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A West Wing Extras Journal

A West Wing Extras Journal

This is my attempt to share my experiences as an extra for the DC shoots of the greatest (IMHO) television show currently running. Besides just general knowledge, I hope to provide you the reader with a behind-the-scenes look at television production. Finally, my goal is to offer advice if you wish to pursue this "career."

Production: West Wing
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Production Co.: Warner Bros.
Date: November 18, 2000

Well, here it is. Of all the productions I could work on, I get an opportunity to work on my favorite T.V. show (and, IMHO, the best show on television.) We had an 8:00 PM call time at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Even though this was my second "extra" work, this was when I first realized one of the background actor's mantra's, "hurry up to wait."

This was much different than my first experience. On this job, I got my first experience with the "holding area." A holding area is the location they keep the extras "corralled" until they are needed. The holding area was a boring room with a bunch of chairs. However, a nice spread of snacks was on the table (it took a while for me to find out that the snacks were for us and not for cast and crew.)

Around 10 PM the Production Assistants began taking people to the set. I was not one of them. Midnight rolled around and we were sent to dinner. Oh yeah, you quickly learn that meal times are way off from "normal." On the way to dinner, we passed Rob Lowe. When we got into the room they were serving dinner, there were not too many people there. Allison Janney was the only cast member there. The spread was great! The food was a nice spread. Come to find out it was her birthday. Craft services had made a nice cake for her.

As we walked back to the holding area, we got detoured into our first scene. The only bad part is that it was outside, and it was about 32 degrees out! We filmed a scene of a bunch of people going into the Kennedy Center being greeted by the Icelandic ambassador. We did a couple of takes, and my first TV acting experience was history! It was back to the holding area.

About two and a half hours later, we set up to do the next and last scene we would shoot for the night. The Production Assistants split us up into patrons, Secret Service Agents, reporters, and Kennedy Center staff. I was to portray a patron. I was hoping to portray a Secret Service agent, but I was not dressed right (wrong color suit).

They set us up, and then we waited for them to set the equipment. Where I was standing, I could tell I was out of the picture or at least way in the background (hence the term "background actor.") While we were waiting, Dule Hill (Charlie) walked through our group. He was dressed in casual clothes, obviously not in the shoot.

This night we were shooting scenes for the second season episode, "Galileo." The particular scene was between Rob Lowe and Allison Smith (Mallory). We did a number of takes as there were sound issues and other disturbances. At one point Lowe took issue with one of the photographer "extras" whose flashing was disturbing him.

We finally finished shooting and they sent us back to the holding area. BUT, before we left the area, Martin Sheen arrived to film his scene. That was a neat moment. Although I did not get to meet him, some of the other background actors did talk to him. It was great to watch him interact with our group. Such a nice guy. Very friendly and sincere. Most of us were released about twenty minutes later (close to 5 AM now). We were done just in time for me to head back to Baltimore and go straight to the job that pays the bills!

Production: West Wing
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Production Co.: Warner Bros.
Date: April 24, 2001

Today I had to make my way to one of the parking lots for Reagan National Airport in D.C. I had a 10 AM call time. I arrived at the parking lot on time, but waited for an hour until we were brought to the airport. That's okay though. I used the time to get to know some of the other actors. It's important to get to know the other actors with whom you will be working with as a way to build contacts. They may also help you with agents, photographers, etc. Even if all you want to do is extra or background work, I still encourage you to find an agent that will sign you. FYI, agents take anywhere from 10-20% of you pay. This is standard.

There were about thirty extras total. We are all driven over to the airport and shown to our holding area. This was a much better area as it was one of the terminals. We had a much better view this time! After we checked in we were able to go eat breakfast. One of the best things about this production is the food! We had made to order omelets that melted in your mouth!

We did not stay in our holding area too long after breakfast. One of the PAs came and took us to the area were filming would take place. When we arrived, the equipment was set up and the cast (Brad Whitford & Marlee Matlin) and crew were already there. Some say that actors look better on camera than off. Marlee looks good on camera, but that day she looked better in person.

We were seated in airport seats next to the set. The PAs came and set some of us into our positions and instructed us in what to do. As an extra, you mainly function as someone who walks, it's up to the PAs to tell you were and when.

We are filming a scene from the second season episode, "The Fall Is Going To Kill You." In the scene, Josh(Brad) is meeting Joey (Marlee) as she arrives at the airport.

