Life after ‘Nashville’ for its band of others

Local extras reflect on their too-brief brush with stardom

Friday, May 27, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 22
By Tom Wood

The cancellation of ABC’s “Nashville” has left the show’s worldwide legion of fans disappointed and angry enough to launch a social media push for another network – or online service – to pick up a fifth season of the prime time serial.

The show’s actors, faced with returning their boots and sequins to the wardrobe department, have joined the effort.

Likewise, frustrated local and state tourism officials now find themselves without a prime marketing tool, one that pulled fans on pilgrimages to find the real Bluebird Café or Rayna’s TV house.

But there’s another group facing the crushing loss of a job that required long hours – often in terrible weather – for little pay. The extras.

We few, we happy few, we band of others (with apologies to Henry V).

The trials and tribulations of characters in the music-themed television serial had a loyal-if-uneven – ratings-wise – following, not only in namesake Nashville but among a worldwide syndicated audience that followed Deacon (Charles “Chip” Esten), Rayna (Connie Britton), Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) and all the other inhabitants of doppelganger Music City.

But it was a great success for the nameless many who appeared as extras in crowd scenes and backgrounds.

Full disclosure: I was an extra all four seasons of the show, which was created by Callie Khouri.

I worked on nearly 40 of the 86 episodes, including the first and last of the ABC era. Nashville has been a “bubble” show – in danger of being axed – the past three years. And this season, two endings were shot in early April, one if it was renewed and another if canceled.

The show’s ABC finale aired this past Wednesday night (May 25), and many extras gathered at the Opry Mills Chili’s restaurant to watch it together, to commiserate, swap stories and share a few tears and beers.

Cancellation was a shock because word along the extras’ grapevine – and the buzz out of Hollywood – gave Nashville a better-than-even shot at renewal.

Word spread feverishly on the day before Friday the 13th, when the show was cancelled. Like the cast and crew members, like the Nashville companies that provided craft food or transportation services, we’d all been fired by ABC.

The news was met by our extras crew with something akin to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

But there was no acceptance from the show’s creative and production teams. Not since the show was that close to reaching the 100-show benchmark needed for U.S. syndication.

Extra Tom Wood, back left in hat, with a few of his fellow extras on the set of a ‘Nashville’ nighttime wedding shoot.

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Lionsgate TV quickly tweeted it was shopping the show’s fifth season to other interested networks. CMT, CBS, Hulu, Netflix, DirecTV, Amazon Video and other outlets have been mentioned.

Cancellations are a part of show biz, but ABC could not have anticipated the backlash of its decision, and all the bad press and fans’ negative feedback.

We are family

So what’s it like being an extra on “Nashville?” Pretty cool, actually, when somebody says they saw you on the previous night’s episode or when you interact with some of the stars.

I made Hayden Panettiere laugh a couple of times and am impressed how Chip Esten interacts with extras, goes out of his way to talk and pose for selfies.

And I can tell people I got paid to watch Elton John perform (his appearance was May 18 in the penultimate episode).

Friends in California play “Spot Tom” while watching episodes – sort of like “Where’s Waldo” in crowd scenes.

If it’s a drinking game, they didn’t wake up hung over. If the old line about “three seconds of fame” rings true, I’m up to roughly two minutes of camera time over 40 episodes.

Being an extra is like Halloween. I’ve played a reporter, a cowboy, an upscale fundraiser attendee, restaurant patron, etc. But it is far less glamorous than what’s seen on TV.

We worked long days, sometimes 15 hours, for eight bucks an hour, sometimes in terrible weather conditions. The toughest shoot I remember was the Season Two finale at the Titans’ LP Field. It was cold when we reported at 4 p.m., and freezing when we clocked out at 6 a.m. the next morning.

This group shot was from an overnight shoot at LP Field on April 9, 2013. Freezing, the extras taped an outdoor concert from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Writer/extra Tom Wood is at left.

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Standing on your feet for concerts, listening to the same song over and over is tough. Check-in (and craft service) lines run long with 400 extras hired for a concert scene.

But for all the griping, we loved it.

I most enjoyed seeing old friends, making new ones, swapping stories and taking group photos. There’s a lot of down time between takes. Some folks knit, read books, play cards or games. I talk to people, hearing about their backgrounds and sharing mine.

We came from all walks of life and varied careers to provide the show’s authenticity and character. Strangers became friends, a family of sorts. We walked different paths in life before our lives intersected.

