Several months ago in an attempt at “self-searching” I came to Atlanta chasing a dream. It was a very real and simple dream: to be on set of The Hunger Games Mockingjay. Because of some non-disclosure act I’m not writing to give away behind-the-scenes details, but more to say what I saw, beyond the obvious and into the movie industry.
If you are like me, you may think your dream would be to see Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, etc. and seeing them was thrilling…at first.
After working as an extra, I applied for a position as a stand-in. Within an hour I got a phone call saying, “You are going to be Woody Harrelson’s stand-in.” I couldn’t breathe. To me this was a miracle door that opened. Bam. My dream was staring in my face, except it was invading my personal space and actually making me uncomfortable. Fearful even.
So here’s the part where I make a long story shorter. On set I saw every actor you could wish to see. Every character from The Hunger Games series. All the characters I felt I knew through the magic of movies and reading. That’s the whole point right? To connect with the characters. The problem is under my circumstances I wasn’t allowed to talk to the actors or else it was “off with my head.” They’d replace me in a moment. Seeing the actors was like looking at your dream through a glass cage with signs that say “Come No Further” and “Do Not Touch.”
Try walking past one of your favorite actresses (Jennifer Lawrence) within inches, even more, your FAVORITE character from two of your FAVORITE movies, only she doesn’t see you. You are a vapor she walks through. (The first time I walked by Jennifer Lawrence I nearly swallowed my own tonsils in excitement.)
Not to say that Jennifer Lawrence did anything wrong, she was merely acting as she sees fit, and she was working. (However, I can say in a normal job you would at least say “Hello” to co-workers.) And Jennifer Lawrence was as charming in person as she is in interviews, only her job requires she block certain people out entirely.
But the point here is I wasn’t a co-worker, I was a set prop. The movie industry (not necessarily the actors), at best, stamps people with dollar signs. You either get a big dollar sign or a little one. In my case, I got a very little dollar sign.
So there, in the presence of these actors, these people I admire so much, I’m not considered a person at all. There is a social hierarchy in the movie industry that is an oppressive caste system perfectly equipped to devalue human worth and elevate money.
Yesterday I had coffee with my friend, Jesslyn, who said she saw an interview with Mark Burnett, the producer of The Voice, who explained why his show is so successful. He said, “‘The Voice’ has succeeded with kindness and just great talent.” Kindness always makes an even playing field and recognizes people as unique invividuals. It doesn’t forfeit the capacity to care.
Actors depend on people like you and me to love them. That’s what makes them successful, but they are terrified of us. And can you blame them when people scream at them or chase them with cameras? However inversely, we are amazed at the characters they play in movies, but they are playing characters that are just like us: real everyday people.
The mindset on a movie set is this: “What can YOU do for me?” It’s a breeding ground for insensitivity, inequality, impatience, egotism, and it creates the most spiritually dry atmosphere I have ever worked in. (Possibly this set it like this because of the huge $$$ behind it.)
The last time I “stood-in” here in Atlanta was during the recent “snowpocalypse.” There were over 1000 wrecks and people stuck in traffic for over 12 hours. Everyone else in Atlanta was released from work around lunch, But the set of Mockingjay would not let anyone, stand-ins and extras included, go home.
Eventually 6:15 and darkness rolled around. Still no signs of going home. I was faced with a decision: If I left I would lose 11 hours of work and $104. Even more, I possibly would never get hired again as a stand-in. But if I stayed, I risked totaling my car on icy roads, spending the night stranded, or crashing and hurting myself or someone else. My desire to stay there was tied to believing being there was my dream.
And then something clicked.
I realized I was choosing to buy into this sick altered-reality where money was more important than human life. Truth be told, they didn’t care about my safety. If I wrecked, costing me all of my savings, they would just replace me when I wasn’t able to work.
Staying on set would mean I agreed my life was worth the value of one-hundred and four U.S. dollars. But leaving would mean making a stronger statement. Not only was I detaching myself from the unhealthy, icky industry, but I was saying all of my stand-in friends’ lives were worth more than even the most popular movie in the world.
I finally cut the poisonous umbilical chord to my dream. I left the movie set because my life was worth more than some paycheck they could hook me with. My life was worth more than a false privilege to be on a movie set near my favorite actors, hoping to have the smallest of conversations.
This was the moment I freed my desire from a sinking dream and the longing for fulfillment that was attached to a false hope. It wasn’t my desire that was disappointing, it was the dream that was an inadequate vehicle for fulfilling what I was really worth.
Walking away from the set of Mockingjay, heart pounding, I turned around and looked at Jennifer Lawrence one last time, of course she wasn’t looking anywhere near my way, but I feel that was the most appropriate way to end it all. (P.S. I love Jennifer Lawrence, but she works too well as a symbol here.)
So tonight there was a job posting for a 5’11’/6’0” tall brown-haired stand-in for Mockingjay: all the evidence I need to know my position has been taken away. AT least that’s what they think.
But this post isn’t about missing out. It is a post celebrating freeing yourself to be something more. Something that surprises even you. This post is for knowing life isn’t measured in dollar signs and neither are human lives. Here’s to choosing something more valuable like love and kindness.