Friday, September 16, 2016

A Zombie Dream Come True

I get a Sunday evening text from my "talent agency," having a "z-mergency." Zombies are needed ASAP and I fit the general criteria. Being utterly unemployed, I am available, always. At times, I will arrive on set within an hour of a call. This is how it goes for me, an always-available fill-in for no-shows and emergencies.

I arrive on location, in the far north of Spokane.Ten or so white trailers are set up in the parking lot of a defunct aluminum plant. This is a former Kaiser plant, abruptly closed when the workers went on strike and the pissy little bitch of an owner closed plants and moved operations to Chad, where he could more freely abuse the employees and environment. The place is huge and spooky. Miles and piles of industrial shit. Broken locker rooms with jackets still hanging on hooks. Warehouses with broken windows. Weeds. Dust. Peeling, rusty sheet metal. Broken ladders and ramps.  Huck, a Toxics Clean-up site manager, is very familiar with this place. It is post-apocalyptic defined. Costco would like to build on it, but the soil is too contaminated. As some point during this shoot, I will be asked to crawl around in dirt beneath old tanks. It will stink and the dust will be black. I will hope that just an hour or two of exposure will not be enough to harm me.
Ye Olde Aluminum Plante

It is raining and cold that first day. I check in and am handed a costume. It is filthy. It has a sheen of dirt, meant to indicate 5 years unwashed, that makes my whole body shiver. Later, I will watch the costume people spray the clothes with fake dirt from a can, like spray paint, and I will relax a bit. Based on my costumes, the zombie apocalypse clearly takes place in the late 90's. The pants are flared-legged; the shoes, chunky and round, brown clown shoes.

The extras have their own trailer and we sit there, waiting to be called by "Make-Up."  I'm not sure what the fraternization rules are here. We chat, but some don't want to chat. Some are zombie veterans from years past and they tell me everything I need to know.  They are reserved, though, doling out information only when asked. I get the idea that we aren't supposed to be chatting. But later, with other groups of zombies, I will discover that this first group was simply a non-chatting group, that there are no rules, there are only personal preferences. Later, with other zombies, I will learn why they were reserved: some of these people are fucking nuts, mean, terrifying, and very difficult. It is wise to hold back a moment or two, to see what you are dealing with.

Extras' Trailer
I met "L" on a different day, a 23 year old who hits on me at first. I'm fully off market (plus utterly surprised!) so I mention my kids and husband in the first sentence.  He sighs and moves on. There's so much more to life than fucking. I feel bad for him and hope he learns to relate to women as people, not just potentials. But as the day goes on, the chatter ebbs and flows, the camp chairs shuffle around the tent, we find we have lots in common. And we end up friends and it's not flirty or weird. I'm almost maternally proud of him for opening up to other ways to relate.

Blouse-zombie is a well known local actress. She's incredible and great for the crew to work with and direct. She's short and fearless and loves crashing her compact self into the ground. But in the extras tent, she's obnoxious and difficult. She's aggressively flirty and rude and demands attention constantly, even while napping. I don't hate her; I can see that this is simply how she's wired and we are a bad fit. Her need for energy will suck my limited supplies dry. A group plays Uno while we wait; each of her turns takes 5 minutes. If anyone reminds her it's her turn, she barks either that she's thinking or she forgot... it's impossible for any observer to know the difference. I learn to avoid her.  She's a net-worker and I leave without saying goodbye to the director, an acquaintance I know from our kid's extensive sex-ed program, where we were stuck in a room together for hours one night a week for eight weeks. I avoid him because I'm tired after 11 hours on set and I can't think any more. Also, I'm unsure he'll be able to recognize me under all of this make-up. And also Blousey is putting on her charming mask and giggling him up, hand on his arm, head cocked. After all the shit she flung all day, I can't stand it. Plus "L" is leaving and we are walking to the trailers together, talking about how much weed we are gong to smoke when we get home. But Juan is a person too and I probably should have just said hi because that's just being friendly to a friend. I don't have to say "hi" like Blousey says "hi." But I'm too tired to think it all through.

