Extra, Extra: Stories from the Background

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To my sisters and me, my dad is the main character. He is presence and purpose, laughter and adventure, wisdom and authenticity. He’s also a protagonist in his job, marriage, and role in the church.

By day, he’s Dr. Mark Geil: Associate Dean of Research and Operations and Professor of Exercise Science at Kennesaw State University. He does research on children with movement disorders, so to an under-represented community, he’s a background hero studying unnoticed aspects of movement that translate into better prosthetic limbs and overall understanding. 

Beyond his day job, he’s dabbled in several fascinating hobbies. His most notable hobby, that of being an extra or stand-in in the movie industry, is a unique culmination of both his career and his many other hobbies. He has “medical experience,” so he’s played a doctor on TV shows. He enjoys writing and photography, so for a brief second in the latest season of Stranger Things, you can see a close-up of my dad’s face taking pictures. All those years of archery at church kids camp somehow enabled him to be an occasional stand-in for Hawkeye (really, it’s probably more of a sizing match-up than a hobby alignment, but hey). 

Usually, his amazing stories collected from hours on movie sets yield a micro-second glimpse of him on the big screen. We watch movies with hands on the pause button. He’ll point himself out as the fifth guy on the second-to-last row of the UN in Avengers. Extras are labeled “background.” The audience is not supposed to notice the characters who contribute presence, normalcy, and purpose to the shot. But there’s beauty in hearing stories from the background.

Sarah: You’ve probably been in about 40 shows and productions at this point? What’s one of your favorite experiences as an extra or stand-in?  

Mark: I’m a huge fan of comics and the Marvel universe, so it’s no surprise that my favorite moment is related to the MCU. But it might be unusual that it’s one that never made the screen. I was booked as a photo double for Jeremy Renner on the Hawkeye series. That’s someone who takes the place of the actor if he’s not available or barely in the frame. Two days before the shoot, I got a fairly frantic call from the casting agent. “Costumes really wants to see you for a fitting. They’re kinda freaking out. Is there any possible way you could get to the studio?” Naturally, I worked it into my schedule. I showed up at the studio, found my way to the right stage, and met with Renner’s personal wardrobe person. She led me into a room, wheeled in a rack, and said, “You’re the photo double, right?” I nodded and introduced myself, and she said, “Yeah, just to be safe, we really need you to try on everything.” 

I looked at the rack, and there were the comics come to life. Over the next half hour, I was fitted into Clint Barton’s regular clothes and his fancy clothes and was given random advice like, “Jeremy always tucks in his laces.” Ultimately, it was time to don the real live Hawkeye super-suit. The suit itself was remarkably engineered in about five layers, and it took a very specific process for them to put it on me, with instructions like, “Okay, now I need you to curve your back about twenty degrees and put your hands together over your head with your fingers pointed.” I loved every second of it. I finally stood there wearing full superhero regalia, and even though I had no mirror and couldn’t take any pictures, my childhood dreams were literally coming true.   

Sarah: I love your lifelong love for these movies and the process. Often, the motley crew that makes up the background is full of aspiring actors, people with no connection or love of movies just looking for a temp job, and a whole host of other characters.  Why do you enjoy this hobby? What’s “in it” for you?  

Mark: You’re exactly right. I almost pity the folks who don’t realize how this works and are desperate for their “big break.” They have this hope that a director will spot just how well they walk across a street 50 feet behind the action and sign them on for their next film, but that just never happens. I enjoy this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m fascinated by the process and the machinations of making movies. Second, well, I occasionally get to try on super suits and such.  

Sarah: Speaking of the machinations of movies, what’s been your favorite “final product” or movie/show that you’ve worked on that turned out even better and more delightful than you thought it would as you witnessed its production? 

Mark: I played a doctor in a Reese Witherspoon film called The Good Lie, about the journey of refugees orphaned in a Sudanese civil war. I have some quasi-clinical training, and I’ve been in ORs observing surgeries, so I get to play docs from time to time. The set was a makeshift field hospital in Sudan. I was a little disappointed when the director shuffled me off to the back of the set and asked me to just count some items (which turned out to be packets of denture cleaner, oddly enough). So, I counted my packets, over and over, while the other background got to pretend to treat patients. But in between takes, I got to hang out with a wonderful group of kids and parents from a local Sudanese community, and the film turned out to be quite powerful. And even though I was in the back, I got to see myself quite a bit in the finished product. 

The attention to detail and the care taken in the craftsmanship are inspiring, and I enjoy the end products so much more having watched the process.

