I’ve had my brush with fame and it lasted more than 15 minutes. It was more like seven hours. A couple of weeks ago my son and I were extras on the set of “Gracie,” an independent feature film being produced by my best friend’s boss (hey, how else did you think we got there?). My friend, Emily Holt Jones, is the personal assistant to Andrew Shue, a Dartmouth graduate, actor (best-known for his role as the likable Billy Campbell on the hit Fox TV show “Melrose Place”), and former professional soccer player for the Los Angles Galaxy (he became the first pro athlete to play and act on a TV show at the same time).
Shue, who lives in Princeton with his wife, Jennifer, owner of the floral design company Spruce, and their three sons, and has become a successful entrepreneur. He’s involved in several businesses including a national non-profit, Do Something, which runs character and leadership programs in thousands of schools across the country; and Club Mom (www.clubmom.com), the nation’s leading membership organization for moms, with 3 million members. He also co-owns LidRock, a promotional vehicle that embeds CDs in soda cup lids and FlexPlay, a “disposable” DVD that costs the same as the average rental, only you never have to return it — after it’s unwrapped and exposed to air a chemical reaction renders it unreadable 48 hours later.
But all along, Shue has yearned to make an autobiographical movie based on his family and a tragedy that occurred in his childhood while also celebrating his love of soccer. Set in 1978, “Gracie” is the story of a 16-year-old who, after a family tragedy changes her life, and then fights for and wins the right for girls to play competitive soccer. The character of Gracie is based on Shue’s sister, actress Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, Dreamer), who was an avid soccer player in her youth and who plays Gracie’s mother in the film; Shue himself plays Gracie’s coach; Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding) plays Gracie’s father; and Carly Schroeder (who most recently played Harrison Ford’s daughter in Firewall) plays Gracie.
But enough background. Let’s cut to the chase — or in this case, the funeral, the scene my son and I were extras in. Emily instructed me to contact the movie’s casting agency in New York. We were each given a number, 28 and 82, and were told to call the agency the afternoon before to find out the location — Shue is shooting in north Jersey, where he grew up — and call time. “And wear dark colors,” the agent said, which I naturally took as an excuse to go buy a new black Calvin Klein pantsuit. I called in on Sunday afternoon and learned the shoot would start at 2:30 p.m. the next day at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in West Orange.
As my son and I drove up to the church — a tiny white building reeking with charm and history — it looked as if it had been taken over by aliens. Huge klieg lights were directed into each church window (to approximate daylight). Two cops stood guard at the driveway entrance. Large white trucks spilling over with equipment and cables and ladders and more lights were everywhere and the place was crawling with techies dressed in black jeans and black tee shirts. We parked on a side street and walked into the fray.
I was eager for my son to meet Andrew, and I spotted him right away. He came right up to me, as friendly as could be, and I introduced myself and Mackenzie. He shook Mackenzie’s hand and welcomed us to the set. We chatted a little bit and then went inside the church following the signs pointing down a short flight of stairs for “Holding” — that’s where extras go to wait and wait and wait until they are needed. The holding area was the essentially the basement hall of the church, set up with long tables, which by now were filled with, I learned, actors mostly bused in from New York, who do this sort thing for a bit of bread and butter. I immediately recognized a few faces from TV shows.
After our outfits were OK’d by the costume staff, we were given paperwork to fill out (if we do two more stints as extras, we’re eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild.) Melissa, a heavy-set blond who was clearly in charge of the extras, explained to us the plot of the movie, and that the funeral was for Gracie’s brother, Johnny, a member of the high school soccer team who had just been killed in a car accident with several fellow teammates in the car. (Later, when I saw a few teenaged guys with awfully fresh looking cuts on their faces, one with a bound hand, I realized those were the actors playing Johnny’s teammates.)
Melissa said it was likely to be an emotional day for the Shues, as the death represented a real event that had occurred in their family, and that everyone should be extremely respectful of the personal nature of the scene. Shue’s mother, father, and half-sister had flown in to participate in the filming.
