto the brightly lit stage and belted out the catchy song “Changing Ground” with Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten).

I had been hired by the production crew to help fill the room as an “upscale fundraiser attendee” for the Oct. 31 episode, “We Live in Two Different Worlds,” and our pre-shot instructions were to just be upbeat, have a good time and enjoy the show.

Getting paid to watch Connie Britton sing? This acting gig is easy, I remember thinking as we clapped, cheered and swayed in our chairs.

“Cut. Let’s try it again. That was great, but I want to see more energy,” episode director Paul McCrane said as he scurried across the set.

We would try several more takes with cameras shooting from different angles. After one particularly satisfying take that ended with a standing ovation, Britton stepped from behind the microphone and clapped her appreciation to the audience.

“You guys were great. Are you having fun?”

We were, and roared louder. Being recognized for contributing to the authenticity of the show is perhaps the most rewarding moment a background character actor can have.

“In the best productions, you don’t even notice the background character actors. In a way, it’s our job not to be noticed,” says Zan Buckner of Nashville, one of the many background actors to work this fall on both “Nashville” and the movie “The Identical,” shot in Middle Tennessee for release late next year.

“It would be a stage play if not for background actors,” adds Ronda Smalling, CEO and owner of Thundering Hoofs Productions in Knoxville.

Background checks

While many of the exterior shots have prominently featured many Music Row and businesses on Broadway, such as the Bluebird Café and Jack’s Barbecue, nothing says “Nashville” quite like the people. And even though background character actors hail from across the Midstate and as far as Missouri and Illinois, they capture the essence -- again, that word, authenticity -- of Nashville.

“We’re the real citizens, the real people of Nashville,” local actor Thom Booton says. “That’s what makes “Nashville.” It’s real life and it’s real country music.”

The people who make up the crowd scenes are a curious mix.

Mary Fielder, in retail now, has spent 30 years in the music industry.

“I love meeting people from all walks of life on these shows. Some came out of curiosity, some take time off to do this or to make a little money,” she says. “Everyone’s story is different and interesting. I’ve met ministers, music people, one person who works for the FBI, several people who work in the computer field. I’ve met housewives, house-husbands, a woman who home-schools five children, a beautiful South American woman from Colombia.”

Dennis Bailey, 53, of Dickson, was a construction superintendent until the economy soured. Now he does mostly side jobs and some remodeling. Between those projects, he worked on both productions multiple times.

“It helps bring money in, the way the economy is now. I work a little, then there’s a slack period and it fills in between projects,” says Bailey, adding he got a lot of attention and positive feedback from the crew for his portrayal of a gravedigger in one scene. “I really enjoy it. It’s having fun, getting paid and they feed you on both productions. It’s like Halloween every day. When you see yourself in a scene, you realize that how you see yourself and how you think you look can be two different things.”

Dorsey Lunn, who has a speaking role in the scheduled 2014 release “G.O.D. Tech,” says background actors develop camaraderie because of the sometimes long and odd shooting schedules.

Days often run 12-14 hours, the meals served to extras can vary from really good to sub-par, and weather conditions can be horrible. On a frigid early November night, for example, the scene was set in late May when temperatures are typically balmy. Some guys were in short sleeve shirts and some women were in miniskirts. Brrrr.

“There are no small roles, they say. Everyone is supported by the other,” Lunn said.

Background actor Keith Sausedo, who buys used DVDs for a living and has also appeared in commercials, has that everyman look that works in any scene.

“They get people in the background to provide an image, but I don’t think they utilize us enough,” he said. “You see a lot of familiar faces from one set to the next.”


Like “Nashville,’’ authenticity was also paramount on the set of “The Identical,” which recently wrapped up its shooting schedule in Middle Tennessee.

Starring Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, Seth Green, Joe Pantoliano and Blake Ryane, the movie follows a musical family through four decades, from the late 1930s to the early 1970s.

A City of Peace Films independent production, Yochanan Marcellino is the executive director, while Dustin Marcellino makes his directorial debut. The screenplay is from Howie Klausner (“Space Cowboys”), based on a story by Elvis impersonator Wade Cummins.

Klausner agreed much of the film’s authenticity comes from using as much local talent as possible.

“First and foremost, it’s a story that takes place in Middle Tennessee. It’s a historical piece, a fictional story taking place within true history right here in Middle Tennessee. I don’t see how you do that that without the real people of Nashville,” Klausner says.

“(Background actors) are as integral to the process as hiring actors, as far as I am concerned. You can’t fake reality, you really can’t. They were fantastic. Nashville is clearly an artistic-friendly community.”

Making a cameo in one scene was Cummins, who performs as Elvis Wade, has been singing since age 9 and made his professional debut at age 13. He says he’s pleased with both Klausner’s final script and Ryane’s performance of what is basically his family history.

“Howie did a great job with what he did for my story,” Cummins says. “I met Blake a couple of times and we hit it off immediately. He knows what an opportunity he has.”

Brushes with fame

Of course, the most familiar faces on both set belong to the stars and background actors are told not to look at them or talk to them unless spoken to first. That may sound harsh, but it makes sense. They are professionals, after all, and there to do a job. Their concentration is on the craft and they expect professional behavior from the background actors.

During a chilly tent revival scene we filmed with Judd and Liotta on The Identical set in Watertown, both actors went out of their way to connect with the extras. Judd even posed for a group photo following her final night on the set.

“I talked to Ashley (Judd) about UK basketball because her and me are big fans,” said Greg Baker of Clifty, Ky., an interesting guy who has survived 13 operations including seven on his brain and one on his heart. “I’m not one of the type people who are all over celebrities. I just talk to them like they’re a friend or a regular person on the street. Connie (Britton) and Eric (Close) just said, ‘it was nice to meet you.’ ”

Nashvillians Lynn Wilbanks and Debbie Daugherty Whaley were both in scenes across from Judd in different time periods.

“She and Ray didn’t act they were any better or bigger. There are not a lot of inflated egos on this set,” said Whaley, who played the mother of actress Erin Cottrell. Asked what Judd said to her after the scene in Dickson was completed, she laughed. “Just that I did good, that I was totally dowdy.”

Wilbanks, a songwriter, sat across from Judd in the 1930s tent revival scene. “She was very personable, but she was there to do a part,” Wilbanks said. “I didn’t try to engage her in conversation.”

Singer Brian Ashley Jones was impressed by Liotta, whom he described as “so intense. What a fun way to spend the day. It was so interesting to see world class actors and cinematographers crafting movie scenes with such precision.”

Actor/writer Jonathan Gilchrist counted scenes with Green among his favorites on “The Identical.”

“Seth was really cool. Everyone has been nice,” Gilchrist said.

Green’s interactions with the extras crew went over big, often shaking hands, talking one-on-one to people and posing for group pictures. On the final day of filming with background actors in Lebanon for a state fair scene, he Tweeted the following: “Last day on The Identical and the crowd is really helping=) Thank you.”

On behalf of my fellow background character actors, Seth, you’re welcome.

Hopefully, we’ll see you on the red carpet next year.

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