Or, 'Extra, Extra, Read All About It'
Clockwise from left: Amy Adams, Julie Powell, Meryl Streep, Julia Child, Nora Ephron.
As many serious eaters know, the director-screenwriter Nora Ephron is currently filming a combined adaptation of food-blog-turned book Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell and the Julia Child memoir My Life in France. Amy Adams is playing Powell, and Meryl Streep is playing Child.
About a month ago I got an email from Nora's assistant, J. J., saying Nora wanted me to be an extra in the movie. How could I say no? In one of the emails, J.J. said something along the lines of "There's no speaking lines for you yet." To me, that meant it was only a matter of time until the brilliant Nora Ephron figured out what words she'd be putting in my mouth. I consulted some actor and director friends, seeking advice about being in the moment and making love to the camera.
Whatever Shall I Wear?
The first potential problem rose with wardrobe. I was told to call a number to get my wardrobe instructions. The voice on the recorded message said I should be prepared to dress appropriately for shopping at Dean & Deluca in both winter and summer. Shopping at Dean & Deluca, I thought to myself, that's something I know how to do. That is most certainly not a stretch for me.
But there was more on the message that would prove challenging to an admittedly schlubby dresser like me. It said that I should dress like a chic, well-off, downtown kind of a person circa 2002, when the scene I was shooting was set. Chic, no. Trendy, no. Downtown, not really—strike three. I may be so out of my movie debut.
The morning of the shoot (which was supposed to start at 8 p.m. and end at 5 in the morning) I went through my closet like a teenage girl. There were color limitations articulated in the message: No reds, no blues, and no whites. I chose a cream-colored button-down shirt, black chinos, and espresso-brown lace-up shoes. I also brought along a black cashmere scarf, a black hat, a black ultrasuede sport jacket, my reversible Sherlock Holmeslike overcoat, and a green turtleneck for the winter scene. When I told this to Serious Eats' Alaina Browne, she chuckled and said, "Well, the great thing about all your clothes is they have a timeless quality."
Timelessness is next to schlubbiness, if you ask me.
Casting Cattle Call
After work I went down to the second floor of a building just north of the Dean & Deluca in SoHo and checked into what I came to call the extras holding pen. I'm Number 47, I told a pleasant, helpful woman who was checking in the extras. She didn't have any Number 47 on the list, but she still handed me a form to fill out. Beyond the name and address, the form was filled with boxes that I had no idea how to fill in. Finally I went to talk to my new friend, who was standing with a young guy who seemed to be in charge of extras rustling. I asked a couple of questions about the form. My friend explained that I was one of several people who had a number not on the call sheet.
"Well, then, who the hell is he?" the young guy asked her as if I wasn't there. He turned to me: "Who sent you here?"
"I'm a friend of Nora's," I stammered, "a writer and food blogger, and she asked me to come down and be in the food-shopping scene."
Dropping Nora's name seemed to change everything. I was now a somebody, set apart from the other extras. My new best friend with the walkie-talkie asked me to show my winter clothes to the wardrobe people in one corner of the room. The wardrobe department loved everything—the coat, the scarf, and especially the hat. I had now passed two tests.
My walkie-talkie buddy then said, "Nora says you can go down to the set anytime. Just tell me when you want to go, so we know where you are." I gathered my winter wardrobe and a notepad and made my way down to the entrance of Dean & Deluca.
I explained to the two very large security guards that I was a friend of Nora's. Another film crew member escorted me to the cheese section of the store, where Nora was going over some details of the shoot. She gave me a big hug and a kiss and introduced me to her director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt, and assistant director, Nancy Herrmann.
Wow! At that moment I realized that I may have been an extra, but I was an extra with juice, with access. Nora then said, "I'm so happy you're here. Isn't this amazing? It's like a dream come true for me. Dean & Deluca is mine for a night. I get to taste anything I want and ask them to put more bread here or more flowers there."
At the Director's Table
She invited me to wander around the store for a few moments while she attended to a few things and asked if I would come to dinner with her at Balthazar, the famed brasserie right around the corner. So before I shot my big scene, right before I made my big-screen debut, I was going to have dinner with the director.
I had the chicken riesling, Nora had the steak frites, and Nora's friend Alessandra Stanley, the distinguished New York Times political reporter turned television critic, had the duck shephard's pie. Alessandra was going to be playing my on-screen wife, and her daughter was going to be playing our child. For dessert, killer pots de creme, a pavlova, a berry tart, and the coup de grâce, profiteroles.
We went back to the set, and Nora explained what we were going to be do in our scene. My on-screen family and I were going to walk down an aisle of the store just in back of the butcher counter where Julie Powell (Amy Adams) would be buying some meat. In other words, Nora had wisely decided to have me doing something I know how to do: shop for food. I was to talk to my wife about what we were going to make for dinner that night.
We rehearsed a few times so that we would hit our marks on time, and after three rehearsals, we had nailed it. Our food discussions were supposed to be seen and not heard, so we practiced mouthing our conversation.
Lights, Camera ...
Nora pronounced us ready to go, and moments later we heard the clapboard slate and the call for "Action!" Alessandra and I walked down the aisle stopping long enough for us to grab some salsa off one of Dean & Deluca's wire shelves. I thought we nailed it the first time we did it, but we ended up having to do it two more times. After the third time, Nora seemed satisfied and moved on to the next scene. She instructed a production assistant to find the car and driver the studio had supplied her to drive us home.
In the car on the way home, Alesssandra and I agreed that we had really nailed our scene and concluded that there was no way our debut was going to end up on the cutting room floor. So when the movie comes out in 2009, and when you see Amy Adams sidle up to the butcher counter at Dean & Deluca to order some beef to make Julia Child's boeuf Bourguignon, look for a guy in the background, in a black cap and a Sherlock Holmes overcoat, grabbing some salsa. That would be me, Ed Levine, the extra who, for one evening, Nora Ephron made feel like a star.