If there's one overriding impression I took away from being an extra in a major Hollywood motion picture it's this: "Background actors," as they're euphemistically called, are basically just living props.
Wear this, hold that. Go stand here, go sit there. Hurry up and wait. And then wait some more.
It's an interesting way to spend a day, and it makes for a great story to tell family and friends, especially if you survive the editing process and actually end up on the big screen. Hey, that's me! That blurry face in the distance, recognizable only because I know that I. Was. There.
Dolphin Tale 2, the sequel to the family-friendly, 2011 box office hit, opens in theaters across the country on Friday, Sept. 12. Two days before that, Warner Brothers and Alcon Entertainment screened the film for audiences at two premieres at Ruth Eckerd Hall, a performing arts center in Clearwater, Florida, where both movies were shot.
While the original and the sequel boast A-list stars Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr., it's the two teenage actors, a pelican and several spunky dolphins who steal the show. The undisputed diva, of course, is Winter, who lost her flukes as a baby because of entanglement in a crab trap line and became the only dolphin in the world to swim with a fully prosthetic tail. People come from all over the world to visit her at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she's lived since her rescue in 2005.
I've been volunteering at the aquarium for two years, which is how I came to be an extra in Dolphin Tale 2. CMA has hundreds of volunteers, and we were all invited to submit our names, photos and vital statistics for a casting company's consideration.
I was lucky enough to get called for the shoot in Tarpon Springs at Florida Hospital North Pinellas (formerly Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital). Thankfully, that's about a 20-minute drive, in light traffic, from my home, because the "call time" was well before dawn.
Now, let me state right here and now that I am notoriously not a morning person. It's not unusual for me to be climbing into bed or to have logged only a couple hours of sleep when my husband is getting up around 5 a.m. for work. Early birds can feel superior all they want, and many of them undoubtedly do. But they have no monopoly on putting in a productive day. I consider the wee hours of the morning as prime time for reading and writing.
I'll get up before 11 a.m. if I have to, but if I don't, I won't. It's as simple as that. It's not a matter of being lazy, as some people like to insinuate about those of us who aren't early risers. It's just that our body clocks tick along on a different schedule than the breakfast crowd. While they're hitting their pillows by 10 p.m., I'm just getting my second wind.
So knowing this about me, you'll understand how much I wanted to be an extra in Dolphin Tale 2 to agree to show up at 6 o'clock on an unseasonably (for Florida) chilly November morning in 2013.
A catering service had set up two tents in a parking area behind the hospital, and we were invited to help ourselves to an impressive array of complimentary breakfast foods and beverages, including omelets cooked to order and just about any imaginable kind of juice made from fresh fruits and vegetables, including some that appeared as appetizing as puddle water.
After checking in and providing the necessary documentation, I trooped to the wardrobe area along with other extras picked to pose as medical staff. A woman sized me up, handed me a pair of light blue scrubs and told me to go change in a tent behind her. It was dark in there, and darned cold, especially with other women constantly flipping open the flap to enter and exit.
After struggling into my nurse's garb, which didn't fit great but was good enough for who it was for, I encountered a particularly cranky costumer whose patience already appeared to be exhausted. Her snippy answer to my seemingly innocuous question about the paperwork we all were issued told me all I needed to know about whether she enjoyed her job and what she thought of extras.
The next stop was a trailer where a makeup artist from Miami sized up my face and hair and found them lacking, or at least that's the impression she gave me. As she did her best to make me presentable, a young lady walked in and sat down in a chair not far from me. I almost didn't recognize her because she looked nothing like the ice pop-eating preteen she portrayed in Dolphin Tale. It was Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel Haskett, the aquarium director's daughter. The 15-year-old (she's since turned 16) chatted away with her makeup artist as if they were old friends.
I quietly commented to another makeup artist about how grown up Cozi was, and the woman nodded knowingly and said, "She's really going to be something." Then the woman quickly amended, "She already is something."
After I left the trailer, fumbling clumsily with the doorknob on my way out, a very entertaining (and adorably good looking) production assistant named Mario herded us into a van for the short ride to the front of the hospital. We trooped inside, and those of us playing medical personnel had our pictures taken for temporary I.D. badges. We paraded up and down the maze of hospital hallways, attracting plenty of attention, then outside, where we apparently weren't needed yet, and then back inside to cool our heels in a conference room.
There, I learned about the way this extra business works. To my surprise, only one other person in the room had any connection to the aquarium. (Her husband works there.) All the rest were chosen after they'd registered online with the casting company, and many of them bragged about the other movies they'd appeared in as extras. A few were seriously pursuing an acting career. One woman kept her kids out of school and drove almost two hours from an Orlando suburb to be there. Even though they had an agent, she said, they'd landed work only as extras up to that point. And another stage mother acted as though her teenage daughter was in line to be the next Sandra Bullock or Charlize Theron.
Finally, we were on the move again, playing follow the leader through the halls and back outside, where we stood around for a bit while crew members passed out various props. One dug around in a big box and handed me a pen on a lanyard and a stethoscope. He gave another stethoscope to the young man I'd been paired with, a pretend intern doctor wearing a white coat over his scrubs. Come to find out he was a student at my alma mater, the University of South Florida, and he lived in the same Clearwater area town as I do, about two miles, give or take, from my house. Talk about a small world.
