Friday, June 21, 2002

Martin Sheen called our house yesterday.

It's so funny to hear a message on your answering machine from Martin Sheen. He was calling for Cathy, who is the key second AD on the show, "The West Wing." He calls her Red, because of her red hair, and began the message with, "Hey Red, this is Martin Sheen." That just cracks me up.

I've met Martin a few times when I was an extra on the show, and one time before, just after September 11th. I was living an isolated existence in my apartment in West Hollywood during the throws of my depression, unemployed, and needed human contact. Not only that, a purpose. So, I called Cathy and asked her if I could extra on the show. Cathy being Cathy, she said "of course," and signed me on to be a "White House staffer." And, not only would I get human contact, I'd get paid.

I'd been to the set a couple of times before, so I was vaguely familiar with it, but I'd never been in front of the camera. I'd imagined that I'd be sitting at a desk or something, but when the AD led me into the White House lobby and started giving me stage direction and the prop person handed me a laptop computer that I was supposed to close on cue, then get up and walk down the hall on cue after Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford walked by, I became scared shitless. I felt naked and exposed, and wanted something to grab onto but there was only me. I imagined all the things that could go wrong. Tripping, dropping the laptop, crashing into Rob Lowe, or just plain freezing. I had no idea that so much was expected of an extra, and my heart rate and body temperature started to rise as I watched them set up the shot. There was another extra, a man in his fifties who was paired with me, and I told him that I'd never done this before and was scared shitless. He reassured me and said that everything would be fine as I wondered why I'd put myself in this position. Most of all, I didn't want to do anything that would embarrass Cathy.

Then, I remembered this thing that Baryshnikov used to always say when he was in rehearsal with his dancers, "Don't think, just do." So I stopped thinking about it, and realized that of course I could stand up and close a laptop and walk on cue. I'd "just do," and trust myself to do it right. And, that's exactly what happened. We went through a couple of rehearsals, and when the real thing came, I was completely at ease.

Sure, the first time the first AD yelled, "Picture's up!" then "Rolling!" then "Action!" my heart fluttered a bit, but I made it though just fine. I hit all my cues, I didn't fall, and both Bradley Whitford and Rob Lowe emerged unscathed. Between takes they talked politics and I realized that I was starting to have fun.

We did about four takes of that shot and then moved to another one. It was fascinating to watch the Hollywood machine at work, and even more so, that everyone knew what they were doing. Not just the actors, but the people who set up the shots, and the steady cam operator who wears a contraption that makes him look like Robocop. There's a guy who puts tape on the floor to "mark" where the actors walk, and a wardrobe person, all the grips and lighting people, the script supervisors and dialogue coaches, the AD's and DGA trainee who rounds up the extras and helps give direction. There are stand ins for each actor for setting up shots and so much more. So much goes on before the director yells "action," yet it looks so effortless and unintentional on the screen.

The West Wing crew and actors are a particularly nice group of people, save for Rob Lowe who is a weirdo. I'll explain Rob Lowe in a minute. Cathy had already paved the way for me by telling everyone to be really nice and helpful to me, since I wasn't a regular at this, and everyone was extremely considerate and helpful. I'll admit, that it was nice to be treated as a favored guest on a Hollywood set, and made the few days that I did the extra work that much more enjoyable. Cathy is one of the top bananas on the set, not to mention, really well-liked. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't enjoy being on the right side of the Hollywood pecking order. I was a guest, but a guest that got to participate in everything and see what it was like to be in the middle of a big Hollywood production. At the time, I was contemplating leaving Los Angeles for Baltimore, and was getting my last few doses of Hollywood in before I left. The episode that I was in was the Christmas episode, so there was a break coming up for the cast and crew.

Me on set in the Oval Office behind the President's desk. It was dark in there, so the picture quality isn't great. The tag hanging around my neck is a "White House Staffer" ID. I wore a red turtleneck since we were supposed to look "in season" for the Christmas episode.

When I got there, everyone had warned me about Rob Lowe. That he didn't like to be touched, talked to, and could single someone out whom he felt got in his way during a scene. Of course, on my first day of being an extra, almost all the scenes they put me in were with Rob Lowe. However, I wasn't worried about him. After going through the hell of depression, I understood that everyone has their quirks and deals with them in their own way. I may not agree with them, but I understood that while on set that I was on his turf, and because of that I was respectful. Anything I thought about him as a human being, positive or negative, should not even register in the slightest on my face.

I just love that about being older. In my early twenties, I may have tried to make it obvious to Rob that I didn't approve of his reputation or that I wasn't intimidated with his celebrity, but being older and much wiser, I understand that life isn't "all about me." I can be generous toward people and allow them room. And some people require more room than others and that doesn't take anything away from me. On that set during that scene, it was all about Rob Lowe and Bradley Whitford. They were of more value than I was to the show, and I was just fine with that.

However, if in the "real world," Rob stole my parking place or cut in front of me in line at the grocery store, at that time I would have no problem speaking up as it would be appropriate. Turned out that Rob was fine, all day. I was more worried about closing laptops and hitting my cues.

As the day went on, I learned that it was important to know where the camera was. Knowing where it was made it easy for me to understand what was going on and how my actions came into play with the actors' scenes. It was all just so interesting, and the fact that it all worked just constantly amazed me. Sometimes it would hit me that I was on set of the #1 rated drama and what a privilege it was to be a part of it. I'd have one of those moments like in the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime, "And you may ask yourself, did I get here?"

My stepbrother Dan laughs at me when I tell him this story. He said, "Anne, most people when they want to jolt themselves out of depression force themselves to go to a party, the movies, or out with friends. You, you make one phone call and go to be on the nation's highest rated TV drama to get out of your depression."

Hey man, whatever works.