I spent my first nights in Austin combing Craigslist for jobs. I was unemployed and running out of cash, posting my crappy resume on Monster and HotJobs, continuing to call my mom in Virginia with lies about my luck in the big city. One night, I found an ad looking for background actors for the third season of Friday Night Lights. They wanted people ages 18-25 to play high school students, football players, cheerleaders, and rally girls. The job paid upward of $120 a day. I filled out a form detailing my physical attributes, attached a photo of myself, and waited. Two days later, I got a call from the casting office.
“Terrance,” the woman said. “Can we book you as a Strip Club Customer for our shoot tomorrow?”
I paced the room I rented from a forty-year-old ex-punk-rocker. My stomach turned liquid, the same feeling I’d had before kicking my first field goal in high school. I thought: do I look like the kind of guy that goes to the strip club? Am I a strip club guy? On my computer, I pulled up the photo I’d used for my casting profile. A little backwoods, maybe, but I thought I looked decent. Certainly not douchey.
“What would I have to do?” I asked.
“You’d be one of the guys watching the strippers,” the woman said. She sounded annoyed.
I pictured a director instructing me on how to hoot and holler with more enthusiasm, how to precisely leer at the strippers.
“I don’t think I’m comfortable doing that,” I said.
I had no grand religious beliefs, owned a moral compass that read crooked too often. I was talking myself out of a job, purely because I didn’t want to be perceived as a strip club guy.
“That’s okay, sweetie,” the woman said. “I understand.”
“Is it possible I’ll still get a part?” I asked.
“Let me see what else we have.” On the other end, computer keys clacked. “We need people for a bar scene Wednesday night. Got anything against bars?”
“No, I can handle that.”
“Great. We’ll need you dressed in solids, no logos. And NBC requires you wear closed toe shoes. See you tomorrow!”
The woman hung up.
I called my mom, told her the first good news I’d had in months: “I’m gonna be on television.”
I arrived at the community center in East Austin that’d been co-opted as home base for the FNL Production Crew with a messenger bag that contained a couple solid colored shirts, a granola bar, and a Phillip Roth novel. There were no television stars, no lights, no cameras. Just a bunch of recent high school graduates milling around, meeting together in clique-y groups that reminded me of high school lunch. I’d been expecting some Hollywood atmosphere, some crew guys moving lights, or stars walking around drinking coffee and reading over scripts. Instead there was just a Production Assistant waiting at a card table, ready to check me in.
“How old are you?” he asked. A walky-talky on his shoulder whined.
“Twenty-five,” I said.
“Take this.” He handed me a receipt. Go out to the trailer marked ‘Wardrobe.’”
At wardrobe a lady examined my clothes: grey t-shirt, jeans, and skate shoes.
“You should be okay,” she said.
“That’s it. Just go back inside and wait for a PA to grab you.”
Six hours later, after I’d finished the Phillip Roth novel, a PA announced that we’d be shooting at a dive bar across town called Trophy’s. “If you need directions, ask,” he said. He encouraged carpooling. I bummed a ride from another background actor, an older woman with hair so teased up and peroxide blonde that she could have been a holdover from the show Dallas.
Outside the bar, a haggard group of displaced regulars drank brown bag tallboys and heckled the background actors as another PA herded us inside. The bar was lit brighter than any bar I’d ever been inside, the sticky spots on the wood floors shining like oil slicks. A woman from props handed us plastic cups or beer bottles. The Assistant Director (AD) moved us into place and gave direction. We were the crowd, the fictional FNL town, watching the nerd-cum-jock Landry, the stage lights glaring off his giant forehead, play his first show with his new band.
“Stand right here,” the AD said to me. “When we call rolling you’re going to pretend to talk to this girl next to you. The onstage camera will face the crowd. Don’t look at the camera.”
I asked the girl, all glossed lips and flawless make-up—a girl that would’ve never indulged me in conversation at an actual bar—what the AD meant by “pretend talk.”
“Like talk but like don’t say anything,” she said.
A voice called out: “SOUND!”
Then: “BACKGROUND!” (Our cue to start pretend talking.)
Three hulking television cameras circled us take after take. I pretended to take a sip of beer from my plastic cup. I nodded my head, mouthed “Oh yeah? Really?” over and over. Visions of the Producers ecstatically stopping the shot and offering me a job as series regular, based on my natural acting ability, clouded my head. Later, I’d learn the secret to pretend talking is the phrase “rubber ball,” a combination of words that creates the illusion that you’re actually saying a mouthful; now, with that huge lens baring down on me, I struggled not to sneak glances directly at the camera, and after nine or ten, the scene was shot, and my night was over.
