Thoughts on being a 'Fringe' extra
The Fien Print reflects on being a bearded Massive Dynamic scientist
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If you watched Thursday (Oct. 14) night's "Fringe," you may have noticed a cameo by a certain bearded, well-dressed HitFix editor/blogger.
It's also completely possible that you may not have noticed me. The following conditions would have explained my failure to come to your addition.
1) You don't know who I am or what I look like.
2) You know who I am, but you watched on a small TV or on Hulu and you don't recognize me well enough to identify the back of my head on a tiny screen.
3) You were watching John Noble, who happened to be giving an excellent performance, bouncing monologue bombshells off of my receptive presence as if he were Steven McQueen, his words were a baseball and I were the concrete wall in a German POW camp.
4) You're a friend or relative to guest star Sebastian Roche (creepy baddy Thomas Jerome Newton), whose name came on screen at precisely the perfect moment to upstage the closest thing I got to a close-up.
5) You sneezed.
I have a FOX publicity still and several screencaps that prove my presence, though its unclear if this is what I was dreaming about back in high school when I had convinced myself that an ability to read a script with proper nuance and cadence was the same as being able to act and I naively thought I might make a career of it.
Still, I was relieved to appear at all, because it almost never happened.
Click through for a few memories from my "Fringe" extra experience...
If you're an "America's Next Top Model" fan, you know that every season Tyra orchestrates makeovers for the contestants and that every season at least one model has to get their lustrous locks chopped off entirely. And even though they know it means public humiliation and they know that no "ANTM" mantra is more evergreen than "Tyra Knows Best," said model inevitable bawls and makes a scene. It's a tradition dating back to Catie's "I look like a boy!" tantrum in Cycle 2.
I only mention that familiar "ANTM" trope because on a sunny Vancouver day in August, I was that model.
I arrived on set with a small cadre of reporters and we were all dressed to the sevens or eights -- we're online reporters, who can afford The Nines? -- because we'd been told that in addition to conducting the usual talent interviews, we'd be appearing in a scene playing Massive Dynamic scientists, which was pretty much the pinnacle of my high school thespian aspirations.
So I'm sitting there polishing off my breakfast sandwich from the craft service truck, looking relatively spiffy in my gray suit. I'm thinking I look scientific. That's when the pointing started. At first it was just one FOX publicist, the unit publicist and somebody from production. Then the ranks grew. Within minutes, there were at least a half-dozen official-looking people congregating and pointing at me.
The issue: "Fringe" is a beard-free zone. This obviously hasn't been a 100 percent hard-and-fast rule over two-plus seasons, but you can go back through your mental Rolodex and struggle to remember more than a few characters with any sort of advanced facial hair. This is, in fact, a show whose defining non-central character -- Michael Cerveris' Observer -- might as well have alopecia, he's so conspicuously hairless.
I have, as you can see from the above picture and from my Mad Men Yourself avatar, a beard. I immediately flashed back to my 10th grade class play, Tad Mosel's "Impromptu," where I was playing a self-important actor and our director inquired early in rehearsals if I could grow a beard to add to the character's gravitas. At that point, asking me to grow a beard was of the same order of ridiculousness as asking me if I could play center for the Celtics or summit Mt. Everest. No, I could not. I can't say if the believability of my performance suffered for it.
Negotiations continued, with me firmly insisting that I wasn't going to shave my beard of three years for a one-second background dalliance on "Fringe." I graciously offered to shave my beard in exchange for dialogue, though. People laughed. I don't believe anybody ran that proposal up the flagpole. For a while, it looked as if I was destined to be the best-dressed man standing off to the side of the "Fringe" set that day. I never cried. I never pulled a Full Catie. But I definitely looked concerned.
All credit to the Helpful Publicists of FOX, we eventually reached an accommodation that allowed the beard to remain, but in a reduced capacity. I acquiesced to some trimming and felt that I'd pretty much stood my ground and become the Rosa Parks of "Fringe" Beards, until I got on the set and saw that a supporting player in the scene -- the only Massive Dynamic scientist with dialogue -- was also bearded. It may be the facial-hairiest scene in "Fringe" history.
The beautification process included Beth whipping out the clippers and trimming my beard down to a level that left me rubbing my cheeks in sadness, but never had me wailing "I look like a boy!" Kat, plus three gallons of gel, contributed to a hairstyle that was described as "Mad Men"-esque, not that you could tell from watching the episode. Maria in wardrobe gave a thumbs up to most of my attire, but she rejected my shiny gold Alfani tie as "too flashy" and replaced it with a muted black number. You can't see the tie in the scene, but you can see that John Noble wasn't distracted by the tie, which means the correct choice was made.
Speaking of Mr. Noble, he walked in to get his hair and makeup just as the journalists were completing our own not-so-extreme makeovers. He gave us a look-over, nodded and observed "They look very smart." Walter Bishop telling you that you look smart must be a bit like Ahab telling you that you look like a capable whaler.
