I work with executives, helping them develop and deliver their messages, but I never thought I would play one.
Awhile back I had registered with a company called Central Casting, which provides background actors to the film and television industry. Just for fun, mind you. Friends who are really serious work the system feverishly – some going so far as to hire an agent and join the union hoping to one day land a speaking role and – who knows – achieve minor celebrity status.
I have no such aspirations. I just thought it would be a fun experience to spend a day on a set standing in the background at a cocktail party. Knowing I have the look of a middle-aged lawyer or accountant I figure someday a casting director will be looking for a guy in a suit to walk through the lobby of an office building.
After months of not playing the system, I got a voicemail from Central Casting out of the blue. A director had picked me from a group of headshots to appear in a … well, the booker said it’s kind of complicated so would I please call him back. When I got Walid on the phone, he said the shoot was for a large company and well-known brand. The job involved flying out of Orange County with the crew to Phoenix for the day.
“That’s so exciting, honey!” my wife Mary exclaimed. She’s my biggest fan.
“I’m gonna be in a commercial for <unnamed company>!” I uttered, breathlessly. (I knew the company’s name at this point; I’m just protecting their name out of professional courtesy.)
On the phone with Kris, the director, I learned this wasn’t a commercial, but a video for an all-employee meeting. I would be a double for one the executives. “I assume you’re ok jogging and stuff like that,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied. Little did I know …
One morning, then, bright and early, we boarded a Southwest flight to Phoenix. As we made our way down the aisle Kris spoke to a woman sitting in row 10. “That’s Candice. She’s the client,” he said. Uh-oh, I thought. Added pressure.
We touched down in Phoenix about an hour later, and soon I was riding in a van with people I barely knew, being asked to do things I wouldn’t normally do (some at risk of life and limb).
I was Talent!
The video would be shown to set up the executive’s entrance at the employee meeting. Here’s the premise: he’s on the treadmill when he gets a call from a colleague asking why he’s not at the meeting. He’s forgotten he’s in a different time zone and it’s an hour later than he thinks. That’s where I come in as the double – as we portray the executive’s frenzied attempt to make it to the arena.
Dialing up the comic value, the decision was made to put executive on a little motorized scooter! Picture a middle-aged guy in a black track suit and helmet, riding a Razor. Balance required. Something I’m not exactly blessed with. But, what the heck.
In my first scene, I was supposed to come zipping through the double doors of an office building. I’d never ridden one of these things and there was no time to practice, but this wasn’t the time to back out. We were on a tight schedule and the video was to be shown in two days! My first few passes were a little wobbly, but I quickly got the hang of it. The biggest challenge was revving up from a standstill. I couldn’t completely get my balance until I gathered a little speed so I learned how to push off with one foot like Bart Simpson. Hey, this is pretty cool, I thought: motoring across a parking lot on a beautiful Arizona morning, just me and the gentle desert breeze.
We did probably 15 takes, and thank goodness I get to the gym regularly because the day was about to get more and more physical.
We were going to show the executive (me) traversing the city on the scooter, so Candice – a Phoenix native and our driver – had made a list of locations that are unmistakably Phoenix. On to Papago Park, nestled between the city and the desert, with gorgeous views of mesas and cacti and scrub. Up and down the bike path I went, following Kris’ instructions and exhortations. Bless him, he kept telling me every take was great. I couldn’t have made it through the day without his encouragement.
Wrapping at the park, we loaded the van and hustled to Tempe Town Lake, where I puttered up and down a concrete plaza, trying not to hit pedestrians, while Kris and Tim positioned themselves for different angles – high and low, left and right. I had stopped counting takes at this point.
After the lake, Candice had a brainstorm: let’s have our “executive” stop for Girl Scout cookies! She had a couple of nieces and their mom (her sister) who were happy to comply. They met us at a strip mall armed with a card table, poster board and boxes of cookies. It was really a team effort, everyone contributed great ideas and the girls were excellent actors!
By now we were racing the clock. It was after 3:00 and we still had to shoot in downtown Phoenix and inside U.S. Airways Arena and wrap in time to make a 7:30 flight. Working her connections, Candice got Kris and photographer Mike on a hotel balcony across the street so they could shoot me crossing the street (multiple times), winding my way through the plaza and into the front doors of the arena.
By now, I was one with my Razor. So what if people thought I was a lunatic, puttering down the sidewalks of downtown Phoenix at rush hour?
Once inside the arena, the script called for me to negotiate a narrow corridor, make a sharp left turn, then a quick right into a waiting elevator with Jorge, the marketing rep for the Phoenix Suns, holding the door for me. There’s no way I can do this, I thought. But, I somehow managed without looking too clumsy. The only problem was remembering to hit the brakes once I entered the elevator because it was barely large enough to accommodate the scooter.
For the final shot, I had to emerge from a hallway, buzz past a concession stand, ditch the scooter and sprint to the entrance of the arena floor, fist-pumping all the way. Jorge would stand by, pretending to talk on his cell phone, which he quickly stuffs in his pocket when he sees me flying toward him and catches the scooter – all in one fluid motion.
“I hope I don’t break your wrist,” I said, because the last thing I was thinking about was the scooter and I ditched it and slung it at him, my momentum carrying me forward.
“No worries, I’ve got this,” Jorge said calmly. He was about half my age and athletic. Caught the scooter every time without breaking a sweat.
I, on the other hand, was heavily perspiring and winded by the end of the shoot from sprinting down the hallway and backtracking for each subsequent take. How do stunt people do this day in and day out? Somewhere along the way I think I pulled an oblique muscle. But it didn’t produce a miserable hurt, just a feeling like I’ve been pushing my body.
Really, the whole day was about pushing ourselves and each other to get the best location, the best angle, the best sequence of shots.
We’ve always heard the saying about having to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to appreciate what they do. Well, in this case, I traveled a good mile as a stunt double and I have even greater admiration and respect for the people who tell stories on film and video. And while it was fun to portray an executive, I think I’ll keep my day job.