It was five in the morning and the sun hadn’t even risen yet. I already regretted everything. Not just my decision to be an extra in a movie about Emily Dickinson – oh no – at five in the morning I regretted life. Because that’s how existential I get when I don’t get my eight hours of sleep.
With my eyes still shut, I turned on the shower. The hot water streamed down my face and I nearly choked when I forgot to hold my breath and thus inhaled all the water.
When I got out of the shower, I quickly put together an outfit – sweater and jeans – not paying much attention to how I looked. Once I would get to the set, I would have to change anyway. Emily Dickinson lived in the nineteenth century, so without a corset and a dress, I would look a bit out of place.
I had a cup of coffee and hopped in the car. Well, I wasn’t driving. My dad was. And he was as much of a morning person as me. We were both in for one hell of a drive. And then there was my mother, who also decided to come along. God knows why. (After reading this story, she told me that it had been her birthday.)
After an hour and a half, we arrived at a castle near Brussels. It looked huge and kind of reminded me of the castle from Jane Eyre. I was half expecting to see Michael Fassbender walking through the gate. But the illusion was shattered when I noticed all the trailers, all the staff with their walkie-talkies and the tired extras standing in the garden in front of the building.
One of the staff members showed me the way, a woman in her twenties, obviously still not used to early mornings. “You have to get dressed and get your makeup done, but afterward, you can grab something to eat here,” she said, entering what looked like a GP’s waiting room. The girls that were already dressed, were sitting in unfolded, plastic chairs, not saying a word. They were all wearing bathrobes over their dresses, what added to my impression of them as patients. Hunger was an emotion that prevailed in everybody’s eyes. Yes, it is an emotion, when it’s six AM and you have only apples and stale chocolate cookies to choose from.
I dropped my bag under one of the chairs and followed the woman out. She led me to another room packed with tired girls and handed me over to another twentysomething. “Here’s your outfit,” the other woman said. “Go undress and then call me. I’ll help you with the corset.”
I nodded, dreading that fearful moment. I remembered the corset from the fitting day. It was so tight I could barely breathe. Wearing it was torture and I could not, for the love of God, figure out why women had ever bothered.
After half an hour of desperate clumsiness, I was dressed. Watching Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley running around in Jane Austen movies had not prepared me for this. I didn’t look like a gorgeous, fragile heroine. There was nothing dramatic about me. I was dressed as decorum, not meant to be noticed by the future audience. Although even decorum had to suffer the asphyxiation caused by the tight, Victorian clothes.
Another woman applied some makeup to try to conceal an enormous zit on my forehead. She failed. My hair got done too, put up with rubber bands and so much hair spray that it made my eyes tear. There I was, ready to step into the nineteenth century.
The same woman that had talked to me earlier, sent me back to the waiting room, while the rest of the girls got their breasts crushed by their bodices.
I walked in, expecting nothing but the deadly silence from minutes before. But now, the place was filled with laughter. The cause was the girl in the middle of the room. She was talking about Downton Abbey, laughing with the characters and making others laugh with her impressions. Her sarcasm was the cure for our sleep deprivation.
After two hours, maybe more, another woman came to get us. This was our moment. Unfortunately, the set looked even more unremarkable than the dresses we were wearing. The room we were standing in was empty. As I had mentioned earlier, we were the decorum. I just hadn’t expected that there would be nothing else.
I was the only one experiencing this disappointment. The other extras were too taken by Terence Davies sitting in the corner of the room. They were all whispering and pointing at him, not realizing how they were being everything but subtle. But he was just as excited to see us as we were to see him. He jumped up and started exclaiming things like ‘You look wonderful!’ and ‘I’m so glad I get to work with all of you!’ as if it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. It was probably just bullshit, but it made me like the guy anyway. He was old and short, and full of energy. He made me want to be good.
Emma Bell was there too, being all ginger and lovely. I was disappointed I didn’t get to see Cynthia Nixon or Jennifer Ehle, but I guess it was foolish to have hoped that I would anyway.
Davies told us to form a group around Emma, and we did. At first, I was standing in the front, but some actress-to-be pushed me away. I had overheard her talking about bleaching her teeth and doing commercials for H&M. She was ambitious about her career. However, her plan hadn’t worked. An assistant director came over and placed her at the back. Justice had been done. I was in the front again.
It took forty minutes to explain us in what way we had to walk back and forth during the scene. Somehow, it hadn’t been long enough because most figurants still walked in the wrong direction.
Suddenly, we heard a girl in the back gasp for breath. When I looked backward, she was already sitting down. The assistant director walked up to her and tried to get her to tell him what was wrong. All she could manage was one single word: “Corset.”
But all in all, we had done a fine job. If you ever see the movie, I’m in the scene where Emma Bell is being rebellious at school.
When the work was done, we could finally eat. In our bathrobes, we stalked off to the tables placed in front of one of the trailers in the garden. Big containers with rice and chicken curry were beckoning from afar. All the girls took huge heaps of food, all of them hungry because nobody had had a proper breakfast. All the girls had forgotten that they were still wearing corsets, not having been allowed to change yet.
The food was delicious, but we could not bring ourselves to eat the whole plate. Every bite got stuck somewhere between the gullet and the stomach and the more we ate, the more we realized that we shouldn’t. Somebody came to take the food away.
Finally, the woman that had welcomed us in the morning, came into the room to tell us we could get our makeup and our dresses off, followed by a sigh of relief from everybody. Nonetheless, we took a group picture first.
My parents picked me up, after having spent the day walking around the neighboring town. I fell asleep in the car, hungry, but too exhausted to pay attention to the sandwiches my mom had brought along. When I got home, I went straight to bed.
After more than a year, my mom went to the premiere of A Quiet Passion at our local movie theater. I was in school at the time of the screening, so I couldn’t join her. She said I looked pretty during the thirty seconds on screen. I’m sure I just looked tired.