I found Emily, who introduced me to Cathy Clayton, the winner of a Club Mom contest with a grand prize of being an extra in the movie. Cathy is a sweet 30-something stay-at-home mom from Saginaw, Texas, who had told Emily that the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her up to this point was when Carrie Underwood came to town. She’d never been on a plane before. After learning that Cathy was going to get “special placement” in the church, I thought it would be a good idea to hang with her.
For the next two hours my son took off with a gaggle of other boy extras, all suited up in their Sunday best, to run around the church graveyard and check out the stars’ trailers parked behind the church, and Cathy and I milled around, watching the techies talk to one another on their headsets, and sneaking a peek at Elisabeth Shue and Dermot Mulroney (completely transformed with longish grey hair) arriving and going into their trailers. A folding table was set up with cookies, coffee, white bread, and peanut butter and jelly — not exactly gourmet cuisine but I didn’t care. When I saw a folding director’s chair with the name Dermot written on masking tape across the back, it hit me — I was really on a movie set. This was the real deal.
My son was eager to see the church proper, where the scene would take place. I was surprised to discover that we could just walk in there and that there wasn’t someone standing guard saying, nobody’s allowed on the set. While my son launched into a faux sermon at the lectern (not a shy bone in that kid’s body), fairly oblivious to the shiny coffin topped with a huge flower arrangement, I struck up a conversation with a woman with short cropped red hair sitting in one of the pews, who asked me if I was from Princeton. When I said yes, she turned to the young woman next to her, who turned out to be her daughter, an aspiring actress, and said, “See I told you.” She said to me, “I recognized you. I’m from Princeton too.” Well, there you see, a little voice inside me said, you are a celebrity. The woman turned out to be Joyce Hofmann, owner of Princeton Weight Loss, who had won her turn as an extra by bidding $5,000 for it at a silent auction to benefit the University Medical Center at Princeton.
Finally, at about 4:30 p.m., we were called into the church. As planned, Mackenzie and I stuck close to Cathy, and Andrew seated us first, in the sixth pew, with Mackenzie on the aisle, right behind Hofmann and her daughter, two of the teammates, and Jena Walpen, who plays Gracie’s best friend. After the rest of the church was filled in with “background” (movie talk for extras), Elisabeth Shue, Carly Shroeder and two other little boys who play younger brothers (one of whom is Hunter Shroeder, Carly’s little brother), were brought into their pew. Dermot Mulroney, as the father, was one of the pallbearers, and remained at the back of the church. I finally spied director Davis Guggenheim (Deadwood, An Inconvenient Truth), who is married to Elisabeth Shue. He didn’t look a day over 40, with shaggy brown hair and horn-rimmed glasses, wearing jeans and a green polo shirt. He had two assistant directors who barked orders a lot, mostly “Quiet” and “Quiet.”
First on the agenda was to film the pallbearers — four teammates, Mulroney, and the grandfather (Madison Arnold, who I immediately recognized from his recurring roles on Law & Order) — carrying the coffin down the aisle to the front of the church. They did that about six times, and yes, there was a person whose job it was just to hold that little board with the scene number on it in front of the camera for two seconds. There was a lot of conferring between Guggenheim and the cameramen as they looked at what appeared to be a tiny flat TV screen, maybe six inches wide, situated on top of the camera that showed what the camera was capturing. We filmed the pallbearers with us standing. We filmed them with us sitting. Then we were told to go outside. We killed another hour or two, during which time the white bread, peanut butter, and jelly curiously began to look more gourmet. (My son, cheap date that he is, was beside himself that he could take as many sodas from the cooler as he wanted. What with that and the fact that he got to miss a day of school, he was already in heaven; then his cup runneth over when he reported to me that one of the little girl extras told him she had done this a lot and now got $180 an hour. Later he said to me, “Mom, I’m going to be a theater actor and a movie actor, and in between that, I’m going to be an art-eest.”)