The big bucks were made during the filming of the football games. Instead of the regular day rate of 72 dollars, extras got 120 dollars, and had the opportunity to get overtime if the shoot went over 8 hours.
The games were filmed at an old, unused football stadium in East Austin, on the other side of the freeway across from Austin International Airport. The fake atmosphere on location was incredibly similar to the real atmosphere of an actual high school football game. Entire families exited cars holding blankets, coolers, and those funny portable chairs with the foam-back pads. A PA acted as parking attendant, waving cars here and there, and outside the stadium groups of young people stood in packs, waiting for the night to get started.
On the field, players wearing the Dillon Panthers blue and white uniforms warmed up like a real football team, going through laborious stretching routines and running half-speed plays that I remembered from my own playing days. Nearby, players wearing the away team maroon and gold uniforms, went through the same routine. The players on the field were NFL-sized, their arms the size of small children, their bodies the equivalent of human SUV’s zooming around the field. The extras on the sideline, dressed in the same Panther uniforms, looked more like a used car lot. A bunch of sedans and compacts, guys my size, standing around, waiting to be noticed.
The shoot lasted all night. As the crowd’s energy exhausted the crew pumped us up by raffling off various FNL memorabilia: A football, a jacket, t-shirts. I really wanted a t-shirt. Getting a t-shirt would symbolize my time working on the show and justify sitting in the stands all night alone, clapping my hands on cue. At Christmas, I could wear the shirt out to bars in my hometown. People would ask about it and I’d let them know I’d been working in television. No big deal.
I wouldn’t get my t-shirt until the next night of the shoot, though. Again, everyone showed up at the stadium, checked in and got their paperwork. I let the PA know that if they needed someone else for the football team, that I had played a little high school football back in the day. And after checking back with him a couple more times, he scratched his ballpoint pen through the word “BACKGROUND” on my work receipt and wrote “AWAY TEAM PLAYER” underneath.
The locker room was an actual locker room. The Dillon Panther logo had been emblazoned on every metal locker, the floor, even the above the toilets in the bathroom. News clippings from the fictional Dillon newspaper were tacked to a bulletin board. The Panther’s motto was painted over the door leading to the field in big, royal blue block letters: Clear Eyes. Full Hearts. Can’t Lose. We were issued uniforms, everything except hip, thigh, and kneepads for our pants. I was number 57. The energy while getting dressed reminded me of playing high school football, the serious faces in concentration, the knocking of shoulder pads, the hand slaps between players. I imagined lining up for the kickoff, jetting down the field, and busting up the wall like Steve Tasker. But no coach arrived to pump us up. Instead, the AD gave us a pep talk about the shoot.
“Guys, tonight is a rain game,” he said. “Although you’ll be on the sidelines, you might still get wet, but because it’s a rain game, you’ll be getting an extra twenty bucks.”
Me and the other background actors cheered. For most of the guys I talked to this was a fun, second job, something to boast their income, but for others being a background actor was something they did regularly, driving to San Antonio for work, checking websites for casting info, and networking with the production staff. You could tell which guys were serious and which guys weren’t by how enthusiastically they cheered for those twenty dollars.
Why did being a background actor dressed in a football uniform seem more tolerable than being a spectator in the stands? For one thing, I was closer to the action. I had this terrible urge, fueled by my unrealistic fantasies of getting noticed and becoming a cast member for real, to make the production staff aware of me, to notice me, all those cameras trained on other people, all those actors getting the attention. As the rain machines spun overhead, dropping torrents of stylized water on the field, and I jumped up and down cheering for a fake touchdown on the sidelines, I realized how close I was to the action, to what people actually see on television. At 4am when the shoot finished, a PA handed out t-shirts in the locker room and congratulated us. T-shirt in hand, it felt like I had finally accomplished something in Austin.
Days passed. The Casting Department never called. Money was slim, and my diet consisted of spaghetti, hot dogs, and ramen. I spent most of my time skateboarding at the local skate park near my house or lifting weights, mostly because neither activity cost money. Nights, I’d scrounge up change and head to the bars downtown where my attempts to meet people failed miserably. I never had enough money for more than two rounds. I was still looking for other work, but because the country was in the middle of a recession, it felt like I had just as much a chance of living out of my van soon, joining the homeless dudes that hung out and drank beer on the street below the graffiti walls at Castle Hill, as I did of finding a steady job.
The lady I rented from continued to ride me about leaving the mailbox door open, about using her cheese and conditioner, or how frequently I visited the bathroom. The calls to my mother were becoming gloomier. I started calling the casting ladies, begging for roles, but they were always looking for people older or younger than me.
