Yup, it’s true. For 15 years I acted and sang in community theater productions and then six years ago today I hit the big time — I got the opportunity to be in a real Hollywood movie. I auditioned to be an extra in the Johnnie Depp film Public Enemies and was fortunate enough to be chosen by director Michael Mann to be a part of the movie. The three days of filming the Sioux City, South Dakota bank robbery scene began on April 16, 2008, in historic downtown Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
It was everything I could have hoped for and even more. Looking over the memoir I wrote of those days on the set brings everything back to life. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be in a movie or wondered what Johnny Depp is like in real life, take a couple of minutes to read my story. Reader’s Digest version — Johnny Depp is even more amazing in real life than on the big screen, shooting a movie is an unforgettable experience, I would do this again in a heartbeat, and I still want to shake Johnny Depp’s hand, so if anyone has connections, let me know…
A Day in the Life of an Extra
By Amanda Lauer
Hollywood comes to Wisconsin, who would have believed it? For months we’d been hearing rumors that some scenes in the upcoming Michael Mann movie Public Enemies were going to be filmed in our fair state. Through my daughter’s high school I found out about the open casting call for extras. With about 15 years of community theater experience plus a couple of commercials and print ads under my belt, I thought being an extra in a movie would be a blast. Besides, it was a nice diversion from one of the crummiest winters on record here, the whole Brett Favre retirement thing, and the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
I sent out e-mails to all sorts of friends, asking if they would be interested in going to the casting call. No takers. Some people didn’t have flexible enough schedules to do the shoot; some didn’t fit the height and weight requirements. (It was the Depression – people were a bit on the thin side.) I found out from my son that his friend Tyler was auditioning as well, so dressed in our finest 1930’s apparel, my hair freshly curled, and sporting vintage hats borrowed from my friend Carol, we drove from Appleton to Oshkosh for the big event on March 8.
When we pulled up to our destination, we thought something else must be going on there as well. There were cars everywhere, policemen directing traffic and people walking from blocks away towards the school. We parked as close as we could, braved the icy walkways and got in a line that spilled out of the school.
There were literally thousands of people trying out in Oshkosh. I was amazed at how sharp most of the people looked. Where did people come up with all this authentic clothing? As we filled out our applications and waited a couple of hours to get to the front of the line, we chatted with the people around us.
We got to the front finally and our group was ushered into another area to hear the spiel about being an extra from the exuberant crew from Joan Philo Casting. We were told that Michael Mann hand-picked his extras. I didn’t know if there was anything about me that made me stand out from the crowd since there seemed to be an abundance of women my age, but hoped my resume would look impressive to a director. Keeping straight faces as directed, we each had our picture taken and were dismissed.
The Fateful Phone Call
Tyler heard back from the casting agency within a few days. They were double checking his clothing sizes. When I didn’t hear anything after a couple of weeks, I assumed that I didn’t make the cut. At least I could say I gave it a try.
Exactly one month later, on April 8, my cell phone rang at 9:30 p.m. “Hey Amanda, this is Karen from Public Enemies. I’m calling to see if you are still interested in being an extra in the movie.” Interested? That would be an understatement. I was ecstatic. She asked if I would be available to work for three days the following week. Being self-employed, I told her I’d give myself three days off (which consequently forced me to do five days of work in two days but so worth the extra effort).
My costume fitting was scheduled for the following morning. The circa 1930 clothes had been shipped from Universal Studios in Los Angeles and were amazing. The little girl inside of me who loved to play dress up was thrilled. The first order of business was getting a haircut. I was excited but some of the other extras were not too happy about that prospect. The guys looked pretty slick with the new hairdos. They reminded me of pictures of my grandpa Purcell taken in the late ‘30s. I was told to use a temporary color rinse on my hair to make it all dark brown. The hairdresser said I may be in a shot with a close up so I needed to cover my highlights. Now I was really getting excited.
I was issued a long A-line skirt, a sweater and what I was to discover the next day, the pumps from hell. The shoes were adorable, but they were a good 70 years old and had no support in them whatsoever. Finding a coat long enough to cover my skirt and wide enough for my shoulders was a task. They decided to issue the rest of the costume when I got on set the next day.
