I Was A Law & Order Extra
(or) How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love 12-hour Workdays
By Kitteridge
Never say Ebay just sells material items.
You know the place -- the auction house on the Internet, where you can either look to unload that old Elvis Christmas album that's been gathering dust in the basement for 20 years, or compulsively start buying up old Elvis Christmas albums that have been lying in someone's basement for years ... that place. I'm a frequent visitor (selling more than buying), but this time, I made the best purchase of my life.
My Law & Order odyssey started with the click of a mouse -- I came across someone who was selling one of the very slick Law & Order 200th episode baseball jackets. I sent him an email, he sent me back one, before you knew it ... we'd made a transaction. But in the course of our conversation, I asked: "How did you get your hands on this?" and it turned out he was a member of the L&O crew. And then ... he made another offer: Would I like to come down and be an extra in the show one day?
You didn't have to ask me twice.
That day turned out to be Monday, August 9, and I was invited to sit in the courtroom gallery for the first courtroom sequences of the 10th season, for the debut episode, "Sideshow." There was some prep work required; my crew contact gave me a number to call over the weekend to confirm that I was coming, and to get my "call time." Once I got through to the casting guy -- a gruff but very nice man who went by the name "Fleet," I was informed of my call number, the call time -- 7:15 am! -- and told that I should dress up, but dressy-casual: "Wear what you'd wear to work," were the exact words, and I was instructed to also bring a change of clothing. Also, I was asked to dress in muted, earthy tones -- no bright colors, no whites.
With that, I called in sick to work (no time to ask for a vacation day!) and set my alarm on the
"Super Extra Early Setting."

5:15 am

Life sucks this early. The anti-inflammatory I took last night for my knees did not make my stomach a happy camper. Or maybe I was just really excited/nervous about having a purpose on the set of my favorite show. Hard to know. Soldiering on.

7:20 am

Took the subway to the bus which let me out by Chelsea Piers and the stomach is doing much better, thanks very much. If you've never seen the Chelsea Piers, you're not missing much, at least from the outside -- it's just a  big, sprawling warehouse of a building, with a parking garage, a few restaurants, a sports complex, a roller rink, an ice rink, a miniature golf course, a bowling alley, a basketball court ... and production studios. Law & Order and Spin City film here; there may be others. It's a strange setup, certainly nothing like the lots in Los Angeles, but somehow feels uniquely New York. I was told once by a friend who works on crew here (not my benefactor for the extra work) that a couple of times they've had to ask that the basketball players take a break while they're filming courtroom scenes -- you could hear the dribbling balls downstairs!
The entrance to the L&O production offices is around the side of the Piers, after which I took the elevator to the second floor and instinctively followed a slim black man carrying a garment bag, figuring he was going where I was going -- and my guess turned out to be correct. Out of the elevator, take a left, pass the main offices (they're all very utilitarian, lots of shelves and bulletin boards, vague activities going on but nothing earth-shaking) and pass the racks of clothing, (I've been here three times before, and they've always had those same racks of wardrobe in the hallway, including ties that are labeled for character and season). Just before entering the set at the end of the hallway, turn I turned left ... and I was in the unemployment office.
Well, that's what it looked like. A fairly decrepit, small, boxy room with no windows leading directly to the outside world and a few closed-off, frosted glass windowed "offices" lining the edges was filled with people milling around, hanging their garment bags (full of second-day clothing, apparently; I'd just stuffed mine in my backpack) on provided racks, combing hair, talking on cellphones, sitting in various uncomfortable looking plastic folding chairs (which had the words Law & Order stenciled in white on the back), eating various doughnuts, cereal, bagels, fruit provided in the back of the room. I was still iffy on the stomach thing, so I kept away from the food service.
I located Fleet, a silver haired Teamster-esqe gent sitting by a table in a far corner, marking people in, and he gave me a number: #118, then checked my name off and gave me an I-9 employment form. I took a seat on a fluffy, old sofa near Fleet's table and began filling out my general information, asking a blond guy named Greg next to me what the heck I was supposed to do. When I finished, I handed in my papers and got a good look around the room from my perch on the sofa. Other than the food table, Fleet's desk, the chairs, my sofa and the garment bag racks, there wasn't much to the room. But one of the frosted glass door offices had a sign stuck to the door labeled "Crying Woman" -- clearly a dressing room space reserved for one of the Extra Special Extras. We all sat around chatting, primping, eating and drinking, waiting as production assistants first called our numbers, then when we answered, they came over to evaluate our clothing choices. A second guy sat next to me in the space Greg had vacated -- his name was Lee -- and the PAs called his number shortly after. A PA came over and informed Lee that he'd be a reporter, so he got up to put on his suit and tie. Later on Lee showed me his mini tape recorder and notepad, brought along by himself, personally, to add a realistic effect. The show did provide notepads and pens for the other gallery reporters, to use as props, but Lee was a professional -- he came prepared!
Finally, my number was called and a PA came over to apprise my clothing. She asked what I had to change into; I showed her and she said what I had on, for now, would be fine. But I didn't know what role I'd have! Such actorly angst.