The Horde
Then there's the extra who used the chaos of a crowd of zombies to grab me, to hook his hands on my waist from behind. Pervy zombie. When they yell "Cut!" I whirl around, snarl low and quiet, "Fuck off." He giggles, shrugs and says "Zombies!" But he never touches me again.

I meet two women that are a bit older than me, also SAHM's with older kids. They say there's a lot of work for natural looking middle aged women. There's no work for middle aged women who are trying to look 20, though. We talk about bra shopping at Victoria's Secret and this one horrible shop girl that made fun of one zombie's side boob and back fat, who also chuckled at my small breasts and made me buy a beautiful bra that I can't breathe in because that was the only way I was going to get cleavage, she said. I'm not even a fan of cleavage. I think a flat chest can be hot, if you work it right and don't pretend you're something you're not.

There's also the red-headed lesbian whose face lights up when I don't skip a beat as she tells me about her girl friend. She compliments me on my crazy zombie motions.

And then there's the bragger in the wheel chair. She can walk a bit. She looks like one badasss zombie. But she calls it Spokompton and no one really likes her after that. We've all heard the slur before. Spokane is the 2nd largest city in Washington, it's going to have crime and all the bs that comes with cities. She's constantly telling us how much money she makes and how professional she is. It's annoying. I think I could like her, if she'd just cut the bullshit.

There's a hillbilly from Idaho. He wants to talk about guns and killing animals. He thinks he's shocking a bunch of city slickers. So I tell him about my steer Beignet and he shuts up.

I would never recognize any of these people without their layers of zombie make-up.

That first day, people are called from the extras trailer, raindrops singing on the metal roof,  to the make-up trailer and zombies return in their place. We are then called to the costume tent to be splattered in blood.

I am the last one called. I am slated to be a special-effects zombie called a "Hero Zombie." And there is only one make-up artist that can do that and he's been working on the principal actors all morning.  At 11 am, I am finally called to the make-up trailer. I walk up the metal steps into a wall of mirrors and barber chairs.  The mirrors at each station are lined with those large round bulbs and I feel very Hollywood; a thrill shoots through me.

My make-up artist is "Adam," let's say. Adam and I will become very close today. He will be my make up man twice. And then, since I've already been the same zombie 2x, I will get a new make up person who will make me into a totally different zombie, one with stunning cheek bones. But today, the first day, Steve will work on me for 4 hours, and then one more hour to clean me off. First he gets out facial prosthetics, sizes me up, and cuts them to fit. Then he actually glues them on to my face. But half way through, he's called to the set to give a principal actor a black eye, make-up-ly speaking of course.

I sit for 45 minutes. The music is hard and loud and I put ear plugs in. I'm worried I won't be able to make it through a whole day if this music wears out my mind here. I've been worried all along that I won't be able to do this. This is my first paid work since my head injury. I have no idea how my brain and body will respond. I'm scared, but I have ibuprofen and earplugs in my backpack and I know that I can lay in bed for the rest of the week if need be.  But until I hear "Action!" I'm reserving my energy as best as I can.
Hero Zombie

Adam returns to me and my prosthetics.  Adam is short and thin and smells like cigarette smoke. He's from LA and he's a make-up guy. "Twink" I think. That's probably the term, right? Small, wiry gay guy? Damn Spokane and it's provincial backwoodsiness. I don't know anything gay that "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" didn't teach me. The other make-up guy, the big one with the beard and tattoos, he's the "bear" right?

Just as Adam is beginning to contour my zombie face, we are called for lunch. We are herded into a white van and driven to a warehouse on the other end of the property. As I follow the driver into the lean-to shed where the extras are served our catered lunch, the main actors are being led into the main warehouse where their buffet is laid with table clothes. The character "Doc" would prefer to go with us, and follows us into the shed, but he's pulled back, laughing. The rule is that we are to be kept separate from the principal actors. You never know what kind of nut is going to show up in the extras bin. And the characters must be coddled, by necessity, must have their space to get in to character and stay there if need be. Later "Doc" and "Murphy" will give us hugs and take photos with us. They are the outgoing ones. The others are more reserved, always expressing gratitude for our work, but never engaging with us. After I meet several sets of extras, that seems like the safest option.