The Night Before Filming
As directed, I called the casting office at 7:30 p.m. to see what time I needed to be on the set in the morning. They were still shooting so I was told to call back between 9:00 and 10:00. When I got in touch with them I was given information on parking and arrival time. After a week of pure excitement, the nerves started to set in. I was seriously getting scared. “What if I couldn’t find the building or parking area because so many streets were closed off? What if I got yelled at by the director for doing something wrong on the set? What if I got there and they decided they didn’t need me any more after I had told everyone I knew that I was going to do this?”
Since my French was a bit rusty (I haven’t used it much in the last 25 years), I called my daughter who had studied in France to get something clever to say in case I ran into Johnny Depp. I figured he’d be impressed by my attempts at speaking his adopted language. I packed a duffle bag with food, reading material, directions to Oshkosh, nylons, a girdle, snacks, toiletries, etc. and headed off to bed. It’s hard to sleep when you know you need to be up at 4:30 a.m. I woke up every hour checking the clock until it was finally time to get up.
Day One, Wednesday, April 16
The MapQuest directions were legit. I made it to the parking area easily enough. I did park in a two-hour spot for the whole day, but the Oshkosh police were kind enough to ignore my transgression. An officer pointed me in the direction of the building that served as the holding area for the crew.
Walking into the room, it was pretty much mass chaos. The stunt men and women and other various people were on one side of the room eating breakfast. An area was cordoned off for the makeup crew and another for the hairdressers. People were checking in, some getting last minute trims, women were getting finger waves and other classic hairstyles, and makeup was being applied. Bright red was the color of the day for lipstick, supposedly to remember all the blood that had been spilled during World War I.
I filled out my paperwork to get paid (side note: I would have done this for free. As a matter of fact, I probably would have paid to have this experience.) Now the dressing began – pantyhose, a second pair of panty hose with seams down the back, the girdle, the skirt, a borrowed sweater from a friend (since none worked out in wardrobe), a nice warm black tweed-like coat, a dark blue scarf, a navy beret, a pair of black chenille gloves, a handbag (to be carried like a pocketbook) and the above-mentioned sadistic pumps. As if the shoes weren’t miserable enough, I had a girdle that had a mind of its own. It was supposed to cover me from thigh to ribcage. Within a few hours of putting it on, it generally was bunched up in a one-inch space around my waist. That left some nice welts in my skin.
Now it was my turn to be groomed. I got in line for the hairdo and waited. Well worth the wait though because the style looked amazing. I so wished I could reproduce that at home. The makeup artist did her magic on me and voila, I was ready to start my movie career.
It took a good two hours for the hundred-plus extras to all get dolled up. The men looked sharp and the women looked classy in their getups. The women who got the walk down pat in their pumps and had great posture really looked like a million bucks. Afterwards we were lined up and inspected by the costume people. It was quite a thrill to know the woman giving the final OK (Colleen Atwood) had won a couple of Oscars for her work on previous movies.
It was interesting meeting all the other extras. They certainly came from all walks of life. When you asked what they did with their lives when they weren’t acting, the answer was generally “everything.” There wasn’t a full-time actor in the bunch from what I could determine. People took this gig for various reasons, among them to see Johnny Depp, to work on a Michael Mann film, to meet other actors they admired, just for the experience of it, because they were going to school for film, etc.
We were hustled outside to the set once we all passed muster. Notice the word hustle. It didn’t take long for us to figure out the theme of making a movie is “hurry up and wait.” Usually if you ran somewhere, then you waited for about an hour before you were then hurried off to a different spot. The people we interacted with most were the PA’s or production assistants. Trevor in particular had the job of choosing who went where. He’d point “you, you and you, over there.” Then off we’d go. After everyone was strategically placed on the set, we were given our various instructions and then we’d rehearse the scene with stand ins taking the place of the principal actors. Everything about us had to be exactly the same take after take. If you held you handbag in one hand, it was permanently in that hand. Nothing about our look or costumes could change over the course of the shoot.
