The Stigma of Stereotypes
When I moved to California several years ago I landed a job as a background artist (aka “extra” but that’s derogatory to those in the business). It was the best job I ever had. I never could have endured in that environment during my early years when I was ripe with hope and desperate to leave my mark on the world.
But as an over-forty-year-old, I was all about it. It fascinated me. In a weird and overt way, a television set is a societal microcosm, heavy on stereotypes and the belief that everyone should stay among their own kind. Fear of interacting with the wrong people in the strata of this contrived social world would seal your fate and illuminate your less-than qualities.
But, if we are wise, being in that environment can really open one’s eyes.
I remember sitting with my family watching television one night suggesting that I could be that ‘lady in the background having coffee’. After a quick investigation, I learned that the process is open to anyone. All you need is an inclination and free time. I read and reread the instructions on the company’s website about how to sign up and grew more and more excited.
I was going to do it!
I filled out forms, gathered a small arsenal of identification and drove hours through LA morning traffic to my destination. It was exhilarating and a little nerve-wracking.
The Central Casting building is a one level brick structure that resides on an abbreviated street in Burbank, California. As I approached the site I was nervous, excited and ready for adventure. Registering to be background had been on my bucket list for a while. It was a unique experience that seemed exciting to a girl who grew up on the Alberta prairie.
Apparently, this dream is a very popular one because I had to walk past a snaking line of people already waiting their turn: Hipsters with guitars, unaffected pretty boys on cell phones, downscale hobo types, and leather clad bikers. Then there was me, the proverbial suburban housewife in a pencil skirt. I was clearly a minority in this odd world of intended stereotypes.
After two hours of waiting in line, we were crudely ushered inside revealing bare, institutional surroundings. The contrast was violent. Like cattle, we were stuffed into a room drenched in gray and flat green used primarily in prisons and mental hospitals. The resemblance may not have been a coincidence.
There were metal folding chairs in haphazard rows and we all rush into this oversized, sun-deprived cell keen on finding a seat. I sat down in order of my entry so as not to appear pushy. On one side of me was a cherub faced young black man in a long white polo shirt that reached his knees. On the other side of me was a large, gray haired biker with few teeth. The stark contrast might have been curious in the real world, but this was show biz. It took all kinds. We all belonged in this space.
We were greeted by a seemingly micro-chipped young blond who was chipper beyond necessary and squeaked like a dying furnace. She was at the helm of this particular wave of hope.
The first order of business was filling out basic forms. My forms had already been typed and printed because the website had that option and I wanted to appear prepared. It occurred to me that most people in this room probably didn’t have easy access to a computer.
The Barbie-esque blond began gratingly, “Welcome to Central Casting! Please turn off your cell phones! I want to go over the forms with you so we can be sure they are filled in correctly. Starting at the top, print your name and address.”
“Ma’am,” interjected a relatively typical looking middle-aged man in khakis, “what if we don’t have an address?”
“Just put down where you get your mail,” she answered like this question comes up all the time.
We continued in this fashion for nearly six pages.
Form completion took an hour of excruciating patience. The throng grew restless with some patrons talking openly on cell phones.
“In conclusion, I’d like to remind you that when you go to a job, please wear underwear!”
Clearly, common sense is sparse among background folk. (Although, I once arrived at a location shoot the night before and forgot underwear. I had to buy some at a local Walgreens. Just sayin’!)
The air grew dense with the smell of sweaty men and perfumed women. Once forms were finally done, we were instructed to line up before a desk manned by an individual who had clearly worked his share of unruly throngs. As the crowd morphed into a standing iteration of chaos, efficiency and common courtesy evaporated.
I stood up.
Michael Smith, my portly neighbor in oversized clothes, kindly introduced himself. Having been a special education teacher in my former life, I could tell immediately that his cognitive abilities may have been slightly delayed. My suspicions endeared me to him even more than his gentle demeanor and kind eyes.
“I’ve done this before,” he stated matter-of-factly.
“Really? You’ve been on TV?” I ask intrigued.
“I was in a movie.”
“Cool! What movie were you in?”
“The Soloist with Jamie Foxx. They came to the homeless shelter and asked if people wanted to be in the movie. I was like, yeah!”
“Were you staying at the homeless shelter?” I inquired gently.
“Yeah, I had a job with a department store for eight years, but they closed up.”
“That had to be rough,” I empathized.
“I stayed at the homeless shelter a while then was able to get an apartment. I live with my girlfriend.”
“Oh, does she work?”
“She’s on disability. I help her out.”
“Do you have family around?”
“Not really. My mom lives north of here, but I don’t get up there often. It’s a long ride out on the train.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I commiserated. “Are you trying to break into show business?”
“Just looking for a paycheck. I used to deejay, but it didn’t work out. I like to cook too.”
“Me too! I like to cook.”
“Yeah, I tried to get a job. It’s hard out there. Just nothin’ out there for a guy like me,” he said still sounding hopeful.
My heart sank a little. He had self-identified as’ a guy like me’. I wondered what he meant. What he thought of himself.
“I bet it’s tough,” I said in my best teacher voice. I wanted to reach out and hug him.
“I just wanna do something that matters, you know?”
Yes, Michael, I do know.
We all want to something that matters.
We all just want to matter.
“Next!” cried the disenfranchised photographer who was charged with taking headshots.
I sincerely wished Michael the best of luck and stepped up to the counter. After several tries with the unaffected and annoyed photographer, I received a headshot that was only slightly more attractive than my driver’s license (which may or may not have resembled Charlize Therone in her movie role as a serial killer).
In the end, my killer photo didn’t matter that much.
How we see one another when the stereotypes, labels and assumptions fall away is what really matters.
The Busy Buddha
When we look at something from the outside, we often make assumptions. This chicken looks like typical breaded chicken. It's only when we look on the inside that we truly understand what makes this chicken dish delicious!
Share your own personal experience with stereotypes.