“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.”
– Cheryl Strayed
It’s 9.30am on a beautiful Sunday morning. My clothes are soaked, there are 8 fresh stitches in my face, blood is caked and drying in my hair, I haven’t slept for almost 30 hours and I’m searching for an ATM in a town I don’t know the name of. Oh, and I’m not sure where my underwear is.
Considering everything, I’m in pretty good spirits.
Our story begins a week earlier. A woman approached Philippe and I in our hostel. She was casting stand-ins for the lead actors in a film and Philippe might just fit the bill. She took some photos and said she’d be in touch. Philippe was cut at the last minute but I wormed my way into being an extra on a different day. The money was insignificant but I’d never seen a professional film set and, well, I had nothing better to do (#funemployment).
I was picked up in Bogotá along with 8 other backpackers at 7am on Saturday morning. We drove 4 hours northwest to a small town called Guaduas (I found out the name later). We ate lunch before going through hair and makeup and getting costumes. I was dressed in a flattering bright orange patchwork maxi skirt that looked like it had been repurposed from several tablecloths, and a heavy dark green sweater.
The set was a small cobbled courtyard with a fountain surrounded by a two story colonial building. It was supposed to be somewhere in South America in the early 80’s, which explained my maxi skirt. I was told that in the first scene I would stand in the doorway of the ‘bar’ and watch the band playing in the courtyard until my extra partner-dude (Remy) brought me a drink from inside. We would then walk together through the courtyard toward the door that led to the street outside. I am capable of both accepting drinks and walking through courtyards, so I felt confident.
A guy standing in the doorway beside me offered his hand and introduced himself as Alex. I had briefly googled the film and due to his vaguely familiar face, way-more-elaborate-than-mine costume and better-than-average looks, I assumed he was one of the lead actors. I proceeded to make a thorough fool of myself by removing the filter between my brain and my mouth. He gave me a strange look and made an excuse to leave. Next I started joking with a lady about my horrific costume, then asked what her job was. “Costume designer,” she responded. She fiddled with my outfit a bit before walking away. Strike two.
I looked across the courtyard and noticed Daniel Radcliffe walk in. I did this super cool staring with my mouth open thing as a grown-up Harry Potter walked toward and then past me through the doorway.
Two hours later Remy and I were still walking across the courtyard. Once the director was satisfied with one angle the camera, lights, dimmer/reflector, etc would be painstakingly disassembled and reassembled for a different angle and we’d start again. It would have been boring except that Remy was watching the replays of each take and we made a game of determining exactly where we needed to walk, and stop, and chat, and turn, in order to be in as many shots as possible. We were also supposed to look like we were interacting with each other but we had to be silent so the actors’ lines could be recorded clearly, so Remy and I mouthed ridiculous things (mostly penis jokes, duh) to keep ourselves entertained.
In the next scene I was placed with two other extras at a table in the ‘bar’, adjacent to the table where the actors were sitting. We did our best to have a silent conversation, silently cheers our bottles and silently be served more ‘beer’ (soda water, sigh) while the actors performed their lines. In between takes D-Rad would take out a book and read a few pages, so I casually asked what he was reading. We chatted about South American authors and I recommended one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ short stories. I mentally high-fived myself for not saying anything stupid. Yusssss.
A few takes later Daniel leant toward me and said “I don’t mean to sound like I’ve been staring at you this whole time, but you’re REALLY good at talking silently. I mean, I often find it distracting when extras are trying to mime conversation, but you’re really good.” I stared at him, dumbfounded. “… exactly what every woman wants to hear from a man?” I got a laugh from everyone, including the director. Another mental high five. I put aside my dignity and self-respect and asked if I could get a photo with him later. He gracefully apologized that he wasn’t allowed but said he could give me an autograph instead and asked for my name.
I hadn’t mentioned this exchange to any of the extras who weren’t in the bar, so I looked like a total hero as we were walking off-set later and Daniel Radcliffe ran after me shouting “Emma! Emma!” and handed me his autograph (on monkey stationery, no less). I casually-not-casually mentioned his bizarre compliment from earlier and became a legend.
