Hollywood already had started to nip at my dreams by the time they sat me next to Denis Leary. It wasn't supposed to be this way. A few weeks earlier, the studio's PR wing emailed me and a few others offering a chance to play ourselves -- reporters -- in "Draft Day," a romantic drama about the Cleveland Browns. I was led to believe -- or to hope -- that it could be a speaking scene. My job in the scene would be to chase down Sonny Weaver Jr., the fictional general manager of the Browns played by Kevin Costner, and ask him why he had made a disastrous trade.
As a veteran of a dozen or so community theater plays during my elementary and junior high school years in, ahem, Alaska, I thought I knew how to prepare. Still, not wanting to leave anything to chance, I asked one of my cousins, Nick Swardson -- as I've learned, name-dropping is as essential to Hollywood parlance as reading lines -- how to approach a big-budget film. "Know your lines," he said. "And do what the director tells you."
But the first thing I learned upon landing in Cleveland last May was that our scene -- my scene -- already had been cut. My acting career died before it could live. The producers felt bad, so they placed me as a glorified extra in the movie's climax: a scene at the Browns' draft party when the first-round pick is introduced.
Shooting began around 10 p.m. I already had been through makeup. My face was caked, my hair gelled back. I already had sat in a director's chair with my name on it, a nice little perk. I already had been escorted around to talk football with Costner, who seems so comfortable discussing sports that you see why most of his best movies are about them. I had talked filmmaking with director Ivan Reitman. I had resisted the urge to drop Tom Brady's name during 10 minutes of awkward conversation with Jennifer Garner, who plays the Browns' capologist and was very polite but seemed as if she would be delighted to never again talk to anyone with a notebook. I had helped myself to two pieces of pie at lunch for the crew, which was late afternoon. All of that had taken a few hours. Now I was ready to go.
A producer grabbed me and led me past the mass of equipment and cameras and onto the set. It felt transformative, as if when the coach taps you to enter the game for the first time. It was on. I was escorted through a crowd of extras and into an open chair at a table, right next to ... that's right: Leary, who plays Vince Penn, the Browns' fictional head coach. At first, I didn't know what to say, as if we were next to each other in an elevator. Then Leary looked up with alarmingly blue eyes and disarmed the situation by saying, "I'm Denis."
According to the director, my job once the cameras were rolling was to make small talk with Coach Penn until he stood to walk onto a stage, where he would join the Browns' first-round pick. The scene lasted two minutes, an eternity in moviemaking. It felt important.
After a lot of waiting around -- there's a lot of waiting around on a movie set, kind of like at a wedding rehearsal -- it was lights, camera, and, well, sort of action. The first few takes felt euphoric yet informal. That's because as the cameras rolled and circled us, Leary and I talked about nothing that had to do with the movie, or the Browns, or football, or the draft. We discussed his beloved Celtics, Alaska, random stuff. But seconds before he was to go on stage, Leary would transform before my eyes into Coach Penn and say, "Helluva kid, helluva kid." It was his way of snapping into character, and it was my cue to do the same. Though I was technically a reporter in the movie, it was unclear if I was a reporter in this scene. They told me to bring a notebook, which I did. They also told me to applaud the pick, which I did. Mostly, I was just there, filling space.
It was amazing how comfortable Leary was doing his job next to a complete novice. I can't imagine, say, Peyton Manning being as cool if I happened into his huddle. Still, after three hours and dozens of takes, the glitter began to wear off. Leary was bored. On the other end of the set, Costner was bored. Frank Langella, the fictional owner of the Browns, was bored. The other extras were bored. I found myself checking my phone with Leary seated next to me. Why so many takes? Sometimes the lighting was off. Or the sound. Or the angle. Sometimes actors flubbed their lines. I did not. Drained of random small talk after so many takes, I tried to actually, you know, act. I would talk football with Leary before he rose to the stage. "You guys got a steal," I said. Or, "This will change the franchise." I have no idea what crossed through Leary's mind as I did this. Silent mocking, probably.
Leary tried to have fun during the down time. At one point he left for a few minutes. An older woman who was an extra took his seat, resting her feet. When he returned, he stood behind her, squinting his eyes, tilting his head back, rolling his tongue under his lower lip, feigning irritation. When she finally noticed him, Leary said, "M-----f-----. I've been standing here for 10 minutes." Everyone laughed.
Around 2 a.m., shooting finally ended. I was ready to go back to the hotel. I felt as if I had in one day completed every actor's career cycle, from blissful naiveté to comical disillusionment. Leary shook my hand and said goodbye. I flew home the next day.
Last month in New York, I saw a private screening of "Draft Day." My chest almost levitated in anticipation of that final scene -- my scene. I could feel it coming. Costner made the pick. The pick was announced. The pick was flown to Cleveland and ushered into the draft party. The scene arrived and, by God, it was gone. Something that took almost four hours to shoot and originally contained two minutes of dialogue lasted mere seconds. You can see me if you don't blink, next to Leary. None of our small talk was used; it's as if Leary knew all along that it would turn out like this. In the credits, I'm listed as playing myself.
The theater lights came on, and I wanted to do it all again.