The night before I'm supposed to pose as an extra in Jobs, the first biopic to begin filming in the wake of Apple icon Steve Jobs' untimely 2011 death, I stay out until 2 in the morning. When I order a big bottle of Spanish cider at 1:15, five hours before my alarm is set to go off, and five hours and 45 minutes before I'm supposed to be on set, I justify it by remembering how Jobs spoke often and openly about his "important" experiences with recreational drugs. "Steve would have wanted it this way," I think, pouring myself another glass of the cloudy cider and starting in on another story.
The next morning, when my phone alarm finally starts dinging its low gong sound, I have to crawl from my bed to my closet, where I find it still stuffed into the back pocket of the pants I'd worn the night before. My mouth tastes like rotten apples, the pesto papardelle I ate for dinner, and foot. I'm hungry, dizzy, and exhausted, ailments not improved by the knowledge that I've got to drive to Pasadena to hang out with Ashton Kutcher all day. With no time for coffee, I run out the door and into the already hot Los Angeles morning.
If my revelry the previous night was a testament to Jobs' appreciation for mind manipulation, my drive to the Pasadena Convention Center several hours later was a slap in the face to the beloved CEO's exacting standards. Here's a thing about me relevant to a story about a Steve Jobs movie: Unlike nearly 20-percent of American adults with cellphones, I don't have an iPhone, nor do I have another kind of phone that gives me immediate access to Google Maps. So, when I get lost almost instantly on my way to the Jobs set, I can't call up a GPS app for help. Then, when I try to call someone and ask for directions, my phone dies. Steve Jobs once said, "Some people aren't used to an environment where excellence is expected." As I speed down the highway, which is at this point unclogged by rush hour, I have no idea where I'm going, but I drive blindly onward. At that moment, the car is an excellence vacuum.
When I finally arrive at the convention center after begging for directional help from some courteous Pasadena joggers, I'm 15 minutes late, and a chain of yellow signs reading "Extras" leads me to a big gray room that's not unlike a high school gymnasium. Adding to the cafeteria feel are the rows of folding tables and chairs populated by about 300 people of every age, ethnicity, weight, and commitment to hygiene. Some people are eating the bananas and Mylar-wrapped breakfast bars provided at the front of the room. Others are snoring with their heads on the tables. The only thing everyone has in common is the sickly pall fluorescent lighting gives tired human faces. As I walk to one of the tables to sit, my mouth full of corn-syrupy blueberry breakfast bar, an elderly man shuffles past me and mumbles, "Oh, fuck this."
It turns out that "background casting," as it's called, is a business of—to borrow a fishing term—casting a wide net. The Craigslist ads searching for Jobs extras in the same rudimentary manner one might look for a studio apartment are already the stuff of Gizmodo mockery, particularly because they make it seem like anybody with an internet connection and an Ashton obsession could walk onto the film's set. But it turns out that responding to a Craigslist cattle call is only the first obstacle to getting a part as human scenery on Jobs. The second obstacle is The Woman in Shorts.
The Woman in Shorts looks to be in her late 40s, and she walks with purpose. She approaches me and the increasingly restless mass of hopeful extras and, without saying a word, begins pacing up and down the rows of tables and chairs, scanning the crowd as if looking over a field of unimpressive potato plants. After a few silent moments, she points to an older man in a gray dress shirt. "You can go," she says, to which the man leaps from his chair and strolls to an awaiting handler. "You, too," she then tells a pretty blonde. I hear the blonde whisper "Yessssss" to herself as she gets up and follows the heavyset man, but Shorts has already moved on, ignorant to the joy she's just brought to this young lady.
Despite what you might presume about how Hollywood operates, Shorts isn't only picking out handsome, attractive people. As luck would have it for the motley crowd assembled, today's scenes take place at the Hawaiian tech conference at which Jobs gave his famous "1984" speech railing against IBM, meaning that everyone from heavyset Latina women to fragile senior citizens to Larry Bird ringers with long hair belong as long as they look ‘80s and nerdy enough. Who doesn't belong, apparently, is me.
The Woman in Shorts bypasses me not once, but three times, staring me in the face each time before breezing past me like I'm begging for change. At every new rejection I feel a pang of shame in my gut, and then I feel ashamed about feeling ashamed. "Why do I care if they don't pick me?" I think to myself. "Fuck these people." But I do care, I do care what this stranger thinks of me. And I notice that everyone around me does, also. A guy to my left in his early 20s puff up his chest real big every time Shorts comes near him, and every time she overlooks him he deflates like a popped balloon animal. I notice a pair of girls a few tables down who stop nervously giggling and tugging at their clothes only when Shorts passes them. As soon as they don't get chosen, they commence to laughing again, though it's the kind of laughter people summon when they're so embarrassed and anxious they don't know what else to do. It is the saddest laughter in the world.
Luckily, I'm here because I've been invited, and when I tell an official-looking man standing near my table as much, he says, "Oh, I been looking for you. Come with me." Within minutes I'm in a wardrobe department-approved blue polo shirt and seated at a table in a room made up to look like a Honolulu banquet hall circa 1983. Dotting the fringes of the room are 25-foot-tall towers of gray cloth emblazoned with the famed rainbow Apple logo. There's a fruity drink in front of me that I consider sipping until I realize it's just water dyed blue and complimented with non-melting gelatin "ice." This is where the lucky extras come when finally tapped by the Woman in Shorts, and lording over us all, as the real Steve Jobs did among the people in his world, is Ashton Kutcher. He's wearing an olive polo shirt that looks exactly like the one Jobs wore at that Honolulu conference nearly 30 years ago, and he's standing behind a podium that's being outfitted with white butcher paper, an Apple logo, and two microphones. According to another extra at my table, the podium before was wooden and only had one microphone on it, a minor inaccuracy to which Kutcher took offense. "That's not what the real podium looked like," said Kutcher. So they changed it.
Once the podium's prepared, shooting begins. The particular scene we're filming from the conference is the brief statement Jobs gave before premiering Apple's now canonical "1984" commercial, a Ridley Scott creation that would go on to win a bevy of ad awards. Ashton's lines are: "It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. IBM wants it all, and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?"
I'll remember those lines for the rest of my life. Not because I find them particularly profound, but because I heard Kutcher say them, by my count, 26 times over the course of about three hours. If you have any assumptions that the work of making movies is glamorous or exciting, kill them now. Upon hearing an actor give an old speech that was pretty dull to begin with for the tenth, eleventh, twelfth time, you start to realize that maybe not being a movie star ain't so bad.
Exacerbating the dreary repetitiveness is that I and the rest of the extras are expected to participate, shouting "No!" in response to the three questions appending the speech. We also have to give a standing ovation every time the commercial plays following the speech. To make things a bit more interesting for myself, during a couple of shots for which a camera pans over the applauding crowd, I try to get caught glowering angrily at Kutcher while clapping slowly, like a threatening psychotic.
Later, during a brief standstill in shooting, I'm told that "someone" wants to speak with me. I think I'm going to get reprimanded for the faces, but instead, Ashton just wants to say hello and ask that Gizmodo "stop shitting all over" his movie before it‘s even done filming. He's really very nice.