There exists a condition, a kind of cold, illness, an ailment that we all catch at some point in our lives. There is no medical term for this type of virus, this infection that takes much more that medicine to cure, but there should be. A name for feeling like you're in the background of your own life.
While I was growing up I often felt like my life wasn’t really my own, like I was some kind of accessory belonging to my parents or my friends; anyone but myself. The thing about feeling like you’re in the background is that sooner or later the time is going to come where you will have to step forward into the spotlight. This will happen whether you want it to or not. It might not happen until you’re older but it will happen and not just because the government is keeping track of all us, just waiting for you to be old enough to pay a bunch of your hard-earned money in taxes, but because you exist. You are real; you’re alive. Congratulations! You popped out of someone! And now you’re going to live, even if life is exhausting.
In June 2016 I was all kinds of mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. I had finished going through festivals with a feature film I had written and directed the year before. It was my first feature and a good example of ignorance being beneficial because if I knew how hard it is to make a film I can’t be sure I would even have attempted it. To sum up what writing/directing/producing an independent film with a very small budget is like, here we go:
You will be shooting at least twelve hours a day, six days a week, for about a month (unless you’re super smart and efficient and can do it in less time, in which case, you’re better than me so congrats but also never talk to me again).
When you’re not shooting you will be planning the next days shoot, and the day after that, and the day after that, forever and ever.
You may or may not remember to eat.
You definitely will forget to drink water.
Most shots will never look quite the way you picture them in your mind.
You will be afraid to watch the footage because it will feel like being forced to watch all the mistakes you ever made in life, on camera.
You won’t want to watch movies, not even your favorite ones, because it’ll only remind you of how your movie will never be as good.
Escaping into a book isn’t possible for more than two paragraphs because your mind is racing with all the details you haven’t had a chance to pay attention to yet.
Every detail is of major importance, including the details you can’t afford ‘cause you thought, hey, I can shoot a feature film for 30,000 bucks, sure!
You keep forgetting things you have to do like paying your bills on time or getting a doctors check-up, and then remembering them in the middle of the night while you are half-asleep.
Basically: THERE IS NO ESCAPE FROM THE FAKE REALITY YOU HAVE CREATED AND IS NOW YOUR REAL REALITY AND YOU ARE DOOMED DOOMED DOOMED.
I needed a job, an easy job, something where I could take my weary brain out of my head, my sore heart from behind my ribs (there is a reason why it’s called a rib cage) and tuck them safely into my purse and leave that purse behind.
I wanted to be on set, I had been missing that life while I was in the dark caves of post-production. It’s a rare thing that there is any kind of position on film or TV sets that doesn’t require a huge amount of effort, skill, and responsibility. The hours are long enough to make business executives cringe and the physical effort sometimes so great that most doctors in the U.S. would advise against them. There is only one job on sets where all you have to do is show up on time, bring what you are asked to bring, and listen to what people tell you do (laughing, clapping, smiling are all generally things most people don’t need training for). You spend a lot of time sitting in a room (usually the basement of a church) and waiting while you read a book, play games on your phone, and other activities similar to what you’d see in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. You don’t need to be responsible for anyone but yourself, and it’s usually not the kind of responsibility that will ruin everything if errors are made. This is what I wanted. I wanted to be a background actor. Background for short. BG for shorter.
After doing BG work every week for about a month I got an idea.
What if I really pretend to be these characters while I’m portraying them?
Not just listen to the ADs (Assistant Directors) and PAs (Production Assistants) tell me where I’m supposed to cross or when to laugh or scream but what if I do these things as if I really want to do them because that’s my life?
Any escape is better than no escape, right?
In my first year I pretended to be a 1950’s wedding guest, Mom with a baby stroller, a protestor (both violent and non), punk rock groupie, professional poker player, ballroom dancer, hippie cult member, 1920’s flapper, 1930’s this, 1940’s that, 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s- basically any decade where women would wear stockings and have their hair curled, which is really all of them before the 1990’s, and the list goes on- some things more interesting than they sound and some less. Which is what my blog, A Beautiful Blur, is all about- how these various personas have affected who I am today, how I’m different now than when I first started.
For some actors and aspiring actors, BG work is a good introduction, a good way to learn how sets work and gain experience. I love learning and I’m all for exciting experiences but that’s not what I wanted, at least not in the beginning. I wanted an escape from my life as a director, from my responsibilities, from myself. I wanted to be required but unimportant, somewhat needed but unobserved.
I’ve heard many different ways of how BG is described- one way is that being a background actor is like being a moving set piece. Another is that for directors BG is like painting with people. For me, the only way I could describe doing BG work is by describing how it made me feel, how at that time in my life it was the only thing I could feel, the only thing I could be:
A beautiful blur.
That was just the beginning and after a few months of doing BG work, I joined SAGAFTRA and became a “professional pretender.” It is literally my job to exist without standing out and even then there are times where I stand out, whether I want to or not.
Standing out: (AKA Now you actually have to act, so don’t f*ck this up)
Still from Law and Order: SVU Season 18
Still from Difficult People, Season 3
Z: The Beginning of Everything, Season 1 (Photo of a television screen, courtesy of my friend, Craig)
As 2018 rears its newborn, fresh-faced, annoyingly hopeful head, it’s time for me, and maybe for you too, to step out of the background and into what is your life, where you’re the focus, even if there aren’t camera lenses watching.
Christine Vartoughian is an award-winning filmmaker whose feature film, Living with the Dead, can be seen on Amazon VOD. Read more of Christine’s “A Beautiful Blur” adventures on her website.