Sixteen months ago I worked as an extra on the third installment of Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It has just been released, and we went to see it opening weekend. Sitting down in the theater with a tub of popcorn and a Diet Coke, I felt like my elder son who, when he was very little, used to say, “I want to see me,” as I was shooting video of him in our living room.
I went through a few minor things to be Knowhere Citizen #65: a drive to Atlanta from St. Louis; residency in a cheap motel for three weeks; pre-dawn mornings with two Covid tests at different locations on the studio lot most mornings, followed by wardrobe-donning and makeup sittings; boredom, fatigue, and the attempt to stay present on set in order to take notes; dust and fake mist that turned my sinuses black; drives home in the dark to the motel, where the remains of a roast chicken were dinner; doing my real job nights; seeing my kids only on FaceTime; showering up; and getting a few hours of sleep to do it again.
None of that is mucking out stalls, as a former father-in-law used to say, or digging ditches, as a former sergeant major used to say. But the pay, being third-party background work and non-union, was adequate only for the motel room, so I had to buy my own gas to get there and pay taxes beyond what I paid out for the motel.
But the rewards of the experience were great, from seeing how “the biggest fucking movie in the world,” as the assistant director called it, was being put together, to meeting fascinating extras, rubbing elbows with Chris Pratt and other principal actors in the film, and having the anticipation of all these months of seeing whether I would be visible onscreen in the final edit of the movie.
(There is a rigid class system, it turns out, in the levels of being an “actor.” Actors may be kind and appreciative to extras but most do not believe they are actors. My friend Larry, who has been in known films, has a friend he calls Ridiculous Charlie for the man walking around saying he had more screen time as an extra in a big film than some of the actors who had lines, as a way of validating his self-importance.)
One of the chief things I like about the Guardians franchise is its interest in fathers and fatherhood. My sons and I especially liked Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), the blue-skinned rascal Ravager who abducts Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child and raises him. He was the main reason I applied to be an extra, and when I got the gig I started calling myself Johndu to my kids.
It was special to me, then, to have my sons be able to see me, for approximately a millisecond, in the final cut of the movie. (This is said to be the last in the series, but there are spinoffs promised.) This third movie is only my second-favorite in the franchise, but it has an interesting ending that is vaguely feminist, generous to audiences, with a celebration of characters actualizing, for lack of a better word, their true natures, even if that does not mean hoped-for relationships can continue.
My wardrobe costumer, an accomplished professional of decades, on the first day sensed my desire to be “in” the movie—that is, not only to be seen but perhaps to get a three-count shot, in-focus, looking defiant or heroic or concerned. He asked if I was excited to be on a movie set for the first time, and I could not help from telling him about Johndu. He smiled and gently and patiently fitted me with a custom costume made of components he liked together, and which he thought fit my personal look. After his boss gave her approval to leave my cowl hood down, which meant my head and face would be visible, and continuity photos were taken, he told me, “Everyone’s got a part to play in this.”