Beachbound & Down: Joel Becomes an Extra

I’m not a professional baseball player.  But I do play one on TV.

After Sunday’s debut of Eastbound & Down’s third season, the world now knows Myrtle Beach is a large focal point of the show.  The illustrious Kenny Powers does, after all, play for the fictitious Myrtle Beach Mermen, the Double-A affiliate of the ambiguously dubbed ‘Texas’ big league team.

Kenny Powers plays at Pelicans Ballpark in season three

What most people don’t know, however, is that even though the show premiered Sunday, it wasn’t done filming.  Danny McBride and cast were back at Pelicans Ballpark Monday morning to sure up some scenes.  In order to do that they needed extras.  They needed fans.  They needed baseball players.  They needed…check that.  They ended up with, me.

The buzz was swirling around our office at the end of last week that Eastbound & Down needed some extras.  I figured, why not throw in my name?  My acting experience is fairly illustrious (note the hint of written sarcasm).  I appeared in a musical with Anne Hathaway when I was in fifth grade and starred as Nathan Detroit in 8th grade’s Guys and Dolls.  My baseball experience comes in at an slightly lower level.  I finished playing as a high school freshman after batting just .100.  I made contact twice all season, both base hits sure, but I struck out or walked in every other plate appearance.  It was time to hang them up.

This was a perfect match…or so I told myself.

In order to apply as an extra you have to start by sending an email to a casting agency.  I sent in all my the essentials: name, age, phone number, baseball experience, measurements and pictures.  Again, I’m not an actor.  I don’t have professional photos.  So I took my headshot, a picture of me on TV and a picture of me playing wiffle ball and hit send.  I thought the wiffle ball shot may give an overblown idea of my athletic ability.

To my surprise they called back on Friday, I confirmed on Saturday and on Sunday I got my crew call for Monday: 5:30am.  I was geeked.  So geeked I set seven different alarms to make sure I’d get up on time.  Once 4:30 rolled around I was up and showered, dressed, fed and out the door by 5:15.  Surprisingly I was one of the first extras to arrive around 5:20.  I met another extra on the way in who had done this thing before.  He operated the planetarium in the Hallmark Hall-of-Fame movie ‘A Smile as Bright as the Moon.’  My mother saw that movie so I knew what it was and was either impressed or mildly intimidated…maybe a little both.

Around six o’clock we began filling out paperwork and were split away into a corner if we were there to be a baseball playing extra.  One very cool word followed that separation: wardrobe.  I mean, what’s more Hollywood than being told that you have to go to wardrobe?  It was less glamorous than it sounds.  Wardrobe, in this case, meant a U-Haul and a check-in table.  Each of us was handed a full uniform.  I got No. 75…I believe the highest number handed out.  In baseball terms that’s usually a bad thing, but in this case it’s also Barry Zito’s number and he’s rich, so let’s call it a wash.

The Myrtle Beach Mermen fans.  Courtesy of Chuck Greenberg.

Thus begins the hurry up and wait of TV.  At this point it’s nearing 7:00am.  For nearly the next three hours the crew shot the same minute long scene from every conceivable angle.  The crowd extras began in one location and moved to another and another and another.  At this point I think it’s also important to point out that not everybody in the crowd was an extra.  There were, I don’t know, several hundred inflatable bodies in the stands.  They didn’t have arms or legs, just torsos with blank faces.  In order to make the dummies look more realistic there were what looked like rubber masks and fake hair put on the faces and clothing on the bodies.  I’m pretty sure one was Voldemort because it only had two slits for a nose.  Bottom line, the mannequins looked incredibly real.  EVERY time I looked at the dummies I thought they were people, even though by about seven o’clock I should have seen it coming.  What got really mindboggling was when you could hear noises from the extras in the crowd but turned around and only saw mannequins.  It was like a bad horror movie.

During this entire part of the shoot I had no role.  That means my job was to hang out and watch, which could get very boring very fast, but there were some cool aspects of note.  First off, I never realized how many different angles people shoot things from, and how many takes they need to get those shots.  I just always assumed there were a ton of cameras.  We had the unofficial over-under in the dugout at 10 takes for that first shot.  The over won by so much Vegas cried.  Secondly, when people flub a line, they don’t stop and start the whole thing over.  They stop in their tracks, pause and restart that particular line like nothing ever happened.  Finally, the weather was very cold.  It was three degrees Celsius when we started the shoot and about five Celsius by lunch.  Shooting baseball in such weather is not easy — remember there are short sleeves/tank tops etc involved.

Also, one of the things you instantly notice about staged crowd cheering, booing, sign holding and reaction is that it can look incredibly fake in real life.  Don’t let that fool you.  I’m watching the filming in the stands and thinking to myself, “there is no way this will look real on television.”  Then I went home and rewatched episode one of the season and studied the crowd.  They were doing all the same mannerisms and it looked authentic.  Amazing how that works out.

By the time 11:30 hit the first series of shoots concluded for that first scene and it was time to take up some baseball action.  That means it was time for all of us, sitting in the dugout for the last three-plus hours, to do something.  The crew selected three of the guys on our team to be on the field.  Two ran the bases and one was at-bat.  The rest of us were to stand in the dugout and be “in the game.”  Easy enough.  Then came the call for three guys to go down to the bullpen and faux warm-up.  How realistic is a baseball field with empty pens?

