In 2005, me and a friend started checking out general casting calls. She was a freelance programmer and, as a photographer, we were both a little slow at the time. I am not an actor and never wanted to be one, but if you live in Los Angeles, these opportunities are always out there and my friend, who is Japanese, thought it would be fun.
We attended an open call for Memoirs of a Geisha and were both immediately cast as background actors. We were both in different eras and scenes of the movie, she as a Fifties modern dressed prostitute and myself as a 1930’s Japanese general. Which was too bad because our intention had been to do this together but it meant that we would have different shooting days.
The life of an extra is bizarre and worthy of the articles and TV shows that have been created about it. I won’t go too long here but suffice to say that we were treated as just above set decorations yet occasionally were called upon to act. A lot of aspiring actors were in the mix, many having done numerous shows and films. There were hundreds of extras in my scenes of the army invading a village and sumo wrestling scene.
These were long eighteen hour days, getting paid very little, sitting around in costume and make up for hours, the boredom broken up only with the meal calls and the herding of us to set. The costuming was incredible for this film and I must say it was cool to sit around with a bunch of attractive geishas all day. And for the smokers in the crowd, some of the period set props were Camel unfiltered cigarettes. I smoked way too much over those days.
Since I was a shooter, I carried my Leica with me everywhere, including that set. I was, however, extremely conscious of the sensitivity of shooting unapproved on set since I had done production work before. But one day, I broke it out to shoot this girl because the light in the soundstage was just perfect. Soon, we all broke out our cameras and were taking group shots.
The next day, they issued a memo, instructing us to not take photos.
And yes, my shots were cut and my friend’s elbow was the only thing that made it into a scene.
But I did get the chance to be near Gong Li and that alone was worth the price of admission.