Back in the church we filed. This time, the techies had removed a pew in the middle of the church on the side opposite ours so the camera could be put there to film close-ups of the teammates and Andrew Shue. I learned more movie lingo, like “find the lens,” which means the actor has to position himself so that he is visible in the camera lens. As the evening dragged on, time itself seem to freeze. It was hot inside the church and my feet were killing me to say nothing of my impaired ability to breathe due to my industrial-strength hip and tummy smoother pantyhose. But, hey, we hung in there. After all, wasn’t all this worth it for the possibility that the world might see me, if only for a split second, on the silver screen?
The one thing I was surprised and a little disappointed about was that we did not get to watch while any of the actors said their lines. I had imagined that we would sit through a whole memorial service maybe 16 times. Wrong. I realized what Guggenheim was doing with us was filming what would probably be mostly cut-aways to be spliced in during the scene to show a church full of people. (I later learned from the movie’s publicist that this scene has no spoken lines.)
However, as we were sitting there, I realized I had a direct vantage point of Carly Schroeder, across the aisle and about two rows up from me. While techies and cameramen, and gaffers and grips and all those other people whose titles you see at the end of a movie, literally swarmed about her, and a makeup artist came and re-fastened the barrette in her hair and powdered her forehead, she seemed utterly oblivious to them, and turned so that her chin rested of the side arm of the pew, facing the center aisle. She looked utterly desolate and her eyes were clearly filling with tears. I truly thought something was wrong until I realized that Guggenheim, kneeling down in the aisle with a cameraman by his side, was doing a close-up of her. I always had wondered how actors prepare for a sad scene, and here I was watching it happen before my eyes. With no words at all.
Much later into the night, at about 10 p.m., when all of the other extras had gone home, Mackenzie and I stayed; my friend Emily, who had had to leave the set mid-afternoon, had asked if I would bring Cathy and her husband back to their hotel. Cathy had been promised as part of her prize that she would get to meet Elisabeth Shue and Dermot Mulroney and have pictures taken, and so we had to wait outside the church until they came out.
It was a surreal experience. Mackenzie and I sat on folding chairs, on the driveway, just outside the entrance to the church, eating the pasta that had been provided for the extras (if you work past 7 p.m., Mackenzie reported to me breathlessly, they have to cater dinner!). The techies, bathed in darkness now, careened about, packing up lights and equipment into large canvas carts on wheels, freezing in a kind of Red Light Green Light way every once in a while when someone in a headset yelled “Stop the work!” when the cameras were rolling inside.
Mackenzie’s head was buried in his spelling workbook, and I watched as Andrew Shue stood with his mother and father, not eight feet from me. He turned to his mother and embraced her; they stood and held each other, locked together for a very long time. I recognized that hug. It was the hug I had after my father’s memorial service, with Diane Seessel, an old family friend. I saw her in the crowd and I just went to hug her quickly, but once our bodies touched I realized that I simply couldn’t let go. A mother and a social worker, Seessel of course knew exactly what to do; she just held me as long as I needed to be held.
I can’t say I know what Shue and his mother’s hug was about but it seemed quite clear to me to be the memory of Shue’s brother, who had died in an accident when Shue was a child. Eventually Shue and his mother broke apart and the family left. Elisabeth Shue came out of the church and her brother introduced her to Cathy. Exhausted as she must have been, she was totally professional and as sweet as could be, chatting with Cathy about being a mom. Then I watched Carly Schroeder come out of the church. She wiped away tears, and Shue embraced her. Thank you, he said. She nodded and drifted away into the night.
Several minutes later Mulroney came out of the church, and Shue introduced her to Cathy. He too, was extremely friendly and congratulated her, cheerfully posing with Shue and Cathy as Cathy’s husband snapped pictures. (“I’m a scrapbooker,” Cathy had told me earlier. “I’m going to make a whole album about today.”)
In June, 2007, when the movie is scheduled to be released, I may or may not be able to say, “You’ll see me if you don’t blink,” but one thing I do know for sure. Famous people like peanut butter and jelly just like the rest of us.