So I kept silent about this for a few months because I wanted to tell this story at our home church first. I’m so glad to preach at a church like Highland where I can tell stories like this, and preach sermons about the Kingdom of God without pulling any punches, if you’d like to hear that sermon you can go here. But since I’ve now told the story there…here’s what happened:
This past summer, I was on my study break that Highland gives me, I knew I was going to do a sermon series on minor characters in the Bible, using the metaphor of EXTRAS. So I decided to go to Hollywood and try and be an EXTRA in a movie. You know, normal preacher stuff.
After many attempts, on July 27th I got into the new Annie movie with Christian Bale. I called in, and after a few tries got through, a lady named Marianne, accepted me as a working class restaurant patron. I had to borrow a shirt without a label, and some shoes (apparently Hollywood is pretty picky about what they let you wear).
The call time is posted at 8:30 Pm; all details are held until that time. So I call in and find out that my call time is 6:00 A.M..So I got to the Disney Studios and discovered that it wasn’t anywhere the New Annie, And Christian Bale wasn’t going to be starring as Daddy Warbucks. This was for the new show Good Christian Belle’s that had been booked by Maryann as a favor to a woman named Annie.
It’s cool though. I can roll with the punches.
The first thing that happens when you show up to a set is that you have to get camera ready. So you have to go visit the Wardrobe production person. In my case, it was an Austrian man named Hans who just happened to not be a morning person. Which was unfortunate because it just happened to be morning. He made the girl in front of me cry because she didn’t have her clothes ironed. He yelled at her and then looked at me. Hans had me intimated. I had been there all of 10 minutes and was already on the ropes. I told him that I didn’t have a lot of options, just one shirt to change into, and he said sharply, “Then go put it on! And stop standing here.”
And that’s exactly what I did.
I went to the basement where they were holding the Extras, and it was un-classy to say the least. Having done Jail ministry for a while, there was very little difference between the rooms that we were kept in, and jail. The room for men to change in was an old storage unit.
Breakfast was served, and that was nice. People started to warm up. I’ve learned the best way to start conversations with other Extra’s is to ask them about what work they were the most proud of. What sets they enjoyed working on the most…and to tell them that it was my first time ever to do this. People seemed to take me under their wing and tell me their stories. The problem came when they wanted to hear mine. I guess most preachers don’t do this in their off time, especially the show that we were on.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.Along with learning about how this show wasn’t Annie, but Good Christian Belles, the Assistant Director also announced that we were on a show that before a single episode had been shot, had been banned by the American Family Values Association. (Remember I thought I was going to be on Annie). And as more and more details came out, that’s when it was revealed that it wasn’t really just a restaurant that I was going to be shooting the scene in, it was a Hooters like restaurant…named Booby-licious.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
So I start wondering about whether this whole “Method Preaching” approach is worth it, and wishing the musical orphans I had planned on being around would show up, when a couple of my new friends remind me…This is background work. You are there as furniture. You are a blur, you won’t be getting a line, and you aren’t going to be in any scene directly. You are just there for ambiance.
The Assistant Director came in and told us that today the working class characters were in luck. Somehow I doubted she knew what luck looked like for me. Since I was playing a working class character, I was nervous, they needed 5 guys to sit at the table that Leslie Bibb (the star) was going to serve. This meant, she explained to us, that we would have a slightly prominent role in a scene.
My whole ministry career flashed before my eyes.
I literally sank down in my seat, and began to hope that 5 other guys would volunteer for the role. It seemed like I was in luck, lots of people had their hand up, they were volunteering outside of their assigned role, but then Derrick spoke up. Derrick was a guy that I had just met and apparently he wanted to continue the conversation over some pretend chicken wings and O’Doul’s. Because Derrick loudly said, “Here’s your 5th guy, he’s a Working class.”
And that’s how this happened.
We enter into a set that is all smoke and mirrors. On the outside of the set, it’s a plywood box set in a warehouse that is affectionately called Studio Six. Inside, it felt like an authentic Texas style restaurant. It was a Chili’s with scantily clad women walking around. If it wasn’t for the hundreds’ of thousands of dollars worth of cameras and the people walking around yelling directions, you might have actually thought that those appetizers in front of you were edible.
In front of us was a plate of carefully and artistically positioned eaten chicken bones. They celery was real they told us, but everything else would probably not agree with us. In a, you-might-need-to-go-to-the-hospital-for-food-poisoning kind of a way. Around the room Texas style pictures ornated the walls. They took a break to unfurl and hang a Texas flag that someone brought to the set. But all that, like us, were just ambiance. The real scene was about to take place.
It goes like this. We hear “On a Bell” and background; One of the waitresses slides down a fire pole towing a plate of chicken wings. That’s important, it’s the queue for everything else to start. We would start talking about stuff, but either whispering it or pantomiming. Most of my new friends taught me to just say “Watermelon over and over again, or Hitchcock’s idea of saying “Cheese and Crackers.”
But then the camera’s started to roll our way. Leslie Bibb would walk over to our table, and about halfway through we would start chanting “Amanda” And one of us would pay her money for our food and ‘beverages’. Then it got even more complicated. Because they producers thought I would be perfect to hand Leslie/Amanda money, and say a line. Something profound like, “Thanks and here you go.” She would interact with me saying, “Wow! Thank you!” Then the scene would go on, and Leslie would have the main conversation of the scene somewhere across the restaurant.
And I just kept thinking, “Dr. Dobson would be so angry with me.”
But that was what we did. Over and over again. About 30 times actually.
It got so bad that I began to even zone out. At one point, my ADD kicked in, and I forgot to hand Leslie my fake $20 and they had to cut the whole scene right there. Leslie yelled, “Great, Now that’s **$% up!” Then she came back over later and kindly said, “Look just hand me the money as soon as I get here. I’ll take care of the rest.” Which I think is actor speak for, “You’re a moron.”
Now I thought about not telling anyone this story. I could have gotten away with it too. I would have just used the strategy I had when I was a kid and someone caught me with my eyes open during a prayer. You know, “What were you doing watching that?” But I want to tell this story, and my Highland Shepherds have given me permission to. Because I was energized and animated by being around some great people who I would have never rubbed shoulders with if I wouldn’t have had these experiences. (I’ll write more about this later).
I think Christians should be involved in these industries, wading through the grey areas and trying to make Jesus look as good as possible, as they find new ways to be faithful. But the reason we aren’t is because Christians tend to withdraw from places where they are unable to tell the dominant story lines. And that’s a shame. Because these places need sincere Jesus-followers, ones who aren’t judgmental and pretentious. They need people who understand that there isn’t enough holiness in the world, and that holiness as defined by Jesus isn’t withdrawing from the world, but by being different from it while very much being a part of it.
I’ll write more on this later, but for now know this…This will probably be one of the more controversial shows ABC has in the upcoming season, it’s satirically portraying some Christians as people who are not smoking what they are selling. But this show will unknowingly begin it’s opening scene with a preacher from a church sitting at a pretend bar, and eating pretend chicken wings, having subversive conversations that hopefully gave Jesus a better name.