There is this weird thing at the end of each month where I get slips of paper in the mail demanding that I pay for things in my apartment, like heat and the internet (free exchange of information, my ass.) So like many people, I must find a way to pay these bills. This week that included working as a TV extra.
The show: Chicago Fire. The scene: a “Rave.” I was instructed to bring several outfit options for “club and rave clothes.” Of course if they knew me they would have realized the absurdity of such a request, my knowledge of raves was limited to Batman Beyond and that one episode of Boy Meets World where Cory was trying to prevent a rave from happening in the student union. So it was, on a slush-soaked Thursday morning around 10:30AM, that I arrived to the musty old warehouse set. One of the first set pieces I saw was a bunch of dummy bodies dressed in neon colors stacked on top of each other; I assumed this was what myself and my fellow extras would look like AFTER the fire. As I climbed a steep and dusty staircase I really hoped that this wouldn’t be one of those tragically ironic tales where people filming a warehouse fire disaster actually ended up causing a warehouse fire disaster.
I have never seen an episode of Chicago Fire, so I was caught off guard when the Production Assistant approached me and said “Quick! Tell me what happened on the last episode of Chicago Fire or I’m sending you home!” Ok, that didn’t happen, but if it did I would be full of frustrated admiration for such dedication to craft. Once all of the extras had checked in we were rounded up in a big circle so the costume people could examine the ravy-ness of our attire. I was dressed in jeans, a pink button down shirt (collar popped of course), a pink handkerchief around my neck and about 100 neon bracelets on each arm. Never before had I looked so fab. This was my first opportunity to take a better look at my fellow raver extras, noting the distinction between posers like myself and the true worshipers of blacklight and bass. I witnessed women covered in neon wigs, furry boots and fishnets twirling glowsticks and overheard conversations on the best types of house music and loft parties. I felt a sense of karmic punishment for writing a blog article about “letting the 90s go” a few days prior. We remained in this circle for quite some time for no apparent reason. (My first theory of the day: This was not a TV set, but instead some kind of social experiment to see how long we’d stand there aimlessly.) As it turned out, some people stood in this vicinity for a few hours.
Most of our day was spent in the “extra holding room,” as the glowstick enchantresses continued their art and numerous purple and pink hair extensions were affixed to female extras’ inadequately short locks. A set of women spent the majority of their day dancing with hula-hoops in a ritualistic fashion that was ridiculous and simultaneously fascinating. It was as if they were some primitive culture performing a sacred dance of joy in praise of their god, proving that the children of the flower have not yet died out. (My second theory of the day: This was not a TV set, but in fact a surprise intervention for hula-hoop addicts.) In a similarly primitive manner, it was clear very early on that tribes were forming among the extras. Interestingly, the majority of the tribe members I spoke with had no dreams of becoming an actor, but apparently had time to kill and wallets to fill. Actor hopefuls or not, everyone was quite thrilled with the prospect of being on national television. Personally, it wasn’t all that important to me, but that is probably because I am too cool for school.
As the day progressed at a sluggish pace (perhaps even slower for the true ravers who are used to minutes in their consciousness feeling like hours), the tribes began to grow a little more manic, wondering when we would be released from our holding room or, more importantly, fed. I must say that despite the amount of time that it took for food and provisions to be served, the accommodations were quite generous. Breakfast was comprised of eggs, sausage, toast, and some variation of orange drink. For lunch (which was labeled “snack”) we were served Panera catering-style sandwiches, which were quite delectable. Around the dinner hour we were served the meal designated as “lunch,” a tactic that I am sure was intended to reaffirm the fact that we were going to be hanging around for a while. “Lunch” was sets of chafing dishes filled with fish and pork, along with a salad bar, cookies and fruit punch, all served by a handful of non-English-speaking gentlemen. I assumed that “dinner” would take place sometime around the midnight hour, but sadly (thankfully?) this never transpired.
Around this time, officers from the Chicago police and fire departments arrived. There came a point where one of the hula-hoop girls danced her way over and started talking to them. Their conversation probably consisted of the finer points of hydroponics and cultivating all of the natural herbs that Mother Gaya had to offer. She most likely asked to hold one of the officers’ guns. In the end she settled for a pair of handcuffs, with a look on her face like Aladdin’s when he entered the Cave of Wonders. Hula-hoop girl then proceeded to frolic away and handcuff another extra to a table (which I was totally fine with, that guy was SUPER annoying.)
The mania progressed through the evening, and around the 9 o’clock mark we once again pondered when our indentured servitude would come to an end. Numerous end times were being circulated: some folks were murmuring it would be midnight, or 1:30AM, and one person even said five in the morning. At the mention of this early-bird-specialized time, one chap that I was talking with began laughing in a fit of hysteria. This was when I realized that he was insane. Better yet, he was one of the few extras that actually intended to be an actor, the poor bastard. (In a moment of unpermitted kindness, the words “I could give you a ride home “escaped my lips and entered this man’s ears. Luckily that offer was never taken.)
Now I know what you’re thinking – “when the hell is this fool going to actually talk about filming a scene?” Fear not, dear reader, I shall tell you this rather miniscule detail of this long day. The two scenes that I (or at least my hands) were actually in were all filmed on a set of stairs near the entrance of the building. One was a scene where some of my extra pals and I were being escorted by the firemen up the stairs to safety. It was in this scene where I knocked my head on one of the actors’ fire extinguishers, though my noggin remained intact (as it ever was.) It’s my guess that this scene was cut, as they filmed the same lines of dialogue in a different take without my precious head bump. The second scene I was in was one where we frantic and endangered ravers were clamoring to get out of this burning beat house. This is where all of those coveted hand motions that I employ came in handy, as we performed a forward motion of freestyle swimming arm strokes. A few of us were also paid a little extra to bring our cars and feature them on the street. They needed us at the ready to move them in several instances, one of which required “skilled drivers” to drive through the falling snow. One of the neon furry booters threw her hat in the ring, saying that she “used to be in an amateur street racing league;” she was stone-faced and completely serious. This was my favorite moment of the day. So it was that around 1:30AM I was at the ready, waiting in my cold car when one of the Production Assistants knocked on my window and said it was time to go home. I had missed the rave scene itself, and the world would never know just how truly awful I was at raving. Even worse, I never got to enact my moment of brilliance. I had imagined being in a scene that ended with me shrugging my shoulders, looking at the camera and saying: “I guess it’s just another Chicago fire!” Unfortunately this show of genius never came. It’s probably for the best; I don’t think they could’ve handled such raw emotion.