Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Playing Hurt

If our first week back on stage in this brand new year proves a harbinger of things to come, then 2011 might be a decent year after all. With a favorite director back at the helm – a man who keeps a light hand on the reigns but still maintains complete control -- the entire cast and crew relaxed and had fun. In all the ways that really matter, it didn’t feel much like “work” at all. It seemed like we just showed up on stage every day to have a few laughs, and in the process, cranked out another episode.

This is nice work if and when you can get it. Twelve episodes like that would be a working cruise just this side of heaven.

Week Two put a rapid end to any such fantasies. With a new director, three swing sets, and a script that called for 60 extras on the blocking/pre-shoot day (with 40 of them coming back on the shoot night), we got pushed hard all week long.*

While talking with someone from another department at the craft service table one morning (a guy more or less in my own demographic), he made a comment that stuck in my head like a bolt from William Tell’s bow on one of his rare bad days.

“You’ve gotta play hurt in this business,” he nodded. “Know what I mean?”

There was no need to elaborate – I knew exactly what he was talking about. For much of the year (with the brief exception of pilot season and the mid-summer startup of the new Fall season) there are many more workers than jobs in this town, which means there’s always somebody – several somebodys, actually -- out there in the cold waiting for a chance to take your place at the warm campfire of gainful employment. Although a certain degree of loyalty accrues the longer you work with a crew, nobody is truly indispensable, which means any individual gets a limited amount of slack. If you don’t keep your end of the bargain -- show up on time every day, work hard, pay attention, and don't make waves -- one of those people out there will wind up on your crew, doing your job, while you become reacquainted with the joys of getting by on a meager unemployment check every two weeks.

That’s why you have to bring your “A” game to the set every single day, rain or shine.

But none of us is a human Rock of Gibraltar impervious to illness or injury, which raises the question of what to do when you get sick or are hurting. There is no right answer to this question -- it all depends on the severity of your illness or injury, and just how well entrenched you are in with your crew. Working through a mild head cold is no big deal, but if under siege by a bad stomach flu (the fever/puking and/or diarrhea variety), going to work just isn’t worth the misery. You’ll lose a day or two of pay while recovering (we get no paid sick days below-the-line), but the rest of the crew will appreciate your sacrifice, and that you didn’t lean on them to pick up your slack while exposing everybody to the contagion.

So if you’re really sick, do yourself and everybody else a favor -- just stay home.

Dealing with an injury can be a trickier proposition, rendered in varying shades of gray. Unless you’ve ended up in a cast or on crutches --and assuming you can soldier on through the pain while doing your fair share of the work -- then nobody else has to know you’re hurting. Indeed, you can’t really afford to let them know. We show up on set under the assumption that we’re ready for anything and everything the day might throw at us, and are expected to deliver accordingly. If pain or injury imposes real limits on what you can physically do, then you’re better off not going to work at all. The only thing worse than missing the day is going in hobbling at half-speed, thus forcing the rest of the crew to do your share of the work. Unless you’re working for family or the job is ridiculously easy anyway, this will not be appreciated by your boss or the other crew members.

So maybe you’re starting to wonder how this squares with “You’ve gotta play hurt in this business?”

It’s all in those shades of gray. We work in an industry – and live in a world - where it’s easy to get hurt. Cut fingers, smashed thumbs, and pulled back muscles (among many other injuries) are an occupational hazard of the job, and during our time off, many of us engage in physical activities that can also cause minor or major injuries. Many below-the-liners are heavily into motorcycles, snowboarding, surfing, mountain and road biking, and more than a few put in serious time at the gym before and/or after work. One set dresser I know -- let's call her "Trixie" -- straps on her skates, helmet, and pads twice a week, then heads out onto the fast banked oval to bang heads, elbows, and hips jamming with the LA Derby Dolls, a thundering pack of She-Devils on wheels.

Unless you’re a shut-in, invalid, or one of those wide-eyed, slack-jawed couch-potato droolers hopelessly hooked on the daytime television dreck of Maury Povich and Jerry Springer, you’re likely to get dinged up in this life. Although age has dialed-down my own extra-curricular activities in recent years, I managed to tangle with a car on my bicycle a couple of months ago late one Saturday afternoon, then spent the next four hours getting patched up and X-rayed at the hospital. Nothing was broken, but just about everything got bent, so with a full week of very heavy work starting Monday morning, I faced a decision: go in to work sore all over on an ankle that felt like it was full of broken glass, or lose a week’s pay sitting home sucking down Vicodin?

This was not an easy call. If it turned out I really couldn’t shoulder my usual work load, and had to lean on the rest of the crew to get through the week, they’d all be wondering the next time I claimed to be “good to go.” But if I let them know just how much I was hurting, they’d have insisted I do the easy stuff while they covered for me. Knowing these guys, they’d probably have been okay with that, but I wasn’t, nor did I want to push the issue. At my age, I can’t afford to have my crew – most of whom are considerably younger – start looking at me as someone who needs or deserves any kind of special treatment. If there's 4/0 to wrap, I need to be in there doing it, not off in a corner somewhere wrapping stingers. The day they start giving me the easy jobs while the younger guys do the real work will mark the beginning of my descent down the slippery slope to being perceived as an over-the-hill gummer who just can’t cut it anymore.

At that point -- ready or not (and I’m not) – my juicing days would be over.

When taking time off a job for any reason, you give a golden opportunity to the person who takes your place, and run the risk that your department head just might decide he likes the new guy better. Perception has a way of becoming reality in this town, where working below-the-line remains a performance-based endeavor for most of us.** As I learned the hard way a long time ago, once your boss gets it in his head that somebody else can do the job better than you, you’re in trouble. Working in a world full of younger, stronger guys eager to land a spot on a crew, I have to prove myself on the job every single day.

So in the end I decided to chance it, and limped in from the parking structure to our stage the following Monday morning – but I left the cane I’d been using in my car. I gritted my teeth and played hurt in order to keep both hands firmly clasped on my place in this crew, and although it was a grindingly painful ordeal, I managed to get through it without anybody rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or muttering under their breath. And with Christmas coming, the paycheck a week later was very welcome.

It was a judgment call – a roll of the dice, really - that worked out in my favor this time. Such decisions are never easy, though. All you can do is weigh the factors involved, then do what feels right under the circumstances. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to face such choices, but our world is a long way from perfection. So when push inevitably comes to shove (assuming you're not gushing blood or limping around like Quasimodo), sometimes you just have to keep your mouth shut, play hurt, and hope for the best.

* The swing sets were a big ball room with a bar and a separate lobby (the second set), and worst of all, a restaurant. With their cramped, crowded interiors, restaurants are always a bitch to light.

** Some people - those with the gold-plated connections of family in the Industry - get a lot more slack than the rest of us, but ultimately, even they can't get away with fucking off forever. Those who insist on pushing their luck generally pay the price.

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