After lunch, Adam sets to work again. Zombies are needed on set, so the rest of them are vanned-off to location.  Adam and I chat while he layers my face. He sprays sealant on me. I am splattered with blood. Over the four hours we've been together, we've gotten closer, I've been less reserved than usual, comfortable that there is no risk of him misinterpreting my friendliness. He seems to like me, and in my isolated life where I run a tight energy budget, where I rarely go out anymore, it feels good to meet some one and have them like me, to succeed in building report. Closeness, for me, is often felt in similarities and we are similar. But then he starts talking about his ex-girlfriend. He is not a "twink". And it turns out, there is no "bear" either. Nobody in this trailer is gay. My friendliness has indeed been misinterpreted and hints are being given and oh my gawd, I'm a fucking idiot. I am still cringing at myself; I hope you are too, I need company here.

They need me on set, so other artists are called in to help. To get the "5 years without a shower" look, conditioner is smoothed in to my hair. But the hair lady loves my hair and is playing with it. It keeps looking better and better. I warn her that my hair now looks awesome. She's befuddled and can't figure out how to fuck up my hair. She says, "Wow, this is a great problem for an actress to have." I've not been called an actress since the 90's. Every time I come to this trailer, the LA people gush about my "look". I think of myself as simply being myself, whatever my DNA wants to express is what is expressed. I feel simple and plain. But apparently these Hollywood-types find me exotic. I am as susceptible to flattery as anyone and I begin to wonder if there might be more for me in this field than being a zombie extra.

Someone else is called in to paint my hands. I am being worked on by a hive of artists and I feel like canvas, like art, like an actress, like someone who matters to the world outside my home.  Once my hands are painted, I won't be able to wash them. I will have difficulty getting my button-happy pants down to pee. And then I won't be able to wash them. And then I will realize than no one can wash their hands and then I will look at the chip bowl on the catering table in a whole new way.

I'm called to the set just as they are moving location. The day is cold and rainy and windy and as we approach, the white tents go flying in the wind. It's a huge disaster and delay. The equipment gets wet and everyone needs new make up. We wait in the van. "Murphy" is in the van with me. He is kind and gregarious. There was previously some bruhaha about the principal actors hating Spokane and talking smack about this little work-horse city on twitter. The truth is no one moves here because they fall in love with it. This isn't Portland or Bellingham where people jump in with both feet and no job. Everyone who lives here is here for job or family, not city-love. Spokane is a practical town with a few fabulous pockets of creativity, but it's no San Francisco. And who could blame the actors? The locations are all shit. Their idea of Spokane is this broken down Kaiser plant. It's a place only a location scout could love.  But "Murphy" comments on the beauty of the storm against the hills, how pretty this place is. I love him and wish I weren't so tongue tied. I wish I had something to say other than a star-struck "Gah!"

The new location is on a hill beneath a blooming walnut tree. I unload from the van, grabbing my camp chair and bag of necessities. We bring our own chairs everywhere, but I did not need to bring my own water and snacks. A snack table and caterer follows us everywhere, sets up at every location.  We are given our own tent. On sunny days, this gives us shade. On rainy days, like this one, we get to stay dry. Our make-up is expensive and people were paid a lot of money to put it on us. Between each take, my make up is checked and my teeth are sprayed with Listerine and black dye.

It is 4 o'clock and I am finally called upon to act. I am so green that I have to ask a bunch of stupid questions like: Do I look at the Camera? Answer: NEVER. (Except later, I will blunder into other work and auditions where you do a "slate," which apparently involves directly looking in to the camera.)  I am to menacingly descend a hill.  I'm actually not sure I can remember the instructions. But when "Action" is yelled at us, I find I have a laser focus. I know exactly what to do. There is only one thought in my mind: "I will eat their brains." Because of my "hero" make up, I will get lots of close-ups. I will stay late for additional shots. I feel amazing, talented, useful.

