Detroit New Hollywood Vegas: Notes from an Extra


“Who wants to get SPIT on?” Drew Barrymore yells to the crowd of Whip It extras from the edge of the roller derby track. We call her Drew. She’s decked out as her Hurl Scouts alter ego, Smashley Simpson: skimpy green vest with merit badges, rainbow leggings, rainbow hair capped with hard green plastic. If I wasn’t so insignificant, I would say it’s hard to take a director in roller skates seriously.

“You’ll be on screen!” she sweetens the deal, and I send up yet another split-second cry to the gods of dignity.

All extras in earshot merge into one roiling creature with many cheering voices and many upraised hands.

Half an hour later, the scene is finally ready to shoot, and Drew has to rile everyone up again. Eve can barely stand up on roller skates, and her first attempt isn’t the spit-shower that the director envisioned. After upending the red Solo cup, she just kind of disgorges the contents of her mouth onto the gelled shell of an Asian kid’s hair. The spit bounces off and strikes the girl behind him in the face. She cries out in ecstasy.

A few thousand dollars later, Eve gets it right, plucking a spectator’s beer like one offered to a marathon runner and liberally misting the Elect.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention it was beer spit. I, too, had thought normal spit was rock bottom.


Later, Juliette Lewis will decide to stage dive onto just me. Later, Drew Barrymore will make Alia Shawkat cry in front of a hundred extras. Later, Juno will face-plant. Hard. And the whole warehouse will react like JFK had just been shot.

But right now I’m wondering if there’s some kind of algorithm for how many fake people versus real people you can get away with for a crowd scene. Right now I’m the only “actor” on set actually hiding from the camera. It’s not hard. The roller derby bleachers are peppered with the torsos of dummies stapled to the wood, their expressionless faces a relief from everyone else’s fervor. I fit right in.

The stage’s stage: makeshift roller derby track bounded by padded railings, a roller skate mirror ball, an illuminated Texas flag, a million wires running through grime and puddles, an ancient derelict warehouse haphazardly converted into a movie studio for Hollywood’s supposed supplanting to Michigan.

Today I’m like the playboy who shows up late to the party and finds everyone already coked out, for the first time surveying the wreckage from a sober distance. The cutthroat scramble for a miniscule amount of screen time, the crippling banter of attempted networking, the feigned suave coolness, the duplicity.

At first I was worried that a PA would track me down, tell me to get back to work. But the next few hours confirmed my suspicion that this is the only job in the world where I could go hide for fourteen hours and nobody would notice or care. Generally, the producers don’t need to trouble themselves about this type of negligence, drawn as we are to any chance of being captured and projected on the glowing rectangle for all to see. We want it so bad that we’re even willing to work for it.


Not one line—three! Thirty whole words. I stared down in disbelief at the two stapled pages of the Whip It script they’d printed for those of us lucky enough to be reading for a real speaking part: the coach of a rival derby team, the Fight Attendants. How could they possibly have not cast this part already? He exchanges witty banter with Andrew Wilson, brother of Luke and Owen. He actually advances the action.

When they’d called me last night to ask if I’d read for the part, I assumed there’d be a line out the door of young, talented, starry-eyed candidates. Not so. The only long line I had to stand in that morning was for general extras check-in; when I told the PA at the table my name and, lowering my voice, that I was reading for a part, sure enough there was a glorious asterisk by my name on the spreadsheet, and I was ushered to a roped-off corner of the extras tent.

Separated from the derby rink by a wall, this tent could easily house a small circus. There are two rows of long folding tables all crammed together, scant space between them to scoot your chair back and excuse your way to the too-nearby porta-potties, much less room for a bag with the changes in wardrobe we’re asked to bring. This is where we extras spend ninety percent of our time, most of us reading or listening to music, too scared or proud to pass out headshots or business cards or talk shop like the real go-getters. There’s a manic clash between incredible boredom and the prospect of suddenly being called upon and getting some kind of big opportunity.

There were only about a dozen other guys in the roped-off portion, and between my attempts to look neither too competitive nor too jocular, I learned that they were casting for two parts. My hopes doubled. We were stationed near the booth where Costumes had to ensure that people weren’t wearing trademarked logos, and our fellow extras were doing a bad job of hiding their curiosity and envy. I tried to ignore them, tried to ignore everyone, ran my lines through my head in a million different ways. What’s up, Razor—you ready to forfeit?…What are you—nuts?…Sure—why not—It’s not like you guys have a chance. We might as well get some free drinks in the process.


Later, on Cedar Rapids, John C. Reilly will shout insults in my general direction as I dance at a lesbian wedding. Later, on Gifted Hands, I will be made to sprint to set because NO ONE is allowed to arrive after Cuba. Later, on American Virgin, I will not be eligible when they ask for girls willing to flash the camera.

I’d wanted to be involved in filmmaking since I was a kid, but somehow I was 25 and I was just now taking the tiniest steps in that direction. I had worked for the past two years in Residence Life at Interlochen, an arts boarding school near Traverse City, and had gotten some free film education by helping out with their Motion Picture Arts Department. My sister is a professor at Eastern Michigan University, which is not far from Detroit, and I was staying with her for just a few weeks before perhaps making the whole LA mistake. I was sleeping in the basement of the house that she and her husband shared with their four cats, and I was already feeling like an imposition. Somehow I’d socked away about fifteen grand from my previous job, but my fear of watching it dwindle sent me to do pickup construction work most days. I’d visited LA the summer before in an attempt to inspire myself to take the plunge. I was scared but determined. At about that time, Michigan passed the most generous filmmaking tax incentives of any state in the country, and suddenly I believed in fate again. Either that, or I’d just been looking for anything to help me chicken out of moving to the other side of the country with no real prospects for success.


