10 years ago was when my life-bread came from the background actor’s hustle. The precipice of Hollywood production, right before today’s industry conundrum, was replete with life on set, friendships with vibrant newcomers from across the world and thrilling dream experiences I had never anticipated with the stars, or as they say where I’m from, STAHZ.
Cut to a synagogue stage at the TEMPLE ISRAEL of HOLLYWOOD(off La Brea), around 50 of us background players were being corralled into a medium-sized proscenium theatre house ideal for a small play and not exclusively for Jewish-faith oriented shows. It was a scene on location and they rented space at this synagogue. Let’s take a conscious step back and remind ourselves this is Hollywood, nothing is as it seems.
We in the “background” were led to our designated folding chairs facing the stage. We were players of an audience to a play. A play contained within a show called Grace and Frankie, a show I knew nothing about. One of the many uncountable products of streaming giant NETFLIX(Yes, I believe we can call them products now.)
After being situated in holding for the crew to prepare for shooting, the series’ leads come out to set in powdered-wig pomp and costumed in gallant garb echoing the period of America’s foundational lore. The scene was set to look like the back of a $2 bill(see: lì xì). Come to think of it, it was a melodramatic retelling of the signing of the United States Constitution for the scene’s stage was dressed with a large overhanging antique scroll banner that bigly reads ‘We the People…’.
And then comes the guy everyone in the room knew, the guy they were all waiting for. Fresh from the trailer waltzes in Martin Sheen in his breeches, colonial coat and powdered wig capped under the antique American tricorn hat. He illumined the room. His presence carrying his cinema acclaim lit up the whole day that day. I was impressed in a semi star-struck kind of way. I mean I haven’t seen everything he’s been in but lucky for him, it only took a single piece of his work to declare me a big fan. Why not?
The signing of the legendary document that set the stage for our American freedoms was framed in a musical song and dance. Even for a scene shot for a short run-time, he brought on the razzle dazzle.
When it came time for an extended break between takes to reconfigure the scene’s angle setup — in Hollywood ways, it involves moving everything on set from one side of the room to the other — Martin took it upon himself to go about the room, still in costume, to individually shake hands with each and every one of us crabs in a bucket. What is going on? We didn’t anticipate getting star treatment from a STAH! I was excited. We were all excited. Of course a big star like him can only spare a few moments with each extra for a brief hello and a handshake.
After filing through dozens of us, I was concocting in my head what I’d say to Martin if I only had a few moments to say it. He gets to me and extends his hand. “Hi, I’m Martin. Thanks for your work.” Hands still gripping, feeling some kind of star power, I fumbly say, “Great working with you Martin. Apocalypse was a BIG favorite.”
It was then when he looked at me in my Vietnamese eyes and I swear on bà ngoại his eyes tinted with what looked to be a shadow of regret. He proceeded down the line. Throughout the remainder of the shooting day, all of us in the background were swimming in appreciation for Martin Sheen for taking the time and effort to greet all of his extras one by one. He must be doing this on all the products he’s worked on. What an awesome dude.
Days of doing background have long passed but then I somehow found myself working in another part of the machine as an assistant Payroll Accountant for HBO and Netflix products. Many divinely surreal experiences working in the product back-end were also coupled with their drags. The shooting crew would often forget the Payroll Department was a part of the same crew. I mean, we are on the same credits aren’t we? It was very easy for below-the-line, back-end to be treated as the other. What good are credits these days when the reality of Hollywood product-development sustains its separatist ideology? I get it. This particular chain of command is to protect star-light. But that protection of star-light has long evolved into a profit-model. Product Payroll is another story. Even for being another story, it gave me a retrospective lens for those days of doing background work. Different parts of the machine give different vantage points.
For being an on-screen veteran actor, sure, it was a humbling treat for him to ingratiate himself to future big screen potentials. But was it from a generous heart? Yes, you can argue that. You can also say he’s doing it to maintain his long-coveted legacy. You can also say he’s at a delicate point in his career walking on egg-shells to stay employed. The hustle never really stops. You piss off a single person, you may instigate a cascading butterfly effect across the very intertwined Hollywood network. A network that will be committed in bringing you down if you’re a threat to their bottom-line. I mean, his name is Martin Sheen(or shall I say Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez). It’s his indefatigable obligation to spread his SHEEN, or in other words, expand his brand identity in contribution to the American Legacy.