Since the movie is about John Dillinger, most people would assume that the plot revolves around bank robberies, Tommy guns, hostages and gunfire. Anyone who has watched the nightly news in this area for the past couple of weeks is probably aware that the scene we were working on focused on a bank robbery. Consequently this involved a lot of shooting. Blanks were reloaded after every rehearsal and take. So when the guns were set to go, the shout “Fire in the Hole” rang across the set, followed immediately by “Background,” which was our cue to begin doing whatever we were instructed to do.
After several rehearsals with the stand ins, the A-list actors hit the set and we did another round of rehearsals. Finally we knew the cameras were up and running when we heard “Rolling.” The scene was shot multiple times from every conceivable angle – looking at the bank, looking across from the bank, looking left down Main Street, looking right down Main Street, looking down the cross road, focusing on the main characters, focusing on the background.
Technical problems kept popping up throughout the day. It was so windy that the simulated brick road continually broke free from its anchors and flopped over. Then the awning on one of the buildings broke because of the gusts.
The extras generally had three duties: walk, run or cower. My job on Day One was to walk away from the bank with my new-found friend Sarah Starr. When we heard the shooting we ran to the nearest doorway or alley. If I do actually appear in the movie, it may just be the back of my head, but it’s better than nothing. The interesting thing was, if we ducked into the alley we immediately were bombarded with flashes as dozens of people were back there trying to get a glimpse of the filming.
We had once chance late morning to head back to holding for a while. We had been told to bring something to read and eat to help wile away the hours. I never even read one page of the book I brought. Too many other things kept me busy. Someone had the actual Public Enemies book on hand. I’m wondering if the sales of that book will jump exponentially after this film is shot. I know I’d love to get my hands on a copy so I can see how this whole story pans out. Everyone started bringing out their food. It was a mini smorgasbord in there. It reminded me of the old days in school when kids brought cold lunches and swapped with other kids for more interesting food.
Later in the afternoon we realized they were not filming our side of the street. A group of us stood on the sidewalk directly across from the bank and watched Johnny and his gang burst out of the bank with their hostages. We were told to react even though we weren’t on camera. It was good for the actors to have something to work off of. Screaming (by the women) was encouraged. Well, I had no problem with that. Every time they came out of the bank and jumped on the getaway car and pointed the Tommy gun at me and started blazing away, I was terrorized.
While I wasn’t filmed that afternoon, I had more than two hours to watch Johnny Depp at work. I would pass back the Johnny report to the extras without the prime seating: “Johnny’s getting a drink. He’s getting lessons on how to shoot a Tommy gun while perched on a running board. He’s chatting with Michael. Oh, a smile – he does occasionally break character.”
Nine hours into the day we finally broke for lunch. Actually we went back to holding while all the people higher on the food chain were fed lunch. Then we were walked over to the cafeteria. The food by the way was delicious. Some people complained because the pickings were a bit slim by the time we got there (actually some people complained about almost everything) but as the mother of four, pretty much anything I don’t have to cook is wonderful.
After lunch we started all over again – same scene, different angles. They called it a day at 7:00. I was absolutely wiped out from being outside for 13 hours on a blustery yet sunny day. I was slightly sunburned and wind burned as well. But I was proud to have accomplished my goal for the first day – to see Johnny Depp.
Sarah and I happened to be the first two people to walk off the set. Hundreds of people were stationed behind the barricades. A boy yelled out “Are you someone famous?” I laughed and said “No.” I’m not sure what they thought I said because all of a sudden, everyone started clapping and every camera was focused on us. We just smiled and soaked up our moment of stardom.
On the way home I stopped at a store to pick up some cushioned inserts for my shoes. I got to my house, ate something, took a shower, was in bed by 10:00 and did my best to fall asleep. It wasn’t easy with the images of the movie continually going through my mind.
Day Two, Thursday, April 17
It felt much more comfortable starting Day Two. I was a bit surprised to learn that at least one of the extras chose not to come back. Attitude is everything in my mind. The first day was grueling and at times boring for some people, but to me it was fascinating. We were warned ahead of time what to expect.
We had the routine down and were starting to get to know some of our fellow extras. As a matter of fact, we were starting to get to know some of the actors and stunt men as well. When we were ready to go on set, the group I was with was instructed to wait under the Walgreen’s canopy across from the bank. Extras, stunt men, stand ins and the actors were milling around the area making small talk. We were within feet of Michel Mann. Our job was to stay out of his way. Directing a movie is a huge undertaking. He had his hands full and needed to maintain his focus.
