It sounds like one of those testimonial ads that fill the airways on late-night TV: Hi. My name is John Griffin. I’m a real-life journalist, and I play one on TV.
In my ongoing effort to find employment, I filled out an online application to work as an extra on the TV series “Friday Night Lights,” which films in the Austin area. A friend of mine has been doing it for most of the three seasons that the show has been on NBC and has enjoyed herself tremendously.
Plenty of people are needed, so I was anticipating a return call. What I was not expecting, however, was that the summons would land in my spam filter. I didn’t find it until the day of the shoot. But I let them know I would be available another time and was pleasantly surprised to be called the following weekend. I was even more surprised to be cast as a “press type.”
After 25 years or more of living as press type, I knew what I would wear if I were covering high school football. (I did edit a hometown newspaper that took its sports as seriously as the folks in the show’s setting, Dillon, Texas.) But the note said to bring along a few outfits for wardrobe to inspect. Above all else, make sure I was there by 5:30 p.m.
I was there a little early. Not everyone was. Nor could they be. Friday traffic in Austin rarely lets anyone arrive on time. So, an ever-growing number of us sat in a tent and waited patiently while the rest of the extras dribbled in.
I had brought along a novel to pass the time, so I dove in to Richard Russo’s novel, “Mohawk,” about an upstate New York town where high school athletics play an important role in some of the townspeople’s lives. Guess some themes aren’t limited to Texas.
When most everyone had gathered, we were told the schedule of the evening: Dinner first, then off to the football field for the action. What you did depended on who you were supposed to be. Cheerleaders and flag runners had obvious roles. Press types had to stand around the end zone. Fans filled the stands and around the fence. It wasn’t rocket science, but it wasn’t entirely smooth, either.
One or two of the returning extras had dressed in the wrong colors. The scene in the show has moved on to another school, so the former blue and gold is now red. And the opposing team that night was in green. So, everything had to be as green and red as Christmas morning.
But that could wait until after we enjoyed the Gatti’s pizzas that had been ordered for the extras. Two slices a person was the original limit, we were told. When everyone got served, then we could help ourselves to seconds.
Made sense to me, especially after another extra said there was a problem at last week’s shoot. The extras stood in line in a light drizzle waiting for food that wasn’t there. Somehow, every last morsel had been dished up before everyone was served.
Still, two small slices were all that I needed for my part, which involved standing between a tractor and goal post at one end of the field. That’s where I was told to be during the scenes, which were filmed from every angle. No sweat, I thought, as I watched the teams go through the same play more than a dozen times.
At one point during a break, I struck up a conversation with a stunt player standing in for one of the stars. It was Mo’s job not only to catch a kickoff and run it down the field, but also to get tackled – slammed, actually – every time the play was repeated. I could feel his aching bones and bruises as the scene went into take after take.
The clock ticked on, and I finished my book in between takes sooner than I figured. So, it was time to get creative with what I had left, namely a notebook and a pen. I started jotting down ideas for this column. Then my mind turned to food. I started planning sandwiches built around bacon. One featured roast beef with horseradish, mayo, cilantro, radish and bacon piled high on crusty French bread. Another was a panino with soft Italian cheeses, bacon, roasted red peppers and garlic mayo pressed until it melted together.
You get the idea.
It was enough to keep me occupied until we were directed to the other end of the field, where we stood some more while the same shots were filmed from still other angles. It was now well past midnight, and frankly, the excitement of the shoot couldn’t prevent me from noticing how sore my feet were. Some of us in the press corps had taken to sitting on the grass, but that was dicey when you considered the dew and the fire ant mounds scattered everywhere.
Around 2 a.m. burritos from Chipotle arrived, and the carb overload from all the rice, beans and tortilla seemed to calm a few jangled nerves. So did the announcement after 3 a.m. that we were finished for the evening.
It was after 4 by the time I reached home. And the next day started at 5:30 p.m.
This time the shoot was in San Marcos. Again the press corps was stationed near the end of the field, but we could sit down this time on the track that surrounded this field. It was also a treat to get chosen to stand next to the school door used when the East Dillon Lions and their coach, series star Kyle Chandler, made their way onto the field.
Chandler seems to be as humorous as his character sometimes appears on the show — that is, when Coach Taylor is not yelling at his team about their mistakes. He told a story about how to get rid of gophers by sticking a tube on your exhaust pipe and smoking them out of their holes. I couldn’t tell, however, if he were practicing part of the script or if this is information gleaned from a non-acting job.
Dinner that evening was also a distinct improvement. Provided by Location Catering, the meal for the extras included a King Ranch chicken-type dish, salad, broccoli and rice. The hard-working crew, eating in a segregated area of the same cafeteria, had an even better selection that included pecan-crusted pork tenderloin, crispy chicken in a tomato sauce, mahi mahi, myriad vegetable dishes, prosciutto-wrapped melon and wedge salads with a huge choice of dressings. And that doesn’t begin to describe the desserts. Who knows what the stars had to eat?
If you’re interested, “Friday Night Lights” is need of more extras. The pay is only minimum wage, but you get to contribute in some small way to a quality series. I can’t wait to go back. If you would like to sign up, visit onlocationcasting.net.