The rain comes again and the on-site medic is worried that our lips are turning bluer. We are given blankets, which become stained by our make up. We are hauled into vans where we idle and chat and joke.

Finally, the weather clears and I am called upon to die. We are shown a hillside upon which we are to scatter ourselves.  I want to look dramatic, not peaceful or regal, no Lady of Shallot am I! I contort myself, an arabesque of blood and joints and dirt.  And there I must stay, trying not to breath, for an hour.  A principal actress points at me, and says, "What you are doing, I could NEVER do." I smile at her but I cannot do this either. I am in excruciating pain. I cannot breathe. Every time they break, I sit up gasping. But I've chosen this position, arms flailed in the wet grass, hips half broken off my body.  The director yells, "You guys look incredible!"  I feel pride in my dead body. I've given it my all and will need hours of yoga to straighten out.  I learn my lesson. On subsequent days, I die very comfortably. I contort only my face and one arm, that's all. One day, as I die, my ankle is crushed by a fellow zombie. We were to die in a pile on a foam pad, but my ankle couldn't quite make it and neither could he. His day job, I learned in our tent, is as a federal judge. The medic checks me out; I'm fine, but have a sore bruise for two months.  Later that day, the judge will tear his achilles.  The stunt advisor will take a much more active role from here on out. He is Australian and bald and well built.

I will eat you!
Every day on set, I am impressed with the organization and professionalism. A few of the crew whisper and gossip, but most everyone is focused and organized. No extra is ever forgotten in a trailer or toilet. I learn to relax and just wait for instructions. The only confusion is once when the extras' tent is on the other side of shooting from the bathrooms. We used a field, pre-contaminated with toxics far worse than any of us could possibly deposit. Until it's my turn and I ask for a system to get us through shooting to the toilets.

I am also impressed by the hush on the set as an actor approaches an emotional scene. The character "10K" must give it his all in a wrenching grief scene. There is an awed hush. This type of scene takes so much from an actor, they only want to ask them to do it once. There is a deep respect for the emotional places an actor must go to pull that kind of darkness out for the camera.

I watch TV differently now. I see how a scene was shot. I understand what it took from the actors. I notice the cuts to show something happening that cannot happen. I've seen behind the curtain. I've read the magicians manual. Watching is more interesting now.

That first day, I return to the make-up trailer when it is dark. It is the only day I will have my make-up professionally removed. It will take an hour. They will run out of water. More will be trucked in. "Murphy" is in the trailer with me, laughing and joking with his make-up artist. His make-up also takes a while to remove. Other days, I will get to leave in full make-up.  People will stare. I will arrive home and eat spaghetti and my family will laugh at the zombie at the table, dripping red noodles from her famished mouth.

Every day that I am not on set, I have hurt feelings. For those into emotional accounting, that is every day but 3 for 4+ months! I don't know if it's just a sense of rejection, if I miss the feeling of being chosen, if I did something wrong. Maybe it was FOMO, fear of missing out on movie magic. Maybe I just miss feeling special in the make-up tent. Or maybe, I was too front and center on that first day, after which I was always hidden in the back of the zombie pack. Or maybe it's Adam, who's not allowed to fraternize with me anymore, which is fine because it was kind of creepy for a bit there. Or maybe that hurt is about how much I loved that work, and it was work I could do. It was perfect for me. Ten to twelve hours on set broken down into chunks I could handle: 1-5 hours sitting in a make-up chair, 1 hour playing dead, 1 hour acting crazy, 1/2 hour eating lunch and the rest was napping, reading, and chatting. It was perfect for me. And every extra agreed that it was the best job any of us had ever had.

As it turns out, I'm only in the first episode, a "movie."  Z-Nation is Syfy channel's top show and the season premier, the only one I'm likely to be in if they didn't cut my scenes, airs tonight.  I'm in one trailer three times, so there's a good chance you'll see me if you put it on slow-motion and look for the bobbed gray hair!


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