The night before I’m supposed to pose as an extra in Jobs, the first biopic to begin filming in the wake of Apple icon Steve Jobs’ untimely 2011 death, I stay out until two in the morning. When I order a big bottle of Spanish cider at 1.15, five hours before my alarm is set to go off, and five hours and 45 minutes before I’m supposed to be on set, I justify it by remembering how Jobs spoke often and openly about his “important” experiences with recreational drugs. “Steve would have wanted it this way,” I think, pouring myself another glass of the cloudy cider and starting in on another story.
The next morning, when my phone alarm finally starts dinging its low gong sound, I have to crawl from my bed to my closet, where I find it still stuffed into the back pocket of the pants I’d worn the night before. My mouth tastes like rotten apples, the pesto papardelle I ate for dinner, and foot. I’m hungry, dizzy and exhausted, ailments not improved by the knowledge that I’ve got to drive to Pasadena to hang out with Ashton Kutcher all day. With no time for coffee, I run out the door and into the already hot Los Angeles morning.
If my revelry the previous night was a testament to Jobs’s appreciation for mind manipulation, my drive to the Pasadena Convention centre several hours later was a slap in the face to the beloved CEO’s exacting standards. Here’s a thing about me relevant to a story about a Steve Jobs movie: Unlike nearly 20 per cent of American adults with mobile phones, I don’t have an iPhone, nor do I have another kind of phone that gives me immediate access to Google Maps. So, when I get lost almost instantly on my way to the Jobs set, I can’t call up a GPS app for help. Then, when I try to call someone and ask for directions, my phone dies. Steve Jobs once said, “Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” As I speed down the highway, which is at this point unclogged by rush hour, I have no idea where I’m going, but I drive blindly onward. At that moment, the car is an excellence vacuum.
When I finally arrive at the convention centre after begging for directional help from some courteous Pasadena joggers, I’m 15 minutes late, and a chain of yellow signs reading “Extras” leads me to a big grey room that’s not unlike a high school gymnasium. Adding to the cafeteria feel are the rows of folding tables and chairs populated by about 300 people of every age, ethnicity, weight and commitment to hygiene. Some people are eating the bananas and Mylar-wrapped breakfast bars provided at the front of the room. Others are snoring with their heads on the tables. The only thing everyone has in common is the sickly pall fluorescent lighting gives tired human faces. As I walk to one of the tables to sit, my mouth full of corn-syrupy blueberry breakfast bar, an elderly man shuffles past me and mumbles, “Oh, f**k this.”
It turns out that “background casting”, as it’s called, is a business of — to borrow a fishing term — casting a wide net. The Craigslist ads searching for Jobs extras in the same rudimentary manner one might look for a studio apartment are already the stuff of Gizmodo mockery, particularly because they make it seem like anybody with an internet connection and an Ashton obsession could walk onto the film’s set. But it turns out that responding to a Craigslist cattle call is only the first obstacle to getting a part as human scenery on Jobs. The second obstacle is The Woman in Shorts.
The Woman in Shorts looks to be in her late 40s, and she walks with purpose. She approaches me and the increasingly restless mass of hopeful extras and, without saying a word, begins pacing up and down the rows of tables and chairs, scanning the crowd as if looking over a field of unimpressive potato plants. After a few silent moments, she points to an older man in a grey dress shirt. “You can go,” she says, to which the man leaps from his chair and strolls to an awaiting handler. “You too,” she then tells a pretty blonde. I hear the blonde whisper “Yessssss” to herself as she gets up and follows the heavyset man, but Shorts has already moved on, ignorant to the joy she’s just brought to this young lady.
Despite what you might presume about how Hollywood operates, Shorts isn’t only picking out handsome, attractive people. As luck would have it for the motley crowd assembled, today’s scenes take place at the Hawaiian tech conference at which Jobs gave his famous “1984” speech railing against IBM, meaning that everyone from heavyset Latina women to fragile senior citizens to Larry Bird ringers with long hair belong as long as they look ‘80s and nerdy enough. Who doesn’t belong, apparently, is me.
The Woman in Shorts bypasses me not once, but three times, staring me in the face each time before breezing past me like I’m begging for change. At every new rejection I feel a pang of shame in my gut, and then I feel ashamed about feeling ashamed. “Why do I care of they don’t pick me?” I think to myself. “F**k these people.” But I do care, I do care what this stranger thinks of me. And I notice that everyone around me does, also. A guy to my left in his early 20s puff up his chest real big every time Shorts comes near him, and every time she overlooks him he deflates like a popped balloon animal. I notice a pair of girls a few tables down who stop nervously giggling and tugging at their clothes only when Shorts passes them. As soon as they don’t get chosen, they commence to laughing again, though it’s the kind of laughter people summon when they’re so embarrassed and anxious they don’t know what else to do. It is the saddest laughter in the world.
Luckily, I’m here because I’ve been invited, and when I tell an official-looking man standing near my table as much, he says, “Oh, I been looking for you. Come with me.” Within minutes I’m in a wardrobe department-approved blue polo shirt and seated at a table in a room made up to look like a Honolulu banquet hall circa 1983. Dotting the fringes of the room are 8m tall towers of grey cloth emblazoned with the famed rainbow Apple logo. There’s a fruity drink in front of me that I consider sipping until I realise it’s just water dyed blue and complimented with non-melting gelatin “ice”. This is where the lucky extras come when finally tapped by the Woman in Shorts, and lording over us all, as the real Steve Jobs did among the people in his world, is Ashton Kutcher. He’s wearing an olive polo shirt that looks exactly like the one Jobs wore at that Honolulu conference nearly 30 years ago, and he’s standing behind a podium that’s being outfitted with white butcher paper, an Apple logo, and two microphones. According to another extra at my table, the podium before was wooden and only had one microphone on it, a minor inaccuracy to which Kutcher took offence. “That’s not what the real podium looked like,” said Kutcher. So they changed it.
