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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, November 30

Gapers Block

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Everyone is a Johnny Depp fan. That's what I've discovered. Everyone. Even if you don't really consider yourself a fan, you are. I came to this epiphanic conclusion after working as an extra for the just-wrapped filming of Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Tell someone you're an extra in a John Dillinger movie, and they say, oh, huh, neat. Tell them you're an extra with Johnny Depp and they want details: is he That Hot in person? How tall does he seem? (This one puzzles me. "Google says he's 5'10", but he feeeels more like a nice 5'8"...?") How close have you stood to him, in feet, rounded to the nearest inch? And is he nice? The answers are, yes, even with tan make-up and silver tooth; taller than me; about 3 feet; and yeah, totally. He's also very gracious when being screamed at by hordes of crazed women — another reason to love him, n'est-ce pas?

So anyway, this whole thing started on a complete whim. I saw an ad in the RedEye (I know, I know, don't make fun) for a casting call that Saturday morning. I can't act and harbor no dreams of trying, but I thought it would be really interesting to go to a real-live casting call, just to see the people and the process. And it would give me something to write about!

Off I went, arriving early where a short line of period-dressed gangsters and molls awaited me. It was a really mixed group of people — age-wise, race-wise and weirdness-wise. This one older man with a huge mustache seemed completely drunk, unless that somehow was his shtick, and he along with other seasoned extras spoke loudly about all the Chicago extra roles they'd already had. "'Prison Break,' man," said the perhaps-drunk guy. "Behind the walls of Joliet, man!" Then he spat on the ground. I'm not making this up.

Anyway, the casting company had us fill out little cards with our basic information — height, weight, measurements, etc. — "What color is my hair?" asked Perhaps-Drunk — and has us describe past stand-in or acting work that we'd done as well as list hobbies and interests we had that could potentially be of use in the filming. I wrote "dance." Perhaps-Drunk, who filled his out aloud, said, "Construction?"

Then we had our pictures taken, and still later, a two-woman team armed with camera phone came peering down the line, eyeing all of us up and down with what I came to be familiar with as the "prop gaze" — when the Movie People are looking at you as a prop, almost — what will you look like standing over in that corner, wearing that dress, holding that tommy gun, etc? These women pulled out a few people for additional pictures, and I was surprised when they picked me. Perhaps-Drunk also was chosen. "That means they like us the best," he said. Then we got a little pep talk from Joan Philo, the head of the casting company, and handed in our cards. Simple! So I was totally pleased when I received a phone call from casting only two weeks later asking my availability and giving me the low-down. They scheduled me at the end of May for a wardrobe fitting, and a week later, three night shoots to film a ballroom scene — how exciting! I called everyone and bragged. And then I waited.

About the time of the expected wardrobe fitting, a woman called and explained to me that they no longer needed me for the ballroom scene, thank-you-very-much, but that if I gave them permission, they wanted to submit my photo to The Mann himself to possibly be chosen for what they called a "featured extra" role. This particular role? "There's a character named Red," said the woman on the phone. "I don't know how else to say it, but you would be Red's whore." Jackpot! Of course I was interested. A featured whore-extra in a Johnny Depp movie? Dude, sign me up. She described it as a "very elegant and classy ballroom scene" in which I'd be dancing in what would possibly be a "revealing" costume. Badass.

Unfortunately, I didn't get the part — I admit it, I'm not too whore-lookin' — but I did get added to two more shoots.

Before the shoots, however, was my wardrobe fitting. I got to have some Top Model moments as the wardrobe ladies slipped me into various garments, eyed me up and down (again, with prop gaze!) and addressed each other with comments made around me, like, "She's got nice arms — they don't need to be hidden — let's tack this up x inches." My costume, then, for my day shoot was a mid-calf length plaid wool pencil skirt with kicky little pleats and acorn buttons(!), a reddish top, and a full-length coat with fur at the collar and shoulders. My night shoot wear was an amazing black satin cocktail dress, floor length and slightly off the shoulder. Nice.

The call time for my first shoot was 6 in the morning. I showed up to a parking lot in the River North area where there were two large tents housing wardrobe in one, hair and make-up in the other. We lined up and an assistant who looked like Chan Marshall sent us into the tents a few at a time to get into our '30s gear. After that, we went over to hair and make-up, where I experienced the supreme joy of sitting under an unbelievably hot bucket-style hair dryer, my hair full of large metal clamps that began to sizzle. When they were removed, 45 torturous minutes later, my hair was completely stiff, rising in little peaked points — voila, hardcore pincurls. It reminded me of the back of an ankylosaurus. I was underwhelmed.

Over at make-up, my lady slapped foundation on my still-red-from-the-hair-dryer skin. She penciled in my eyebrows, black and long, and reddened up my lips to neon-level brightness. In the mirror, with my ankylosaurus hair and my new 30s clown face, I didn't feel very cute. Outside, women were snapping each others' pictures in their cell phones, and my worst fears were confirmed — I was a ringer for David Gest. Oh God.