I got into extras work mainly to study the show’s behind-the-scenes action, what goes into production. Many who have read my fictional true-crime thriller, Vendetta Stone, say it would make a great movie or TV project. My screenplay based on the book made it to the semifinals of the 2015 Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition.

I’ve learned a lot about production, watching and talking to the pros.

Extras, extras

Many extras on Nashville are professional actors or musicians, working day gigs to stay busy during down time. Some drive from out of state to work on the show. Many are retirees looking to fill the hours, but most have real jobs that they juggle their schedules around.

Like me, most everyone I have talked to since cancellation say they were surprised by that move but grateful for the experience.

Here are some of the members of the “Nashville,’’ family of extras.

Author Tom Wood hadn’t seen Chuck Shaw since their days together at MTSU. They rekindled their friendship at a Season One taping.

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I first met Chuck Shaw more than 40 years ago when we were both mass communications students at Middle Tennessee State University. I was a sportswriter for the student newspaper, Sidelines, and Chuck was a cheerleader.

We lost touch after graduation, finally becoming Facebook friends before we met again on “Nashville’’ in 2012.

Chuck worked on more than 40 episodes, including “featured extra” roles as “older businessman with a young girl,” the “wedding officiant” for Will and Layla’s wedding and the “minister” for Beverly’s funeral.

“It was fun every week when Facebook friends from all over would try to find me during an episode,” Chuck says. “All in all, I really enjoyed my time on the show.”

Connie Maynord and Victor Hollingsworth are actors in Nashville’s thriving film community. Both were cast for an emotion-packed scene in episode 19 about the death of the mother of gay singer Will Lexington (Chris Carmack).

Connie was the deceased mom, and Victor the funeral’s minister.

“I was disappointed [that the] producer cut his scene, as the taping included him crying deeply at his mom’s casket, as a young man would,” Maynord says.

“I will miss the TV show. And I look forward to the $8 million our Tennessee Film Commission was giving them to be given to some great films who will hire our local great actors as actors – not just extras. We have some great actors here.”

Hollingsworth is among those hoping Netflix, Hulu or some other streaming service picks up the series, especially since a fifth season would have seen Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz – the team behind the films, “Legends of the Fall,’’ “The Last Samurai’’ and “Blood Diamond’’ – taking over as show runners.

“‘Nashville’ … was a great gig. The cast and crew were so solid and professional, the pay was good and network-television appearances aren’t easy to come by,” he notes, adding Zwick and Herskovitz “are the real deal.”

“I’m sure they would have energized ‘Nashville’ and taken it into great new directions.”

Demetriss Tapp, Donna Frost and Susie Monick are among many musicians/singers who appeared regularly as extras.

“I have spent a lifetime in show business as a singer/recording artist and was looking for a different direction – something to keep the fire in the soul alive,” Tapp explains.

“This was a totally new experience with a crew of people who were right there at all times to direct and help in any way and soon began to feel like family, which is what we all became ... when that red light went on, we became the stars of ‘Nashville.’’’

Frost, who plays the ukulele, says she’ll treasure her “Nashville,’’ experiences.

A behind-the-scenes shot of “Nashville” actress Hayden Panettiere chatting with actor Eric Close, who served as director for this 2015 episode, “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”

-- Abc/Mark Levine © 2016 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved

“Most of all, I have made many wonderful friendships with some of my fellow extras that will last a lifetime,” she adds. “We truly are like one big family, and I will miss working on the show with everyone.”

Monick, who plays the banjo with her band “Holly Wood and the Extras,” echoes that sentiment.

“I bonded with many extras and we became a family, a family of all ages, colors, and walks of life,” she adds.

Appearances on “Nashville’’ have given some extras confidence to explore other acting opportunities.

Beverly Hanley and her friends have made frequent trips to Atlanta to work on major motion pictures, including, “Captain America,’’ “Jurassic Park’’ and “Alvin and the Chipmunks.’’

“We are all reeling from the cancellation of ‘Nashville,’ but, as the characters would do, we will rise from the ashes stronger and with more Southern spunk,” she says.

“I will hope for a “pickup” from another channel, yet will keep searching and accepting other roles as offered.”

Tyler Allen moved from Nashville to Atlanta to further his budding acting career.

“There’s a special connection of friendship and support among the extras’ community in Nashville; so I hope that other film and TV projects will be drawn to this wonderful city because there’s a wonderful group of dedicated extras waiting.’’

Read more extras’ reactions to Nashville’s cancellation at