As they stood in a half circle staring at me, I became painfully aware that I was wearing long woolen underwear.
Most people think that itchy, clingy, woolen underwear became a thing of legend when we discovered electricity. Oh, but I have a pair. I had risen early that October morning to take a walk around the campus lake and donned my Dickensian undergarments for the journey. Two hours later I stood in the extras' dressing room of a film set with the costume designer, trying to maintain my dignity in my fuzzy pants.
Wellesley College was the setting for Julia Roberts' new movie and the film crew had descended upon our campus for a week to shoot the outdoor scenes. Although half of the student body had volunteered to be extras, the first early morning call found many of them hunkered in bed and the casting directors in such a desperate situation that they began plucking innocent students off the sidewalk. Cue my wide-eyed introduction to Hollywood.
The costumiers had kitted me out in an ill-fitting skirt, tight shoes, the ugliest cardigan known to man, and bustled me off to the set. For the first hour we didn't even see Ms Roberts. She had opted to take a break while us extras spent two and a half hour's cheering for the same two second event over and over and over again. We were at the finish line of an old-fashioned wooden hoop rolling race with instructions to cheer madly for the winner. The director had hand-picked the cutest, most virginal extra to be the winner, so take after take she triumphantly claimed her false win and we erupted into elated cries of "No kidding! She won again! I mean I knew she could win 199 times in
a row but that 200th time is always the hardest!" Perhaps the directors began to sense the groundswell of cynicism, and so they brought out the big guns.
A reverent hush fell over the crowd, and 300 excessively lipsticked mouths fell open in awe as Julia Roberts, our American goddess, emerged from her trailer to walk among us. Pretending to be gazing critically at various trees and buildings, we all craned our necks to watch her passage. Playing the role of a 1953 art history professor, she too was wearing a wool skirt and sweater, and when she walked by me (I remember this moment vividly) nothing happened. There was no movie star smile, no aura of greatness, really nothing at all. I have never been one to paper my room with posters of movie stars, but I watch Entertainment Tonight as much as the next person and I thought she could at least have the decency to have an entourage, or perhaps go into hysterics over a shade of lip-liner, but instead she simply joined us in the ritual of doing the same thing 400 times in a row. Her big line that I remember from the scene was
At lunch, 300 slightly disillusioned extras herded into a big auditorium and were rationed deli sandwiches and juice boxes reminiscent of cheap daycare. Granted, the morning had had its moments of novelty. I was delighted to discover that movie people actually do shout "Lights, Camera, Action!" when starting a scene. I’d also enjoyed the take in which, in order to record a dialogue track, we were told to mime the cheering. I jumped up and down, taking special care that my hands didn't actually touch when I clapped; what appeared to be a frantic mob scene was accompanied by the light treading of our feet and some heavy breathing from the less fit - myself included.
My tight shoes were squeezing the fun out of the experience, and I had no real desire to return for the afternoon’s shooting. But I'm a professional, so I did. The afternoon scene was almost identical to the mornings, except this time we were running. As the hoop rolling winner was carried down to the lake to be thrown in, Julia Roberts and three of her co-stars walked down the hill discussing the scandalous contents of a fake newspaper. I was chosen to be in a group of students that stood out of the shot and then ran between Julia and the camera to make it look like she was being engulfed by the student body.
As we readied the scene, we were told that the camera was on metal tracks and that we would have to be careful to run over them. They told us this so many times by so many people that I indignantly thought to myself, 'come on now, we may not be movie stars, but this is the best women’s college in America, I think we can manage stepping over some bars'. Ah, cruel irony. The scene took off and the production assistant starting tapping us on the shoulder one by one to cross the shot. When it was my turn I bolted like a stupid horse and, obviously, forgot about those cursed tracks. In what seemed like slow motion, I felt the toe of my shoe catch behind the metal, my upper body propelled helplessly forward, and I hit the ground like an ironing board. In the split second that followed, three things came to me:
1) I was lying face down in the mud
2) Julia Roberts’ foot was roughly six inches from my left shoulder
3) I was, undoubtedly, the stupidest person on the planet.
Propelled by animal instincts I shoved off the ground and sprinted off camera. As a group of strange girls compassionately aided me in plucking the plant life out of my sweater, the production assistant standing behind me uttered those four words that struck terror into my soul... "Julia’s laughing at you."
Oh, the unspeakable horror. I had seen her win an Oscar, I had watched her fall in love with Hollywood’s most dashing leading men, I had watched her walk down numerous red carpets, and now I saw her, twenty feet away, with tears streaming down her face, laughing uncontrollably at my utter stupidity. Before I had been humiliated, now I truly wanted to die. A girl who I vaguely recognized now became my best friend, and I buried my head into her shoulder, unable to watch as Julia et al did rousing impressions of my terrified face as it had looked launching into the mud. The last, stubborn scraps of my integrity were melting away as, once again, one voice made my heart stop. A low, friendly, all too familiar voice behind me said, "Awww, I think she’s crying." I spun in amazement to see Julia Roberts walking straight towards me, a sympathetic look on her face and her arms outstretched.
As has been established, my instincts are not to be trusted. My first thought was to run, hide, disappear, anything so that Julia Roberts would not know that I was the one who dived at her feet. Then, magically, a single thought, perhaps the first intelligent thought I’d had all day, entered my head - 'Julia Roberts wants to hug me, and by gum, I'm going to let her'. She’s tiny. She smelled like wool. She’s not that tall. Her hair was coming out on the sides. Her hands were cold. Her mouth doesn’t even look that big up close, but when she smiled at me I adored her.
All in all it had been a quintessential Hollywood day - pain, triumph, tragedy, perfection, glamour, monotony and juice boxes. Mine was the story of the ugly duckling, who had persevered through boredom and humiliation with mud in my ears (and, quite frankly, a mysterious rash from that blasted skirt) to realize my destiny in the most raw, honest, breathtaking scene in film... the bloopers.