Ron Riekki, “Heroes”

[Moonshot #3: Secret]
Ron Riekki ☛ Heroes

The only reason I’m on set is because it’s a cattle call. They must have seven hundred extras at this thing. At least. They’ve transformed the inside of Staples Center into an airport. And they did a good job too. Must have cost a ton. I’ve only done one other show before this—Samantha Who? And this show blows Samantha Who?’s cheap sets out of the water. Which means it must be doing outstanding in the ratings. I’ve never seen the show, don’t know a thing about it, am just glad I’m getting paid for a day. And all I do is stand here. Make sure nothing happens. When you have seven hundred people all in one room, it can get hot, people can get hungry, and they don’t do background checks for extras. As a matter of fact, there’s a prison I know in northern Arizona that they actually pass out information on Central Casting to prisoners when they’re released because Hollywood is always looking for prison types (which is true) and they don’t care if you have multiple felonies (which is true, as long as you don’t have any sex crimes). And Arizona is happy because it gets ex-cons out of their state.

I don’t have a gun.

I took a weekend course and got my California Guard Card. The final test was a joke. You turn in your answers and if you flunked, they have you take it again, with all of the ones you got wrong marked. It’s multiple choice with only three possibilities, so if you already got one wrong all that’s left is two more choices. If you still flunk, they only let you take it one more time. But you would have to be something beyond a moron to flunk the third time. So everyone passes.

I found out quickly no one would hire me because I have a Masters and nobody wants somebody educated. Not in this economy. In security, they’re looking for potential lifers and having an education, especially in something as specific as Contemplative Psychology, makes it so that you have a big question mark hovering over your head. When the economy collapsed, I realized just how worthless my degree was, so I got the stupid idea of moving to L.A. My parents live in Baraga County in Michigan, which has the worst unemployment rate of any county in the entire nation. That’s where my parents chose to live, because my Dad miraculously found a job there, as a Shovel/Drill Maintenance Supervisor in the mines. And they told me that if I stuck around they might be able to get me a job in the mines too, in a year or so. I’d have to live with my parents for a year to possibly get a job. No guarantee. I packed up and headed as far away from Michigan as I could, which was southern California.

Except I found I couldn’t get any kitchen jobs in L.A. No tutoring jobs. No bartending jobs. The actors took them all. And there’s definitely no mining in Los Angeles. Nothing. Until this.

They put me on post looking over the entire waiting area. The shoot started at 4 a.m., at least that’s when a majority of the extras had to check in for costumes. It’s an Eastern European airport scene—guys with MEMBERS ONLY jackets, slicked-back hair, travelers of every nationality. They’ve got Japanese here, Chinese, African, Middle Eastern, everything. There’s a whole lot of energy in the room. I like it.

They serve pancakes and eggs for breakfast while everybody gets outfitted. The person in charge of the costumes—a woman probably in her fifties who looks angry at her job—has to eyeball every one of the seven hundred background actors. She grabs people’s collars, readjusts them. She examines someone’s pants, tells her assistant to have them change, lower the length. She has someone else put on different shoes. These are people who are going to be blurry in the background and she wants everything perfect.

She looks at me. I tell her I’m not an actor. She says, “I know that,” pats me on the shoulder. I think she likes me because I’m not an extra. There’s a hatred of the extras. You get the impression these are poor people. The majority of them, you have that vibe. You can see poverty in their faces, especially their teeth. You can tell they don’t want to be actors. Although there are a few exceptions to the rules—the ones who look like models, who separate themselves from the rest, purely through orthodontics; they have their own lawn chairs they’ve brought to ensure they have somewhere to sit; they read plays by Ionesco and Rapp while waiting; they let you know that they’re card-carrying SAG members even though you don’t ask and don’t even know what SAG means. But most of them, that’s not the case. They’re non-union. They’re L.A.’s poor. They’re doing this because they didn’t have any other alternative, were dying for a job, any job.

A man in African garb recites homophobic hip-hop lyrics to himself, rhyming maggot and faggot. I get the impression that this is something he wrote. Any time someone tries to sit by him he says, “Don’t sit here,” his dashiki draped over two chairs. And chairs are hard to come by. Any place to sit is hard to come by, except the floor. A lot of people camp up against the wall. And as the day wears on, I realize why I’m here. There is a feeling like a fight is going to break out. Not might break out, is going to break out. Luckily, an A.D. comes in, yells she wants a hundred volunteers for a scene. Surprisingly, a majority of the people keep where they’re at. I have a feeling hundreds of these people won’t be filmed for even one scene today, that they’ll sit there, late into the night, only to be released and then go home having done nothing except earn $75, have a couple of good meals.

