It had been a hot June day in Berryville, Arkansas, the kind of day that demanded shade and a cold beverage just to make the heat bearable. By night, however, the sun had set behind the Ozark Mountains around Eureka Springs, allowing the chill to creep in between the trees. By three o’clock in the morning, the chill had grown cold. I sat on the porch of an old run down house in those early morning hours, a house that could have been owned by Jed Clampett before he discovered black gold. The cold air easily won its way to my skin through the simple floral-patterned dress that I had agreed to wear and the sandals that were two sizes too small. My butt had become sore from the hard concrete ledge that I sat on, and the safety pin that has been used to secure my dress had come undone and was stabbing me in the side, causing discomfort. Nocturnal insects, some the size of small birds, invaded the night, flying into my hair and down my collar. Most people would have been miserable in this situation, or at least visibly annoyed. I, on the other hand, was in heaven.
Banjo music filled the night, pouring out from the glow of the porch light that illuminated a band of Ozark Mountain musicians. Only they weren’t really from the Ozarks, and only one of them was a real working musician. They were actors. The house I speak of, while real and lived in by someone, had been transformed into “Pa Da’s” house that June night. It was a movie set, and I had managed to wedge myself in as an extra. Lucy Ricardo would’ve been proud.
I was living a dream, my dream, to be working behind the scenes on the set of a movie. I had quit my full-time job of four years as head cashier at TJ Maxx on a day’s notice to run off and work on a movie set…for free. I interned with the wardrobe department, distressing clothes to make them look worn and dirty, and driving anywhere between Fayetteville and Branson to buy and return clothes for the costume designers. Working with the head costume designer, Kelli Jones, was an interesting experience. She told me about designing costumes for one of my favorite television shows at the time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
I spent my days driving and waiting. There is a lot of downtime on the set of a movie for the less-involved crew members and cast, and I spent mine sitting outside the wardrobe trailer drawing pictures, smoking cigarettes, and watching for Johnny Galecki to walk by in his oh-so-funny brown and yellow plaid pants. After seeing him as Darlene’s boyfriend on the sitcom, Roseanne, it was strange to see him in person. People seem so much bigger when they’re not a few inches tall on a television screen.
The most demanding part of my job was dressing the extras. On days when scenes required a lot of background people, a line would form at the back of the wardrobe trailer where we would throw open the doors and toss out costumes. We sized them up, dressed them down and took their drivers licenses for collateral. After all, that was some top-grade hillbilly clothing that we couldn’t afford to lose. Most people graciously accepted the outfits that we threw together for them to wear, but many complained.
“How can they complain?” I wondered. “They should feel lucky.” To be an extra would surpass the amazing experience that I was already having, and I had already mentioned more than once the desire to be one. It seems that getting in front of cameras has always been a goal of mine.
When I was a teenager, I used to chase news cameras…think Alvin the chipmunk. At special events or community gatherings I would spot a reporter and cameraman conducting interviews, and I would walk around in the background in hopes of catching a glimpse of myself on television during the evening news. Television, film, stage…these have always been the settings of my dreams, and I’ve yearned to invade them in anyway I could, even if it meant being an extra in a real-life news story.
As Eileen, another of the costume designers I was working with, and I were dressing extras for the scene at “Pa Da’s House”, Kelli stepped up into the trailer holding a plain, sleeveless dress that was a blue with a faded floral print.
“Lisa wants one of the extras to wear this dress,” she said adamantly. Lisa Blount was the lead actress and one of the producers. Her husband, Ray McKinnon, was the director the film as well as one of the lead actors. Subsequently, because of these things, she usually succeeded in getting what she wanted. The problem was that the extras were complaining about the clothes again and none of them wanted to wear the dress.
“These people are insane!” I thought. I hate dresses. Skirts, dresses, kilts…even shorts. If an article of clothing allows a breeze between my knees, I generally prefer not to wear it. However, if putting on the dress would land me in front of a movie camera, you can bet your ass that I’d be pulling that dress over my head faster than the director could yell “Picture up!”
I said this to Kelli, and she smiled.
“You’ll wear it?” She asked. I looked her straight in the eyes, mine no doubt filled with excitement, anxiety and hope and said two words to her…”Hell yes.”
The girls I worked with were thrilled. Someone would wear the dress, the dreaded dress, and Lisa would be happy.