One lesson instilled in us was that it was better to “beg forgiveness than ask permission.” We had been told that cameras were forbidden on the set (people had some pretty clever ways of hiding camera cell phones on them though). But no one mentioned anything about having cameras in holding. On the second day it looked like the paparazzi had moved in. People were taking pictures right and left.
Waiting to be placed, I felt like I was back in grade school and people were picking kickball teams. You tried to look confident and capable but not overeager. I still had this nagging fear that they wouldn’t need me anymore and would send me packing. We began calling ourselves the extra extras. When the few of us remaining girls finally got placed we were told to basically turn around and run down the sidewalk when the gunfire began. After doing that, people were rearranged again. This time I had the opportunity to walk arm-in-arm with a gentleman across the street. Next I was with a man and we were close to the corner when an armed shop owner runs out of his building. Apparently citizens were encouraged be pack heat back then. Once again, when the firing began, we hot-footed it out of there.
Seeing that it is Wisconsin, the weather had changed from sunny yet windy to cold overnight. We were grateful for the PA’s who were handing out hand warmers and feet warmers. We also finally figured out why so many people were going in and out of the New Moon Café across from the bank – you could have anything in there to eat or drink at no cost. That certainly would have been nice to know on Day One. Consequently we hung out there whenever we had the chance – us and most of the main actors. We were lamenting our peon status to one of the actors and he said we were just as important as the real actors were. In the whole scheme of things, yes, that’s probably true but it didn’t always feel like that. It’s been said that $4 million was brought into the Oshkosh community by shooting this movie there. I think a considerable portion of that was the tab at the New Moon.
A rain delay sent many of us into the bank building for shelter. Several chairs were lined up just inside the door. I took a seat to rest my aching feet. I looked up and just a few feet away Johnny Depp was being helped into his overcoat by his ever-present Girl Friday. He then walked right past me and exited the bank. Then returned. Then exited once again. I was within a few inches of him. People asked me why I didn’t touch him. Two reasons: 1) There is a fine line between being a fan and being a stalker and I just wasn’t prepared to cross that and 2) It wasn’t like he was Jesus and I was trying to touch the hem of his cloak. I wasn’t expecting any miracles. I will say though that my heart was pounding so hard the first time he walked by me I thought he’d be able to hear it. He truly is one handsome guy and did I say, nice as can be? He was very focused as he worked but very respectful to everyone he encountered.
By this time it was nearly 5:00 and we still hadn’t eaten and hadn’t been allowed to go back to holding. So food was delivered to us wherever we were on the set. This is where I started to notice a pattern. Whenever any question was asked of anyone on the crew, say, “Will we get to go back to holding ever? “Are we going to shoot from our same marks?” etc., the answer inevitably was “It’s a Michael Mann movie.” Any question about any subject, pretty much got that answer. I got the gist of what they meant but the guy puts out some pretty amazing movies, so what he’s doing is obviously working.
After dinner, it was time for new marks. Sarah and I were paired up together again and we had a new guy to share. I never was with the same man twice. I’m not sure what that says about my reputation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It was about this time that we realized that there were no children in the city. We came to the conclusion that the citizens of Sioux Falls lived in a different dimension and were not actually able to procreate.
This mark was my favorite one. I was walking towards the bank with a) one guy and one girl then b) a different guy, no girl then c) original guy and no girl, then d) original guy and original girl. If you were paired with a male they always walked closest to the road following 1930s protocol. Regardless of who I was with, we acted like we heard the bank alarm and were curious. The bad guys bust out of the door with their hostages. When we hear the gunshots we not only get to run, but we get to cower too. The cool thing was that we were perched behind this awesome car when the getaway car speeds past us. Johnny points his gun at us and we scramble behind the car. After the car stops, all the actors would pile out and walk back to the bank. They looked so tough walking back toting the Tommy guns. We were the last group of extras on the street, so they’d always walk within a few feet of us on their trip back. One time back, one of the main actors looked over at me and said “How’s it going?” I said “Good.” I was pretty excited about that.
