A little over a week ago I spent my first day (night, technically) on the set of a network TV show. I got cast in a small role on Betrayal, on ABC. The episode should air on January 19th. It was a fantastic experience, and one I hope to repeat many, many times.
My call time was 6:30pm. I got there early because, as it was my first time working on the show, I had some paperwork to fill out. I arrived at “base camp,” where a line of trailers was parked on an out-of-the-way street near downtown. It was arctic outside, with a windchill down around -1 degrees. A production assistant named Natalie stood wrapped in many layers on the sidewalk. I didn’t know who she was when I saw her, but she was carrying a clipboard so I figured it was a safe bet she’d be able to point me in the right direction. I introduced myself and she guided me to my trailer.
I say “my trailer.” It was not a whole trailer. It was a little dressing room about the size of a changing booth in a clothing store. But it had a place to sit and it was heated. My paperwork was already in there waiting for me. Natalie gave me fifteen minutes to fill it all out. When it was done she let me know that makeup was ready for me, and she walked me to another trailer about half a block down. The ladies in the makeup trailer cut my hair and did a touch-up to my face. I had a rather large and embarrassing cold sore that day (I’ve gotten them since I was little. They are very annoying.), but they were able to make it practically disappear. I could barely see it, and I knew what I was looking for.
When they were done I made my way back to my trailer, where I found my costume waiting for me. I played a cop (“Incident Commander” is how the character is named in the script), so my costume is about what you’d expect. However, because of the frigid temperatures, they also supplied me with long underwear and warming shoe inserts. I got dressed and then just hung out for a bit.
While waiting, I heard a familiar voice outside. I stuck my head out and spotted Dennis Grimes, a friend of mine from the Chicago theatre scene. I caught up with him and he invited me to come hang out in his trailer until it was time to move over to the set.
Dennis was called for multiple days, and as such he had a different contract and also a different trailer. His trailer had a couch, and a fake fireplace, and a TV and a blu ray player, as well as a makeup counter and a chair. I would have been jealous, except that we really had very little time to spend in our trailers anyway. We hung out for about twenty minutes, chatting about theatre stuff. At one point a guy from the wardrobe department stuck his head in. Dennis had befriended him on a previous day’s shoot and we had fun talking about how all of the LA cast and crew were dealing with the Chicago weather. Then there was a rap on the door, and we were led to a van that shuttled us to the set.
I think this is where I started to get that “Holy crap I’m on a real TV show” feeling. Dennis and I crammed into the van along with a couple of the makeup artists. Waiting for us in the van were the driver, and series regulars Hannah Ware, Stuart Townsend, Chris Johnson, and Adam Shapiro. The set was a five-minute drive away, at LaSalle and Jackson. On the way, Dennis displayed his talent for engaging anyone and everyone in conversation, while I sat quietly, hoping I didn’t do or say anything stupid.
The scene we were shooting took place outside, in front of a building on LaSalle. The crew had the lobby of the building to use as a staging area, and a place for everyone to keep warm when they didn’t have to be outside. Once we arrived someone from the props department grabbed me so they could get me geared up with all the usual police accouterments, like a badge, radio, weapon, and stuff like that. The sound guy miked me up, and then there was a lot of waiting.
I have observed many times that being on a film set is like being in tech for a play. There is a LOT of waiting. This experience was no different. That’s not a complaint; I love watching the process. There are so many moving parts that it’s a miracle a movie or TV show ever gets made. The crew, mostly from LA, were all wrapped up in multiple layers like Randy in A Christmas Story. There was an excitement to the evening. They had all been working for five months straight, and the production was to wrap in just two more days. For some of the series regulars, that night was their final day of shooting.
My own job was simple enough. I had two lines, and one mark to hit. That was just a small part of a much larger and more complicated scene in which several things were happening at the same time. The whole scene is maybe sixty seconds long, but we spent about six hours shooting it. Between the vehicles involved, and the lighting (including a spotlight designed to look like it was coming from a helicopter) and several dozen extras, there was a lot of resetting to be done after each take. The crew was efficient and professional, though, so there was very little standing around and waiting once we got to work. When it came time to set up a new shot we were all ushered back into the lobby to warm up. Once the crew was ready, we’d come back out, they’d show us our marks, we’d rehearse once, and then shoot. The cold, the waiting, the late hours; it was all worth it for the thrill that comes as we gear up for the call of “Action!”
We wrapped around 1:30am. The DP gave a little speech congratulating everyone whose work was done, then we piled back into the van for the quick trip back to base camp. On they way I listened as they discussed plans for the show’s wrap party. The one bit of gossip I will share: Stuart Townsend was not interested in karaoke.
I had a fantastic time. I can’t wait to do it again. Dennis and I split a cab ride home. I kept the long underwear.