5 Jan 2008

An Extra's Tale

Did I ever tell you about the time I met Tom Cruise? Well, I didn't meet him properly, like being introduced by the vicar or something. But I was in the presence of his Tomness for a few hours one afternoon in the summer of 2001-02. He was out here filming his latest vehicle, a period piece called the "The Last Samurai". It was set in 19th-century Japan, but they couldn't actually film in modern Japan. It was far cheaper and easier to do it in 21st century Taranaki. Our green and volcanic landscape made a fine stand-in for the real thing. So the movie people came out here, and the town exploded. Hollywood had arrived in rural New Zealand, and in a particularly weird part of it at that. Local reaction ranged from "going fucking crazy" to "going totally fucking crazy". Up to this point, New Plymouth was famous for two things - the site of the first oil well in the British Empire (hurrah!) and the birthplace of Melanie Lynskey. Pride about "Our Mel" had always stoked a parochial sentiment. The arrival of a whole goddamned film crew led by Ed Zwick, with Tom Cruise and Billy Connolly in tow, blew that sentiment up to megalomaniacal levels. Kiwis try not to be "gushy" people; it goes against our proud tradition of quiet reserve. But the arrival of "the movie people" was a Big Deal. Tom was, at that time, attached to Penelope Cruz. They took a secret hideaway somewhere out of town. One time, walking through town with my homies Minna and Stace, we passed La Cruz and two of her girl-chums as they went on a magazine run. We waltzed past nonchalantly as this figure, so elegant and incongruous a sight, headed downtown. Then we burst into laughter, at the sheer surreal lunacy of seeing some "genuine celebrity" on the most boring street in the southern hemisphere. Whatever being "star-struck" is, and there are different levels to it, seeing a movie star getting her glossies from the same place I bought my comics is perhaps as close as I got. Anyway, my scene with Tom : once the crew had arrived, the call went out for extras. Locals were invited to line up for a shot at immortality in the background of a scene. Hundreds stood in the rain for hours to get their call. In the dizzying aftermath of "Lord of the Rings", everyone wanted in. I never lined up for it; in this town, like all small towns, it's about who you know. I was able to send some details via an old friend who had been recruited to find extras. And whaddaknow, I got the call to come in and get suited up! That particular summer, I had a huge beard. I can do huge beards easily, it's one of the many dubious benefits of a Scandinavian heritage. It was this beard, along with my scars, that got me chosen. I had a good face for 1876, apparently. Arriving at the extra's barn for fitting out, I found myself the youngest guy in a room full of bikers, Santas, and unreformed hippies - a whole group of guys 40-up with the right kinds of sideburns, mo's and spade-beards. Like some kind of Victorian facial hair paradise. What a place that would be. A scene was to be filmed, down on the cricket green at Pukekura Park. In this scene, a massive party would be taking place in 1876 Tokyo. I would play the part of a Russian military advisor; an officer of the Czar send to represent his holy beardedness in Japan. There were other military types in different uniforms, as well as women in crinolines, children in boaters, an a large Japanese contingent shipped over to make the thing look genuine. But for my part, I got a heavy wool uniform (albeit one in the dashing green and red colours of the Guard Rifles) a heavier sword and a ridiculous woollen hat, roughly approximate to one of those little Cossack numbers. I did look the part, like something out of Dostoevsky, and it definitely appealed to my sense of roleplaying. I was a hardbitten Caucasian Cossack to the core! After standing about miming and mouthing and feeling like a general dickhead while they filmed us, a chopper arrived. Tom was here! Before you knew it, the Thetan levels were through the roof. He appeared beaming a grin stronger than the sun which was laying people out. For his part, two people with parasols followed him everywhere to prevent his form being violated by a foreign sun. He never caught my eye, did Tom; not that I needed him to catch it. Just watching the man do his job was enough. He laughed repeatedly at the endless obnoxious monologue that is Billy Connolly; proving that he is either completely insane or a damn good sport. (Not to knock on Billy or anything, he is a comic legend and married to a Kiwi after all, I just found him to be the kind of person I'd avoid normally). When the time came to work he was Action Tom; he levelled that steady gaze and delivered his lines like he was revealing the true name of God. At one point he stepped aside with someone and engaged in earnest conversation about something. (But then, all Tom's conversations must be earnest). I theorised two scenarios about what they might have spoken of: TOM : So Jerry, what's my motivation? JERRY: Oh, about $450,000. TOM : Sweet. Either that or : TOM : Tell me Lord Quagelurm, how fares our fleet in the Nicoferan Sector? JERRY : Truly milord, we have slain many of the man-animals. TOM : Whoo-hah-hah-hah! The will of the Thetans shall not be opposed! He was about ten feet away from me most of the time. We're the same height, so I don't knock him about that anymore. (I don't share his tall-chick fetish though). Billy was also in the area, but even his formidable presence was dimmed by the shadow Tom cast. I so wanted to go tap him on