ONTD Original: My Day as an Extra on House of Cards

The events of this post took place on July 11, 2013 and include very mild spoilers for Season 2, episode 5 of House of Cards.

It’s no secret, one of my new favorite shows is Netflix’s House of Cards. So, when I found out the second season would be holding an open casting call, I had to go. I was even more surprised when I received a phone call from the casting agency asking if I would be available to be an extra on the show. I immediately said yes.

The night before I received my call time and holding location, as well as all the information regarding the filming for that day. With my call time set for 6:30 AM and my role secured as a “Reenactment Visitor,” I hardly slept a wink that night.

I woke up at 5 AM, slightly nervous but also more excited than I wanted to admit. A million things rushed through my mind: What if I got to watch Kevin Spacey film? A living acting legend and one of my all time favorite actors. What kinds of “spoilers” would I witness? The first season ended with several cliffhangers that anything was possible. Then it dawned on me, there may be a chance I wouldn't see Kevin Spacey or any others from the flawless cast. For all I knew they were just shooting establishing shots and background scenes.

I got to the extra/crew parking lot around 6:15 AM. Vans were there, ready to take us to the actual holding area/set at Patapsco Valley State Park. As we entered the big, empty park, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. As we continued down a small road, though, trailers, filming equipment and various crew members became visible. The park itself was set up as an reenactment event. The van dropped us off at the top of a hill where we walked down to a series of tents. A plethora of men were dressed in civil war garb, armed with guns and everything. We were escorted through the tents to the very back, where the extras holding was. It was crowded, at least two hundred people, and loud. The production assistants made sure to keep everything together, though, and called for certain groups of extras: reenactors, press, secret service, visitors, etc.

I put my stuff down and was almost immediately escorted to wardrobe. We were assigned to dress for spring: I wore a black skater dress with a jean jacket and flats. We had also been advised to bring an extra change of clothes if wardrobe didn't approve of what we were wearing. I didn't even stand before the costumer for ten seconds before he said I looked good and cleared me.

A production assistant then escorted a group of us who were approved and ready to go. We saw the people in charge of props; some people got items like cameras, fake guns, etc. and then we walked down a road, into a woodsy area, where the scene was set. We walked past fake stands for concessions and games and were lead to two sets of bleachers. Most of the people in the reenactment costumes were already on set. They stood lined up on different sides, depending on which side of the battle they represented.

The visitors were instructed to sit in the bleachers. We had full view of the scene in front of us with all the reenactors. At the head, a small, ribboned off, mound of dirt stood. I was still unsure of who from the cast would be involved with this scene. My hopes perked up again at the hearing of a group of actors playing secret service. I sat on the bleachers with a group of other extras and we chatted for a little. It was still very early (not even 7 AM yet) and I had yet to eat or drink anything (and was slowly regretting that decisions).

Shortly after, the director showed up. He talked to a group of others and that’s when I got my first glimpse: Michael Kelly, who plays Frank’s right hand man, Doug Stamper, dressed in jeans and a simple white t-shirt. My heart started to beat faster. Michael had me excited enough, as I’m a fan of everyone on the show, but my emotions were piqued as right behind him, in similar clothing but with a baseball cap walked in Mr. Kevin Spacey. I tried to contain my emotions. I felt lucky to be there. I would be seeing Mr. Spacey’s impeccable acting as the ruthless Frank Underwood up close and in person.

Kevin and Michael were walked through the scene and then escorted to get ready in costume and make up. In the mean time, they had a group of stand-ins for each key actor, who were blocked and walked through the scene as well. We watched them set up the scene for about an hour. Kevin, Michael, and the other actors came back all ready to go. They looked like they had hopped right off the screen.

The scene unfolded as such: Frank was to give a speech to us about the ground breaking for the Overland Campaign Center (what the park had been transformed into) and then break earth for its inauguration. During the speech Stamper receives a phone call and turns his back for a moment. After Frank’s speech is over, he instructs us in the stands and the reenactors to bow our heads for a moment of silence. He kneels and buries a ring in the ground. As he stands and thanks us, we all clap. At this time Stamper walks over to him and whispers something in his ear. I believe the line is: “we got him.” or something to that effect. Frank doesn't bat an eye as he turns towards the crowd of reenactors and salutes them. They salute him back and end scene.

