The Best Time I Was an Extra on Dawson’s Creek
The summer before ninth grade I flew from Pittsburgh to Wilmington to be an extra on my favorite show, Dawson’s Creek. I had an inkling that this wasn’t a normal thing, but I was a clueless teenager with Hollywood dreams. I read InStyle and W and Vogue, I knew things about celebrities, I devoured movies and awards shows, and I had been in a junior high production of Oliver! I was convinced that eventually I was going to be famous, and that magazines would ask me things like what sort of lip product I used. I would have said Benetint. Not because it was true, but because in 1998 it seemed like all the celebrities used Benetint.
Of course, it helped that my dad had gone to summer camp with a guy who ended up owning the studio lot where they shot the show. And I had little sense of how decidedly unglamorous a flight from Pennsylvania to North Carolina was.
I arrived at the lot, filled out my first employment form, and then was sent to wait in one of the classroom sets with the other extras and stand-ins. I remember one gorgeous blonde girl waiting with her parents. She had no fewer than 10 wardrobe changes, all with the tags still on them. I panicked. They told us to bring two outfits! TWO! And I brought TWO because I followed directions, dammit. Both were from my closet and I was WEARING ONE. Was I supposed to have purchased a whole new wardrobe? I like to imagine that I felt the provinciality of my Pittsburgh roots for the first time. That somehow, despite being in Wilmington for a television shoot, I sensed something like blue-collar rust-belt pride. But probably I just felt embarrassed.
We talked a little bit. This was her first gig, too. She was going to be Andie’s stand-in because she had her coloring and her body type. She said she had signed up for some acting classes and expected to start getting real roles soon. Her parents seemed to agree. I knew how unlikely it was that she was going to catapult from her stand-in role to Hollywood royalty — we had a family friend who was a working actress and my parents always made sure to remind me that very few people ever get to be famous. Even so, I was jealous. Her parents were there coaching her through everything. My dad left for a round of golf almost immediately after dropping me off. (Looking back, I realize I probably had the better deal. Stage Parents are not fun to have around.)
Suddenly it was lunchtime, and all I had done was a lot of waiting. In the buffet line an extra with a speaking role asked me if I was there because I was a model. I politely corrected him but was secretly thrilled. If that was a line, and I hope it wasn’t because I was 14 going on 9 and still hadn’t even held hands with anyone, it was probably one of the best in the history of the universe. If a guy ever asked that again with a straight face I’d probably marry him.
I didn’t tell any of my fellow extras the real story of why I was there. It seemed embarrassing. The story I settled on was that I was just taking a tour of the studio, and they’d asked if I wanted to be an extra. It was kind of true. No one needed to know about my dad’s phone calls and summer camp.
Finally we were called to the set. I was ever so slightly dumbfounded when I walked in the room to see all the people I had been watching and obsessing over on television for a year. And they were all there in the same Economics class: Joshua Jackson, Michelle Williams, James Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, and even the new Season Two characters like Meredith Monroe and Monica Keena. It was thrilling. But I was above expressing that awe publicly, of course. I’d decided well before I got there that I wasn’t going to be one of those annoying “fans” who run up and ask for autographs or some ridiculous photo. That would have been SO EMBARRASSING AND UNCOOL and I was there to WORK and prove my sitting at a desk skills silently. So the whole time I just kind of ignored them. I don’t even think I made eye contact. Of course like any 14-year-old who is suddenly in the same room as CELEBRITIES, I couldn’t help but stare, I just tried not to look too obvious about it. I realize now that there was no way I was actually pulling this act off, of course. Like any young teenager trying to look cool and aloof in the presence of older teenagers and young twentysomethings, I was the antithesis of cool. But I didn’t notice that. When we were ready to take our places they stationed me at a desk directly in front of Joey and Dawson, which I took as some indication that I was already doing an amazing job at this whole “extra” thing.
They rehearsed once and were ready to shoot. Before the camera started rolling, though, someone came over and asked me to step outside. I thought I’d been fired, or deemed too ugly. Perhaps I accidentally looked Katie Holmes in the eye and she had me banished. Whatever the reason, I was being sent away. My face burned and I suddenly felt like I was about to faint. I barely managed to walk out of the room. Someone carried my desk and chair out behind me and I sat in the fake hallway high school hallway and read the fake high school flyers on the fake high school bulletin board and tried not to cry. It didn’t really work. I’d never felt so embarrassed and ashamed. My career was over before it had even started.
A good 30 minutes passed before I realized that I had just been in the way of that particular shot. Eventually I was sent back in puffy eyed and self-conscious. They told me to slouch down in my seat as far as possible. As I took my seat I thought I heard James Van Der Beek say something about my shoes to Katie Holmes. They both laughed. I assumed they were making fun of me. I sunk down further into my chair, and tried to conceal the scratches on my black platform sandals from Delia*s. I was a good 5+ years younger than anyone there. Katie Holmes was 19! Van Der Beek was 21! Not only were cool older kids possibly teasing me, but the cool older kids were also celebrities that I idolized. It felt like a nightmare. But at 14 I thought everyone was talking about me all the time. And OF COURSE James Van Der Beek would have cared about my shoes.
We did two scenes that day. We shot till about 10 p.m., meaning I’d been there for about 14 hours total. I don’t think I talked to a single person after lunch — the sort of behavior that I thought made me look mysterious and sophisticated, but really just made me seem very young.
Thinking back on it now, it was all very surreal. But I guess the haze of a 15-year time-lapse will make any memory seem closer to a David Lynch dream sequence than reality. I remember Joshua Jackson running around making the crew and cast laugh between takes. I remember Katie Holmes doing arabesques against the wall and James Van Der Beek trying to mimic her. I remember one of the crew wondering out loud if Pacey and Andie were both dressed in shades of green because they were eventually going to be paired up. I remember thinking that Meredith Monroe looked like a young Gwyneth Paltrow. I remember Michelle Williams, who I’d always thought was a little big on screen, being one of the thinnest women I’d ever seen. I remember being bored. I remember Van Der Beek telling my blonde friend that she was very pretty. I remember resenting this. I remember seeing Katie Holmes slinking away with a book to read in the corner between breaks and wishing I’d been smart enough to bring one for myself.
Ultimately I found the whole experience both humiliating and dull. I didn’t discuss it with anyone. The morning after the episode aired I remember kids at school who I didn’t know asking if that was me on television. Like all teenage loners I was convinced I was anonymous. Getting noticed was embarrassing.
I stopped watching Dawson’s Creek after my episode aired because it wasn’t fun or enchanting anymore, it was just real. I also decided that I was not, in fact, going to pursue acting. So I guess maybe my dad knew what he was doing after all.
Oh and Van Der Beek, I forgive you for the shoes thing. Don’t pretend like you don’t remember.