the shoulder and say something like "Tom, you know that scene on the train with Rebecca de Mornay in "Risky Business"? Dude, that's like the best sex scene ever". But of course, I could not approach him; his invisible force field of Tomness denied egress to all lesser beings. I could only bask in his Phobean glow. If I did approach, the ninja death squad he keeps at his command would have nailed me anyway. So this, I thought, was what people call "the star effect". Here was Maverick, Lestat, freakin' Cole Trickle. He was standing on a spot where, ten years before, I was being tortured and humiliated by my school during one of those so-called "sports days". My reality paradigm was now being seriously distorted - or maybe it was Tom's dianetic powers. Yet he was but a man, with kids to feed and a job to do. So was Billy, standing by there and looking like the sour Glaswegian he is. I thought about Sam Pepys, and the diary entry he wrote shortly after meeting Charles II for the first time. Crossing in a boat with the King and his nobles, the noble sovereign did nothing but make fart jokes the whole way. Pepys notes, with a mixture of awed wonder and disapproving disappointment, how ordinary this supposedly godlike figure was in real life. It was a long, hot day alright; his Tomness was only needed for a few hours, and disappeared just after lunch. Jumping into his personal chopper, he was wafted back to his retreat and, doubtless, the expectant arms of La Cruz. Because, of course, he's so not gay, right? Anyhow, us scum remained the rest of the afternoon, continuing to play soldiers in the park for the garrulous Mr Zwick. While I mention him, the director himself told me "you look right, stand over here" and pushed me closer to the camera at one stage. That phrase ranks as the highest praise an extra can get. Although, when all was done, it was for nought. The scene was never included in the movie; I suspect the whole endeavour was to keep the locals happy with the illusion of involvement, although the tight demands of budget would forbid such frivolous filming. At any rate, my brilliant impersonation of a Caucasian captain of the Czar's Guard Rifle Regiment probably remains in Ed Zwick's private collection. He would watch it endlessly, mumbling to himself "this scene sucked, but I so believe that Russian guy!" I should mention a few other celebrities I met during this adventure. Top of the list was Ngila Dickson, at this stage fresh off Oscar glory from her LOTR costumes. She was a remarkable woman, who seemed to regard everyone with a certain benign disdain. I met her and her costume ladies several times. Now I know my uniforms; the history of military fashion is a kind of speciality topic of mine - an extremely nerdy one I admit. I can tell my aiguillettes from my epaulettes. The costume ladies were less than impressed with my views on quite how a Russian officer of the period looked. "Right", is all anything needs to look with regards to costume. "Authentic" is irrelevant. But Ms Dickson did note my views on the subject, agreeing - with a smile I could only attribute to wry mockery - on how the trousers were to be worn (muttonchopped, not stovepiped). She is all class and I admire her greatly. After the shoot finished, I encountered them all (along with Zwick and his posse) having a few drinks downtown. I had obviously stuck in the memory; I got shouted a few drinks by them, and we talked about the art of costuming movies. And to hear someone like Ngila Dickson say "oh yes, I remember Andre" is fantastic, regardless of how she said it. The other notable person was a chap called Zoltan. He won an Oscar for doing the makeup in "Mask", of all things. He was the lead makeup guy, and took an interest in me. And not just in a slightly creepy way. He showed me that running red ink over my scars would highlight them nicely, and looked a lot like the butcher job you could have expected in 1876. "God gave you those scars", he said in his bubbling Hungarian accent, "you should make use of them". Well it wasn't God's fault (I think), but I do know about making use of them. Zoltan also mentioned he'd done no less than six movies with the Muscles from Brussels himself, van Damme. "Your head, is like van Damne's", he said, feeling it like a phrenologist; "you look quite like him". Boy, did this guy know how to flatter. (On a related note, NZ's best journalist, Gordon Campbell, once said I looked like Ray Liotta. This is the greatest compliment I have ever been paid. That is all). The experience of the so-called Samurai Summer got me a nice lunch, a small wad of cash, a tan and a few good memories. It changed my hometown immensely; several movies are now on the go here, and the long-term effects of exposure to Cruise have been positive. Throughout this period, I always thought of that Simpsons episode where a movie crew come to film in Springfield. Whereas the traditional cliché has the movie people corrupting the simple townsfolk, in this case the people of Springfield bankrupt and frustrate the moviemakers with their bizarre demands. I felt you could have done a Kiwi variant of that, based on the time they came to film a movie in NP; a simple movie, about a samurai, and how he's the last. A totally not-gay action hero steadies his gaze, grabs some comic relief and learns important life lessons among a politically correct people. So, as you can see, the movie is shit. It's an inaccurate ego-driven borefest that only serves to help Tom in his ultimate goal of global domination. And I'm not in it.

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