Love & Sex

I Was an Orgy Scene Extra and It Went Terribly Awry

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You might recognize me from my jaunty straw fedora in Shortbus.

I learned a number of very interesting things from my undergraduate theatre education. For example, I have probably spent more hours than you or anyone you know in a dance studio, wearing an emotionless white mask and yoga pants, searching for something called “The Neutral State,” as described by the teachings of Jacques Lecoq.

My degree, however, failed to provide me with certain practical skills. I did not learn, for example, what a headshot was or how to find a casting notice. As such, upon arriving in New York in late 2004 with no life plan other than “become an actor,” I found myself critically disadvantaged in my quest to find professional opportunities. I wanted to apply my knowledge of these obscure topics (especially that neutral state), but how? In my first several months, the closest I came to a rehearsal studio was waiting for six hours in the non-Equity line to audition for a revival of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. My name was never called, and when I attempted to urinate, I was informed that bathroom use was “a privilege reserved for Equity members,” and directed to the restroom at the McDonald’s on West 46th Street.

Thus, it was not without some desperation that I turned to Craigslist one afternoon in October, hoping perhaps, in those still-early days of Craigslist’s relevance, that I might find more open-minded artists seeking less-established actors. The listings were sparse, but one of them jumped out at me: “John Cameron Mitchell seeks hip, urban background actors for new film.” 

My eyes widened. I knew John Cameron Mitchell to be the director of a much buzzed-about independent film called Hedwig and the Angry Inch. While I had not seen the film, and had no idea what it was about, I was confident that John Cameron Mitchell was a brilliant director who shared my outsider sensibilities. I frantically responded to the posting, breathless with visions of my imminent status as a darling of the indie-film scene.

To my delight, I received an email back several hours later, informing me that my headshot (which my mom had taken in our backyard a few weeks previous) looked “great,” and that I should report to a warehouse in DUMBO on the date of the shoot, dressed for a “downtown dinner party.”

I leapt up from my computer and ran to my closet, where I began pulling out the hippest, most urban clothing I could find. I was convinced that this role would not only provide me with valuable on-set experience, but that there might even be a moment at the downtown dinner party where they would need one of the background actors to give a line, perhaps something like, “The food has been delivered!” or “Can I borrow an umbrella?” 

I didn’t know anything about the plot of the film, of course, but I knew I would fit in perfectly with the wardrobe I ultimately settled on: brown corduroys, a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled, and a straw fedora, cocked jauntily askew. This party was taking place downtown, after all.

The day of the shoot finally arrived, and as I approached the warehouse, I noticed a curvaceous woman in a g-string and nipple tassels smoking a cigarette with a tuba player just outside the door. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself, nodding politely as I passed them, “They must be shooting multiple movies here today.”

It took my eyes a moment to adjust to the dim interior of the warehouse, and when they did, it became clear that I was the only person wearing a straw fedora. I was also the only person wearing corduroys. In fact, I was the only person wearing any pants whatsoever. Everyone else inside the warehouse fell into one of two categories: a) a nude woman, or b) a drag queen in an elaborate gown.

As I was processing all of this, a spry little man with a friendly demeanor hopped on top of a crate and shouted to the assembled, “Hello everyone! Thank you so much for being here today – I’m really excited to shoot this scene. This is the last scene in the movie, and here’s how it’s going to work: you’re all hanging out at this club, you’re having fun, you’re drinking. Then, at a certain point, the marching band is going to come in, and you all fuck each other. Sound good? Let’s do this!”

The crowd cheered as the man, who I guessed was probably John Cameron Mitchell, hopped off the crate and began moving through the crowd, playfully slapping backsides and running his fingers through shimmering boas. Meanwhile, PAs began organizing us in to pairs and larger groups for the scene, evidently so that we could get to know one another before we fucked to the accompaniment of a marching band. 

I searched frantically for someone to explain my situation to. Clearly there had been a mistake – I was obviously supposed to be part of a different scene. Little did I know that this was a pivotal scene in Shortbus, Cameron Mitchell’s amazing and ground-breaking movie about a sex club in millennial New York that feature lots of real actors having very real sex. I approached a PA and tapped him on the shoulder, but before I could get a word out he said, “Who are you? How come you don’t have a partner for the scene yet? Here, this is Lucius – you guys get to know each other.” 

And with that, the PA grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me towards an exceedingly beautiful man, presumably named Lucius, who had broad, muscular shoulders emblazoned with tattoos of angel wings, an equally broad, toothy smile, and an enormous penis. I knew about the penis because it was hanging out of the leg of his Daisy Dukes. Lucius was eating some watermelon from the craft services table, and I did not know what to say to him.

We looked at each other for a while – Lucius eyeing my rolled sleeves and jaunty fedora, I marveling at his intricate eyeliner and enormous penis – and it became clear that Lucius wasn’t going to say anything. I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to get out of this, but I thought perhaps the first step would be to make some small talk. 

“How is the watermelon?” I asked. 

Lucius grinned. “It’s a sexy watermelon.”

“This isn’t going to work,” I said, and turned to run for the door. Instead, however, I collided with John Cameron Mitchell, who peered at me with deep confusion, before catching a glimpse of Lucius over my shoulder. 

“Lucius, baby, you look fantastic!” he exclaimed. Lucius winked and popped another square of watermelon into his mouth. John turned back to me and squinted. “Honey,” he said finally, “What happened?”

“I…um, the email I got from the casting guy said ‘downtown dinner party?’” I stammered. 

“And…?” said John, squinting harder. “Do you not know what that is?”

“I guess not?” I said. I offered a half-hearted chuckle of self-deprecation, which had exactly zero effect on his expression.

“Okay,” he said, “Here’s the deal. You’re going to be the guy in the corner, watching this whole scene unfold, and not having any idea what the fuck is going on.”

“John, I can do that for you,” I said.

“Great, go stand over there,” he said, and he was gone, back into the scrum of glittering bodies.

I told Lucius it was nice to meet him, and made my way to the table John had indicated, which had a bottle of actual vodka on it, along with some red Dixie cups. I filled one and downed it quickly. I watched as John finished arranging the rest of the actors before taking his post behind the camera. He called action, and I drank some more vodka while the others pretended to chat casually, mouthing fake dialogue in their g-strings and cocktail dresses, until John waved his hand for the marching band to enter. The tuba player and his brethren burst into the room, and right on cue, everyone around me began ripping off what little clothing they were wearing, knotting tongues and groping each other lustily. Then John shouted “Cut!,” and they all stopped instantly, dutifully replacing garments and straightening their hair as PAs moved through the room with bottles of water, murmuring, “Back to one please, back to one.”

Once the room was reset, John shouted “Action!,” and the whole thing happened again. And again. And again. 

I lost count after a while – of both how many takes and how many cups of vodka I drank – but I do know that many hours went by, because it was dark when I stumbled out of the warehouse, clutching the $20 I received as pay for my performance. I rode the subway back to Astoria, where I sat down in front of my computer and began researching graduate schools.

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