The next six hours are spent filming coverage shots (same scene filmed at different angles and close-ups). There is a scene with them walking and then a scene with them sitting at an airport bar table. I managed to get in almost every shot that day!

This was the best experience so far. I was up close to the production all day. As someone who is interested in the behind-the-scenes of a production, this was a real treat. There were some other highlights as well.

The airport was crowded that day, but not too crowded. A bunch of people had formed on the level that overlooked the set. They were taking pictures like mad, waving and yelling. It was an odd feeling to be on the inside while the onlookers were "outside." At one point I was approached by a group of elementary kids from Louisiana who were on a field trip. I got asked for an autograph. How ego boosting is that! When we wrapped at this location, Marlee let out a scream and jumped in the air and then into the arms of the director (not Schlamme). That was special to see. A few minutes later I made my way over to her, shook her hand and said "hello." I know it is not protocol to talk to the actors unless talked to, but I have discovered that this cast and crew are very willing to interact with you. They don't treat extras like bottom feeders. Many of them were in our shoes not too long ago. Sheen is the most gracious of the cast members.

Then it was on to lunch. Yes, it was 6:30 PM, but to the cast and crew it was lunch time. That's what they called it. Meals go every six hours or so. Remember, breakfast was at 10:30 AM.

Some of us, about twenty, stayed and moved onto the night shoot. Our holding area now was a bakery that was closed for the night, but the staff was baking for the next day. Unfortunately, we were not treated to any food!

We filmed in front of the Old Executive Building. The scene was between Allison Janney (CJ) and Brad. I got placed at the beginning of the shot. We did a number of takes as the scene involved them walking up the street as they talked. Again the filming drew a crowd as there was a cafe across the street and there were tables and chairs out.

We filmed for about four hours. Our release time came at about 12:30 AM.

After filming this day, I felt pretty confident I would end up on the screen for at least a few seconds. As it turns out, I had some pretty good "air time" in the airport scene. I was on screen total for probably ten seconds in the airport. That's a lot of time for a background actor. I also had another three to four seconds in the night scene, but my back was toward the camera, as I was walking away from the camera. It was a surreal experience to see myself on TV. But it was exciting!!

Production: West Wing
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Production Co.: Warner Bros.
Date: April 29/30, 2001

My colleague and I arrived at RFK stadium and get on the bus to take us to an as of yet unknown location. I knew it was going to be a long night, but I didn't know it was going to be as long as it ended up to be when PA Kelly told us on the bus that if we couldn't hang around until the sun came up, then get off now. Most of us new we were filming the final scene of the season finale.

We arrived at the U.S. Department of Commerce building. As we pulled up to it, the street in front was lined with trucks and vans and there were cables going every which way into the front of the building. As I stepped off the bus right there at the steps, Sheen, Lowe, and Shiff were chatting with some people I didn't recognize.

We walked into the building and into a large foyer. The room was set up for a press conference with chairs, a podium, and bleachers for T.V. cameras. We were ushered down to our holding area in the cafeteria below. It still beat the room at the Kennedy Center. After settling down, we took off to find the restrooms. The initial rest rooms we found were back upstairs and all the way to the opposite end of the building. What a hike! All was not lost however, for on our way back we spotted John Spencer coming out of an elevator in the way back of the building. This was the first time I had seen Mr. Spencer at any of the West Wing shoots I have done. As we made our way back to the holding area, I spotted Rob Lowe and Allison Janney up at the podium. We made our way back downstairs to wait our call time.

Again, I can't stress enough for anyone who is serious about starting an acting career, take advantage of your time in holding to meet other actors. I spent a lot of my down time talking (networking) with other actors. I even had the opportunity to talk with some of the crew about their jobs. The contacts you make can lead to so many roads.

After a lot of shuffling around, we ended up way in the back of the room. I started to get concerned that being all the way back there was going to cost us ( I was sitting with three others) a good seat. Sure enough we began to see folks with prop press stuff (cameras, pads, video cameras). They then made the announcement that we would be going upstairs. I thought to myself, "Great, we're going to end up in the back rows." However, by the time we got up there, we were fillers for the rows. Dylan (2nd Assistant Director) hooked me up, and I ended up in the fourth row near the end.

As it turns out, I was in the same row as the supporting actor (playing a reporter) who gave the very last spoken line of the season finale! Pretty neat. The only bad part about that is when I first sat down, I was two seats away from her. After the director got done moving her around, she was all the way down the other end of the row near my other friend. Well he should get a piece of screen out of it!