There were too many available extras, which meant that the first assistant director had to cull the most "scientific" from our ranks. Thanks to the Power of the Beard, I made the cut, as did Daniel from TheTVAddict, Maggie from AOL and Lauren from BuzzSugar. The rest of my journalistic colleagues still got to do Massive Dynamic walk-ons, so nobody was too miserable.
You've seen the scene by now and you may not have exactly got its context. Allow me to illuminate:
It's Walter Bishop's first day at Massive Dynamic and he's talking to an assortment of high-ranking scientists. They've heard of Walter's reputed brilliance and they're assembled to hear one of the great geniuses of our age. He starts off speaking sanely and becomes increasingly unhinged. We don't know he's taken LSD that morning, so we just watch uncertain of our next move.
I'm not sure if that necessarily came through in the scene as aired, especially since Walter was already into his tripping by the time we joined his speech. Trust me when I saw that there more cogent lines of dialogue that probably won't even make it onto the DVD.
We were told to have notebooks and pens available and we were initially told to be taking notes, as one would if one were at a lecture given by a mastermind of some sort.
Courtesy of Warren Hanna, the show's regular second AD and that day's first AD, our directions were simple, "Listen to the dialogue and watch him and let it all flow naturally."
Wait. So acting really *is* reacting? It's all so simple!
The scientific extras were given Massive Dynamic ID badges -- since nobody at Massive Dynamic is bearded, my ID doppelganger bore little resemblance to me -- and paraded into a Massive Dynamic conference room set full of white furniture and metallic walls, punctuated by shafts of light. Buzzsugar's Lauren, a total ringer with her college theater minor, was given a featured role and, seated next to Lauren, I was now assured that at least part of me would be in the frame for some period of time. Score!
Acting isn't actually just reacting. If that were true, most anybody could do it. After at least two rehearsals, nothing Noble did seemed so wacky anymore. That doesn't mean that Noble was any less committed. Watching Noble work is fascinating. His absorption is total and even though he pulls himself out of character after every take, it's not an instant process, though he can snap back into character without hesitation. In one early pass through the speech, without cameras rolling, Noble concentrated on Lauren, moved to the other side of the room and then came back and directed one particularly crazed piece of dialogue directly at me. I was honored. My character was confused. The combination of emotions led to a reaction that I'm pretty sure was too broad, not quite a spit-take, but definitely over-indicating my shock. In subsequent passes, Noble didn't aim that piece of dialogue at me again. On one hand, I was disappointed. On the other hand, I completely understood.
I decided that my character was a young, upwardly mobile guy on the corporate side of things at Massive Dynamic. That's why he's in a suit and many of the other characters, the applications scientists, are in lab coats. I decided that my character would be so eager to maintain his position in the company that he would take Walter extremely seriously. As a result, I followed Hanna's instructions and listened carefully and took notes on what Walter was telling us, even if it was patently ridiculous. If you watch closely, there's at least one shot in which my pen is flying furiously. And if you look at my notebook, you'll see at least a dozen repetitions of phrases like "pudding or foie gras." You'll also see other observations like, "I don't feel like I'm contributing much to this scene," as well as admiring mentions of Noble's intensity and a notation on how loud a clapper can be when it's done directly over your ear.
You watch Noble deliver any of his eccentric Walter monologues on "Fringe" and some part of your brain knows that to get the full speech, Noble probably had to recite the whole thing dozens of times, with very minor variations. You don't think of the pauses to do hair touch-ups -- even for the extras -- nor about the need to reload the camera and the shot where Noble was so conscientious and determined to get one last take in before film ran out that he altered his rhythms and blew the line (the only time he flubbed a single word the whole time).
You also don't think about the occasionally conflicting directions. After a brief period to re-set the stage, we were positioned for reverse shots and director Ken Fink took one look at our first take and told us not to take notes anymore. It turns out that I'm a very business-oriented actor. I need things to do with my hands, things to concentrate on. Stripped of my business, I'm like Captain Queeg without his clacking metal balls, like Chigurh without his lucky coin. Walter's speech is about the capabilities of the human mind, but I witnessed my own limits.
Two months later, replacing my entertainment reporter hat with my TV critic hat, how would I evaluate my performance?
I don't mind appearing on-camera. I just don't like watching myself. In this case, though, my awkwardness didn't distract me and I similarly doubt that it distracted anybody who didn't know me, thereby raising me out of the "Sofia Coppola" category of acting. I watch the scene and I see every time the camera seems just about ready to land on me, but instead the editor cut away. But that's just my own interpretation and may or may not be a sign of acute paranoia. Another interpretation would be that the editor was attempting to make my character seem mysterious, so that when he inevitably returns, viewers will remember, "Oh right! It's that bearded Massive Dynamic scientist who never got a close-up in 'Do Shapeshifters Dream of Electric Sheep?' I knew something was up with him."
My mother's review of my performance was that she liked they way they parted my hair and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree. The back of my head looks very good. Kudos to Kat.
And I got to keep my beard.
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