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I Was an Extra on HBO's Looking

George McIntire | January 15, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

If you ever get selected to be an extra, be sure to read the instructions very carefully.

After applying to be a hipster extra on Looking (“The Greatest Show Ever About San Francisco”) I recently received the call to fulfill the opportunity I had totally forgotten about. That's right, I was an extra on Looking.

In my case, I was selected for a 5:30 pm-3:30 am shoot at an unnamed restaurant in the Mission. I left work early to prepare myself for debut on the small screen. I filled my bag up with the most hipster pieces of clothing I could scour from my closet, which included the crown jewel of hipsterdom: a gray pilot jean jacket that I bought from a pop-up clothing truck in Williamsburg.

I biked to a giant parking lot somewhere on the border of the Excelsior and Bernal Heights. No camera crews or lights—or really any evidence of a film shoot. I did find a van. I asked where the shoot was, to which they replied that it was in the Mission. This was the pick up spot. Ugh. So I hopped back on my bike and turned around.

I arrived at the Brava Theatre just in time for the 5:30 pm check and went upstairs to the makeshift green room (normally a dance studio) where the extras will be housed. The assembled crew of extras was diverse in age and race—frankly, it was a group of people who would never ever get together outside of being on a tv show. Nearly all the extras are asking each other questions that none of them know the answers to. This is, I think, a thin attempt at small talk.

I check in, fill out the forms and sit down. The wardrobe person is making the rounds to inspect everyone’s clothing and look. She gets to me and asks if I have any classy or business casual clothing. I tell her the ad said hipster. Yeah, she says, but the email we sent out this afternoon said business casual/classy. This change deprives the audience of HBO of the sight of me rocking my prized hipster jacket. Damn it. The wardrobe PA gives me a bland gray H&M long-sleeved shirt to wear instead. So lesson number one: if you’re gonna be an extra, pay attention to the instructions.

At around seven o'clock, Jason, the assistant set director, addresses the extras. Most of us were new, so he peppers in jokes about “getting the fuck out of here as soon as possible.” I like this. Jason looked exactly like every other mid-level film crew member I used to see back when I lived in LA.

Now it's snack and smoke time. The treats are segregated into union and non-union areas (the union guys had the better offerings). Nothing else happens.

Now it's dinner time. For a bunch of extras only in it for kicks and blog pieces, we get treated to a C-list actor dinner. Win. There was a salad bar, grilled chicken, salmon, and even veggie meat substitute. This is the best show about SF ever. After dinner, we all schlepped back upstairs to our giant shared green room.

Then, around 8:30 we finally get the call we’ve been waiting for.

Tonight’s scene is taking place on the second to last day of shooting and is going to be in the last episode of season one. Specifically, it's scenes 13-14. They take take place at an unnamed Chinese restaurant. I'll let you in on a little secret. It's actually Punjab.

The mob of extras are divided up, some of us outside and some in the restaurant. I play a guy waiting to be seated. I can do this. I can nail this. I've waited for tables like my entire life. I was partnered with a woman who plays the girl waiting to be seated. She ask me not to use her real name, since she is a regular extra and has been numerous films and shows shot in the Bay Area including Monk. So I'll call her "Jennifer Lawrence". I am now terrified that I won't be able to pretend to wait for a table as convincingly as "Jennifer Lawrence" will.

The scene: late night dimly-lit bustling restaurant. Every table has a crowd. Things are popping off.

Everyone’s in place and Jason addresses the extras with instructions in a tone that says: “Don’t fuck this up. I’m tired of dealing with adults fucking up basic instructions for months now.” I did not pay attention. I was intensely fixated on this one actor whom I just knew I had seen somewhere before. When Jason stops talking, I turn to "Jennifer Lawrence" with a panicked look on my face. She repeats what Jason said. No fucking up.

All the extras are supposed to act like we are at a restaurant (duh), but with a catch. We weren’t allowed to make any noise. So, fake talk and hand gestures.

Since "Jennifer Lawrence" and I have primo roles, we get specific duties. We were told to act a little impatient. You know, do things like look over the hostess’ desk, look around at the restaurant, and check our watches.

Fake talking is a lot harder than you think. For the first couple takes, "Jennifer Lawrence" and I just moved our mouths in un-synchronized motion, both anxiously waiting for the director to yell cut and save us from this awkwardness. We both realized it would be long night if we didn’t fabricate some audioless conversation to help pass the time during shoots. So we decide to pretend to have a normal conversation with each other. After a while, we become pros.

This went on for a couple hours and dozens of takes. At almost midnight, we finished the shoot and are allowed to go back to our green room. Everyone was more or less lifeless. A subtle competition for the least uncomfortable spot to lie down on emerges. I lose, so I occupied myself with my phone but quickly used up all the battery. No worries, I brought a book along. But soon, my reading material couldn’t withstand the creeping sleepiness, so I found a piece of floor to lie straight down on, using my otherwise useless hipster hoodie as a pillow.

I must have dozed off for about 30 minutes until one of the PAs loudly yelled it was time to get back on set. That announcement couldn’t come at worse time, I was just getting used to the hardwood floor as a mattress. Again we all made our way across the street to Punjab and assumed our assignments, "Jennifer Lawrence" and I are back at the hostess’ table. Just when I was contemplating walking off the set for the sake of sleeping in my bed, I see Jonathan Groff (Patrick) and Frankie Alvarez (Agustin) sitting with two other actors at a table. This was the first appearance by any of the main cast all night. Their presence reinvigorated all the extras. I am so into fake talking now.

In the first scene, from what I could I tell, you might be able to see my face and upper body on camera for a couple seconds, in the panning shots. For the second, you’ll get a clear view of my backside—so long as they don’t cut it out. Knowing this was my moment to get my mug on “cam-AH-rah” I incorporated some slick turns of the face in my routine. In one move, I pointed across the restaurant and mouthed “Hey it’s our friend!” In another take I did some elaborate neck stretching and head rolls to punctuate my impatience. That one was like my Blue Steel.

At 3:15 am, we finally wrapped the shoot. "Jennifer Lawrence" and I mourn the end of our fake talking relationship. Just as everyone was exiting the restaurant, the main cast and the director gathered together for a group huddle and hug. This was the last time they’d spend together on the show—unless of course Looking gets renewed for a second season. The poignant moment felt exactly like the last day of summer camp complete with futile attempts to hold back tears while also making strict promises to stay in touch. Witnessing this moment made the ten hour long saga totally worth it.

We returned to the Brava theater gathered our stuff, returned any prop clothing we had, and collected our checks. I hop on my bike $77.63 richer and head home. All this acting makes me tired.

Looking premieres this Sunday on HBO at 10:30pm

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