I still remember the way Kate Winslet’s hand felt when I shook it. I suppose my fingertips must’ve brushed her palm as we were disengaging because that’s what I remember most — her palm.
It was April of 2010 on a soundstage at Steiner Studios — located in the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. Less than a year prior, I’d walked away from my survival job in real estate, so I could dive back into my life as an actor — a life derailed during my “spiral into darkness.” This is how I refer to the years from 2004 to 2008 when I was at the peak of my drug abuse. Honestly, the spiral began long before 2004, but that’s the year I pushed the nose of the plane down and didn’t pull up before crashing into the horizon. I suppose I was always aware of the inevitable impact, but the rush derived from the danger and speed (literally) of my descent was just too alluring.
During those years, I had both everything and nothing. I was booking dream gigs and then showing up to set intoxicated and unprepared. Though it was well over a decade ago, I still have a pit in my stomach thinking of the condition in which I’d often reported to work. It was an awful hell I never want to revisit and therefore hope to never forget.
But in April of 2010, I was turning it around. I’d been in the program for nearly two years, and I was standing on my own two feet. Part of this leveling up meant taking whatever work I could to sustain myself and rebuild my integrity. For about a year into my recovery, I had returned to real estate. The schedule, however, wasn’t flexible, so when the soaps started asking me back I knew I had to leave the safety net of the steady income and follow my heart. It was hardscrabble and paycheck-to-paycheck, but for the first time in years I was happy, joyous and free — all those things they promise when you sign on for the twelve steps.
Because I was committed to my dream, I was perfectly willing to take acting work in just about any capacity. This led me to a couple of the casting agencies in New York which specialized in background artists (extras). What I was really angling for was a steady stand-in job, but every position on a film set has a hierarchy, and stand-ins are no different. Stand-ins are booked by the background casting directors, and that means you have to work your way up the ladder. If you’re reliable and professional as an extra, you can eventually get your shot as a stand-in. In April of 2010, I was in the throes of my “Second Team” campaign, so I was taking every job that came down the pike.
For awhile after I left the background and stand-in world, I sort of carried that experience around in secret. Being known as “background” can bring its own set of baggage, and once I’d moved past that work I wanted to shed the “extra” weight. How foolish. I can now see that shame was fed by insecurity and fear — those old, familiar friends. Some of the people I admire most are career stand-ins, and they are talented and professional and damn good at their job — not to mention the fact that they work more steadily on film sets than I do. Perhaps they’ve figured it out in ways I haven’t.
The truth is: Working in that capacity put me in a position to learn first-hand from amazingly talented artists and craftspeople. I was afforded the opportunity to watch Will Ferrell hone the comedic beats of a scene under the direction of Adam McKay. I observed Matt Damon and Emily Blunt running hand-in-hand down the streets of midtown Manhattan in an intricate choreography with oncoming traffic. I studied how Ben Stiller handled his off-camera positioning for Tea Leoni. And I chatted with Michael Douglas and Carey Mulligan on Oliver Stone’s set. Those couple of years are now magical in my memory, and they taught me to understand how a film crew operates.
At the beginning of this two-year journey, I was booked for a week of background work on HBO’s remake of Mildred Pierce. There were wardrobe fittings in advance of shooting where we were called out to the costume shop for measurements and to try on precise replications of depression-era clothing from our hats down to our shoes. To have the opportunity to witness the making of a big budget period piece was thrilling, and I was paying attention to every detail.
When my first day of shooting arrived we were called before dawn, and a team of hair stylists took care to ensure every coif was properly parted. The make-up team was also aces. I’ve had two tiny piercings in my left ear since my late teens, and they covered them with a cosmetic wax I’d not seen before, nor since. I hadn’t worn an earring in fifteen years, but I was told this was “just in case the camera comes in close.”
Before going down to set, we were individually inspected by the revered legend of costuming, Ann Roth. I don’t know if any of my cohorts knew who she was, but I certainly did. I was keenly aware that on the “traditional” actor path it might take me years to be given the once-over by Ms. Roth (if ever). But by taking the seemingly circuitous route of background artistry…here I stood — starstruck and reverent.
We were walked down to the soundstage by a production assistant — like kindergartners to lunch. Once there, we were instructed to wait on benches and chairs in the cold darkness surrounding the oasis of light which indicated where the cameras would be turning on the day’s work. And like kindergartners, we were often shushed by teacher. I’d been on sets before. In fact, I’d spent several years working semi-regularly as a principal on the remaining four daytime dramas shooting on the east coast. Sound stages weren’t new to me, but a production of this scale was.
As the director, Todd Haynes, began to work out the scene on set, we were brought in in small pairing and groups to help him flesh out his vision. The section of the story we were filming that week was the grand opening of Mildred’s restaurant. As extras, we weren’t privy to the script, but we soon learned the entire cast would be part of the action — Kate Winslet, of course, as well as Mare Winningham, Melissa Leo, Brian F. O’Byrne, James Le Gros, Guy Pearce, Marin Ireland, and Morgan Turner as “Young Veda.” I was grouped with two other background actors — a woman playing my wife (hi, Nancy) and a little actress playing our daughter. We were directed to be among the first patrons in Mildred’s establishment — personally escorted to our table by the proprietor, herself. Todd was setting our marks and describing our action with Kate when the Oscar winner turned to me for an introduction.
“Hi. I’m Kate,” she said with a thrust of her hand.
“I’m Gary,” I replied as I reached out with mine to give hers a shake.
In that moment, I was so proud of her. That may sound a little odd, but it’s the most accurate descriptor of how I felt. I was proud of Kate Winslet for being a professional. I was proud of her for regarding me as her fellow actor and not just scenery with a pulse. She treated me with respect, and my esteem for her rose immediately.
We played the beginning of that scene from all angles before lunch. Mildred would seat her guests at the table near her kitchen probably twenty-five times over the course of several hours. And for the rest of the day — in fact, the rest of the week — Kate would greet me by name when we passed in the halls of the studio or on the perimeter of the soundstage. I’m sure I wasn’t special. I have every reason to believe this is how she treats everyone with whom she works. In fact, I have every reason to believe this is one of the key ingredients to her success and longevity in the business.
When the mini-series aired the following year, I wasn’t heavily featured on camera at all. A piece of me here and there was all you saw in the finished product. I’m sure I was somewhat disappointed at the time — perhaps even majorly so. But after all these years, I can truly say the most valuable part of that entire experience has nothing to do with my screen time and everything to do with the lessons Ms. Winslet taught me.
Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to move beyond the background. I’m honored to have had my name on call sheets next to those whose careers I’ve followed for years and to have stood on marks across from actors whom I greatly respect. With the Universe’s good grace I’ll continue to get to do what I love for many years to come. And I promise you every time I step onto a set I will strive to treat everyone with dignity and respect because I know doing so can make all the difference. And I know that because I can still remember the feeling of Kate Winslet’s hand.