Filming went late so we were put up in a hostel in town. It was the last major day of filming in Colombia and some of the smokin’ hot Colombian extras were invited to the wrap party. We naturally took the invitation to include all of us and arrived at the party en masse. No one said anything about a bunch of lowly extras crashing the party; the drinks flowed freely and everyone was delightful. Between filming and the party I had a chance to talk to the director, first AD, a producer, the director of photography, makeup artists, the set producer, production designer and most of the actors.
At some point one of the actors and the director stripped to their underwear and jumped in the pool. Along with several others I wasn’t far behind. When people started climbing up on each other’s shoulders, Quentin, a makeup artist, paddled over and gallantly asked if I’d be his shoulder-whore. What a line – take note, gentlemen!
The sun is up, the bar is down to just white wine and we are about to leave when someone jumps back into the pool, fully clothed. Seconds later, I follow. Head first. Into the shallow end. I break the surface to hysteria and am confused to realise I’m the centre of it all. People are staring at me and yelling, pointing at my head. Nothing hurts, but when I touch my face my hand comes away covered in blood. My first thought is that I’ve broken my nose, again. “Tranquilo, tranquilo,” I try to calm things down as I’m dragged from the pool. “It’s just a flesh wound.” A cloth is pressed to my head and I’m thrown into a van.
Enter Miguel, the hero of our story. We met earlier during the party and he jumps in the van with me. In the emergency room he translates as Nurse Fanny asks me questions and cleans the wound. Some dude wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt walks in and turns out to be my doctor, Andrés. He assesses me briefly before leaving and returning with another man, both looking grim.
The new man explains apologetically in strongly accented English that there are two ways for me to be treated. “We can go the official way and it takes a long time, we have to contact the embassy, it’s very slow.” I don’t know why they’d need to contact the embassy but I let him continue as blood gushes from my forehead. “If you have money to pay we can treat you right away. It will be much easier. But whatever you want is okay.” I think that under the circumstances I can probably pay upfront and still be reimbursed by my insurance company, but I want to know how much it will cost me in case they won’t reimburse.
“How much will it be?”
“Oh, it depends, it depends. I cannot say.”
“¿Más o menos?”
“Maybe.. (grave pause) … Maybe ninety? One hundred?”
I stare at him in shock, “¿Pesos? ¿Cien mil pesos?”
“Yes, maybe more, maybe less.”
This sounds alarming, but a hundred thousand Colombian pesos is less than forty-five Canadian dollars. And it’s exactly what I’m being paid for being an extra. I try not to laugh as I assure them I can pay the bill.
Our hero Miguel holds my hand as Dr Andrés gives me two shots of local anaesthetic. He drapes one of those sheets with a hole in it over the wound, covering my face, presumably so he can pretend that I’m not a person while he stitches me up. I spend the entire time ineptly cracking jokes in my terrible Spanish. I’m incredibly amused by the entire debacle; there’s a remote possibility I’m still drunk. Andrés is very kind and thorough, and patiently indulges my clever repartee.
After receiving a prescription for painkillers and antibiotics I leave my passport at the hospital as collateral and, still soaked, I wetly search the town for an ATM. The first two are out of order. As I’m waiting for the third to dispense my cash, I quickly glance out the door. No one is looking, so I peel off my wet jeans and pull on dry shorts from my bag. I assume my underwear is still drying in a tree somewhere from the first swim. Miguel gives me a funny look as I walk out in a different outfit, but he’s clearly at a point where nothing I do surprises him, so he says nothing.
All the other extras left for Bogotá hours ago and it appears that I’ve been abandoned by the production. Miguel isn’t working, and besides, he’s the transport coordinator and has nothing to do with extras. He’s just a nice guy (no caps). After paying my bill and liberating my passport I’m exhausted and feeling pretty overwhelmed by the events of the past few hours. Miguel makes sure I get a ride back to Bogotá with some of the crew and I arrive at my hostel 40 hours after leaving it. As I walk to my room, no-one looks twice. I ponder the irony of being paid a hundred thousand pesos to be in a film with Daniel Radcliffe, only to injure myself at the wrap party and pay a hundred thousand pesos for stitches that will leave me with a jagged scar on my forehead. Not quite a lightning bolt, but close enough?