It sounded intriguing – a chance to stand around, pretend a lot and even get paid. Plus, I’m good at blending into the background.
So, no wonder a casting call for extras for a horse-racing movie scheduled to film at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino caught my eye. The film, “50 to 1,” opens in limited release this spring.
It tells the story of Mine That Bird, a horse with New Mexico ties that pulled off a monumental upset and won the 2009 Kentucky Derby despite 50-1 odds.
You might remember the thoroughbred came in second earlier that year in the Borderland Derby at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino.
Since filmmakers wanted 150 extras for “derby goers,” “well-to-do ranchers,” “family & friends” or other “types,” a hot, muggy afternoon in August 2012 found me at the racetrack to register. Never occurred to me to dress the part.
I left my cowboy boots at home and wouldn’t have worn a cowboy hat even if I’d had one because I look silly in it.
Duded out in jeans, long-sleeve white shirt and old shoes, I filled out forms and waited in line with dozens of other candidates.
We each chatted briefly with Elizabeth Gabel of EG Casting, an Albuquerque company that casts extras for films shot in New Mexico. Assistant Lorrie Latham took my photo and I went home, figuring that was the end of it.
But a few weeks later, Elizabeth called, said I’d been chosen as an extra, and was I available Sept. 14 and 15 for filming at Sunland Park?
“Sure,” I said, mildly surprised they wanted me. Elizabeth was mildly surprised at my mild surprise.
“Rick, why wouldn’t we want you?”
“Well, Elizabeth, most of the films shot around here usually don’t need middle-aged Anglos as extras.”
“Well, we do.”
Now, bearing in mind that I’m a) no actor, and b) as self-conscious about my looks as they come, a movie gig still didn’t faze me.
I was more concerned with how much coffee I’d need to stay awake, how tough my bladder subsequently would be, and whether the racetrack had a no-smoking rule. The answers turned out to be: a lot, real tough, and nope.
EG Casting kept in touch via its blog and emails. I learned they wanted the “derby-goer” me at the racetrack that Friday and Saturday, to bring three different sets of clothes, and to be prepared for 12-hour days. Can do.
Duds-wise, I came up with navy blazer/gray slacks; tan jeans/blue shirt/black cowboy boots; blue jeans/khaki work shirt/ball cap/tan jacket.
For shirts and jackets, we’d been told no blacks, reds or solid whites, and no caps with logos.
Rats! All my ball caps have logos, so I borrowed my niece’s, an off-purple cap with the words “Wheaton College” nicely faded.
I showed up at 6 a.m. that Friday in the jeans/work shirt/cap/jacket getup. The lady checking extras’ wardrobes took one look and said, “That’s perfect! I love it!”
I showed her my blazer/slacks combo on the hanger, just in case she wanted me in that, too.
“No, no. I want you to wear what you’ve got on all day!”
OK. I’ll just be rustically comfortable.
El Paso’s weather in September can be hot and sticky, so I was wary, since the racetrack scenes to be shot took place in late February. The last thing I wanted was to be sweat-drenched in September while pretending it’s February. That’s called “acting,” I guess.
But we lucked out: A front blew through that Thursday, and Friday dawned overcast, damp and nippy. Filming was halted a few times when rain fell, but then this danged southeast breeze sprang up and blew all day.
It got chillier and chillier and my light jacket began to not do its job, especially in the shade. Late that afternoon, I heard one shivering female extra say, “God, what I wouldn’t give for a hot flash right now.”
Things I learned that day:
• Digital movie cameras are replacing actual film.
• I still cannot stand cigarette smoke.
• I’m not good at standing around a lot.
• Silently pretending to be excited – because my horse won – takes real work. I felt like an idiot and probably looked like one. Don’t know how the other 149 extras felt.
• Actor Skeet Ulrich, who played Mine That Bird’s trainer Chip Woolley, is taller than I thought.
• Actor William Devane, who played an owner of Mine that Bird, Leonard “Doc” Blach, looks just like he does onscreen.
• Set production assistant Andy Aguilar is very good at herding extras.
• I’m glad I didn’t wear cowboy boots.
Things I wish I’d known or asked about beforehand:
• That an extra was picked to play the racetrack photographer. Could’ve been me, with $20,000 worth of top-notch camera equipment hanging from my shoulders.
• That clothes definitely absorb cigarette smoke.
• That I needed more than just one magazine to read during breaks.
• That I’d do all this again in a heartbeat.
The film opens April 4 in El Paso. If I see me onscreen, I’ll call you.