Even though they were shooting blanks, there were shell casings that flew when shots were fired. Once the getaway car sped past, extras would, as nonchalantly as possible, walk into the street or scour the sidewalk for the casings for souvenirs before the PA’s reached our end of the block. Pockets and purses were filled with the contraband and then people would meander back to their marks.
At one point, Michael Mann was getting a bit frustrated and strode past us into the parking lot just beyond where we were standing. Within seconds his faithful assistant was hurrying behind him, clipboard in hand as always. Word on the street was he was unhappy with some delays in shooting. Soon enough the two walked past us again and we were up and running once more.
The last take of the day, we ran through the same thing. It went just a tad different in the end. This time as they were driving towards us, I swore Johnny made eye contact with me. Then instead of just aiming the gun at our group, he actually started shooting. It scared the um… heck out of me. When they were walking back, I said to him “Good job.” He looked at me, nodded his head and tipped his hat. I was speechless. That’s more than I can say for the dozens of spectators watching behind the windows of the businesses on Main Street. The girls were screaming and cameras were flashing right and left.
We heard the words “It’s a wrap” and we were done for the day. We soon learned that the majority of the people were done for good. Trevor gathered up all of the extras who were on our end of Main Street and told us we were coming back for one more day of shooting. I was thrilled. I had accomplished two of my Johnny Depp goals (see him, talk to him) but still had one more – to actually shake his hand.
There were all sorts of rumors floating about the set concerning everything you could imagine. One extra told me “I believe half of what I see and none of what I hear,” which actually seemed like practical advice. The extras had heard that Johnny might come back to holding to shake hands with us. That actually would have been a pretty good move on his part. If he had, maybe we could have stopped obsessing about the guy. The men were just as bad as the women. Johnny generally spent a good hour or so each night shaking hands with fans surrounding the set, but he never did come back to holding.
When I got home that night I went on the IMDB Web site to look up Public Enemies. I wanted to know what other movies the principal actors had been in. Now I want to rent all of their movies, plus the movies that Johnny has been in that I haven’t seen yet. It would be interesting to see them portray other characters.
Day Three, Friday, April 18
One more day up at the crack of dawn. I could never figure out why so many cars on are the highway at 5:15 in the morning. Just where were all these people going anyhow at that ungodly hour of the day?
The dressing, the makeup, the hair was a breeze with just a handful of us left. I was wishing I could pack up my makeup artist and take her home with me. Wouldn’t it be great to be this pampered every day? All of our helpers eventually wound up around the set and if they saw anything out of place they’d catch you between takes and fix you up. I could get used to that.
Whenever the featured stars arrived or left the set they traveled in two SUVS. It became the joke that when the SUVS pulled away with the guys in them we’d say “Time it, time it, time it…” and then immediately the screaming would begin when they rounded the corner and drove past the swarm of fans. We always knew by the screaming when the guys were coming back to the set from base camp.
As a car buff, one of the neatest things on the set was the classic cars. This must have been a thrill for the owners of the vehicles because they were allowed to be on the set and most of them drove their cars in scenes where the cars were actually moving. You could always tell the owners because they were dressed in period costumes from the waist up and then jeans and tennies on the bottom. Between takes one of the owners had a bunch of the extras stand by the car and took our picture. The girls were instructed to put one foot on the running board and show a little leg. Once the other car owners saw that, cameras were everywhere. The guys dispersed when one of the PA’s reminded them that we were in the middle of shooting a movie.
When the extras arrived on the set Friday morning, we were instructed to head to the second floor of the Algoma Club and wait for further instructions. I was OK with that because it gave me a chance to sit down and rest my feet. So much for the shoe inserts. I finally figured out by Day Three that even though the handbag I had was a prop, I could actually put things in there that I would want on the set. So I brought a few things, including my cell phone. Chatting with my kids helped pass the time.
