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I Was A Paid Extra For A Rom-Com Starring Riverdale's KJ Apa, And It Was A Ridiculous Experience

I don't remember the hardest I've ever laughed. The longest I've ever laughed was on a 90-degree day in 2018, when I sat in the bleachers at Wrigley Field for 10 hours watching the guy from "Teen Wolf" jump on top of Halston Sage.

I was hungry — not the kind where you strive for success, the kind where you strive for food. After a decade trying to build a career in the Inland Northwest, writing sketch shows and seeing how many "rising star" stand-up comedy gigs I could book without my star ever actually rising, I had realized that I was running out of chances for youthful ambition to be adorable. Convinced that it was time to put up or shut up, I moved to Chicago, where a handful of audiences and booking agents informed me that it was, in fact, time to shut up.

Out of work, I patched together a crazy quilt of jobs to get by. I would hop on a bike every morning at five and run food deliveries around town before zipping back and forth across Gold Coast, Old Town, and Wicker Park to walk rich people's dogs. During lulls, I ordered drip coffee and sat in the corners of local shops, wrote freelance ad copy, and captioned conspiracy theory videos on my laptop. So, when my roommates — two unfailingly friendly and remarkably optimistic aspiring actors — pointed out that there was easy money to be made doing work as an extra in local productions, I was more than intrigued: I was eager. I was stoked. I really, really wanted to be able to afford a pizza.

Background extra work: A primer

Landing work as an extra is pretty simple: Find an agency's website, give them a list of your vital statistics and special skills, and upload some photos of yourself so they know you're not secretly Jamie Kennedy trying to sneak back into show business. After that, you'll get notifications whenever a project comes up that needs someone fitting your description to stand just out of focus behind someone more symmetrical than you while they shoot lasers at aliens or win back their ex-fiancé in the rain.

Between being broke and riding a bicycle 12 hours a day, I'd slimmed down to just under 150 pounds which, when spread across my 6'2" frame, made me look like a dead body in the background of a Victorian morgue. That turned out to be a major selling point, and I wound up getting a lot of messages asking if I could play "guy actively overdosing behind Kelsey Grammer's stand in" or "out-of-frame tent city dweller in an Amazon series on a shoot where two of the crew members are actively breaking up and making it everyone's deal." They may have advertised it differently: I've since deleted the emails.

In the summer of 2018, I got a cattle call for an eight-hour day playing a person who wasn't dying of malnutrition, so I was feeling pretty cocky. The gig was a big group scene in a Netflix movie starring Archie Andrews of "Riverdale," KJ Apa, called "The Last Summer." We'd be filling seats in the background of Wrigley Field. There was a free sandwich thrown in to sweeten the deal. I was sold.

The real background extras are the friends you make along the way (but no, I didn't meet KJ Apa)

I genuinely loved doing extra work. I really did. Getting to watch the process of making a movie or TV show is a gas for me. In the same way that anyone who goes out to eat should have to work in food service for a stretch, or how every capitalist should spend time working retail, I genuinely believe that, in a perfect world, every movie fan would get to spend a couple of days on set, getting herded around by an assistant director with a headset that everyone's pretty sure they're just pretending to get messages on to seem important. You will look at movies and TV so much differently once you've seen firsthand how much love and effort it takes to create details that you don't even notice. Any time that there's an open fire in the background of a scene, there's a dozen guys responsible for lighting it, maintaining it, making sure that it goes out when it's supposed to. Watching a movie get made is like watching a Rube Goldberg machine made out of people, only less H.R. Giger-y.

But the best part was the fellow extras. In my experience, 19 out of 20 extras are decaf theater kids — people who feel passionately about the entertainment industry, but minus the inclination to sing "RENT" at an Old Country Buffet. They are just as elated to be there as you, and they probably have great stories to tell.

When I walked into Wrigley that June day, I was ready to make friends. Then I saw an older gentleman holding the same background extra release forms as me, muttering and cursing. And that's where the ridiculousness began.

My fellow extra was the angriest man at the fake baseball game

I asked the angry man how he was doing, as he barked obscenities that I won't repeat here. "Angry," the angry man said. "Do they have any idea who I am?" the angry man asked, half to me, half to the universe, as we walked through the halls of the Wrigley Field stadium. "Putting me on a cattle call job like this? Do they know who I am?"

"I don't know who you are," I offered. "I'm Tom."

He explained he had featured on a popular TV medical drama that shot locally in Chicago. I won't name names, I don't want to get him in trouble. But I responded that yes, I had heard of the show. He loudly informed me — in the same tone that a teenager reserves for asking their teacher if they'd ever heard of a breath mint — that on said TV show, "I play one of the security guards!

"Oh." I said. "I don't think they know who you are."

"My agent will get hell for this," muttered the guy who played a security guard on some medical drama. He stormed off in the same direction as the rest of us, because even angry, pretend security guards like free sandwiches. After a quick rundown in which the crew checked all of the extras to make sure we were clothed, everyone was handed a prop beer. We were informed that KJ Apa would not be present, which in retrospect is fine. Some of my best friends are redheads, and I know what the sun can do to them. We were then shepherded toward the bleachers. It was there that, little did we know, we'd spend the rest of our lives.

