I’ve got a new goal on my wish list. I want to serve as an extra on an Oscar kingpin type movie, especially one that brings important history to light.
I just watched the documentary “The Making of Lincoln” at its debut showing at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond. Most of the filming for the likely Oscar kingpin “Lincoln,” which I’ve already seen twice, was done in and around Richmond. This documentary and a panel discussion afterward highlighted the role of the former Confederate capital in a movie about the president who abolished slavery.
The panel included a couple of extras and a member of the makeup artist staff. You could tell from their stories that this was more than a brush with famous actors like Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones, and of course director Steven Spielberg. They were touched by the experience. They were transported back in time. As an author and ghostwriter who enjoys giving life to dramatic experiences, I wanted to be back there with them.
And they had some fascinating stories. Like the guy who played one of dozens of soldiers lying dead after a Civil War battle who decided he’d clutch his canteen in his death pose. In the scene, Lincoln tours the battlefield on his horse. When he hears “cut,” the extra opens his eyes and takes a welcome breath after nearly two hours of being “dead.” Only to find Daniel Day-Lewis, still in his Lincoln persona that he apparently never put down, staring right at him. Thinking quickly, he took a trembling-finger last gulp from his canteen, closed his eyes, fell backward, and became dead again.
Another extra told of picking up the papers thrown around the House of Representatives in celebration after the climactic passage of the 13th amendment so that Spielberg could film the scene and get people to throw them again…and again. He noted one paper stuck on the…chest area of Tommy Lee Jones, playing the crabby house big shot Thaddeus Stevens. Noticing that the actor was staring intently ahead, oblivious to the piece of paper that would not look good in the next shot, this extra crawled below him and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Jones” as he carefully removed the wayward paper. Actor and extra both burst out laughing.
That same extra also happened to be invited late in the filming to play the non-speaking role of Lincoln’s pastor at his death bed scene. He had read up on his history enough to learn that the boarding house near the theatre where the president was taken after being shot had beds too small to accommodate Lincoln’s tall frame, which the film duly copied. Apparently, in real life Lincoln’s caretakers laid his body on the diagonal so he would fit. When he saw Daniel Day-Lewis lying straight, with his feet awkwardly sticking out and even Spielberg wondering aloud how to deal with it, this extra spoke up “Diagonal.” Spielberg ignored him. Watch the scene closely for the result!
More important than the amusing anecdotes, these extras and others involved with the filming spoke of how they cherished one or more moments when they totally forgot this was all a movie. They were back there, and then, in 1865, in history, when drama and tension coated almost every American’s life. They felt it.
It sure sounded like a priceless memory. I’d welcome the opportunity to share one like it.
– Kevin Quirk is an author, ghostwriter and book coach who helps people tell the most meaningful stories of their own lives. He is the author of Your Life Is a Book – And It’s Time to Write It: An A-to-Z Guide to Help Anyone Write Their Life Story.