Two weeks later, I’d catch a break. Since working the football game I’d gotten a couple random days of work: I was a college student walking to class, a man shopping with his girlfriend at Sears. I was becoming more familiar with the PA’s on the show, too. Not first name familiar, but they were starting to recognize my face, smile, say hello when I checked in. I’d heard stories about background actors making the jump to working as PA’s on the show, and I felt like if I kept showing up, who knows, maybe somebody would give me a job.
“We need someone to play a worker at a party supply store,” a casting lady said.
“I can do that,” I said.
“You’re going to have to move some tables,” she said.
“I can move tables,” I said.
The shoot that day took place at an out-of-business flower shop on the east side of Austin. The windows were slathered in that soapy writing that celebrants use to graffiti the windshields of newlyweds’ vehicles, only the message here was: “Out of Business!” Adrianne Palacki, the actress that played Tyra, the show’s Bad-Girl-Gone-Good, was smoking a Marlboro on the side of the building as I walked on set. She glanced at me and half-smiled as if I’d caught her acting like a regular human and not a television star.
I was one of two background actors on the shoot—a pivotal scene in which Tyra and Landry (formally a couple on the show) would reconnect while planning Tyra’s sister’s bachelorette party.
“Get this guy a smock,” the director said, pointing at me. He sized up the baggy green polo shirt the costume director had dressed me in. “You’ll look like a real employee in one of those things,” he added.
Smock on, the director walked me through my role. Like a model party store employee, I was helping Landry bring some tables out to Tyra’s truck. Put one table in the truck, come back into the store, grab another table, put it in the truck, then get out of the way. Simple enough, but while I walked back and forth stacking tables, the actors would be reciting their dialogue. What if I lose my grip and drop one of the tables? What if I put one of the tables into the truck too loudly? Was all I thought. What if I fuck up the show? My palms sweat uncontrollably while the director blocked the scene. Jesse Plemmons, the young actor that played Landry on the show, introduced himself to me as we waited shoulder to shoulder. Between takes he hummed a song that sounded like Pearl Jam.
The cameras started rolling. We were in the scene. Take after take I hauled the tables onto the truck. The director said, “You’re doing great,” as I came back into the store for another take. I hoped he’d notice me, how fluid I moved, how I was probably meant for starring roles instead of being in the background. Each time, I felt more confident about my “acting,” like I was really nailing this part—a guy working at a party supply store. Of course, with the season ending at the end of the week, and without an actual job, I might have soon enough really been that guy dropping tables into the back of someone’s truck.
I couldn’t help feeling like I would always be that guy lugging around tables for someone planning a party. I would always be the guy wearing the smock. Never the guy throwing the party. My big scene on Friday Night Lights made me feel so insignificant, so minuscule and non-essential.
I worked my last day on the show, the final game of the season, the Championship game at the University of Texas’ football stadium. Shooting that day was scheduled from 10am until midnight and beyond. People arrived in droves for the chance to pretend cheer in the concrete bleachers of the UT stadium. Sweat stained my shirt as we cheered. An hour went by sitting in that unforgiving early afternoon sun, then another.
I imagined baking in the sun for eight more hours, then sitting in the dark of the stadium alone, waiting to go home, knowing I’d earn seven dollars an hour. I needed the money desperately, though, and I knew that if I walked, I wouldn’t get paid at all for the two hours I’d already stayed. Also, I felt some strange allegiance to the show, like I owed them my time. When I hadn’t had a job and was running out of money, it had been there, waiting for me.
But swallowing a handful of nails sounded more appealing than stomaching another ten hours of boredom in those stands. And as we broke for lunch, I made a break for the exit. I stuffed my work receipt in my pocket and headed toward my bike locked up outside the stadium. I was free. The ride home was bittersweet, but I knew that I was done being another face in the crowd.
That Christmas, I returned to Virginia and watched myself on television for the first time. After my best friend’s mother found out I was on FNL she started recording each episode on her DVR. We fast-forwarded through the first episode I appeared in, scanning for a scene I might recognize, until we found the bar scene, my first night working on the show. My head swam with excitement and self-adulation as we waited for my television debut.
“You probably won’t be able to see me,” I said, hoping you’d see my whole mug on the TV screen.
The scene cut from a shot of the band tuning on stage to an establishing shot of the crowd.
“There you are!” Sonya said. She started laughing, paused the DVR. “You’re looking right into the camera!”
Even with the dark and grainy cinematography it was clear that I was gawking, mouth open, directly into the camera. I remembered my struggle to look away and into the eyes of a pretty girl I’d never met before.
Sonya and her mom kept laughing. Once the embarrassment passed, I started laughing, too. Four seconds of fame, I thought, were more than enough.