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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