My Night as an Old West Extra

I have, for the past week, been besieged from things ranging from “somewhat interesting” to “so very awesome,” all of which I wanted to write about but also tended to leave me too drained and exhausted to make the attempt.

The first such example: my night as a background extra on the TV series Klondike.

I know almost nothing about Klondike. I assume it’s set during the Yukon gold rush. I know it stars Tim Roth and Sam Shepard (neither of whom will be playing a role in this narrative). And I know that it shoots in Dawson City, the replica 19th century western town located out in the foothills between Cochrane and Banff.

Tuesday night I had agreed to stage manage a one-night show for a friend. I’m killing time before audience starts to arrive and anything needs to be done when another friend tracks me down, asking if I have any experience dealing cards. As it happens, I took a blackjack dealing class back when (I neglected to mention that this was at least 13 years ago and attempted to skim over the fact that I didn’t get hired). Next thing I know, he and a casting agent we know were debating whether I’d be suited to play a croupier on Klondike.

My first thought was “Gee, I don’t know,” but I ultimately decided “Damn it, Me, that’s your answer for everything! Do a thing once in a while!” and agreed, despite the late notice (I would be on set the following night). And despite the fact that the gig took a long while to be confirmed. I got the details of where to be and when to be there about four hours before my call time. But, you know, wasn’t doing much else, so off I went.

After a long ride over dirt and gravel… let’s call them “roads…” I saw the rows of cars and gathering of trailers that indicated I’d found the set. I pulled in at 6:40 PM, twenty minutes early. A lone parking attendant was able to point me in the direction I had to go, that being wardrobe and hair. I was decked out in croupier-worthy old-timey clothes, had some gunk put in my hair, was told that if I needed makeup they’d see to it on set, and was driven up the hill to Dawson City.

Dawson City is an interesting place to see. From the outside, it almost looks like a fully-functional mini-town. Some of the buildings, the hotels and taverns, look usable. Fully furnished, glassware and everything. Others, less so. The Monte Carlo casino, for instance, is nothing but a small room with a roulette wheel and some decidedly modern lighting instruments. I’m guessing any scenes in the casino have to go to a sound stage elsewhere. Above it hang these huge lighting cubes, which give enough light to shoot without making it look less like night. Well, those aren’t there all the time, but they were a defining feature for me.

I was taken to the holding area, a shack with heaters where the extras waited until needed. The men in the room fell into three categories: rugged cowboy (including one guy who was authentically bow-legged: difficult for everyday life, gold for a western background extra), Chinese, and less-rugged (myself and the guy in the muttonchops). Nobody checked to see if I needed makeup, but I was signed in and the crew members in charge of extras made a note that I was there to be a croupier. After 15 hard-fought minutes of sitting in a shed, they called lunch.

Hours pass.

I found out sometime after midnight my shot was titled “Count’s POV.” The Count, as I learned from a quick IMDB search, is Tim Roth’s character. “Cool,” I thought. “I guess I’ll be dealing cards in the background of a Tim Roth scene. There’s a story!”

Yeah, no.

What was actually being shot that night was a scene in which the Judge (no idea, don’t ask me for context) walks into the rain and nails a cross to the roof of a building. The croupier shot was part of this process. When it finally came time for my shot it was between 2 and 3 AM. One of the crew checked my costume. It required straightening. She informed me I had become quite disheveled. “It was a long sit,” I replied, allowing “I’ve been waiting for seven hours, what did you think was going to happen” to remain implied. The look in her eye showed understanding and sympathy, and once my shirt was re-tucked we said no more on it. We made our way to the set, as they gathered everyone for the shot. They asked if I could come back in one or two weeks, when they’d be shooting a scene happening at the same time.

Now, the agent friend I’d spoken to said that if they asked me if I could come back, I should say yes. But they asked if I could come back at a time when I knew for a fact I’d be in Italy. Or maybe Switzerland. I chose not to lie. As such, they decided to use someone else as the croupier. Continuity reasons and all that.

Given that the scene was being shot from the far end of a street, and the Monte Carlo would be as far in the background as it was possible to get, there was some questioning amongst the extras as to how big a deal this really was, but the crew was authentically apologetic, plus I’d made it nearly eight hours without making a nuisance of myself and I wasn’t starting now. Given that nobody told me to leave… or gave me any idea where I should go… I watched the shot unfold. Saw the rain machine fire up to drench the street and felt the temperature drop when it did. Saw the lighting instruments used to simulate lightning. Watched the whole process unfold, or as much of it as I could while trying to remain off-camera and out of the way of people actually in the shot. Eventually they sent us back to the holding shed.

It was now after 3 AM. I was pretty tired, but still nobody had said to leave. So I kept reading comics, kept not volunteering for shots that needed rain gear (I had none), confident that I was getting paid one way or the other. Eventually, they said they needed everyone for the last two shots of the night, so I hopped in to walk back and forth in the shot with everyone else. Didn’t get all dressed up for nothing, after all.

Finally, at just before 5 AM, they called it a wrap. The sun was about to rise, after all, so no more night scenes could be done. I handed back my costume, signed out and tried to get home before the sun crossed the horizon. My time as an extra was done. It went better than my last extra experience, back in the 80s, when my young brain was only able to process “Walk from here to there and back again, then keep doing it,” but not such other key details as “Only when the camera’s rolling,” or “And when everybody leaves you can stop.”

Dull? Yes, for long stretches. Late night? No question. But I never lost sight of how I was but one small cog in this machine. Every extra in that shack was dealing with the same long waits, and pretty much all of them started before I did. And some of them had to be on a different set for Hell on Wheels at 7 AM, whereas I could sleep until Friday if I really wanted. And there was also the crew, who actually had to work for all those hours we were just waiting. Perspective, friends. All about perspective.

See you next time, for either an installment of Dan Writes Plays, a summary of my Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo fanuerism, or, if I can’t update before Thursday, the beginning of Dan and Ian Wander Europe.

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