“And this was my Hollywood career.” Sal, On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
I show up under the Perdido Pass Bridge in Orange Beach, Alabama at 11 AM carrying my belongings including a towel, cell phone, wallet, keys (in a Ziploc bag), and a copy of On the Road, in a blue Otto Bock sling bag. The parking area under the bridge is full of trucks and trailers.
A man at wardrobe walks through an open sliding glass door, out of an air-conditioned truck, and steps down onto a platform that rises up and down like a beer delivery truck. Patrick gives me a pair of blue denim sailor pants, a white T-shirt, and a long sleeve blue denim shirt.
“You can change in the trailer marked BG,” he says. I walk down the row and see BG handwritten on a strip of masking tape stuck to the door. Later in the day, I learn BG stands for BackGround. I grab the handrail to climb up the three steps into what was really a bunk room with an adjacent toilet and sink.
I change quickly and head back to the wardrobe truck, where they cut my right pant leg, make some jagged cuts, and add some fake blood to the denim.
I meet Paul, a production assistant, and we walk past Cobalt restaurant and over to the docks where boats are ferrying everyone to the set, a rig in the Gulf of Mexico just south and west of the Flora-Bama.
Stacy, the make up artist, and I took a boat ride with Alan, the boat owner and ferry service provider, to the set. It’s my first time on the water in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been fishing, sightseeing, and whale watching in the Atlantic and whale watching in the Pacific on a Zodiac off the Oregon coast and highly recommend the experiences. It feels satisfying to finally complete the trinity of boating on and swimming in the three major North American seas.
I step onto the dock floating alongside the rig. The first thing I notice is the pile of bodies wearing the same get-up I have on.
Stacy heads to the galley, which is air-conditioned.
“I apologize in advance for the smell,” I tell the women around me, and Zach, the arm amputee. “It’s the Gulf Coast in the summer.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” Stacy says, and so I pretend not to worry and doff the leg and lean it against a cabinet.
Stacy begins dabbing and glomping red and black goo on my stump with a wooden tongue depressor.
The silicone is red, black and textured to the point that Stacy “builds it up” really well. So well, in fact it’s heavy and I begin wondering what ill affects it will have once I get it all off and put the prosthesis back over the stump. When I see my residual limb it’s red and raw. It looks like it’s on fire.
At the same time Stacy is applying gruesomeness, four other hands are on me.
Melody, a blue-eyed, and blue-green haired make up artist from LA (Los Angeles not Lower Alabama), applies sunburn. Amber, Stacy’s auburn haired business partner, runs her greased up fingers through my hair. She tells me it’s a concoction of charcoal powder and castor oil.
“Oh so it’s all natural?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Amber says, and Melody just giggles.
“Everyone outta here, we have to set up for lunch,” John the bearded caterer tells everyone in the galley.
“Not without help,” I say to everyone within earshot of me. I’m suddenly, and quite uncomfortably now dependent on others for mobility.
Extra Bobby and Extra John step inside the galley to help me.
They set me down in Video Village, an area where extras are not allowed. Video Village is at the front of the rig and facing south to the Gulf, right behind the camera and where all the playback screens and monitors are located. It’s also protected from the elements by an Easy Up, and for make up touch ups.
“Good timing,” the director’s daughter tells me with a smile, and she gets in line for lunch.
Amber brings me a lunch of steak tips, rice, and broccoli. Melody makes a special trip and brings me back dessert; red velvet upside down cake with white chocolate chips and cream cheese frosting.
At lunch, all the fashion conscious women are impressed by Zach and I, the amputee extras. We recommend Hobo purses and wallets, a brand none of them had heard of before but one both our significant others swear by.
After lunch is a costume change: get out of pants, take off denim shirt.
A woman with a Wiffle haircut, asks/tells me to put on two pairs of boxers, as just one is see through once it gets wet. Lillian, is the skinniest person on the rig and as you’ll see we become close. She helps me get to the laundry room, which is next to the galley. Up the steps, through the hatch door, I notice the tattoo on her forearm.
“It’s a mathematical symbol,” Lillian says, but I’m thinking it’s more geometric. It looks a lot like the Deathly Hallows symbol from the Harry Potter books and movies.
And speaking of books, I see someone with a copy of Only 317 Survived!, which is one of the books the movie is based on.
Lillian, who had just been talking about pizza porn on Tumblr during lunch, holds a towel up across the door to block passersby from seeing me bare-assed. We exchange awkward pleasantries, and I really have no idea if she’s even still holding the towel because it takes all my concentration to stand on one leg, take off denim pants, and my Hanes and then slip on two pairs of boxers that are two sizes too big. With lightning speed, Lillian is standing next to me, pinching the boxers in the back, has a needle and thread in her hands, and is tailoring them to fit me.
“That should hold,” she says. She’s smiling confidently. Wardrobe Humor? Not funny. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like to go out without a prosthesis on and here I am in my Skivvies with a couple hundred people around.
