A Different Sort of Ultra

Being a movie extra is an endurance event, a bit like running an ultra.

Being a movie extra is an endurance event, a bit like running an ultra. For me, it all began with a simple conversation about books. My daughter is an avid reader and ever since catching her at age ten with a contraband copy of Twilight under her pillow, I’ve tried to stay on top of her reading selections. This time, she was into another questionable series. As she described the plot, which involved teenagers being forced to fight to the death for public entertainment, I became a bit concerned. Pondering the suitability of this theme for an eleven year old, I decided the only way to know for sure was to read the book myself. I picked up a copy for myself and the obsession began. The Hunger Games had entered our household, and things would never be the same. We had frequent debates over the virtues of Gale versus Peeta and argued over whether Effie Trinket was evil or just plain stupid.

Our mania increased with the news that the big screen adaptation was to be filmed in Western North Carolina, practically our own backyard.  In fact, the famous tree that served as shelter for Katniss during a critical scene was taken from our neighbor’s backyard.  (Tree huggers, no need to worry – it was already dead.) Then the greatest news of all – casting agents were searching for local extras! Emma and I sent in our headshots and resumes, making sure to highlight my starring role as Dorothy in the 5th grade production of “The Wizard of Oz”, as well as my ultrarunning experience, figuring that the casting agents might want actors who are fit and possess endurance.

The process of mailing in our applications was a little bit like registering for a race. There was the anticipation and the excitement of looking forward to a new adventure. Just like arriving at the start line of an event I haven’t run before, there was the uncertainty of whether it would go as I’d imagined and whether I’d be up for the challenge. And just as family members and friends quickly tire of hearing athletes go on and on about training sessions and upcoming events, my husband had to remind me that there were other things to talk about around the dinner table besides “the movie”.

Little did I know how much my ultrarunning background would serve me in filming. The days were long and sweltering, requiring as many as twelve hours on our feet in bright sunlight. More than a few extras experienced symptoms of heat exhaustion and ended up in the medical tent. Crew members passed out cups of Gatorade, misted us with cool water, and handed out towels to mop our sweat. Getting up before dawn and finishing long after sunset, I actually felt as if I was in an endurance event. There were moments that I felt exhausted and just wanted the day to be over, yet I knew that I’d look back on the experience with fantastic memories.

The film’s director’s role was similar to that of a race director, providing last minute instructions and encouragement, yet when the cameras rolled we were on our own, relying on our own talent and training. Yet just like in an ultra, I never felt truly alone. By the end of a long race, I always feel as if my competitors have morphed into friends, and this “ultra” was no different. Although Day 1 of filming consisted of a fair amount of jockeying for position in effort to get in front of the cameras, by the end of the process we were comrades with a “we’re all in this together” attitude.

The film’s premiere in Asheville was our awards ceremony. All of the extras were there, psyched to be reunited and full of our individual stories about the experience. We compared costumes just as athletes check out each other’s digs. Some of us showed up in the final version of the film, others did not, but just like in a race, it’s really the experience that counts, not the outcome. We all knew that Jennifer Lawrence and her costars were the real celebrities, just as in competition there is only one official winner, but in our minds, we were all VIPs for that one day.

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