Although Dolphin Tale 2 was shot in the late fall and winter, the story is set during the summer. That meant, of course, that none of us were dressed for such a chilly day. At least I had on long pants. The poor people playing hospital visitors had been told to show up wearing clothes and shoes suitable for a 90-degree day.
We were all part of a scene-setting shot of the hospital exterior, and the idea was to make it look like business as usual. "Visitors" and "staff" strolled to and from the parking lot, others milled around as though on break, and my "intern" buddy and I appeared to be headed out to lunch. After numerous takes, the director apparently wasn't happy with what they'd shot, so they repositioned many of us and gave us new instructions. Luckily for me, my new assignment put me almost front and center in the scene. My partner and I were to walk straight ahead from the main entrance, then turn right and keep going across the front of the building.
For such a routine scene there were a lot of moving parts, and the action ended with an ambulance crew pulling up and unloading a "patient." We did the same thing over and over, and then again and again.
The film crew had set up the camera on a crane not far from the street, at least 100 yards from where I was stationed. A few extras closer to that part of the parking lot said they saw Ashley Judd over there, but I never caught even a glimpse of her.
One thing I knew for certain, though. She was sitting in the sun, where it was considerably warmer than where I was in the shadows of the building. Each time a crew member yelled "cut" and they reset the scene, many of us ducked inside the building or huddled beneath beach towels passed out for that purpose. The crew had to cut short one take after a couple of extras forgot to take off their towels.
In the midst of all this, actual patients and visitors were coming and going from the hospital. One older woman, oblivious to the fact we were making a movie, wandered in and out of camera range until she was politely escorted elsewhere. A couple of folks approached me and seemed confused when I explained I wasn't really a nurse and they could get their questions answered inside at the front desk.
Finally, just as I'd nearly given up on the prospect of warming my chilled bones anytime soon, the filmmakers sent all of us inside to hang out in the lobby for a while. There, I saw the diminutive, bespectacled director, Charles Martin Smith, pass unnoticed through the crowd. I recognized him only because I'd seen him at the aquarium weeks before, doing whatever directors do before shooting starts. Years ago, Smith played a nerdy teenager in American Graffiti, and he has a cameo role in Dolphin Tale 2 as a government inspector.
While we were sitting around, doing what extras do best -- waiting -- a woman asked if we were actors and I answered that we were only extras. A crew member overheard me and said, "You certainly are actors. You're background actors." The woman seemed impressed, but as with so many other things in the movie business, our status was just an illusion.
Once we'd finished shooting the scene outside the hospital, the rest of the day passed pretty uneventfully, for the extras anyway. We sat around a lot, ate lunch -- another impressive catered spread -- and had our hopes dashed just when it appeared we'd get to see the two female stars film a scene in which an injured sea turtle gets an MRI. We navigated a corridor jam-packed with carts loaded down with cables, cameras, lights and other equipment and arrived outside the set just in time to hear someone say "Cut!" and "That's a wrap."
Judging by the comments made by crew members with walkie talkies, we weren't supposed to be on that floor and in that hallway, so off we trudged to sit around and make more small talk. Finally, around 3 p.m., they culled about 10 people from our group and dismissed the rest of us.
As one of the discards, I left with mixed feelings. Like everyone else, I'd wanted to be part of one more scene, hopefully something meaty. But it had been a long day, and I also looked forward to heading home and flopping in my recliner. I found out later that those chosen to stay never got to be in front of the camera again. They hung out for about two more hours, doing nothing, before being sent on their way.
As I turned in my scrubs and the paperwork needed to pay me the going rate of $64 for the day ($8 an hour for up to eight hours), I considered how the experience had been interesting and memorable, certainly, but not even remotely glamorous. And I thought about the aspiring actors and attention-seekers who'd gladly spend another day being shifted around like furniture just for the opportunity to be an extra on this or some other film.
That's not to say I wouldn't have gone back if the casting company had e-mailed me with the offer. But I wouldn't have done it for any other movie. Both Dolphin Tale films are special to me because I love the animals at Clearwater Marine Aquarium and believe in its mission of rescue, rehab and release. Plus, my grandnephew, Tanner, is a huge Dolphin Tale and Winter fan, and I figured he'd get a big kick out of his Aunt Annette appearing in the sequel.
In the months since my stint as an extra, I occasionally wondered whether I'd get my onscreen moment or end up cut out of the picture. At Wednesday's "blue carpet" premiere in Clearwater, I finally got my answer.
Nobody else watching would've recognized me, but by goodness I'm there! That and 50 cents won't buy a pack of gum, but it doesn't matter. My bragging rights are secured.
In case you're wondering, I recognized a lot of familiar faces in the scenes shot in and around the aquarium. A handful of dolphin trainers, a sea turtle expert, a couple of animal care interns and assorted staff and volunteers make recognizable appearances in Dolphin Tale 2, and I was glad to see so many of them represented.
And I'm especially happy the sequel illustrates so well the wonderful, lifesaving work that Clearwater Marine Aquarium does in its primary role as a marine animal hospital.