Okay, so we are all seated. It's about 8:30PM. Now the filming can begin. The first scene is with CJ and her leading the press conference. We do a couple of takes. At one point when the crew is setting the camera angle, they ask Allison (who is pointing a finger at the crowd) to move her finger around until they get it were they want it. At one point she moves her finger in such a way as to give the bird. The set erupted in laughter.

The next bit of filming was a close-up with Janel Malrooney (Donna) and N as they reacted to the press conference. That was a short bit of filming except Tommy Schlamme spent some time getting the background actors set just right. Afterwards, some quick filming of a conversation between John Spencer and Richard Schiff (Tobey) as they too watched the President talk.

It was now time for Martin Sheen to come up to the podium for his scene. He came in wet and there was a crew person that kept spraying him with water between takes. We later learned that in the episode, a tropical storm had made its way into DC. During filming they had a big water sprayer outside the nearest window as well as simulated lightning.

Can I just tell, Martin Sheen is great to watch! He is such a great actor. In between takes he would make gestures or say stuff that would get us laughing. At one point we laughed too loud and Schlamme "scolded" us.

The last bit of filming for this scene was of the group making their way into the press conference. That was a neat sight to see. First came the Secret Service. Then the staff came in and took their places. Finally, Martin Sheen made his entrance and we all stood up and cheered (on film).

We eventually wrapped this scene. For most of the 200+ extras, it was time to go home (at about 4 AM). But the crew had one more scene to film. It was too early for me to go to work, but it didn't make sense for me to go home. They needed about fifteen people to stay. I turned to my friend and asked if he wanted to stay. We stayed.

The scene we filmed was the motorcade coming into the parking lot. In this scene we got to see why Martin was soaked. I huge crane had a rainmaker at the end, and it was hoisted high in the sky. Everything got wet (except us as we were under cover.)

They finished the scene after two takes of driving the motorcade around the block. It was a neat spectacle as the motorcade was led by the fake police motorcycles and the Secret Service SUVs. They only filmed them getting out of the limos, and getting wet, once.

When filming was finally complete, those of us who were still around got to see something pretty special. For the most part, West Wing had wrapped for the season with the wrap of that scene. Sheen, Lowe, Spencer, and Hill all hugged each other good-bye as they wouldn't see each other on a daily basis until sometime in July. What a neat sight to see, and a great way to end a day, er night of filming.

Production: West Wing
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Production Co.: Warner Bros.
Date: November 18, 2001

Well, it was time for another long night on the set of West Wing. We filmed at the Navy War Memorial. The first surprise for any extra is were their holding area will be. Tonight it was a restaurant that had gone out of business. The only two cast members that were there were Brad Whitford and Mary-Louise Parker. The scenes we filmed were of some of the first meeting between the two when Josh is trying to woo her.

Tonite was a mixture of good and bad for me. The bad is that I learned another extra lesson: Find out as much as you can from whoever hires you about the set and whether or not it will be outside. I did not bring a jacket with me and that cost me an opportunity to be used. The scene was supposed to be a cold December night and in reality it was about 55-60. Not coat weather for me. So the moral of the story is bring extra wardrobe. It may even "pay-off" in the end. It did for me (see my 2/24/02 entry below).

The good part about the night though is that I met the 2nd Assistant Directors and had good conversations with the Production Assistants. I am pursuing a career as an Assistant Director and that was an important step for me. So I spent the night watching the filming and taking in all the aspects of the shoot which was just fine by me.

I still got paid!!

Production: West Wing
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Production Co.: Warner Bros.
Date: February 24, 2002

Okay...Here goes my report for the evening at DAR Constitution Hall.

I think we filmed a scene that will air next Wed. (March 6). We played various upscale folks at a party. MS, JP,DH, & AJ were the only cast members there. TS was directing. We had a call time of 6PM. We arrived at RFK and our PA Kelly told us to prepare for a long night. It was a good probability that we'd see the sun come up. This is nothing new as most of the WW night shoots have done lasted at least 10-12 hrs. The room we were in was not huge. It looked to be a foyer for the entrance into the main hall. Tonite it was filled with tables and chairs and a bar. A formal dining room if you will.

The night was spent filming a scene were MS and DH walk out onto the balcony to talk. AJ comes out with a message and then JS comes out and talks. We filmed from about 9PM until 6AM. There were coverage shots and a crane shot. The last hour of the shoot was a close-up of the four cast members' conversation on the balcony.