But that’s how the game is played. Those that elect to realize their pursuits in the cinematic performing arts assume an alter-ego. With each product, they take on another alter-ego. Recognized or not, the Hollywood Game is a commodification of human consciousness.
I think back and ask myself, why was Apocalypse Now a favorite? Was it because it featured Vietnam? Even so, I grew and came of age into inhabiting the ambivalence of how the Vietnamese identity was largely furniture in American cinema. It’s quite clear by now that it’s a feat of impossibility to depict any tale of American heroism when it comes to recounting the Vietnam War across the multitude of many mediums.
I love Coppola. Godfather is definitely a personal favorite of mine and I cannot wait for Megalopolis. I know for a film centered on family enterprise, it’s certainly a favorite amongst the Vietnamese. Every time I watch the Godfather now, all I can think about is my family and their mob past in Saigon(still collecting data on that). And every time I do, I wonder when that will see the big screen. And because of Godfather, I lend a certain forgiveness to Coppola with how the Vietnamese people are represented in Apocalypse(to the extent of my conscious consumption). I offer my benefit of the doubt considering his filmography grounded in his Italian American frame of reference, and how the bulk of his narrative exploits was largely based on American-skewed propaganda in the first ever armed conflict, LIVE on television, drumroll brrrrrrrrrrr the VIETNAM WAR. I offer my trust to Coppola to possess a level of cultural discernment considering the times and the information he was given. Be it received willingly or chosen selectively. But when it comes down to it, the Vietnamese were merely the background for a Hollywood story nursing the trauma of individual American soldiers in a costly(of human lives and battle bucks) and absent-minded war that left scars for both sides for many decades following. I’m a forgiving guy, and Coppola could have very well been a victim of propaganda but can I forgive his failure in using his influential voice to stitch into the American consciousness that my Vietnamese people were subhuman?
<<<A quick aside, I recall a trades headline about a Vietnam War film in development that casts a deep-fake of James Dean to be a US Marine. A product-development I read to be repugnant on every level from autobot filmmaking and casting to reviving a long dead talent(RIP JD) to force-feed white idolatry. I hope it doesn’t get made, and if it does, that it makes a greater societal contribution other than making easy money.>>>
I gaze out of my office window at LA Center Studios to the Downtown Los Angeles skyline. This iconic group of structures that I’ve marveled over all throughout my life is now treating me with a greater, more cinematically intimate vantage point. Situated right across the 110 freeway from the US Bank building centrum, I swear I drive past this area a million times and never noticed a backlot. Soundstages themselves are built to be operating incognito. LA Center Studios was converted from a previous headquarters of an oil company now turned into a space for 6 soundstages and much room to spare. It’s most importantly decked with a central tower they also use for shooting and a very significant structure for me to satisfy my full-circle feels. Up on the 10th floor of that tower was where they shot my big BIG TV favorite, MAD MEN. I cannot begin to lay down the gravity that this show’s influence had dropped onto me. It definitely stitched in hard nodes onto my brain-map. For it was during my last year at UC Riverside, I was forehead-deep into that conscious-download having been taken away by the gravitas and go-getting attitude of the show’s main character, Donald Draper. I was definitely programmed. For me, the show functioned as a 45-minute long-form commercial that manipulated my outlook and choices up to this very moment in time. I was so deep into show that I made the drastic career pivot to become a copywriter, for it was the bizarre reasoning I had at the time that would be the choice stepping-stone to write movies for Hollywood. Ironically, this gig was in Saigon and not in homebase Hollywood but I’ll expand on that Vietnamese chapter another day.