Eventually, a PA came and took us to a back part of the warehouse where all the trailers were. Just like you see in movies about movies, the stars’ names were on pieces of paper taped to the doors, but I didn’t see any of them anywhere. Our group split in two, those reading for the coach’s part and those reading for a referee’s part. We were all avoiding eye contact.

I was a little worried that they would strap roller skates on me and ask me to do some pirouettes. The only reason I’d gotten a call for the part was that I’d listed “skating” as a talent on my resume. Ice skating, I’d failed to clarify. Also, this was my second day on set, so I was worried about having to lie to them when they asked me if I’d been on camera yet as an extra. “I’ve seen way too much of that fluorescent blue jacket,” the extras wrangler had told me the night before.

For once, they didn’t make us wait too long. Some minor producer led me to a back alley and told me to go ahead.

I read my lines. The Razor. The nuts. The free drinks.

I make no claims of being a great actor, but here’s what I know for sure: when I finished and that minor producer raised his eyebrows and said “That was a really great reading,” he meant it. He wasn’t just mollifying me.


That was at about 10 a.m. Eight hours since breakfast, and they haven’t fed us yet.

It’s summer in Detroit, but we’re dressed like it’s winter in Austin, our discomfort increased by the movie lights and all the strangers we’re forced into proximity with. The casting call was for “edgy, punk rock, rockabilly” types, so tattoos and spiked mohawks and crazy clothes are getting these people work for once. But most of the extras are, like me, pretty unconvincing.

The other guys who auditioned for the Fight Attendants coach—I keep tabs on where they are at all times. Two of them appear to have stricken up an unlikely friendship and are walking everywhere together. Don’t they know that at least one of them won’t be famous tomorrow? I try to keep these douchebag thoughts at bay, but I can’t help hearing my old schoolmates telling their friends that I used to sit next to him or her in whatever class. I can’t help thinking about Actor’s Guild vouchers and how much I’d get paid for a speaking part. About how I’m being made to sit and watch and wait to see if my life will change. Should I take a screen name?

Now another one of the Fight Attendant coach hopefuls is talking to a PA, the same PA who rolled his eyes and sighed the one time I asked for an update on my future. “If you get it, you’ll find out,” he told me. But now he’s laughing with this other dude, and I’m suddenly positive that I’m missing out on a crucial bit of information. Like they had a meeting in which they announced that I got the part but, when I wasn’t there, they shrugged and gave it to someone else.

At least the stars are sweating just as bad as us. I can tell, by Costumes drying out Jimmy Fallon’s polyester blazer, the spot of darker green on Kristen Wiig’s uniform, the yellow tint of Andrew Wilson’s T-shirt.

The camera and lighting rig is attached to the back of a four-wheeler, and they keep trying to film this pivotal scene in which Juno rockets by two Holy Rollers for a point or something (I still can’t figure out the rules). The problem is that nobody except the women culled from the local derby leagues are very good at skating. Zoe Bell is pretty good, but I feel like she keeps wiping out with extra gusto just to remind us she was Beatrix Kiddo’s and Xena’s stunt double. I’m developing strange feelings for Zoe Bell that are almost distracting me from my nervousness. “I’ve been to New Zealand,” is the best hello I’ve come up with so far, but I’m sure she’s tired of that being the one thing people talk to her about. Little do I know that I will soon be standing silently next to her as she smokes a cigarette and talks to other people about Kiwi culture.

The extras have been positioned around half the arena, both in the stands and around the track. They’ve been asked to pantomime their cheering, and it’s grotesque to see such activity over and over while only hearing the skates against the hollow track, the smack of bodies against one another, against the floor.

The oval stage at the center of the derby rink is the locus to which gravity pulls the stars. Sometimes a group of stars breaks off from their contingent and orbits the center. A hundred or so normal people have been granted access to this universe, provided they stay up with the dummies and make no real noise when they scream and clap. I can already feel myself being pulled away from the dummies and into the very center.


Later, Governor Rick Snyder will put an end to unlimited refundable tax credits for the film industry. Later, the newly built, mostly idle Michigan Motion Pictures Studio in Pontiac will become a monument warning us against optimism. Later, Detroit will not become Hollywood.


I don’t find out until the end of the day, well after midnight. I tell the PA at the checkout table that I know things aren’t looking good but that it’d be nice to know for sure. I want to cry even though I really didn’t deserve such a role with so little effort on my part. Perhaps I could better view the almost as awesome had not the all-day waiting completely drained me.

Later, I will find out they gave the part to Har Mar Superstar.


You can’t be artistically minded in these parts and mention Snyder’s name without everyone expecting a diatribe—but that’s really not my point. Maybe it was a dumb idea to begin with. Why should we give tax breaks to one of the few American industries that isn’t floundering? How can we complain that productions import most of their talent and workers when we have so little infrastructure in place?

I’m just saying that, as I miss my exit for 94 and end up somewhere I really hope my car doesn’t break down, as the self-pity runs a circuit through my brain—I just thought that maybe, for once, something would be easy—a city says it with me. A whole state.

What’s up, Razor—you ready to forfeit?…What are you—nuts?…Sure—why not—It’s not like you guys have a chance. We might as well get some free drinks in the process.

Only now do I realize that this fictional character was speaking to me, to all of us background people—and answering for us. For some reason I’m listening to a playlist from freshman year of high school. My call time tomorrow is 8 a.m.

Joe Sacksteder is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah, where he's managing editor of Quarterly West. You can find his work online at Sleepingfish, Passages North, Florida Review, Hobart, Booth, DREGINALD, and elsewhere. More from this author →