I have no expectation that any of us will be able to be see once the episode airs. We were as background as you can get. The camera was very far away. The only ones that may be able to be seen were the ones near the window. We were there for color and to make it seem like there were party go-ers in the background.

Now on to the part of the night that was a real joy for me.

One of the biggest taboos of the "extra" business is to not "bother" the actors. I've done WW since Nov. '00 and I have learned that this cast is approachable and often times they will approach you first! This happened tonite with both MS & JS. MS is known for being very friendly with everyone on set. There were about 50 extras and he probably asked at least 35 of us our names and talked with us throughout the night. I had my "WW Companion Book" on set with me, thanks to Traveler, and I asked him to sign it. Towards the end of the night, I got a pic with him.

The following is an example of how generous a person MS is and how he tries to make the "common folk" see that actors are not these intimidating awe inspiring people we sometimes make them to be. During one of the breaks, I went to the snack truck. As I walked back upstairs, MS was at the top talking with some extras and crew. There were two college-aged guys there holding a camera and being awed that they were standing next to MS. Not sure how they made it past security and to the terrace balcony, but they were there. Apparently they were big fans of Allison Janney and wanted a pic with her. Martin proceeded to bring them onto the set. They became his guests and stayed the whole night, watching us film and getting pics and autographs. They even at lunch with us which was a great meal, as usual.

My favorite part of the evening came with my conversations with John Spencer. I have been a fan of his since L.A. Law. At the beginnignn of the evening he started talkign to me during a take. I, the daring soul I am, asked him a question a few minutes later. I aksed him about the differences of working ont he two shows (LA LAW vs WEST WING). The first thing he said was that both have great writers. He then said that shooting West Wing is much tougher than LA LAW was. The hours are longer. He asked about why I do the extra work and I told him of my aspirations to be an AD. I told him how as an extra I love to just watch the production and just absorb things. We talked about that for a few minutes. It was a great experience for me. I don't mean in a star struck kind of way. I don't really get that way (okay so I did when I met Steven Spielberg, but who wouldn't). It was just the fact that there is this sterotype that exists that principal actors are too good to talk with extras. This cast shatters that image. They come across and make themselves no better than me. Except of cours they are getting paid a Hell of a lot more to be awake at 3AM than me.

Martin is also a character on set. The whole night he was joking around with the other actors and extras. He would make up songs about the other actors and sing them during takes. It was hilarious.

I eventually got the rest of the cast to sign my West Wing companion book. I also got pics with everyone but Allison. By the time I got her to sign my book it was 5AM and she was freezing (and probably tired).

Like I did in November, I had the opportunity to talk with more of the ADs and PAs and network in the hopes of getting some PA work. As much as I enjoy being an extra on West Wing, I hope to move behind the camera soon.

The "pay-off" I talked about in one of the posts above came as we were released. All the extras playing formal guests were released at 5:30AM. However, I had given my jacket to someone who was playing a secret service agent who had not yet been released. I ended up getting a $15 bonus for providing wardrobe! While he filmed, I watched the cast and crew at work one last time

They'll be back in late April/early May to round out their four trips to DC. I'm looking forward to it.

UPDATE: The production actually never made it back in the Spring. They filmed scenes from the season finale in good 'ole New York City instead.

Production: West Wing
Director: Christopher Misiano
Production Co.: Warner Bros.
Date:September 13, 2002

I was finally able to do a Summer West Wing shoot. Usually, they are here during my most busiest time at work, but their DC dates were pushed way back. We filmed at the Navy War Memorial again. The surprise this time was that the gutted out restaurant which was our holding area in November, was now a fully operating restaurant! Our holding area was now the place we ate lunch at in November. The wonders of DC. The only regular cast member that were there was Mary Louise-Parker.

The scene was shot outside at a make shift outside restaurant where she is having a "date" (i think). It turns out that it was not my favorite experience on West Wing.

Many of the regular crew were not there (ADs & PAs) which for me was not as exciting to watch. I guess the fact that none of the "regular" cast were theither played some part in the experience. To top it off, I was placed in the WAY background as someone who walks by the restaurant. The one positive was that it was the shortest

shoot for me on a West Wing set. We were released in SIX hours! Don't get me wrong, I still love working on the show and will jump at every chance I get.

Here are the BIG studio films I've been an extra on
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