Then they led us a few blocks over to extras holding, which we later found out was a transgendered nightclub — sweet! We only cooled our heels for 20 minutes or so before the Second Second Assistant Director (seriously!) Eric came in and took us outside to space us out on the street.

The set itself was so amazing! They had changed the storefronts on a block between Illinois and Hubbard to look like old 1930s shops. There were ad posters up on the walls, antique cars driven in and parked, and even woodchips strewn over the streets to make them look, I don't know, more authentically old. Every hour or so, we'd all get out of the way while they sprayed down the streets and sidewalks with giant hoses. I don't know why, but we extras decided it was purely aesthetic. Who knows?

I was placed with fellow extra Jimmy, who had shot a few days before with the movie. He quickly filled me in on his acquired knowledge — he told me which assistant director was whom, pointed out the acting doubles for the main characters, and told me when Michael Mann (then Marion Cotillard, then Johnny Depp) came on set. The last was one cool moment — I followed Jimmy's finger and there he was, in a shirt and vest, guns strapped on his shoulders, hair slicked back — Johnny Depp himself! I have to admit I said, "holy shit!" and all the guys turned around and laughed at me. Like I said, even if you don't think of yourself as a fan? You're a fan. He's a superstar, man. He's a force of nature! And he's totally hot in person.

Meanwhile, we did what we were told for the street scene, which mainly involved us walking back and forth. A lot. It was pretty fun. I got to know the extras around me, all male, all looking really dapper in their suits and jackets and hats, carrying canes and such — and then you get to know who they are more, where they come from. Steve, in front to my right? Plays in a metal band. Big Greek Tom in front of me? Had long hair and a full beard which they shaved off for his role. He was a substitute teacher for CPS. Tom #2, part of the Steve-Greek-Tom group, told me several times he had had "hair down to [his] ass!" which seemed so incongruent with his current appearance that at first I thought he was kidding me. The other guys made fun of him getting it cut, and said he'd cried. He told me he'd show me his headshots to prove it. As the day wore on and I got to know them all better, I could totally see it: Tom #2's phantom long hair... "and not a mullet!" he assured me. It all started to fit.

The shoot stretched on. My feet, in their too-small but very stylin' shoes, felt like the bound golden lotus from Qing Dynasty China. They were replaced later (some other extras were crying!) with what looked like man-shoes that I slopped around in happily. We got tired. We got fed. I had a brief, tired conversation with David Wenham, without really knowing it was him. The shoot wrapped around 9pm. Whew.

The next shoot was a night shoot, and I showed up to holding at 3:45, went over to hair and makeup, where my hairdresser managed to burn large blisters into both sides of my face, which my make-up artist spackled painfully with concealer. At least this time, my pincurls looked soft and natural, and my make-up made me pretty rather than pretty ghastly. They drove us, all dolled up in our gorgeous vintage cocktail gowns, to the site of the indoor shoot, a fancy hotel restaurant.

In this scene, an assistant director placed me at a great seat at a key table, right next to the main actors' table. Then Michael Mann and his immediate crew came on and began switching and re-switching people's seats. There were a few repositioning for a key seat in which a blond woman sneers at Billie Frechette, and both of the blond women involved ended up in tears over it. Then my big moment: Michael Mann and Colleen Atwood, the costume designer, were hovering at my left shoulder, fixing me with prop gaze and talking above me about my dress, my posture, my face, while I sat as tall as I could and pretended not to listen. The Mann tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Honey, let's have you over here."

They placed me at an even better table — joy! — and an assistant director ran over to me and reminded me I was "very much on camera" and shot off directions at me — how to eat my salad, how to pantomime speaking, and when to look over at Marion. "Three beats," he said. Three beats! Like a real role!

Seated across from me was another Steve, a 30-year-old who installs faucets in schools when he's not pantomiming on movie sets. This guy was a master pantomime, which helped me a lot, so while I listened for my cues and painstakingly ate my salad and sipped my ginger ale "champagne," I was able to fake what I hope comes across as a charming and normal conversation. We could read each other's lips, and started out saying ordinary things to each other. Deep into the wee hours, we got punchy and began mouthing the lyrics to hair metal songs, which we'd then launch into singing between takes. If I'm lucky, the camera won't have captured me with metal face. At one point, I looked up rather sleepily and Mr. Johnny Depp, three feet away, was doing the same. We both smiled shyly at each other. My tired little heart went pitty-pat. They can bind my feet and burn my face and make my peers all cry, but this? Totally worth it. Johnny's got a brand new fan.


About the Author(s)

Jen Schalliol is a writer — and now a movie extra — living in Chicago.

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