After several hours of sitting around I asked the PA who was babysitting us if I could run across the street to actually buy something in one of the stores. She gave me the go ahead and it was a mass exodus. Everyone had a reason they needed to get out of there. I went and bought a Dillinger t-shirt. It was like a drug transaction or something. I go into a store and the gal working says the shirts in my size are in the back. I get to the back and tell her I didn’t see any t-shirts. She said by back, she meant behind the store. So I go outside and some guy is selling these from the rear of a van. When I returned to the Algoma Club everyone asked if I got the free t-shirt. Apparently at a different store they were giving away almost the identical t-shirt to all of the cast and extras. So, away we went again in search of the free t-shirts. If you want to get extras to move, just lure them with free food or free t-shirts — kind of like being in college again. We soon found out that free apparel appeals to real actors as well. There were as many actors in the store as there were extras.
We spent a total of eight hours holed up in the Algoma Club before we finally were called to the set. They had been shooting inside the bank and hadn’t needed us outdoor folks. We went back to our marks from the previous day. The lovely car we had the day before had been replaced by a pickup truck. Maybe the owners were concerned with all the casings flying around. They began filming down our street. Only this time the getaway car had a camera mounted on the back and they were filming us from the opposite angle as the previous day. It was kind of crazy because an Oshkosh police car would go zooming by; followed by a vehicle that was pulling the car on a trailer. The bad guys would be shooting at us, then they rounded the corner and we’d relax for a few seconds. When we saw that the car had made it around the block and was heading our way again, we’d get back into our cowering positions.
Time was allotted for lunch this day. There was talk about featured extras. Apparently some people were told that their faces would actually make it to the screen and so they could only be in one scene and not show up somewhere else. The more people I talked to, the more featured extras I ran across. They were coming out of the woodwork. So at least some people know they’ll be seen onscreen. The rest of us will be happy if any of our body parts or pieces of clothing are actually visible in the film.
Afterwards a few of us were set up for a shot in front of the holding building. Once again I had another gentleman to stroll with. After rehearsing it a few times the shot was scrapped and we were told to go back to our marks from earlier in the day.
All this getting moved around from place to place made me realize that what my makeup artist Vicki Fischer said was true. In the business, extras are referred to as “props that eat.” No truer words were ever spoken.
After getting back to the set, things were winding down. We never did any more shooting. Then we heard the fateful words “It’s a wrap for Oshkosh.” After 37 hours on location, we were done. It was actually a bit sad. Immediately crew members started dismantling our quaint city.
The extras made our way back to holding. Some people were anxious to get out of there but some of us were not quite ready to head out. We decided to brave the crowds and wait for Johnny to come out and shake hands. A couple of us even got permission to stand in front of the barriers at the end of the block where he would be greeting people. After almost two hours of waiting he finally came out of his trailer and started working his way towards us. He was finally within 10 feet of us when all of a sudden the SUV pulls up and he hops in and drives off. We couldn’t believe it. We were that close and missed our opportunity. That pretty much squashed goal number four for me of asking him for an interview. The crazy thing is, so many people had called me throughout the week saying they had come down to Oshkosh and got to shake Johnny’s hand. Here we were on the set with him for three days and never got the chance.
A bit discouraged, I walked over to the tavern on Main Street with two other girls. There we ran into cast and crew members and were told that people were heading back to a night club in Appleton. We headed up there and sure enough eventually most of the big name cast members were there hanging out (like Jason Clarke, Stephen Dorff, and Stephen Graham but unfortunately not Channing Tatum or Christian Bale). Johnny we were told had flown back to L.A. to be with his family. But we did get a chance to finally introduce ourselves to some of the actors who actually had pretty impressive resumes of their own.
It’s a Wrap
For three days we were all lost in the magic of Hollywood. When I got home and finally got some sleep I started catching up on the newspapers. “What, the pope was in the United States?” “We had an earthquake in Wisconsin?”
I will certainly never look at movies the same way again. There is so much attention paid to details on sets, it’s absolutely amazing. I will look closer at the extras and the sets and the backgrounds.
It took a couple of days to get back up to speed in my life and drop back into my normal routine. About three days later I started to feel blue about this being done and over with. I started watching the nightly local news, anxiously waiting to hear any more word about the movie and how the filming in Manitowish Waters was progressing. Any time I would run across something pertaining to the 1930s I’d get this nostalgic feeling.
The movie is set to premiere in the summer of 2009. I absolutely can’t wait to see the final product. This is going to be a blockbuster. How can it fail with such an amazing cast, talented director and producer, a dedicated team, and a group of such outstanding extras?