The A.D. picks her faves from those lined up in front of her. People get excited when they’re chosen, not realizing they’ll spend hours walking up and down a stairway or hurrying to catch a flight on a nightmare sort of endless repeat, in high heels, sweating. And all of this effort for a second of screen time. They don’t care. They’ll still call home, tell their families, even brag. They want to see what filming is like. They want to be near the actors. The A.D. pulls me over. “You’re coming with us.”

“I’m not an actor,” I say.

She frowns. She knows this. The assistant to the Assistant Director tells me to hurry up. I do. We walk down the hall—the fake airport signs, the fake ticket counter, the fake security area. She introduces me to Wig. That’s his name. Wig. He’s probably 40. Thick, out of shape. An uneven mustache. He looks like he’s married, like he’s tired of being married. A hint of a Chicago accent. He’s the type of guy who plays softball, except a little meaner looking than that.

“Guard card?” he says.

“Yeah.”

“How long you been doing this?”

“Two weeks.”

“Easy money, hey?”

“Yeah,” I say, “You like it?”

He shrugs.

“What’s the scene?” I ask.

“Don’t know. Don’t care.”

The director comes over, has us move so we’re out of shot. I see Wig’s got a gun. He walks with his hip sticking out, as if he’s leading his walk with it, like that’s where all of his energy comes from. We lean against a wall. We’re not far from where they’ll be filming. It’s quiet, the director setting up the shot. An older stand-in with posture like he’s a professional yoga instructor holds his spot before the camera. They’re framing him. In the background, they start positioning the extras. They give them empty suitcases, briefcases, canes, various other props. The A.D. asks if anyone has a cell phone. Almost everyone raises their hand. “I need about six volunteers.” She points to who she wants.

“During the scene, I want you talking on your phone. Only the people I just pointed to. And you’re not really talking. You’re pretending to. No whispering. Not a word. Just so it looks like you’re talking.” She has the people she pointed to practice. They walk around pretending to talk into cell phones. One of them doesn’t look authentic doing it. She tells him to put his phone away, to just walk, that they have enough cell phone people. The guy looks wounded, like he just got cut from a Broadway show. The A.D. ignores him, moves on, setting up the choreography of where each person is supposed to go.

Almost like a ventriloquist, Wig says, “As long as they’re talking, we can talk. But if they go quiet, if they’re setting up, don’t say a word. ‘Specially if she’s around.” He motions to the A.D.

“OK,” I say, trying to not move.

Clockwork Orange is here,” he says.

“Who?”

“The guy from Clockwork Orange. The crazy guy. He’s a good actor. I met him. Nice guy. But don’t talk to him if he comes around. Don’t talk to any of the actors. Unless they talk to you.”

“Not the extras either?”

“Fuck the extras. Literally. ‘Specially that one.” He nodded towards a stewardess. He looked at me like he was trying to decide if I was heterosexual. “You ex-military?” he asks, as if my answer would swing him in one direction or the other.

The room gets quiet. A cop walks out. Except he looks like a model. The A.D. rushes over to him.

Wig whispers, “That’s that guy who’s married to that one hot chick. I can’t remember her name.”

“Angelina Jolie?”

“No, not her. One of those though. You know what I mean, where she’s always on the news and adopts black kids.”

“Angelina Jolie.”

“No, I’ll know the name when you say it.”

I didn’t have any other names to offer.

“Like that guy’d ever be a cop. Look at him.”

I don’t know what to say.

“You shoulda heard the crap lines they had him saying earlier. All this tough guy shit. I bet that guy’s never served in anything.”

“I’m ex-Navy,” I offer up, “And ex-Air Force.”

“Both?”

“Yeah.”

“What made you stupid enough to do that?”

“I heard Air Force was better when I was in the Navy.”

“I did the same thing,” Wig says, “Except I was Marines, then Army.”

“Which you like better?”

“I like being a civilian.”

“Me too.”

The A.D. announces she wants all the extras in their spots, that she doesn’t want anyone looking at the camera and that everyone needs to walk quietly, even if running. She tells everyone to get in their spots. One of the extras asks if he can use the bathroom. She says no.

“The other lead actor’s in his trailer, so I don’t know what she’s getting all worked up about,” Wig says, his best ventriloquist act. He’s good at it.

The director and actor talk while setting up the shot, intense, a lot of hand gestures. Nearly all of the extras watch the two of them, transfixed.

“You in the war?” Wig asks.

“Yeah.”

“Afghanistan?”

“No.” He looks disappointed, so I add, “I did combat telecommunications. We had six guys die from my base though, but I wasn’t front lines or nothing like that. Just B-52s.”

“I was Afghanistan,” Wig says, “Army and as civilian.”

The actor playing what I figure is the bad guy in the scene comes out. He looks like a model too, but a model who’s done drugs since he was a kid.

