Lights, camera ... inaction

Princeton staffers describe the excitement -- and the tedium -- of being a movie extra

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- While Ron Howard directed the filming of one of the climactic scenes in "A Beautiful Mind," several Princeton staffers were enjoying their moment in the Hollywood spotlight. They were cast in the movie as extras. Here are the accounts of two Princeton employees who got their "big break."

  

University staff members Richard Smith and Christine Hollendonner will be closely watching "A Beautiful Mind" when it premieres later this month, hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves as extras in one of the movie's scenes.
 

  

Christine Hollendonner, assistant for alumni education in the Alumni Council: My co-worker Dawn said, 'Why don't we go over and try out for the movie?' I didn't have a huge interest, but she really wanted to, so we went over, and we got picked to sit in this auditorium. Bill Dance, the casting director, got up on the stage and started talking to us, telling us this long story about other films he had done, about different experiences he had, and he was even crying at one point. Finally he said, 'You might wonder why I went into this long dissertation. It's because I've been watching your faces, and I have everyone who I want picked out.'

A couple of months later, Hollendonner got a call from one of the casting people. She was asked to participate in one of the movie's emotional high points: the scene in which John Nash, played by Russell Crowe, accepts the Nobel Prize. The extras were instructed to arrive at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark at 5 a.m. They were there, filming a single scene, for the next 17 hours.

Richard Smith, a program secretary in ecology and evolutionary biology, also was chosen to be in the scene.

Smith: I was a last-minute addition. Apparently a male extra hadn't confirmed, so they called me. I was going to be one of the guests in the audience. I was told to wear black trousers, black dress shoes and a white T-shirt. The costume department had rack after rack of formal wear, shirts and white ties in all different sizes. I must say, when they got done with me, I looked terrific.

The extras were eager to watch the film's star, Russell Crowe, transform himself into Princeton mathematician John Nash, the movie's subject. Crowe portrays Nash through the entire film, from the age of 19 through his 60s.

Smith: Russell Crowe was just marvelous. He came out and good-humoredly warned us that it was going to be a very long day. He would joke with us, but he stayed in character all day, with the movements and gestures of an older man. Even when he was being funny, he was in character.

Hollendonner: Russell Crowe and his co-star, Jennifer Connelly, were in makeup for 10 hours that day they went in at 3 a.m., and they didn't come out to start shooting until 1 p.m. There were rows and rows of makeup artists and hairstylists who did the rest of us, which took a lot of time too, because there were 450 extras.

The stage crew warned us that Crowe might not want to talk, he might be tired from being in makeup for so long, so they told us not to talk to him. But he was amazing. He was very witty, and he joked around with us all day long. Out of the blue, he said, 'So who would like to know a personal story about me?' And I think people were a little taken aback. Some people raised their hand, and then he said, 'OK, well, who doesn't want to hear a personal story?'

What I found awesome was what went into shooting this scene. This five-minute scene took 17 hours to film. I lost track of how many times they shot the scene, but I had no idea the work involved to do something that looks so simple on film. We had to clap our hands a certain way, we had to stand a certain way. Like when they filmed the standing ovation, someone called out each sign, like Pisces or Libra, and we each stood up when our sign was called, so the standing ovation would look gradual. I would say we filmed just the standing ovation about 35 times.

Smith: Anyone who thinks that the world of film is really glamorous well, this would disabuse you of the notion immediately. There were a lot of delays, a lot of waiting around, for which I received the princely sum of $145 before taxes, for something like 18 hours of work.

And yet here I was, a last-minute addition, and by complete chance, as we were walking into the theater, somebody pointed to me and some other people and said, 'You can come down here.' And I was placed in the second row, so I think there's a halfway decent chance I'll be seen in the movie. I won't have my 15 minutes of fame, but I may have my 1.5 seconds of fame.

Not all of the extras were there as a lark. Some were professional actors who endured hours of tedium because they hoped this was the day they would get discovered.

Hollendonner: It was neat meeting the real actors, the ones who are in the union, who played extras. What struck me about them is that this is really their life, this is what they do every day, or as often as they're called, and they're just waiting for that one chance to get noticed.

And the possibility exists; they could be noticed. From what we heard, Julia Roberts started that way. She was an extra and she was noticed, and that launched her career. There was a woman two seats over that's why she was there, to break into show business. She was thrilled to have been picked, because that's what she wanted to do with her life.

As the day dragged into evening, stomachs growled and the extras wondered when they would get to go home. Release finally came at about 10 p.m. After Ron Howard thanked them for their hard work, they were rewarded with a feast of lasagna, spaghetti, salad and dessert.

Hollendonner: Each time you're anticipating that that take will be the last one, and then of course it isn't. So when they actually said, 'That was the last one. That's it, you can go,' everyone yelled 'YES!' We were so excited, so happy to be done, and Russell Crowe was so happy.

I was very happy to go home. And as I was leaving I thought, I am grateful for my life. I am happy to have the structure we have here at Princeton.

 
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