8:00 am

They took us to court.
First, jurors are called and ushered out of the room I thought of as an unemployment office, but which Fleet referred to as a "holding area," and next they called the rest of the "gallery" to line up. That included me and Lee, among maybe 20 or so others. We filed down a narrow corridor to the stage entrance, walking behind the set, past the food and drink tables for the cast and past a sweep hand clock that was at least 3 feet in diameter and waited some more.
Finally, they were ready, and led us through another doorway into the outside "courthouse" area (that is, the space immediately outside the courtroom), which was strewn with wires and lights and various other equipment, since they weren't filming in that area. From there, we filed into the courtroom proper, which looked very much as it appears on television, with a few differences: It was worn in various places that don't pick up on camera, and some of the furniture was not quite real wood (though the pews certainly were) and there were small tape marks on the floor indicating where furniture should be placed. Originally I was placed in the second row behind the defense table, but after I caught a glimpse of my benefactor and we met face to face for the first time, he moved me to the front row, on the corner and gave me a sketch pad and a blue wax pencil for sketching. So I finally had an assignment: Court Sketch Artist. Which was good, in its own way -- it gave me something to concentrate on and a persona to assume, if that was something I wanted to do. Actually, it did help, much later on, when I really wanted to take a nap. But more on that later.
Everything is exciting until you have to do it for 12 hours. Even being on the set got boring, eventually. But until boredom set in, I was in heaven. We weren't allowed to have reading materials in the courtroom, and we  weren't allowed to talk above a whisper during rehearsals, so the only thing to do was concentrate on what was happening in the courtroom. Most of the time ... not much was. For all of the busy scurry work, actual filming goes very, very slowly. (That old joke about making movies and television -- hurry up and wait -- is quite true.) Scattered around the room was a crew of upwards of 25 people (with very few exceptions, like the boom mic operator, who was a woman, all white and male) performing all of the various crew duties. The director, Ed Sherin, and a few other crew members stood slightly off-set, staring into small monitors that showed what was being filmed, and prior to actual filming would wander in and out to make adjustments. The actors themselves weren't in the room for most of the time; since the show was being filmed and not taped, each scene had to be blocked before rehearsal to assure the camera would be in focus, which meant the director had to know more or less exactly where the actor is going to stand, walk, and move to in a scene, so the focus can be adjusted properly. A crew member regularly pulled out a long tape measure and gauged the distance between the camera and a distant point at which it was aiming. Since during blocking the actors weren't needed, stand-ins sat in their seats, walked the paces, and allowed themselves to be measured and the light adjusted accordingly. The assistant directors wandered up and down the gallery aisles trying to keep us quiet, and every so often Ed Sherin poked his head in the room, approved the take, gave motivation to the various actors (including a few in the gallery, telling those on the prosecution side: "You're the family, the friends, the loved ones of the people who died...."), and once the blocking is done tape marks were made on the floor and more measuring was completed. With all of the measuring going on, I had the surreal impression that the directors were trying to tailor-make a suit for the studio. Some of the gallery murmured softly; I gazed around and tried to keep interested -- which I was, but it was all very, very slow work.
Speaking of which, did I mention how slowly things go? Well, think about Sunday morning services at your local house of worship. This went even slower than that. Between blocking and rehearsal and take one of the tape and take two of the tape and take infinity of the tape (or, really, film here) the words being spoken lost impact, and it was hard not to drift. Lee had been placed in my same row, two people to my left; the extra who was playing another reporter next to me flipped through the pages of the prop reporters notebook he'd been given, and we had a few amusing moments looking at the various epigrams, the "notes" and drawings of reporters past. All of us had been given fake press badges, and all of us were named "J.R. Cummings," according to those badges. Later, I looked over at the reporter on my left, and he'd taken to writing "fuck shit fuck shit" over and over in his notebook. I scooted away a bit. People are very odd.
At some point, Sam Waterston and Angie Harmon made their way to the prosecution table, and I tried to keep my eyes glued on them as much as I could without overtly staring. Now, here's the surreal bit, and you may not agree with me on this, but the point is that I've written hundreds of thousands of words on Jack McCoy in my fanfic. And I know, of course, that Jack McCoy doesn't exist and never will. But I had this odd sensation that I was somehow in the room with McCoy, not Waterston, if that makes any sense, because that was close as anyone could ever expect to get to a fictional character -- being in the place where that character exists -- and I found that to be rather exciting. In any case, the down time when they were in the room was less "down," because I could watch them being bored instead of being bored myself. At some point Waterston leaned over the yellow notepad on the prosecution table and appeared to be earnestly writing something, which I couldn't catch a glimpse of (and probably shouldn't even admit I tried to). Harmon also scrawled a bit on her notepad, but she seemed somehow less there than he did. I felt kind of badly for her; she had no lines to speak for the entire day, and  nothing more to do than sit there and appear present, so whenever the opportunity came up, she left the set.
On the other hand, Waterston was around most of the time, shuffling around in his loose suit, repeating lines of dialogue to himself, talking with the actor in the witness box, joking with the boom operator -- and his enthusiasm was really infectious. He just seemed totally delighted to be there and working. He wasn't over enthusiastic, but he was friendly and jovial and ignored all of us in the peanut gallery with practiced ease. During filming, if he flubbed a line (he had a problem remembering "slide" and tended to say "safety") he'd just stop hard, pause, back up, and pick up where he left off. He was very exciting to watch; his movements were totally natural, and he slid right into the part.
Later on, I put all of the above into a journal I was keeping while waiting around in the holding area. Just as I'd finished that last section, about Waterston's acting in the studio, I happened to glance up from my writings -- and when I looked up, there he was, standing in the doorway of the holding area, as if I'd somehow summoned him up by writing about him. He simply glanced in the door way, looked around, then went away again.
We broke for lunch around 1:05, and were told to be back at 2:05.