The A.D. announces that there will be gunshots in the scene, asks if anyone has any problems with that, if anyone wants earplugs. She says to do everything exactly as she told them, to head to the exact spot where she said to go, that as soon as they hear gunshots, they are to get down to the ground as fast as they can. “React just like you would in real life.” The director goes over, whispers something to her. She yells to the group, “OK, we’re going to practice this. I’m going to say ‘bang-bang’ and that’s going to simulate gunshots. In the scene, you’ll hear actual gunshots, or what’s going to sound like actual gunshots, but for now I’ll say ‘action,’ you go to your spot, I say ‘bang-bang,’ and then get down as realistically as possible.”

Everyone understands. She yells action.

“You ever shoot anyone?” Wig asks.

I shake my head no.

“Bang-bang!”

All of the extras drop to the ground.

“OK, good. We do it just like that, we should be good.” She looks to the director. He seems pleased. “Back to one!” she yells. They get up, dust themselves off. The fake stewardess is not happy that she’s had to get down on the ground where everybody has been walking, but all of the other extras are excited, whispering comments to each other. They feel like they’re stuntmen now, doing this simple action. They’re glad they volunteered.

“No talking!” the A.D. yells and most of them stop, although not all of them. There is too much excitement now. Flirtations are happening, comradeship.

“I shot two people,” Wig says, “And I ended up doing PTSD counseling for three years because of it. I got out and—” He motions drinking from a bottle.

“Drinkin’,” I say, trying to sound cool, nonchalant.

“Almost to death. Almost.” Wig nods to the scene. “And they’re acting like this is all a game.”

“Yeah, I was suicidal when I got out of the military too,” I say, regretting as soon as the words come out of my mouth, a slight pull in the stomach.

“I wasn’t suicidal,” Wig says, annoyed, “I’d never be suicidal. I have a wife.”

I don’t.

The director sees us talking, says something to the assistant to the A.D. who approaches us. “We need you to move further back, in the corner. We have to make sure you’re out of the shot.”

We move to the corner, where we can barely still see the scene.

“The director doesn’t want either of you talking.” She says it serious, where we can tell we could lose our jobs if we say a word, so we don’t.

We wait for her to leave. She does.

If I step deep into the corner, no one can see me. So I do, lean into it, relax.

“It’s going to be hours,” Wig says, “They fucked this shot up yesterday and have to do it completely over.”

“Great,” I say, “What’s going on?”

“They’re setting up.” He leans around the corner, watching, his ass bent over. It’s sickly, his body. The type of body you wonder if it could even have sex, if it’s completely lost the ability. “Let’s switch,” he says, “You on lookout.” We do.

The scene is exactly the same, everyone frozen, slight signs that people are even alive—the scratch of a nose, the blinking eyes.

“Hey,” Wig whispers. I look back at him. He’s got a devil look, something exciting in his heart, finally, someone who usually is so dead looking that it annoys you. “You’re not like a narc, are you? Like a rat?” I shake my head no, wondering what the hell this means. “Some security people, they start believing the job too much. They forget we ain’t cops. We’re just low paid fucks.”

“Yeah,” is all I can think to say.

“You wanna do some gun?” Wig asks.

“What does that mean?”

Wig takes out his gun, does some fancy move with it pointing at the ceiling. “The safety’s off now,” he says, “We can get fired just for that.”

His face is partially covered by a large fern jammed into the corner. It’s just him and the fern, the cyanotic blue walls. All I can do is watch. “When I’m bored with life,” he says. He looks me over, deciding if he should finish his sentence, decides that he will, “I like to stick my gun in my mouth.”

And he does it. Sexual. But sad. It feels like gay pornography. Something very forbidden about it. Because it is. This is old military shit. What would happen. Crossing the equator in the Navy, Marines, out on town in Thailand. You learn to live your life the opposite of how you always have when you’re in the military. It turns you into this.

I can’t help looking.

He pulls the gun out. “It’s loaded,” he says, “Very.” He wipes the barrel on his pants. He holds the gun up for me. “Do it,” he says.

“Why?” I ask.

And I don’t understand the human mind, the chemistry in our systems that makes us do what we should not, but I put my hand out and when he placed it in mine it felt like a dead bird, the same weight, colder, and I got a shock through my body and he told me to wait, not to do it now, to wait until every single fake gun on the set was being fired, to put it in my mouth then and to close my eyes and the rush would be like I was killing myself fifty times over but without all the death and so I waited, not knowing why, just doing it, just like I’ve seemed to have done everything throughout every second that has ticked away since my birth.

Ron Riekki‘s novel U.P. was nominated for the Great Michigan Read series and the Sewanee Writers’ Series. When he looks back at his life, he feels like Macbeth.