Once the podium’s prepared , shooting begins. The particular scene we’re filming from the conference is the brief statement Jobs gave before premiering Apple’s now canonical “1984” commercial, a Ridley Scott creation that would go on to win a bevy of ad awards. Ashton’s lines are: “It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. IBM wants it all, and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”
I’ll remember those lines for the rest of my life. Not because I find them particularly profound, but because I heard Kutcher say them, by my count, 26 times over the course of about three hours. If you have any assumptions that the work of making movies is glamorous or exciting, kill them now. Upon hearing an actor give an old speech that was pretty dull to begin with for the tenth, eleventh, twelfth time, you start to realise that maybe not being a movie star ain’t so bad.
Exacerbating the dreary repetitiveness is that I and the rest of the extras are expected to participate, shouting “No!” in response to the three questions appending the speech. We also have to give a standing ovation every time the commercial plays following the speech. To make things a bit more interesting for myself, during a couple of shots for which a camera pans over the applauding crowd, I try to get caught glowering angrily at Kutcher while clapping slowly, like a threatening psychotic.
Later, during a brief standstill in shooting, I’m told that “someone” wants to speak with me. I think I’m going to get reprimanded for the faces, but instead, Ashton just wants to say hello and ask that Gizmodo “stop shitting all over” his movie before it‘s even done filming. He’s really very nice.
Lunch is catered, a spread of pasta, salad, pasta salad, and some meats, and it’s all over too soon. Before I know it, I’m back in the darkened room in “Hawaii,” only this time the scene we’re filming is one in which Jobs gets into a brief argument with Apple’s business team — Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney), John Sculley (Matthew Modine), and Arthur Rock (JK Simmons) — at their table on the banquet hall floor. From what I can gather eavesdropping, the fight stems from the fact that Jobs is angry at how expensive Sculley has made Apple’s computer. “I’m looking out for our company’s best interests,” says Sculley. “Isn’t our best interest the consumer?” replies Ashton Jobs. Though the sentence doesn’t really make any sense, Kutcher says it with passion, which I can appreciate.
Listening in on the actors is, of course, not my job as an extra. My job this go round is to fake talk. That is exactly what it sounds like: I open and close my mouth as if I were saying things to the other people at my table, but I say nothing. I also have to gesture as if I’m having fun and pretend to drink my drink, letting the fetid water touch my lips before dribbling back down into the glass. All of this is as mind-numbing and degrading as it sounds, even worse than when was forced to jump up and clap every time the “1984” commercial concluded, like Pavlov’s tech geek. Worse is that, like the speech scene before it, we do this 90-second part over and over and over again. At 5 PM, I realise that it’s taken about 10 hours to shoot five minutes of footage.
Extras who are unionised via the Screen Actors Guild get paid $US145 for eight hours of work, plus $US27 an hour for the first four hours after that, and $US36 an hour for anything over 12 hours. Non-unionized extras get California minimum wage: $US8 an hour for the first eight hours, $US12 an hour for the next two, and $US16 an hour if they work for more than 10 hours.
Because extra work is considered taboo for “real” actors, the vast majority of extras are non-union, and most of the people I speak to consider it a pretty easy gig in a down economy. You go and sit around for a day, get free food, and walk away with about $US80 to $US100. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s something, and you get to earn it while staring at Ashton Kutcher crack-wise between takes. “You’ve got to go to a lot of castings,” says one woman in her 20s who asks that I not use her name, “but if they pick you, it’s a pretty easy way to get rent money.” On the set of the film about one of America’s foremost innovation obsessives, the extras are just trying to get by.
Around the literal eleventh hour, the doldrums of the set start to take their toll on practically all the “background artists” (the fancy name they give extras so as to make them feel less like furniture). When not shooting, a young couple a few tables away holds hands while resting their heads on each other’s shoulders. They have to be roused awake by a production assistant who asks if they’re OK. One woman at my table says she’s got a long drive ahead of her. “But I won’t even mind the traffic,” she says. “I’ll just be so relieved to be going home.” “This blue shit looks like Windex,” says another young woman to my right, swirling the electric blue faux cocktail in her glass. “I’d drink Windex right now,” the guy next to her says.
When we at last break for the second time, at about 6pm, I decide I’ve had enough. The extras getting paid to be there are told to stick around for yet another scene, meaning many of them will be walking away with paychecks fattened by considerable overtime. And yet I notice that few look delighted by the idea of being there well into the night. “Maybe they’ll feed us again,” I hear one woman say hopefully to another. The other woman doesn’t respond.
On my drive home, I have a hard time figuring out just what the hell I’m expected to take away from a day as an extra on the Jobs set. Is the movie going to suck? I don’t know. I know from my four-minute chat with Kutcher that he’s attempting to take this project very seriously, doing painstaking research on Jobs’ life and Apple’s history. I also know, however, that the budget for Jobs is comparatively low, and that it is in direct competition with another Steve Jobs movie, to be penned by Hollywood heavyweight Aaron Sorkin. Both of those things, coupled with the fact that many people don’t believe Kutcher can cut it as a “serious” actor, do not bode well for Jobs’ ultimate success. Still, there was a time when people thought Apple would fail too.