Poker is a game of taking risks. Winning poker is about taking the right risks. Life is not so unlike this game. Once you start playing you have to finish your hand, for better or for worse, no matter what.
Around this time a year ago I was at Broadway Stages shooting a fancy underground poker scene for Sneaky Pete, a crime drama series starring Giovanni Ribisi and produced by Bryan Cranston. I got hired because I told casting that I am an experienced poker player, which is not entirely untrue is you count me and my friends playing five hand when we were twelve and betting our Sailor Moon trading cards as collateral. I quickly found out that Texas Hold’em, which I was unfamiliar with, is actually the popular way of playing poker in America. I caught on quick and soon was racking up the chips. Blue is $25, red is $50, and green is $100. Being a pro poker player is a lot easier when the betting isn’t real. Thrown ‘em all in, raise, double down- whatever. The herbal cigarettes they had us smoke (and if you are non-union you don't get paid extra) were nasty as fuck but I was feeling a bit self-deprecating/emotionally nihilistic, so I took joy in the fact that even though I was not inhaling tobacco and nicotine I was still smoking, still turning my lungs black and that inevitable future lung failure would someday put an end to my tired and lonely life, God willing.
Again, I applied my idea of actually being a high end gambler and even though it wasn’t always easy to take my attention away from some of the brilliant and beautiful principles that were standing right next to me (Bryan Cranston and Pej Vahdat; swooooon), I did feel shrewd and calculating when I glanced at the other players from the corner of my eye. I felt happy and superior when I had a good hand, the kind that no one expected a 100 lb. white girl who had never played Texas Hold’em before to have. And then there were the bad hands where "to fold or not to fold" was the most critical decision of my life, complete with a hand going up to my forehead, wiping sweat that wasn’t there, and then pushing my fingers against my scalp like I do when I’m stressed out- a pose so frequent that if there were to ever be a Christine Vartoughian trading card, that's what it would look like.
For that day the only cards that mattered were the ones in front me.
I can’t imagine life ever being that simple again.
Shooting on a sound stage- even for fourteen hours- was GREAT. Air conditioning to the point of freezing- I’ll take that over Ext. Summer scenes any day, even if wardrobe did choose a shirt for me that's worn without a bra (Oh well, I guess everyone knows I have nipples now). Crafty/catering is all for one and one for all since there are only a few BG here and production can afford to have everyone eat together. People are also generally happier when they are working in a sound stage- there is space for holding and catering, the principle actors have their own dressing rooms, and if a set is built in a studio it means it’s a location on the show that is frequently featured, for example a main character’s bedroom or work place or hang out spot, which also means that the crew has control of how it’s built, where their lights and camera are placed, and all that jazz.
In this line of work you will undoubtedly encounter a lot of annoying, rude, unprofessional, and completely batshit bizarre BG. This isn't an insult, most of my fellow BG would agree that once in a while you are going to run into some special people. The BG folks were much more tolerable on this set, all except for one guy. There’s always that one guy. This particular man was tall, thin, wearing glasses, and since I’ve met him on the set of Law & Order: SVU, every. single. fucking. time I get booked, he’s there. I’ll refer to him as Y Factor, kind of like X Factor but Y as in why? Why is this person here? Why are these words coming out of his mouth? Why doesn’t he listen to simple direction? And why why WHY does he take this stuff so seriously that he feels the need to tell all the other BG what to do? The woman sitting next to me got into a fight with him when he instructed her on how to behave in the scene. It was condescending but unintentionally irritating, sort of like the way men mansplain and then say "oh no no, I'm not doing that, I'm a feminist!" I looked down at my lap, not wanting to get involved, and I pretty much always keep my mouth shut when the AD’s ask us to (something I’ve observed most BG actors NEVER listen to for more than two seconds).
Later in the day, while shooting another scene, Y Factor starts directing Yours Truly. I said a few words he wasn't quick to understand; how he doesn’t need to tell me what to do, that continuity doesn’t matter in this shot, but he didn’t get it and I stopped talking and ceased eye contact. Soon afterwards the AD scolded him for not putting away his personal, non production design approved vaporizer after she had previously told him he can’t have it on camera. He claimed he didn’t realize that she was referring to his vaporizer, that he thought she meant his cell phone. I don’t know if he was telling the truth- all of us at the table understood what the issue was from the first mention. His excuse: “I thought I was participating. I thought I had some good background action going on.”
How could someone have something on camera that they didn't get approved? How dare anyone mess with the world the entire cast and crew is working to create? And then he uttered the words he should never EVER have said:
“I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
“Well,” another man chimed in, “I think we all knew that too.”
And then people laughed. It was like being on a playground all over again except this time I wasn’t the one being bullied. I refused to be a bully now so this is what I did. I got quiet and I just... looked away. I wasn’t going to be his savior either.
Like I said in my first blog entry, I am no hero.
When we wrapped and gathered our things from holding, a strange smell wafted through the room. Everyone’s head turned. “What is that?” “Is that weed?” “That’s some gross ass weed!” The woman who had played poker beside me looks across the room and sees Y Factor unzipping his backpack. “Shit, he can’t even wait until he gets home?!” I looked over at this man that I’ve been politely trying to engage with as little as possible since his first words to me on set in Central Park. I felt kind of bad for him, it was possible the smell wasn’t coming from his bag but then I realized; it doesn’t matter, he would get the dirty looks and snide remarks for it. Y Factor has already made himself unforgivable.
Right after I got my cotton candy pink voucher I was out the door. It was late and the streets in Greenpoint were dark and empty. As I began my fifteen minute walk towards the subway I passed by Y Factor. He had stopped at the corner and was fumbling through his bag. I gave him a short nod and kept walking, not wanting to get stuck having to chat with him on my way home, but not wanting to be rude by completely ignoring him either.
I think he understood me.
I didn’t appreciate him but I did know something others didn’t. I had figured out why he was so particular, striving to be seen on camera just for two seconds, to be noticed doing something interesting, something that would make the shot better, valuable, significant.
I knew because I felt it too.
This was the summer my life was supposed to be different; better... Yet I still felt stuck in the same bad habits- drinking too much, sending drunk texts, ruining relationships through self-sabotage, tearing my cuticles 24/7, emotionally binge-eating disco fries and ice cream while watching the same TV shows over and over… and that's just to list a few.
There is no medical term for this condition, but there should be.
A name for feeling like you're in the background of your own life.