2:00 pm

Back from lunch a little early, wrote down all of the previous ramblings, saw Waterston appear out of nowhere, and disappear yet again. It's kind of a funny world where you can glance up suddenly and see an actor from your favorite show just pop up, then vanish again. Hard to wrap your head around it. In any case, there was new food left for us in the holding area, but outside was too nice to resist, so I spent my lunch hour on a sunny bench out by the Chelsea Piers. Once I got back, Lee was on the phone, chairs were askew, and extras were crashed out on the sofas, sleeping, reading, or staring into space. A fan was blowing in one corner of the room. There was the possibility, I learned, that we extras could be needed back the next day, but in a way, I kind of hoped not -- getting two days off of work might require a lung coughed up.
Shortly after lunch ended, we were taken back into the courtroom, and the waiting around this time led to more complex scene choreography. First of all, I was unnerved to notice (upon resuming my seat in the pew) that the entire back wall behind the jury box had been removed so that scenes could be filmed into the courtroom from that angle. It was a little bizarre that they could just remove and replace a whole wall; later on, when they were filming shots of McCoy quizzing the witness, the whole witness box moved backwards to allow camera access. A long sequence in which McCoy was to pour bullets from two small containers onto the prosecutor's table (emphasizing how many bullets actually came out of a tampered automatic weapon, rather than how many should have) took ages to put together. In the meantime, Waterston jokingly insisted he knew exactly how many bullets were in the bins; Harmon made him count them to prove it. The bullets were poured out several times -- in practice, in filming, up close, from behind ... and over and over these bullets had to be poured and gathered. During down time this time around Waterston got into a bantering discussion with one of the crew while he was sitting behind the prosecutor's table, waiting for filming to begin. God only knows how this conversation got started, but they were talking about a dinner one of them had had recently, and Waterston took a mocking offense to the idea of a Chinese restaurant named after Mao Tse Tung. It snowballed into the two of them coming up with various meals at restaurants which you could name after dictators. The crew guy thought "Pol Pot's Luck" was genius. All I could think of was, "Uh ... does The Killing Fields mean anything to anyone? Do we care?"
I just sat in the gallery seat and kept my mouth shut.
Later came the big Annoyed Gallery scene, where we all had to suddenly do something, not just sit there and pretend we were hearing lines for the first time. Sherin came out and directed us -- the verdict, we were told, was going to be thrown out, and we had to react accordingly, depending on who we were in the gallery. The family and friends had to be outraged and verbal; the reporters had to be intrigued and buzzing amongst themselves or rushing out to pass on the story, and me, well, I had to make something up. I was neither fish nor fowl -- I was supposed to be a court employee, neutral. So I made up a set of actions; I'd rise with the rest of the gallery when the judge told the court reporter to stick around, I'd look vaguely interested when he threw out the verdict, I'd walk to the back with several departing reporters when the judge gave his speech to McCoy. Naturally, none of that showed on film, but there was no way to know, so I had to pretend. I'm no method actor, I just made it up as I went along, and it seemed to be fine. And we did this scene over, and over, and over again. At one point, Steven Hill was brought in to sit across the aisle from me for the reading of the verdict. He seemed fairly cranky and tired; he was nice a few years ago when I met him on the set, but he seemed less approachable this time around, rubbing his eyes quite a bit.
And that was the day, actually. Back and forth, gallery, bullets, gallery, eruption. Change clothes once, more gallery. During the break between a gallery eruption and calling back of the extras who'd walked off the set during the taping, I discovered the props cart and made off with one of the bullets. Hey, everyone wants a souvenir.

7:15 pm

Finally, we were let go, and told we didn't need to come back the next day. Screen Actors Guild members, who get paid more money, were kept longer. We turned in our I-9s, I thanked my benefactor (who did at one point give me a quick tour of the set), and a few weeks later ... a check appeared in my mailbox for just under $50.00
Not a bad day's work.


whaddya think?