They shot that scene for five hours. Different takes, different angles. Mr. Spacey seemed to be enamored by the two horses brought to set. He would walk over to them between takes, petting them and feeding them grass. It was very endearing to see him go from such a manipulative and stern character back to his animal loving self. Michael Kelly was the real stand out to me in terms of personality. He was constantly joking with Kevin and the other actors around him and hugged several crew members through out the day. At one point when he exited for a break he stopped by us and gave us a thumbs up, asking if we were all doing well. It was very sweet of him and he seemed to really enjoy everything and everyone.

As it was nearing lunch time and they were capturing their last angles of the scenes, we all started to become a little restless. We had been sitting on the same, hard wooded bleachers for hours now. Some extras would go up and get food and go to the bathroom and the crew was very caring and attentive, constantly bringing us water. In the early morning they had brought over some Gatorade, which had sparked me awake. At one point I went to explore with two other girls for the food. We came across a table but accidentally took food from the crew/SAG table but none of the crew standing around seemed upset about it (sorry!).

One of the last angles was an up close shot. Frank’s lines were unimportant to the shot so Kevin would continuously repeat the first few words “Today we break ground (or earth, depending on the take he would switch up words).” One of the last shots, he said “Today we break wind,” which got all of out spirits up as we all let out a roaring laugh. It was nice that Mr. Spacey was trying to lighten the mood after being outside in the woods, surrounded by bugs and falling rain for five hours.

Around 12:45 we were escorted back to holding for lunch. It was catered and everything (and good too!). The background actors ate the same food the crew/main cast did which was nice. We weren't treated as lowly extras. We ate for about forty-five minutes before we were taken back to set. This time the scene was different. A small stage with a podium was set up and that’s when I witnessed my first real spoiler of the day: the podium had a “Vice President” seal on the front. This was not shocking as the first season ended with Frank being offered the Vice President nomination, but to anyone who hadn't watched the entire season yet, it was a shocker.

This time I sat on the opposite set of bleachers, which happened to be right beside the podium. Kevin, Michael, and all the other actors were escorted back to set to begin setting up. I was even closer to Mr. Spacey this time, a hands reach away, which was very exciting. The whole scene was even more riveting to watch, as this was one of Frank’s cut away, direct camera monologues, which is a notable and unique aspect of House of Cards.

Frank gave a short speech, we clapped, and he walked off the podium, looking directly into the camera as he began his little blurb. We did this scene for another several hours. It was more exciting this time since there was a chance I would actually be on camera for this part. Besides all of us once again becoming uncomfortable in our seats and starting to get a little impatient as the day went on, we all joked and kept our spirits up. At one point in between scene set ups, one of the camera operators came over to chat with us. I asked him which episode they were currently shooting and he couldn't remember if it was five or six. It was really nice of him when he came back later just to confirm that it was episode five. This surprised me since they had only started filming in late May, I had only thought it would be episode two or three.

The last scene we did was one where Frank watched the reenactment in progress. The podium was moved directly in front of us, a few feet away, and had Frank and several others now sitting by his side. Our set of bleachers were instructed to react to the reenactment. We did this a few times, the first one not animated enough, the second one too animated, and the third one was perfect. I joked with the people around me that we would all be collectively nominated for an Emmy for our reaction shots.

After this scene, they wrapped up Mr. Spacey for the day. We all gave him a round of applause and he waved at us in thanks. He was very professional the entire time but was able to lighten up in between the seriousness of the scenes and seemed very much into his work, asking questions when he needed clarification and even giving suggestions to the director, which he gladly accepted. It was amazing to see him in action.

We stayed around for about two hours longer. They were setting up a shot to capture the reenactment but after a while they decided they didn't need the background actors and after twelve and a half hours of sitting outside in the woods, we were wrapped. The director and crew thanked us and we all were excited to finally stretch, walk, and sit on something that wasn't a bleacher.

Overall the experience was exhausting but one I wouldn't trade. One that I would mostly likely say “yes” to again.

For a 13 hour day about five minutes of that day made it into the final episode. I was able to find myself, though!
[Spoiler (click to open)]

Full post can be found on my blog

Thanks brenden for letting me post!