After a fairly lengthy fallow period, southwestern Pennsylvania is once again starting to attract some major film productions. Zack and Miri Make a Porno and the TV series Kill Point shot here last spring. Denzel Washington's latest is filming in and around the area. A Russell Crowe film is on tap for next month. Local casting agents are looking for bit players and extras. The long dry spell seems to be over, and opportunity is once again knocking.
"It’s about time," I'm thinking as I lie on a dirt-covered basement floor, plastic hosing attached to a pump tucked under my now blood-soaked shirt, waiting impatiently for the director to yell "cut." It's three in the morning. It's getting colder, and I'm beginning to understand what it must feel like to have a bladder problem.
I have been on call since one in the afternoon. There was make-up for about ten minutes, followed by what most actors do most of the time on movie sets, waiting. Two and three quarters hours later they were ready for my first scene. "Would they call Russell Crowe over two hours early?" I wonder. Of course this is a student film, and I am not Russell Crowe. On the other hand, I am working for nothing, so the price is right.
We are filming in Monessen, Pennsylvania, a dying steel town on the Monongahela River, now home to the Douglas Education Center and its student film program, The Factory. The movie we are shooting doesn't have a title as yet. But it is a vampire story and vampires are the monster du jour.
I am playing a mysterious elderly man who wanders suspiciously through the film, ominous and threatening. I have just been impaled by our young hero, who has broken into the cellar of a dilapidated house I have rented and discovered a beautiful young woman imprisoned there. As he attempted to set her free, I came down the stairs. Certain that I am an evil vampire, he attacks with the broken handle of an axe; we fight, and here I am, lying in the dirt waiting for the director. I won't give away the end of the tale, just in case the as yet untitled film ever makes it to the big screen, Blu-ray, or just plain DVD.
The director, a teacher at the school who has spent some time on the West Coast working in the 'real' movies, thanks me. It is now going on 3:30. Since I am now covered with fake blood, this is, of necessity, my last scene. A production assistant offers me a wet towel. The student producer offers me a dry towel and promises me a DVD when the editing is completed. This is a promise often made, and not often kept. The crew gives me a hand, and I exit tired and sticky. My car is parked two blocks away. I wonder how I will explain my blood stains to the local constabulary if I should happen to get stopped on the way home.
More often than not, this is the kind of work available to actors in the hinterlands. Of course, if you look over the ads in theatrical papers like Backstage, this kind of work is not limited to the hinterlands. Students, aspiring amateurs, professionals with limited budgets, and the like are always in search of actors willing to work for little or nothing. And actors, for the most part, are very willing to oblige. At the back of the mind there is always the thought that Steven Spielberg will somehow see this untitled masterpiece. He’ll get on the phone to his….to whomever he gets on the phone with, and demand: "Get me that old guy in that blood-soaked shirt. No one does blood-soaked shirt like he does."
It could happen.
Last week I got a call from a Pittsburgh casting agent. She asked me to audition for the part of an elderly man in the Russell Crowe movie. There is even a line of dialogue. Who knows, next time the phone rings, it might be Steven.