"Just Look Busy!": On Life as a Background Actor

You will see them mouthing fake conversations, pulling fake files, scribbling imaginary diagnoses, and generally trying to move about like people in a hospital do. They are, however, not in a hospital.
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If you are someone who schedules their life around something like House, Glee, or Grey's Anatomy, it is likely that you can conjure a mental image of your favorite television star on demand. Fortunately, Patrick Dempsey's rugged scruff and sexy jawline are permanently entrenched in your consciousness, as a result of countless hours of the camera's direct attention. So the next time you watch, give your eyes a rest from his gentle visage and appreciate the hazy figures moving about in the background -- orderlies, nurses, patients -- who are doing their damnedest to appear busy, and confirm for your imagination that you are witnessing a "real" hospital in action. You will see them mouthing fake conversations, pulling fake files, scribbling imaginary diagnoses, and generally trying to move about like people in a hospital do. They are, however, not in a hospital. They are on a set. They are background actors -- "extras" -- and their job to "look busy" is a busy one indeed.

Recently I had the good fortune to find myself working as an extra on the set of a television program (certainly not Grey's Anatomy, I should clarify) as a doctor, a paramedic, and later, an orderly. I had never done such work before, and in all likelihood, neither have you, so let me tell you: It's tedious. It is tedious and tiresome, interspersed with moments of busy on-camera activity in which the assistant director offers hurried guidance on how to look busy when you are truly not. While on camera, I doodled on fake medical files, shared silent exchanges with my colleagues, and generally tried my best to fill my tiny portion of the lens with something that looked "real."

I am, however, quite possibly the worst doctor to ever set foot in a hospital. If you watch one of the episodes in which I "appear" (I use the term loosely), you will see that I spend five minutes sipping oxygen from a cup in the lunch room, walking to the nurses' station, moving random files into random compartments, walking to the emergency room with the files, and then back, and then once more, and then standing at the nurses' station with a pen in my hand. The discerning viewer will conclude that, were this a real hospital, I would likely have been terminated as a result of my lackadaisical performance long ago.

It is more difficult than it might sound to look busy when you are not. I am far from a seasoned background actor, and the thought of replacing silently mouthed conversations with lewd and disgusting conversations was a temptation I could not resist. But the risk is high! When a poisoned child is wheeled into the emergency room, it doesn't bode well for the hospital when two of the doctors are wearing ridiculous grins.

Most of the extra's day consists of sitting quietly in a designated corner, drinking coffee, and making conversation with fellow extras. "Background actor," a colleague gently corrected me when I asked about his career as an extra. My new friend was a portly, middle-aged white male with a severe forehead and short dark-brown hair. "Right, background actor," I replied, clearly not taking my craft as seriously as my colleague. "What are you reading?" I asked. "Is that the New Testament?" "The Book of Mormon," he replied, and returned to his reading. I considered asking about Mitt Romney, or the magic underwear, but I decided to abstain, and quietly await my cue from the assistant director.

If there is one thing I learned from my brief time as a background actor, it is that the out of focus, frame-filling specimens we barely see in our favorite programs work harder, and take their job more seriously, than is often assumed. They "fill out" the story to make it "real," permitting us that escape which we, as viewers, all so desperately seek. They authenticate. They are essential. So the next time McDreamy makes you swoon, give proper credit to the fuzzy figures in the background.

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