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A comedian explains why life as a humble supporting actor is still worth living.


The next time you sit down to stare at any screen big or small for your entertainment, take a few minutes to view it through a different, less glamorous lens. Naturally, the main focus of the audience will always gravitate to the stars of the show or movie they paid to see, whether the hero is acting out an intense scene in a restaurant, walking down a busy street, or simply wandering around on a bus full of people. or plane. Now simply shift your eyes just an inch to the left or right and take in the seemingly unrecognizable everyday person sitting behind them. That’s me! Or one of the thousands of artists in Los Angeles doing “background” work.

It’s not considered a glamorous job in Los Angeles, although for some newcomers to Hollywood, being next to Jennifer Aniston or Bryan Cranston on a set is as close to stardom as you can get. We are the backdrop to his Emmy-winning dialogue.

Even the title of the work hints that we are not people, but a literal background, like a painting or a flower pot that is placed on a table to make the walls look less bare. But in those little moments when the camera is rolling, we feel a sense of value and importance. That quickly disappears when we’re sent to pee in a porta-potty while the lead actor resides in his personal trailer.

On several occasions, I’ve left a 15-hour background work day completely dehydrated by refusing water just to avoid having to step on a port-a-potty that 65 other extras have used continuously for the past 12 hours. But hey, let’s not focus on the negative. It’s a way for Los Angeles actors to get to work without booking an actual acting job. Don’t get me wrong, there is acting involved. It’s not easy to have a full conversation with another background actor, usually a stranger you just met on set that day, without being able to speak verbally. Everything is done in silence so as not to disturb the voice of the stars. We are skillful mimes without painted faces. It’s a strange gig for someone used to telling jokes on stage for a living.

I was making quite a bit of money as a comedian for a while. I started doing extra work after I got fired from a cruise because I caught COVID and spent the entire trip locked in the basement and then wrote about my nauseating nautical voyage through quarantine hell for The Times. Carnival Cruise Line was obviously not happy with my decision to exploit the details of my experience. It’s not easy making a living as a comedian and paying $1,700 a month for a studio in Los Angeles. Cruise ships pay very well. I wish I could say I’m sorry about burning that bridge, but I don’t. My article published in The Times was a true highlight of my life.

Jen Murphy working as a background actress on “Grey’s Anatomy”

(Jen Murphy)

I suddenly found myself in a terrified panic as to how I was going to maintain this convenient, but rather expensive little studio roof, I had to quickly find an alternative job that I was qualified for. I’m a stand-up comedian and writer, so my options were basically limited to manual labor or becoming your next delivery guy. I followed my first instinct and went online to request an interview to be an Amazon driver. But the night before my interview, plagued by fears of becoming complacent in a 9-to-5 job, I knew I couldn’t give up just yet. I had to at least make an attempt to stay somewhat close to the field of my passion.

For most background jobs, we arrive before the sun rises. Most often to a large enclosed studio or garage parking lot called a “waiting area” filled with folding chairs and long picnic tables. Those metal chairs became our base of operations for the day. We eat, we sleep, we contemplate the decisions of our lives, and on some lucky days, we forge new friendships with our peers dedicated to this unforgiving lifestyle.

While most people in this line of work are aspiring actors, I am first and foremost a comedian. But we are all cargo in the same boat trying to reach our destination.

Despite appearing calm and cool on the surface, it is sometimes very exciting to be inches from some of the biggest stars in the world. I once worked on “The Morning Show,” an Apple TV+ production starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, in which I was directed to walk a few feet behind Aniston as she made a very long dramatic exit. We were shooting outside in downtown Los Angeles on a very sunny day and I got yelled at after one of the takes for wearing big sunglasses. Apparently, my large glasses may have distracted an audience member’s attention from the star of the show. I felt sad and embarrassed for a moment, but as tears formed in my 48-year-old eyes, I thought, “Well, at least it wasn’t Aniston herself yelling at me. Because I saw what happened to Ross after they were ‘On a break!’”

Typical "holding area" set up for background actors behind the scenes

Typical “waiting area” setup for background actors behind the scenes

(Jen Murphy)

I once spent 16 hours in pantyhose watching guys play basketball for HBO’s “Time to Win” and got $267 and a yeast infection.

Humor is my savior. I look for it everywhere. Need. I am a 48 year old background actor. Did I mention that?

One of my favorite actresses over the years is Rose Byrne. If you don’t know her name, you would definitely know her face if you saw her. A brilliant comedic and dramatic actress, she currently stars in the hit show “Physical”.

I recently booked a three day background job on that show. She was so excited! It was three days of work, in an incredible show and the opportunity to admire Byrne, one of my idols.

The last of the three days, after being there for 15 hours, we only had one take left to shoot. It was a dramatic scene in which Byrne’s character had to cry. He was sitting just a few feet from her. If you’re unfamiliar with TV and movie making, a typical scene is typically shot four to six times before it’s deemed worthy of final cut, which means Byrne had to pull out those tears every take.

During almost every take, just before the camera rolled, he seemed to be looking at me. Call me a narcissist, but I swear she looked me straight in the eye. At first I thought I must look like someone she knows, then it quickly dawned on me: maybe her motivation for crying about her is looking at a woman in her late 50s who’s still doing background work.

Jen Murphy performing comedy on stage.

Jen Murphy performing comedy on stage.

(Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images)

I’ve been performing in the background for a year now and as someone very prone to depression I’ve learned to constantly look for the positive in a situation. It’s not always easy to do when my peers I started stand-up with 17 years ago are now the stars of some of the shows I’m working on in the background. I used to hide, hoping they wouldn’t see me. The shame and discomfort she felt was overwhelming and at times paralyzing. Fortunately, I have been blessed with enough introspective resources to realize the power of the ego. Now I walk up, semi-confidently, to my successful peers and greet them. Sometimes I am met with a look of pity and/or confusion. One of them actually asked me “what happened?” because I “had a lot of potential”. I just smile and say: “I’m still alive!” The older I get, the more I realize that I may actually be the biggest hit in Los Angeles.

This article is not meant to be a way of complaining about my position in life. No matter what mediocre job or lifestyle I find myself in, I know that I continue to live in a way that is probably better than 90 percent of the other human beings on this earth.

But now I know that it doesn’t necessarily matter how successful we are in our career right now, everything can change tomorrow. What matters is a continued belief in myself. I know how talented I am. If that talent is hampered by poor networking skills or a physically crippling panic, so be it. I will continue to get over it and do everything I can to get over the fear.

But until then, I’ll be enjoying the amazing days of Los Angeles working on TV and movie sets in amazing places like Warner Bros. and Sony Studios, being alongside actors I’ve admired for years and making the most of this beautiful life I have, even if right now I’m just quietly living my life in the background.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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