Back in my chair, Lillian is by my side tying a strip of denim around my right thigh.
Saunders, a man of color with freckles and an Einstein Afro comes by and says, “Mario (Van Peebles) wants to talk about the scene you are in, can you come with me?”
“I need a little help.”
“Oh! Yeah! Here, which side is better?” Saunders says, as I raise my right arm and he dips his left shoulder under my arm and props me up. I grab onto anything I can get my hand on to hop as little as possible, and I hop, shuffle, and slide toward the front of the set, near the director’s area that has a camera and other equipment under a black hood.
Mario sets the scene for us and we are going to rehearse it. With my right hand I hold onto the left shoulder of the man with the megaphone.
“First, everyone just introduce yourself.”
“Nic(Cage), Joey, Alan, Marley, Tom (Sizemore), Jarrod.”
“You’ve been on a raft for two days,” Mario sets the scene. Captain McVeigh, played by Nic, passes around some SPAM, which we all fake taking a bite of and pass along.
“That’s great,” Mario says, now we are passing along a canteen’s cap full of water that everyone must get one small sip. So we pass it around and take our fake sips.
After our run through, I say, “Ah, Mario, they just changed my wardrobe and need to add more to my stump.”
He’s staring at it, and sees there is not enough blood below the tourniquet.
“Ok, Saunders help, whatsyourname?”
“Help Alan out.”
The cool thing is that Saunders already knows my name. He, along with another guy who knew a double amputee and actor who he thought should be the amputee extra but they wouldn’t pay to fly him to the Gulf Coast, help me to the nearest seat.
I sit in an “Actor” chair one away from Nic, who is drinking an Aquafina water, while Stacy adds more blood and hanging flesh to my stump. I look over and give him the head bob, he smiles and says, “getting some work done I see.”
“Yeah, it’s getting nastier looking.”
He nods and walks a few feet away while Stacy applies more make up. By this time, everybody on the rig, and I mean everybody, is waiting for me to shoot the next scene. But as my friend Rivers wrote in a recent email, “Alan that leg takes you places.” And sure enough, I find myself checking off another item on the extras list of Don’ts. Do not sit in “Actors’ chairs,” which ironically enough are actually directors’ chairs.
After Saunders and one other person grab onto me the props guy drops some dog tags over my head, and says “tuck ‘em into your T-shirt.” The guys get me to and over the rig railing, and down the ladder into “John Rambo’s” Zodiac boat. I sit next to Nic, but don’t say anything to him. He’s rehearsing lines.
Shooting a Scene in Gulf Waters
It’s a twenty yard boat ride, a distance I could swim faster than the boat travels. Mario, using a microphone to amplify his voice above the sea, gives all of us directions about where he wants us in the life rafts.
“You, You,” Mario’s pointing at me, “Whatsyournameagain?”
“Move left, right, move your leg, put it on the side of the raft.” If he tells me to, ‘do the hokey pokey and shake it all about’ I will take his direction.
“Rolling,” the guy holding the bullhorn says.
Mario disappears under the hood.
In one of the takes the extra who’s supposed to be feeding me, is vomiting. So I improvise by shifting and lifting myself while gritting and wrenching to get the rations from the other guy. It turns out Extra Jarrod gets seasick because he didn’t take enough Dramamine. If I’m only visible in one scene, this will probably be it. Here’s me: stump in the air, sipping water and a guy barfing in my background. In fact, many of the crew didn’t survive because they drank seawater, and vomiting is one of the first side effects.
I lose track of the number of takes we shoot, and the number of SPAM bites we actually eat.
On the Rig
Back over the rail and onto the rig, with a little help from an extra friend and a man named Tommy, who lives in Fairhope.
I sit down on a folding chair, and Lillian whisks over and hands me a towel.
Mario walks over.
“Nice job!” We fist bump.
“Thanks,” I say, “glad to be a part of this.”
“That’s a wrap for you!”
Stacy applies some clear solution to help me get the silicone off the leg,
She tries helping but it was touchy with my hair sticking to the silicone. It feels nice when it goes on, but it stings quite a bit when you have to remove it.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Stacy says.
“I don’t want you to either,” I say, and she laughs. I use the tourniquet to brush, scrap, pull, and peel the silicone off my stump.
Melissa and I get off on the wrong foot. She is in wardrobe and after I was out of make up, I tell her that the tourniquet fell off in the water. Actually the torn shirt I was using as instructed by McVeigh to keep my head wet, was swallowed up by the Gulf sometime between takes. “I don’t believe you,” is the look she gives me.
Under the Bridge
Back at “Base Camp” I change out of my wardrobe and fill out paperwork for Sam so I can get paid $125 for the day.
The people on set treat me like a star, not an extra.
Being superstitious, I keep the tourniquet hoping it will help me get a callback the next day.