All in all, with every new Hollywood product gig the whole product team sets up their homebase product office at one of LA’s finest backlot studios. From directors and producers to writers, actors, extras, product accountants, PAYROLL, product office, camera crew, lighting/electric, script supervisors, Teamsters, locations department, construction, greensmen, catering, set nurses, sound, grips, set dec, set dress, props, CRAFTY(BITCH. see: Jesse Pinkman), the art department, SPFX, VFX, stunt people, hair, makeup, animal wranglers, intimacy coordinators, studio teachers, post-pro, extras casting, greenhorn PAs and yes, down to day-playing COPS that troll(see:patrol) location on days of location shooting. I do their Payroll. A very cyclical, predictable but reliable department to accompany the more dynamic parts of the machine.
Speaking of the devil(because we’re always waiting on delayed timecard submissions) in comes in a fresh-faced office PA with their timecard on time. Quickly, I’d like to say how beautiful everyone is and if you’re crewed on a Hollywood product with named producers then you get treated to an elevated experience. Bacchanal energy. All bright eyed and starry, PA says,
“Hey, you guys are Payroll? I’m here with the Production Office timecards. My name is Jordan. I’m from Philly. This job is the best.”
“Boo Philly! Pittsburgh.” Says Spenser, the Assistant Payroll Accountant(the guy I report to as 2nd Assistant Payroll Accountant).
I just witnessed an exchange of East Coast energy.
Switching over to me, “What about you? Where are you from?”
And for some strangely alienating and frequently-happening reason, they swivel away nose-up surrendering a passive, “Oh.” Like trying to ignore an anvil that just dropped onto the car they rode into LA in. People glitch out whenever I share with them stuff about Burbank/Hollywood/LA on a personal level. How can I describe myself and not have it sound like bragging? Could it be vanity or maybe do I just love myself too much? I’m just trying to stay alive. It weirds me out. It destabilizes the vibe when I tell people I’m from Burbank. I’m like, chill, please don’t add to my Truman Show Syndrome.
Why do you come to my home and make me feel disconnected to where I’m from? Where am I from? Am I from Burbank? Am I from Hollywood? LA? On paper I am an American. But not the Bud Lite, freshly-licensed classic Mustang, yee-haw American — although I dared to dream about a classic American pony car, it just wasn’t in the cards. By blood and heritage, I am Vietnamese. I grew alongside other Vietnamese youth in a Vietnamese language-learning Catholic network across the San Fernando Valley. Consider me a Type A territorial male. I like to take ownership with any influence to my consciousness for it fuses with my identity. My attributes, my qualities are grounded in Metro Los Angeles and telescopes all over SoCal but local intimacy rests in Burbank. Hollywood is just the face. The literal-physical and cinematic-figural ego face to Burbank, the Media Capital of the World. The inner matrix(but really out of the matrix) that upholds the face. Burbank has long drawn a hard line to maintain a deviation with the surface ego across the hill. To me, it’s the authentic nexus that plays arbiter to the rest of the country and by extension, the whole world. Why give me the uncertainty of questioning myself? Burbank is where I’ve collected my Vietnamese experiences in America. As goes for LA and surrounding SoCal. Not you San Diego, you’re too far to enjoy casually, regularly.
I look at the product report for yesterday’s work on Westworld to record the IN/OUT times of cast and crew. I match them with submitted TCs. A singular procedure on a single shoot-day in a week–long assemblage for cast and crew Payroll. It’s a trip. I look at my name on the PR, Solomon Sloan. Sloan, does that name even ring true to me anymore? It definitely wasn’t the name I was born with. Each time I introduce myself and every time I offer my signature, there’s always this inauthentic layer that kept the name from feeling fully aligned with me.
I’m all about consciousness and I’m a decade deep in my soul-seeking journey ever since my TBI(for this blog will be the deep-dive chronicle of my traumatic brain injury). With that comes spiritual awakening. Many times I feel out of alignment doing Payroll and that I feel most at home when I’m doing stuff on set. Where the lights are. Where the magic happens. Do I even want to write for American Cinema anymore? Has it become too extra in today’s landscape? I’m loving life. It’s crazy–in a self-aware, meditate-every-day kind of way. My life, honestly, is the best movie.
I peer at the product report at my name and confirm with myself, yes, I am making the right moves. This is how the game is played. I see you “Martin Sheen”. Or shall I say Ramón?
With all the PALMS 🌴🤲🌴,