“You are such a trooper,” they said. It wasn’t until I was sitting out on that porch ledge in the cold early morning, fighting creatures of the night, that I realized that they were right…I was a trooper, and I was loving it. Apparently, Lisa later told Kelli that she was glad I wore the dress, and that I had looked like a genuine flower child of the Ozarks.
There was a small crowd of extras in the scene that night, some sitting in various places on the porch, and the rest scattered throughout the yard. Kelli later told me I was one of the more prominent extras. She said that I could easily be seen, that I was smack in the middle of the camera’s view. Between takes, I would chat with the guys on the porch who would sit and lightly strum their instruments…a banjo, a bass, a fiddle and a guitar.
Harry Dean Stanton played the part of Pa Da; he also played the guitar. Harry is a veteran actor who has been in more than a hundred films and television shows, and he was very sweet to me that night. Some of his roles have included playing Molly Ringwald’s dad in Pretty in Pink, the judge in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a character named Brett in the science-fiction blockbuster Alien. He and one of the other actors, Jaime Jamison, really took it upon themselves to look out for me on set. Harry lit my cigarettes and kept me supplied with coffee between takes while Jaime, who played in a band with Dennis Quaid in L.A., made sure that I stayed warm. At one point, he even walked across a dark field back to the trailers to retrieve my sweater after I had forgotten it.
One of my best memories is from that night. Ray, the director, had just yelled, “Cut!” and people were milling about and chatting. Suddenly a familiar song began to float across the night from the porch and someone began to sing. It was Harry playing “Margaritaville” on his guitar and singing along as loud as he could. Like a round of applause or a standing ovation, the song grew contagious until everyone was singing along and swaying to the music. Even Ray, who wore a sour expression for a majority of the shoot, either from stress or to remain in character as the film’s token asshole, began to sing with a smile on his face. It was downright enchanting. Here all these people had come together from various parts of the country to make this magic happen out in the middle of the Arkansas hills at all hours of the night and morning, and I was lucky enough to be a part of it.
I felt like I was surrounded by people who understood my dreams, many of them having the same Hollywood stars in their eyes that I’ve had since I first pointed to Shirley Temple on a television screen and said, “Look! That’s me.” I was three then, I’m 24 now, and not a whole hell of a lot has changed…instead now I point to television and movie screens and say, “That will be me.”
Around four in the morning, Ray yelled, “Cut!” for the final time. The scene was finished in record time, and it had only taken a handful of takes to get it just right. Hopping down from my prominent spot on the porch, I rubbed my sore behind and reached for my sweater. It was time to head back to the trailer to change out of my costume. When I left Eureka Springs in those dark, early hours, I was wide awake and felt on top of the world. I couldn’t wait to tell my mom what had happened. So, instead of driving just the one hour back to Fayetteville, I drove straight through to where she lived in Fort Smith. I pulled into the driveway just after dawn, as the world was beginning to wake and grow bright with the sun’s yawn. Unlocking the door, I crept down the darkened hall to mom’s bedroom and climbed under the covers next to her.
“Guess what, mom?” I whispered to her, waking her with a start. She obviously had not expected me to show up at that hour, but after her initial surprise subsided I told her all about my night, melting into sleep in mid-narration.
I had to wait two years to see the movie. After it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last October, it took a while for the production company to find a distributor. Finally picked up by First Look Pictures, Chrystal premiered in Fayetteville’s Fiesta Theater last week. I went to see the movie with my mom. It was she who had instilled in me a love of entertainment that has given birth to my dreams. Her pride and excitement was priceless as she caught her first glimpse of me on the big screen. I looked up at myself and then to her. Smiling, I pointed up at the screen, and in a childlike voice I said, “Look! That’s me.” And this time, it really was.
“You did it,” she whispered, never taking her eyes off the screen. “My girl, the movie star.” Mom likes to exaggerate, and I let her. I know that all I did was conquer one small stepping stone toward whatever it is I want from the entertainment industry, what that is exactly…I don’t know. Whether it’s a job behind the cameras as one of Hollywood’s unsung heroes, or in front of the cameras where recognition has the potential to flow like honey, I can at least say that I’ve already done something…not matter how small that something may seem to be.
(…and sometimes life takes you in a totally different direction lol)
*Chrystal is available on DVD*