Mark Geil

Sarah: Often, the places that you film are common areas—parks and parking garages we frequent, or even campuses where you worked that morph into settings like Sudan or New York City. It could be that seeing the set and peeking behind the scenes disenchants the movie experience, but it seems to do the opposite for you. How does knowing how it’s all made increase your wonder and appreciation for the final product?  

Mark: I wouldn’t appreciate a Bob Ross landscape painting nearly as much if I hadn’t watched him create it. I get the same appreciation on a movie set. A single soundstage might have carpenters crafting a gravity-defying edifice out of 2x4s, hair and makeup departments making realistic looks from decades hence, and set decorators completing the finest detail on a set. I stood in a long line with hundreds of extras for one of the Hunger Games movies to get my hands and fingernails covered in artificial dirt, fully aware that none of the distant cameras would see my fingernails. I’ve watched the crew replace tiny pebbles on the ground of an alien planet, then blow them away in each take, and then put them back all over again. I marveled at Eddie’s trailer in Stranger Things, with so many ‘80s knick-knacks that never made the show. The attention to detail and the care taken in the craftsmanship are inspiring, and I enjoy the end products so much more having watched the process. 

Sarah: Being a stand-in has seemed to be even more gratifying for you than being an extra, but in those final films, you’re definitely not getting a screenshot of your face in the background. You’re never in the movie when you’re a stand-in, so why do you think you enjoy the work of standing-in for someone else?  

Mark: It’s so much fun! The stand-in watches the actor rehearse the scene, then steps in and repeats the blocking so the director, lighting gaffers, and camera operators can get everything just right before the actor returns for the actual take. So, you get a much closer view of moviemaking than you ever do as background. The most surreal moment I’ve ever experienced in this hobby was standing in for Renner on Avengers: Endgame in the Vormir scene. Part of the scene is an emotional dialogue between Hawkeye and Black Widow. It’s a really tight shot, so it took ages to set it up. I was standing in the middle of this massive, fantastic alien planetscape, almost nose-to-nose with Scarlett Johansson’s stand-in, while the crew struggled to get a camera angle just right. At one point, there was a long pause, and one of the Russo brothers shouted from across the stage, “Mark! How tall are you?” Even as I shouted my height, I marveled that, just for a moment, a bit of data as mundane as my height played some small role in the making of the biggest movie in history.  

Sarah: Has your Hollywood experience transformed, in any measure, the way you  view your day-to-day roles? How does working in the background impact the roles you’re the main character in?  

Mark: Well, for starters, I have to talk myself out of abandoning my day job because I keep getting such fascinating offers. (Just kidding. Sort of.) Just today, I had to turn down opportunities to double for an actor in a car chase fleeing the bad guys, to be “hypnotized” in a celebrity prank, and to do a scene that would have had me chew a special pill to make me foam at the mouth. And last month, I had to turn down a chance to be, of all things, a Were-Butt! I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a Were-Butt? 

But then I come back to reality and I’m so grateful that I get to manage all of these disparate interests. I’m thankful for a gratifying “day job” and the chance to make an impact with it. And I recognize that it allows me the opportunity to pursue other interests, like movies, photography, and writing, without facing the pressure of relying on them to support my family. That also means that I can’t devote the time and energy it would take to get really good at any of them, but I’m content with that.  

An added benefit is that I’m totally okay with being in the background. I don’t try to squeeze my way toward a camera (like many extras do), and I’m fine if I don’t appear at all. I know this is a tremendous luxury, and I don’t take it lightly. So I always ultimately prioritize my “main character” roles—husband, father, professor, volunteer—knowing I can’t have the side gigs without the main gig.

***

The process of creation often includes mundane editing, lonely pondering, late-night anxiety, and thousands of details that go unnoticed. But without the extras, the stand-ins, the lighting crews, and the fingernail dirt dusters, the movies we love wouldn’t draw us in.

As I go about my own creation hobbies, both the little ones like occasionally writing or the main gigs like raising my daughter, I think about how wonderfully my dad embraces his movie hobby. Viewing the roles and responsibilities regulated to the background as tremendous luxuries enhances my appreciation for the greater story being told.

Sarah Bramblett has a PhD in English Rhetoric and Composition and resides in Kennesaw, Georgia with her husband Lane and daughter Shiloh (a "joy tornado"). Sarah was an intern for the Rabbit Room while in undergrad and still believes in the life-giving power of Story; she loves passing on that power to college students who don’t think they can write.


1 Comment

  1. April Pickle

    @hildamae

    So good, Sarah. Thank you. When I first saw the picture, and without noticing how old the camera was, I immediately thought it was Mark at Hutchmoot. He’s getting—and then giving to us—glimpses of Hutchmoot details that we might otherwise miss. 

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