Wanting to do something more than look interested, in addition to the fact that I’m the type that volunteers for stuff they don’t know in order to just stay active, I jumped at the chance to go to the ‘pen.  This was my shining moment.  For the next hour, two other guys and myself threw, and threw and threw and threw.  Two of us threw off the mounds with the third serving as a catcher for both.  So if you’re watching Eastbound & Down this season and you look into the Pelicans Ballpark bullpen and see a righty throwing in knee-high red sox, that’s me.  I was the only guy on the team with high socks, so if you see that guy anywhere, it’s probably me.  Hiking up my socks was my moment of cunning.

Killing some time up on the concourse

At about 12:30, with the temperature up to a more comfortable range, say six or seven degrees Celsius, we broke for lunch.  It was pretty good chow with pasta, salad and a cake that was having a chocolate/carrot identity crisis but was still solid.  At lunch I ate with two of the extras that played for the Myrtle Beach Mermen.  One was a former basketball player at Virginia Tech and the other was a, I guess we could say career extra.  We started talking about his past and what he does and it’s quite remarkable.  I’m not purporting to know his whole life story, but it was interesting to hear about how a guy builds up through smaller extra roles to get some speaking roles in other projects.  He’d also done some work on One Tree Hill among other things.  It was neat insight and kind of gave me a small snapshot on how people battle to rise in the TV game.

After lunch it was back to the field, the sun now fully out and the temperature up to a comfortable 51 degrees.  It was back to the bullpen for more throwing while more filming on the field took place.  Eventually the old arm started to tire a bit and the over-the-top motion turned to a lobbing sidearm and submarine sometimes just for fun.  Our baseball mannerisms became more pronounced to kill more time as well.  After each pitch there was a walk to the back of the mound to clean cleats, then you stretch you arms and tuck the front of your jersey in a little more, adjust the belt, walk to the front of the mound, receive the ball from the catcher, walk back up the mound, go to your mouth to wet a couple fingers, signal fastball to the catcher and stride home.  I felt like my middle finger was going to blister by the end of it all.

While we’re pitching away several different things were going on.  There were wide shots and close-ups and staged shots etc.  Again, interesting to see how the progression of shooting goes and how many people it takes to shoot.  There’s your camera men, your lighting guys, guys that have no other job than to hold the reflectors that give the camera a better picture.  It’s legitimately a huge production.

By 2:45 our time in the bullpen was done.  Filming moved back to the stands and we went back to the dugout.  We waited…and waited…and waited.  At 6:45pm we were finally wrapped and our day was done.  The final four hours were funny at times, many of the players on our team were asleep in the dugout, trying to find ways to pass the time.  It also became much more informal and many of the baseball extras began to congregate on the field behind the crew, watching shooting unfold.  It was pretty sweet watching Danny McBride and Jody Hill viewing the shooting and giving instructions into the stands.  Directions got relayed to the actors through a megaphone one line or action at a time — an interesting look into the ad-libbing of the show.

But I didn’t just spend four hours watching a few people huddled around a monitor (and some crew members eating off a veggie platter — another cool note — there were crew that had  food plates, kind of like at a Bar Mitzvah, but not really).  I also met Willie James and the body double for Kenny Powers during that dead time.  James is a former Pelican, hired by the show as a baseball stand-in.  We’re talking about a guy who played in the Braves system with Brian McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Gregor Blanco, Jose Capellan, Martin Prado, Elvis Andrus, Diory Hernandez and on down the list.  His career carried him to Double-A and finished in independent ball with stops in Bradenton, FL; Amarillo, El Paso and Fort Worth, TX; and Sioux City, IA.  Willie had some good stories to tell and I became one of many people over the years that have apparently told him he should write a book, informing him about Paul Shirley’s bestseller, “Can I Keep My Jersey,” a tale of a pro basketball player that played in every crevice of the globe.

Kenny Powers shooting on the Pelicans Ballpark field

Some other things I learned: Kenny Powers hair is not real.  I did not, but probably should have known this.  I figured this out in stages.  First, I learned that the mullet on Powers’ body double was fake.  Then I saw Danny McBride later in the day without a mullet.  Then I read in Rolling Stone that the hair is fake.  I also learned that McBride isn’t a particularly good pitcher.  I figured this much being that he has a body double for baseball scenes where you don’t see his face.  I also figured this because not a lot of baseballs that left his hand wound up near home.  But, honestly, I can’t really pitch either, nor can I play Kenny Powers, so moving on.

One final thing I haven’t had the chance to address yet: getting to dress as a baseball player.  Last time I played baseball our uniform tops were in one piece, no buttons.  Needless to say, it was pretty cool just to suit up and walk around like a big leaguer, to hear the clack of the cleats on the ground, to walk back and forth in the dugout wearing a hoodie like Joe Maddon, and to stand in front of the dugout looking up at fake bodies in the stands, imagining what it would be like to sign autographs by tossing baseballs and sharpies back and forth over the dugout top.  As silly as that all sounds, it was something of a surreal feeling and as silly as it sounds, warming up in the bullpen with action on the field and the videoboard on at full blast made it feel like, if only for TV, I was actually in a real game.

That’s day one as a TV extra on Eastbound & Down.  A lot of waiting, watching, talking and pitching.  Some 12 hours later I really, really hope I just make it on TV.  Remember, I’m the guy with the knee-high red socks.  Day we come.

One response to “Beachbound & Down: Joel Becomes an Extra

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