Category Archives: Acting

Filming a TV Show in NYC in a Pandemic

EMT’s jump into a vintage ambulance and speed off past NYPD Chevy Caprices. The backdrop: a spooky, mostly disused hospital on the fringes of New York City. Two menacing men in flat-top fades and thick gold chains saunter toward the entrance.

This is the world I spent yesterday in, as a background actor (also known as an extra) playing an EMT for a popular cable show. Background acting is a fun hobby I picked up in late 2019, but I hadn’t done a gig since the beginning of COVID. But now I’m fully vaccinated and back in the game.

So what’s it like to film a television show in New York City in the middle of a pandemic? First, be prepared to get COVID tested a lot, even if you’re vaccinated. I took a COVID test 10 days before the shoot, a rapid test at the fitting one week out, another test 4 days out, and yet another rapid test as soon as I arrived on set.

But that’s not all. You have to fill out an online form about symptoms and travel every day you come in. Even on the shoot day, you wear a mask at all times unless you’re on camera or eating.

Even with these changes, filming is a lot of fun! I wore an elaborate costume that had been tailored to fit me personally. The tailor even sewed “EMT New York City” patches onto the uniform. I was rather honored to have such a fuss made over me, despite being just a background actor.

I had the opportunity to ride in a 1982 Ford ambulance like this one, which was fascinating! My fellow EMT, who was also a trained stunt driver, took the wheel. I also got to see circa 1990 NYPD squad cars on the set, which is a rare opportunity.

The episode was set in 1991 and we filmed in a remote part of New York City. I can’t get into specifics on the show until it airs later this year, but I was incredibly impressed at the very real little world they had created. Two characters had Timberland boots, thick gold necklaces, and tall, fade-style Afros cut specially for the scene. The cars were picture perfect. There’s something about seeing a little world where the past has been recreated, and becoming a part of it, that’s quite thrilling.

In all, with the many tests and fitting and elaborate setup, I was only actually on camera for maybe 90 minutes. That footage will later be cut down to probably just a few seconds. The amount of work that goes into making a perfect scene that may last just an instant is incredible.

I look forward to being a part of lots of other interesting shows soon!

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“VFS Film Production: ‘Milligan’s Stew'” by vancouverfilmschool is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“1982 Ford F-100 ambulance” by sv1ambo is licensed under CC BY 2.0


What It’s Like to Be on Law & Order: SVU

It was barely dawn when I walked into the squat brick building in Manhattan’s Little Italy. I wasn’t even sure it was the right place. I went through the heavy swinging doors to find a hive of hundreds, preparing to make one of the best known television shows on earth.

In December 2019, I got the amazing opportunity to be a background actor on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. My part was tiny, but the process of producing an episode of one of the longest running scripted shows on television was fascinating.

From the moment I walked in, I noticed everything ran like clockwork. The sign-in process, which could be time consuming on other shows, was over in a flash and we were off to wardrobe. Clothes were an issue: the scene was supposed to be occurring in the fall, so we couldn’t wear heavy coats. But it was near Christmas and the temperature was barely 30. Wool and long underwear saved the day!

As the sun rose, we left the staging area and headed to a real New York subway station, which had been shut down completely for filming. In the scene, the Special Victims Unit catches a notorious subway groper. The preparation was elaborate: production had even scored an actual NYC subway train!

A Production Assistant told us where to sit in the car, and I found the scene’s main actress next to me. The groper touches her, unaware she is an undercover cop, and the actress jumps and cries out “What the…?” Then, I had to react.

I thought to myself, how would I really react if this happened on the train? Because I know it does. I’d love to say I’d become Batman, clean up Gotham, and pound the worm that attacked her. But in reality, it would probably be unclear to me what had happened and I wouldn’t really want to get involved anyhow. So, I just looked up briefly and returned to looking at my phone.

It occurred to me that we were playing out a common scenario and putting it in the face of a massive audience: look at this! For the women these things actually happen to, I wanted to play it accurately and well, however small my part may have been. My wife has told me countless stories of things like this happening to her friends, so I knew it was real.

On a lighter note, I had no idea how hard it was to film an action scene! Every element has to be timed correctly. The police chased the groper on a moving train, and the crook was supposed to escape the moment the train stopped and the doors opened. But the doors kept opening too late, leading to him actually being caught! So the MTA driver hired for the show had to move the train back one station and we took it from the top, over and over. We must’ve done two dozen takes just to film this one scene lasting perhaps a minute.

Every detail mattered. The Production Assistant told us to play around on our phones before the attack occurred. I turned my phone completely off and then pretended to tap around on the screen. I had just gotten the phone and I was sure it would erupt in a cacophony of beeps at the most inopportune moment, forcing dozens of people to re-do the scene yet again.

I was amazed that the director could see the entire episode before it had even happened. As we were about to begin shooting, a cameraman exclaimed that he was “seeing red.” His camera was picking up the color red somewhere in the shot, which would mess up the footage. The director said “Your frame is from here to here,” gesturing with his hands. I found it incredible that he knew exactly where the camera should be pointing and what the scene would look like, despite never touching a camera.

At one point, Ice-T plopped down in the train with a bunch of background actors who were waiting to do their next scene. He chatted amiably with everyone. I had heard he was a very friendly man, and it’s true! He also looked much younger than his 61 years. I was in the middle of another scene, so I didn’t have a chance to speak to him, but I hope to be back on the show when things return to normal!

As we stood outside the subway station with the snowing coming down at the end of a long day, I felt a sense of accomplishment. We had filmed a complex scene. We had had a fascinating experience. And hopefully we had done justice to the difficult experiences many women have.

P.S. If you’re interested in more about what it’s like behind the scenes of a TV show, check out this post about working on the show New Amsterdam.

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My Family in Japan Saw Me on TV!

My wife is from Japan and in our five years of marriage, I’ve become very close with her family. But, given today’s restrictions, I can’t see them any time soon.

But they saw me! My wife’s mother and sister watch New Amsterdam, a hospital drama shot in New York City. I appeared in this episode as an EMT, my first time acting. I’m only a background actor (also known as an extra), but it was a very fun experience!

I really enjoyed seeing how a TV show is made from the inside. Also, perhaps due to its high ratings, New Amsterdam has incredible food. Sushi, filet of sole, unbelievable!

The second season of New Amsterdam is now available in Japan and recently, my sister-in-law texted me to let me know her and her mother saw me pushing a stretcher and immediately knew it was me! It makes me really happy to be able to share something fun I’m doing with them. It also makes me feel closer to them since at least they’re seeing me in some way.

My in-laws had actually seen me on TV before. In my first full day ever in Japan in 2014, I happened to be on the national news. I was walking here, and a news program was filming a feature on increasing tourism in Japan. I had no idea they were there but my head wound up prominently visible in the footage. My wife was miffed that despite a lifetime in Japan, she had never been on TV! Her modest stature excluded her even from this shot. She still awaits her chance at stardom.

Interesting little tidbit from that episode of New Amsterdam: the actor on the other end of that stretcher was pushing it very quickly and the stretcher was extremely heavy. We had maybe 2 inches of clearance behind one of the main characters, a very nice lady named Janet Montgomery.

I kept trying to slow the stretcher down before we take out this very small lady. In this episode, she’s pretending to walk with a cast, and we didn’t need her to wind up in a real one!

After this episode, I did another day on New Amsterdam, an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and an episode of Netflix’s The Politician. It’s an enjoyable hobby.

Shows are still filming in NYC but only very few, and the safety situation concerns me, so it’ll probably be months before I return. But I look forward to it!