The other day I flipped on the TV and saw that the original version of “Going in Style” was on, staring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. I was an extra in that film and quickly turned to the channel in the hope that I could catch myself walking across the frame. And sure enough, there I was, my short halo of bright red hair whizzing across the screen.
In the 1980s I did extra work in several movies in order to make some money. Most of the time I stood around waiting to be used. Generally, as an extra, I walked down a street or stood in crowd scenes. Occasionally I was called upon to employ the theater degree that cost many thousands of dollars, by pretending to carry on conversations with other extras.
Every once in a while, even now, I’ll get a call from a friend saying that they saw me in a movie on TV. I was in “Altered States” with William Hurt, where the director Ken Russell positioned my feet as I sat on steps on the Columbia campus. I dressed like a punk rocker for “It’s My Turn” with Michael Douglas, for a scene that found its home on the cutting room floor. I stood for hours waiting to be used in a courtroom scene for “Still of the Night” with Meryl Streep.
My finest hour was in the musical extravaganza, “Can’t Stop the Music,” directed by Nancy Walker (Rhoda’s mother on TV) and starring Bruce Jenner and a slew of other well-known performers, including the Village People. I came dressed in my version of village funky for one scene. Then they decided to also use me in another scene and brought me to the costume truck where they gave me a clingy, orange print outfit to wear.
They directed me to walk just behind Altovise Davis (Sammy’s wife) and then proceed right toward the camera. When I went to see the film on opening day I was shocked at how gargantuan I looked on the screen. A 40-foot-tall vision in orange polyester. Soon after, I heard from a friend who’d gone to see the movie with my recently exed-husband, who remarked, “Mona dressed better when we were together.”
My biggest, almost-break came when Woody Allen held an audition for extras. This was a big deal as extras often got a line to say in his films. I went to the audition and was number 300-something on a line that went around the block. One by one, we walked into a room, said hello, handed the casting person our photo and resume and were ushered out. When I was finished, the person behind me said, “Did you see him?” “Who?” I asked. “Woody Allen was sitting right there with the casting person!”
The next day I got a call that they wanted to see me again. I arrived for the call-back at an auditorium along with a couple of hundred other people. Turns out we’d all been hired as extras for the movie Stardust Memories. Days later I received instructions about where and when my scene would take place.
Around the same time, I got word that I’d been cast in a show that was going on tour around the country for about eight months. Sadly, the dates of the tour overlapped with the extra work. I was sorry to pass on the film but couldn’t turn down months of well-paying work.
When “Stardust Memories” was released the following year, I went to see it. I recognized the start of the scene I was to be in. To my dismay, most of the extras in that scene were made up to be really, really, unequivocally unattractive. I’m well aware that, as actors, we don’t always get to look gorgeous, but still, I left the theater wondering if that was the impression I’d left Woody Allen with, that I was a perfect candidate for a scene filled with repugnant, garish characters. My fragile young ego felt a bit bruised.
A few months ago, I got an email about doing extra work for “Mrs. Maisel.” I haven’t done any extra work in about 40 years but found out it would be easy to reinstate my SAG/AFTRA membership. I thought about it but ultimately passed on the opportunity. I just didn’t know if my fragile aging ego could take it.
Mona is a former vocalist, a freelance publicist and is still working on her screenplay and a book of essays about her mother.