The Accidental Extra
I’ve made my film debut. I play a helpful barista. You may think that’s not much of a stretch, but I think my character was probably better at that than I am.
But I’ll start at the beginning.
Whenever I come into contact with famous people (which, of course, happens all the time), I like to play it cool. I think about how I would not like to be fussed over, how I would like to be treated like a regular person. Anyways, what’s less cool than getting all flustered over a celebrity?
But when I first spotted Ken Finkleman, the creator of The Newsroom, inspecting the espresso cups at my store a few months back, I froze. He looked exactly as he always did, ageless and wearing his trademark dark Fellinni sunglasses.
For the uninitiated, The Newsroom, whose initial series lasted one season in the mid-1990’s, was the smartest and funniest show the CBC ever aired. It stared Finkleman as George Findlay, a news director for a “crown corporation” broadcast (clearly the CBC). It must have been the cheapest show ever to produce as the entire series took place in television studio offices. George was a petty, megalomaniac liar, but because he never wins you kind of feel for him. Zany characters and Canadian guest stars abound (refreshingly, mostly politicians and columnists), but the show’s real strength was dark, deadpan humour, years before Ricky Gervais and Larry David’s vehicles.
My family’s favourite line, oft-quoted randomly at the dinner table, occurs when George is complaining to his hapless assistant Audrey about his long-drawn-out feud with the cafe in the building, accusing the workers of “anti-white racism” and deliberately giving him “shitty muffins”.
“Most of the commercial apple products made are not made with real apple. They’re made with turnips, and apple flavour. The entire muffin industry in this country is a joke.”
My reasons for being nervous were twofold: I was star-struck as a fan, but scared that he may actually be like George and be mean and make it so I never watch the show again. But it was fine: he asked about espresso cups and then left. On his second visit he asked a different question about them, and I worked up the courage to admit that I remembered him from before because I knew his show.
Last week, my co-worker Nando told me that we’d be closed Monday afternoon so that a TV show could be filmed in the cafe, but he didn’t know anything about it. I finally got to question the guy who was acting as the crew’s representative when getting him his third Americano.
“It’s called Good Dog, it’s for CBC,” he said. “Do you know Ken Finkleman?”
“Yeah, it’s his show. We’ve been filming all over the neighbourhood.” He took his coffee. “Thanks!”
Suffice it to say, I was very excited to see that I was working on Monday and not annoyed at all that my shift ended ludicrously early, because I might get a glimpse of Finkleman and some of the filming.
It’s quite interesting to watch a film crew set up. We had barely got our customers out the door when twenty-odd people stormed the cafe, lugging equipment, milling around, one guy even with tray of fancy snacks. A woman, I have no idea what her official job was, quickly became my friend on the set.
“Okay, I need two coffees and an espresso. Keep a tab of that for the show, but don’t let anyone else add to it. Just me!”
Out of nowhere, Finkleman appeared, scouting shots and directing extras.
“Well,” Nando said to the three of us still working. “Someone could go down to the basement and collapse boxes if we have nothing to do up here…”
Sometimes, you have to put your foot down.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Do you want me abandon the set of someone who I’ve been a fan of since I was a child?”
“You can stay, Max.”
Not five minutes later, the friendly woman approached us.
“Does one of you want to be in the scene? We just need a barista to hand off coffee.”
“Max, do you want to?”
So then the intense assistant director came over and asked me how long espresso shots take to pour (truthfully, it depends), and if I could manage to do something with the machine before finishing two drinks off (“We just need a bit of action”), and if I could remember to inform the camera man “two-to-three” seconds before I started walking that I was going to start walking, and I had to remember to turn to my left, towards the shot, and…
There was a moment when I got afraid, when I thought I was going to mess it up, especially when the shot seemed to hinge on how fast I could finish Finkleman’s espresso. I had visions of our temperamental machine pulling a really long shot and me ruining the whole thing. But I stayed brave, and rehearsed being a barista over and over again, while actually being a barista and getting the extras coffee.
My coworkers huddled behind the counter and whispered, occasionally making it into the shot. “I can see the young lady with her arms crossed!” yelled the director.
We did a couple test runs and then prepared for the first scene. A make-up woman said hi, but walked by.
“I don’t need anything, right?” I called, hoping that I might get a touch-up.
“Nope, you’re gorgeous.”
I wish I had at least shaved that day.
In the scene, I finished off an espresso, take it and a coffee over to Finkleman and his friend at the till, and smile as they say thank you. I was preoccupied with getting the drinks in the right hands for when I handed them off because the two actors kept switching sides on me. After our first shot, Finkleman looked at me through dark glasses.
“Max, that wasn’t really a double espresso, right? It poured really fast.”
“No,” I admitted.
“You can make it pour longer. It’s okay if it takes a bit more time.”
I don’t know what I was more excited about, that Ken Finkleman knew my name or that he just increased my screen time.
Then, in the scene, Finkleman and his friend walk over and sit down and talk. I could almost write out the entire conversation, I heard it so many times. It had something to do with Finkleman being a “higher concept” than his friend (“It’s a network decision!”), and a winter-spring romance, and Larry David (remember when I said he was indebted to Finkleman?). During one shot, someone on the set was checking out our coffee merchandise and dropped something, making a giant clanging noise as the group of the crew covered their mouths and looked embarrassed. Among the normal-looking extras, two gigantic men in army fatigues were wandering around, who I found out would be part of a dream sequence in a later scene.
After that, they remembered that they wanted just a shot of me making the coffees.
“Max, glasses!” the director said. “Wait, were you wearing them before? It doesn’t matter, we just saw your hands.”
Just my hands? Anyways, I took off my glasses and went to prepare the drinks.
“Wait, which hand was the espresso in and which hand had the coffee?” I asked, spinning around. Finally, somebody said the espresso was in my right. I have read about far too many continuity errors to mess up my first screen appearance.
I made the coffees, turned to my left, I (may have) bit my lip, God knows why, and I handed the drinks off. We did two takes.
“Very nicely done,” Finkleman said. “Profession.”
Even if he says that to all the extras, I got a warm fuzzy feeling, not the feeling generally associated with Ken Finkleman.
They did one more shot in the cafe and it looked like they could finish up.
“We’re wrapping early today,” Finkleman told me.
“I like to think we had something to do with that,” I joked.
“Yeah, that and the fact that we can’t do the next scene because of the weather.” Then we discussed Toronto weather for awhile. I wanted to tell him what an honour it was to part of his show, but I couldn’t think of a cool way of doing it.
From what I could tell from the monitors, the scenes looked good. My store was an excellent location pick, very spacious and modern, with big windows. The windows actually caused a problem during Finkleman’s conversation shot, when a little girl and her Mom walking outside stopped and stared directly at the camera. When they shot it from a different angle, you can just barely make out the same woman peeking her head between the wall and a plant. The crew had a good laugh about her.
Some people will do anything to be on TV.