Here's how the scene plays out in 'The Last Summer'

Here's the scene from "The Last Summer" that we were shooting that day: Sosie Bacon and Halston Sage sit just off of left field. They talk about the upcoming Summer, and how it will be the Last one. A baseball player (Tyler Posey) chases a foul ball off the field, leaping into Halston Sage's lap and getting mustard from her friend's hot dog every-dang-where. Halston Sage has her breath taken away, either by love or because she just had the wind knocked out of her when an adult man jumped in her lap. It was hard to tell from where I was sitting, about four rows behind the action.

The finished scene lasts two minutes.

The first time that the director called "action," it was exciting. There was a low grumble of extras talking in low murmurs. A few rows in front of me, about 10 seconds after "action," Sosie Bacon shouted the following words: "Hey, Jones. Is that a cup you're wearing or are you just happy to see me?"

Now, I'm not a screenwriter. I've never had a movie produced the way that the minds behind "The Last Summer" have. They know better than I do what lines of dialogue belong in a contemporary movie, and which ones are hacky, outdated, and trite. They're the experts, not me. But man, the shock of hearing someone use a "Or are you just happy to see me?" aloud in 2018? I laughed out loud. An accident.

The director yelled "Cut!" I will never know for sure whether that was my fault, but knowing what I know now, I will forever be haunted by the prospect that I was what ruined what could have been a perfect, single take.

How hard could it be, as an extra on a Hollywood production, to reshoot the same scene all day?

Between the first and second takes, I turned to the guy sitting next to me, who had done a lot more of this work than I had. "Do you think they're going to use that line in the movie?" I ask. "Or is that just background noise that they'll like, play music over?" I didn't really expect him to know, I think I just wanted reassurance. Soon enough, though, the actors were repositioned. Through the bullhorn, the director shouted "Action!" 10 seconds of murmuring, then, from four rows in front of me, I heard, "Hey Jones!"

"No way," I whispered, utter disbelief overtaking me.

"Is that a cup you're wearing, or are you just happy to see me?"

Yes, this poor actress was going to have to repeat this line every time we did another take. "Man," I thought, feeling all 90 degrees of this purportedly final summer beating down on my head. "It's a good thing they'll want to move this scene along, seeing how it's dangerously hot outside." 

It took 10 hours, and many, many takes. How many, precisely, is a matter that historians will probably debate in the decades to come, when "The Last Summer" makes its way to the Library of Congress. Over and over, we heard the same line. "Hey Jones! Is that a cup you're wearing or are you just happy to see me?" I'm not sure when I started laughing, but I know I didn't stop. What began as disbelief evolved into a sort of madness. I became Phil Connors from "Groundhog Day," and the "happy to see me" line was my recurring "I Got You Babe."

As an extra, like me, you might sit in blistering heat doing the exact same scene for 10 hours

"Action!" A pause. "Hey Jones! Is that a cup you're wearing, or are you just happy to see me?"

Again. Again. Again. I began living a separate life in the refractory periods between the word "Action!" and the offending line of dialogue. Like a captured spy, I'd attempt to put myself someplace else in my mind to try to escape reality. "Action!" I heard, and I was scuba diving off the coast of Bali. "Action!" I looking out on existence from a mountain's peak. Sometimes it would feel like I'd spent a lifetime in my imagined world, where sandwiches were truly free.

The day carried on, time ticking by to the terrible percussion of the line "Hey Jones!" The line swung through our restless bodies like a pendulum as we overheated. "Hey Jones!" This couldn't be real. At one point, production froze because one of the extras shouted at Tyler Posey to ask what his mom did for a living. Posey, to his credit, was polite enough to have a very chill conversation with the guy. For a moment, the world seemed real again, like we were all just people hanging out at Wrigley Field.

"Action!" Oh no. Not again. "Hey Jones!"

Around 8 p.m., the sun went down. The extras started milling around optimistically in preparation for what seemed like the day's inescapable end. "Who said you could move?" cracked a crewmember, and four guys wheeled out the biggest spotlight I have ever seen onto the field. Robbed of the sun, they created a new one, dragging it in front of us like the golden-yoked chariot of the Greek deity Helios. God help me, they created a new sun.

"Hey Jones!"

So what did we learn here today, about being an extra in a big Hollywood movie?

I don't know how I got home from the shoot. I remember that I was tired and dehydrated and my stomach hurt from the constant, wheezing laughter of an overheated man trying not to get caught going crazy while someone points a camera toward him for half a day.

I don't know if "The Last Summer" was any good, either. I never watched the whole thing. All I know for sure is that if you skip to around the 21-minute mark and look out with the right kind of eyes, you'll see Halston Sage, not yet covered in mustard, sitting next to Sosie Bacon, her hand cupped to her mouth as she shouts something inaudible at an actor pretending to be a baseball player named Jones.

And if you look carefully, not far behind them, you'll see the world's worst extra: A lanky, emaciated bird-faced man in red sunglasses, hair fried from the sun, laughing for no apparent reason while actively losing his mind.

I never saw the security guard actor again. I hope he liked the movie.