I worked a four-day stint as an extra in the film “We Are Marshall”. The movie depicts the Marshall University football team which suffered a disastrous plane crash in 1970 as it returned to West Virginia after a game. The entire team, most of its coaches, some parents and supporters, as well as the crew, perished. The film shows the comeback of the team and the revival of the spirit of the college.
My daughter, Holly, and I saw an article in the “Peach Buzz” column in "The Atlanta Journal and Constitution." We signed up and were called to report to Jonesboro for the shoot. About a week before the shoot, we drove to “Wardrobe” in Decatur to be fitted with our 1970 ensembles.
Holly’s outfit was cute; a wrap-around A-line denim skirt and plaid long-sleeved shirt. She was 21 and slender and looeds good in anything. I, however, am ……not 21 and cannot claim to be slender any more. It is Holly’s fault that I am not svelt, even though most people think a woman should have recovered her pre-baby figure in fewer than 21 years.
I was “fitted” with a stretchy, tight three piece suit -- a straight skirt, sleeveless shell, and long-sleeved jacket. The jacket covered a multitude of sins (the gluttonous kind), which is why the pretty, thin young Wardrobe lady brought it to me. When I continuously lamented my middle-aged middle, she kindly said, “everyone has issues with their body”. But when I examined myself in the Wardrobe mirrors, I wondered, “Does everyone look like a walking link sausage?”
The information sheet told us to arrive at the set with our hair in curlers and our make-up applied. I had not rolled my hair in 30 years, so I bought some pink sponge curlers. The trip from Carrollton to Jonesboro took a little over an hour to drive. I stared straight ahead, afraid to make eye contact with any other drivers or passengers, embarrassed by the pink curlers in my hair. Only when we arrived in the large parking lot and most of the other women wore curlers, too, did I feel comfortable. The security people waved us in, knowing that we belonged there by our space creature appearance.
I had been told that working as an extra involved a lot of waiting. Now that I have experience in the field, I can tell you it involves a lot of waiting. A lot. Waiting in the heat and long lines to check in. Waiting to get your costume from Wardrobe. Waiting in Make-up lines. Waiting in Hair Dressing lines. Then waiting in Extras Holding, which was an un-air conditioned gym, crammed with hot, sweating people.
Each day I wiggled into my sausage casing, er 100% wool suit, and had my hair teased and sprayed and came out looking quite matronly. The first day my “do” made me resemble Edith Bunker. The second, I looked like Dear Abby – the photo of her that for years graced the head of her column, featuring the coif with WINGS. The last two days, I didn’t resemble anyone, but had big hair, which my daughter tried to press down a little. Holly does not like big hair. Hers is long and sleek and would not hold any curl, so she didn’t have to roll hers after the first day.
For our actual work, we filled a football stadium and were fans. Sometimes I was a Marshall fan and sometimes I was a Morehead (Ky.) fan. We sat on the aluminum seats of the concrete stadium and jumped up and cheered or, alternately, drooped in disappointment as our team of the moment succeeded or failed to score.
The stadium was also filled with dummies – not us but balloon people. Propped up on their bottoms, which is where their bodies ended, and dressed in a variety of costumes, they occasionally listed drunkenly or fell onto their faces. Many were truly scary, some were just ugly. Some actually looked like people we recognize. For instance, several looked just like John Travolta.
All during the shooting, we and the dummies were moved singly and en masse to different seats and across the field to the other side of the stadium. Our work lasted from around 4 p.m. until the next morning, 4 a.m., 5, a.m., 6 a.m., even 7 a.m. “Lunch” took an hour, and two nights we had to stay inside until a storm blew over. We did film in misting rain, but prudently stayed inside during lightening and a nearby small tornado. By our release time each morning, we appeared to be extras in a zombie movie -- red eyed, shuffling, and dazed.
Matthew McConaughey starred as the coach trying to help Marshall develop a winning football team. On the set daily, he made many female hearts to go pitty-pat. When the media reported McConaugheye’s break up with his girl friend, every delirious fan there felt sure that he would notice her and be stricken with love at first sight. As he walked through the stadium of smiling women, some of the swooning could be blamed on McConaughey, instead of the unbearable heat and humidity.
We filmed each scene DOZENS of times, and from MANY angles. At first it was exciting to see the football plays. I half forgot that the plays were choreographed and felt a little thrill at a well-executed pass. Eventually that began to pall, but by the last night, when a difficult pass, tip, and interception play took FOREVER to perfect, when the players finally succeeded, the crowds erupted -- screaming, jumping, waving their pompons. Even the people who should have been devastated forgot who they were cheering for in the excitement of being released to go home at a mere 4:00 a.m.
Many Marshall graduates and family members of the passengers of the downed plane worked as extras in the filming in Atlanta. They seemed pleased to tell us of their connection to the school and as one man said, “I had to be a part of this.”
The people we met added a great deal to the enjoyment of the experience. The young people who took care of the extras, i.e. herded us around and told us what to do, were friendly and kind. I especially appreciated their consideration of a woman of 74 years who, bless her heart, worked every single day, existing on four hours of sleep daily while taking care of her disabled sons. Meanwhile, I literally fell into my bed each morning, half-undressed, only to rise at the last minute to shower, dress, and run out the door, calling my good-byes to my family.
I was amazed that my new friend could continue to work, although by the last couple of nights, several of us noticed that, as she conversed with us in the stands, her eyes would occasionally roll up into her head. I also saw her drooping in her seat, eyes closed, and I tensed, ready to catch her if she toppled forward. But on cue, she continually sprang to her feet, cheering her team.
Being an extra is good, if exhausting, work. I had planned to read a lot during the waiting periods, but found that I enjoyed talking with my cohorts. Everyone has an interesting story, if you take the time to listen.