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.
Beautifully written and wonderfully thought provoking. Celebrity is a strange social construction that kind of pisses me off… A lot. I’m so glad I get to be your friend. Too bad they’ll never know what they missed out on.
Thank you Lydia that means a lot coming from you. I miss you and I’m right there with you. I have been thinking about you recently. Maybe we can catch up soon or hang out this week? But thank God I have amazing friends like you. I wouldn’t trade you for all the famous people in the world.
This was really great. I kept wanting it to go on and on. Reading this left me feeling like I had just taken a fresh breath after a long time of forgetting to breathe. You are always a blessing everywhere you stand, so I’m glad I get to know the value of seeing the greatness inside of you as my brother and best friend. Writing like this is how you are making a mark on the world, so keep on sharing encouragement.
Oh gosh I almost melted when I read this. Your words are the strongest and most encouraging force I could ever have. I’m beyond thankful for being your best friend and I can’t wait to see you this week!
I feel like the situation you were in could have gone so many different ways, and I’m so glad that you were brave enough to stand up for what you believe in. You have a brilliant mind and a courageous heart and it’s a tragedy that the people on set didn’t see that. As always, you’ve written something amazing & inspiring and you make me want to live better.
Kalee I don’t know what I would do without you. It means more to me than anything to have friends like you who pull the good out of me and you show me how to be all those things like brilliant and courageous! I guess like attracts like right?!!! You make me want to live better too, so I love that my writing can inspire you in that way.
Bro I love ya man! This was so courageous of you and it does symbolize a lot. I would see extras everyday working for 50 bucks a day to be treated like crap, chasing a dream that is so unnatainable in that fashion. Even though I found some luck and you have too, I did learn to put my time and focus into my work and not selling myself for cheap. I’m proud of you!
I’m so glad for people like you in that industry Derrin because they need you. (Even if they don’t know that yet.) But I think that’s so true what you said, none of us should sell ourselves for cheap, especially when it comes to our worth.
Well, you did it again! You’ve put words in a concise order , making clear what literally thousands have thought but haven’t been able to express. This story reminds me of a scene I saw in a movie where you see a man sitting on the ledge of a window with his legs dangling down, trying to muster up the courage he needs to jump to freedom. We hold our breath as he contemplates what he must do and we worry about him breaking a leg or busting his head from falling from so far up. Then he does it; he closes his eyes and goes for it and jumps. The picture pans out and you see the ground was only six inches under his feet…..The point is that perspective can be a powerful thing. If we can wield it in others, we have a power to make them believe things that will only make them feel foolish when they finally figure it out or someone points it out to them or we can help them see a bigger picture, making their life easier to navigate and giving them a clear compass to follow. It’s like being at a 3-D movie. You jump as things appear to leap out at you from the screen. You even find yourself reaching out to touch the pretty fish you swear just swam in front your face. Then you do the unthinkable; you take off your 3-D glasses.Not only do you discover things are not floating around you but you see the screen is actually blurry. You look around you and it dawns on you that people actually chose to look through a medium that alters their reality and translates them to a place of make believe. They want to believe the actors who portray characters are , in reality, that character.” He’s really that sensitive and thoughtful; she’s really that brave and sweet.” “There really is that perfect man or woman out there who will love me and give me everything I ever wanted.” And so the quest to catch smoke begins. Stories can blind and box people into a reality that is not reality at all. They can make people waste many years of the precious few we are given here on Earth. But they can also set people free to live a meaningful life. One that means something and makes the world a better place to live. That is the kind of story teller you are. As you discover your own path in life and as you refuse to be caught up in a script you didn’t write; you will pan out your camera angle and show those who will see, a vision of a different way. One of kindness and respect for human beings; of appreciation and gratitude for what you possess and courage to go toward the unknown making eye contact with All who are on their journey to say to them ” I see you and you are important.”
I don’t know if I have said this before but I feel like your comments on my blog could be a blog within themselves because they are so thoughtful, insightful, and really well written. Thank you for not only reading what I write, but seeing what’s behind the words. Every time when I was little at school, and I saw kids getting picked on I’d be nice to them because I remember you telling me “One day those kids will grow up, and they will remember how you treated them.” Obviously there were some kids I picked on too….oops….but that mentality still stuck with me. So I’m so glad you raised me to be kind and now as my friend you keep me kind (for the most part haha!) I love you and your encouragement means so much to me.
WOW!! Who you are is a writer. You just have to find out the when, where and how part. I so enjoyed your blog. I did not want it to end. I was reading a story I knew the ending of, but you keep pulling me in, wanting more. I am a little intimated writing a response because you are such a gifted writer. Even your mom’s response was so well written. (We all know where you inherited your writing ability from)
I want you to know how proud I am of you and how much I love you. I am glad I will be along to share in your great adventures.
Thank you for being there for me and supporting what I do. I couldn’t do any of my writing without having my family to help me out emotionally (and financially haha!) But I’m glad I can share what I have been going through with so many people and hear back some cool responses. I love you too.
You know, when I read that you were pursuing your dreams, I was serious for real majorly proud of you. But when I read this, I was serious for real majorly even more like SO MUCH MORE proud of you. And also inspired, because there are a lot of things like this in my life that I need to learn how to take charge of, to stand up to, just like you.
That was just what I needed to get a boost of self confidence and stand tall and feel proud about myself! It goes back and forth between feeling great and feeling panicked because I don’t know what I’m doing in life haha. So today, because of you, I feel GREAT!