Everyone in Los Angeles, says the stereotype, sits around and waits for his or her agent to call. One day mine did, and told me that I had landed a job as an extra, the role of the "Snake Charmer" in fact, on the new Michael Jackson music video, "Remember the Time." The shoot was non-union and the pay was below scale, and I couldn't see how this would help my career, but it seemed like a chance to be a part of history, if only recent history. Besides, how could I turn down the chance, however slim, to meet the Ludwig of Bavaria of the entertainment world?
The shoot was based in Soundstage 36 on the Universal lot, which housed a large set representing an ancient Egyptian temple. The video -- the script of which was a tightly guarded secret even on the set -- was to depict Jackson on the go in a kind of Ebony magazine version of ancient Egypt, ruled over by such African-American luminaries as Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson. But the stars had been dispensed with the day before -- today was the grub work, the filler shots involving the extras or, as we were called, "background."
Most of the other backgrounders were black, and all of them told more or less the same story. "I never do extra work," they said, "but for this I made an exception." For most, it was the chance to meet John Singleton, the director of the video, rather than Jackson that made them forgo their pride. The Industry had anointed the young director of Boyz N the Hood, and for black actors in particular a relationship with him might lead to great things.
Once word got around that I was the Snake Charmer I immediately became the object of envy. Everyone knew Jackson preferred animals to people, so in the hopeful logic of the extra I was guaranteed at least a close-up. I began fantasizing too -- maybe the snake would be Jackson's own, from his famous menagerie. Maybe I would have the chance to save it from -- from whatever it is that could endanger a snake, and earn Michael's undying gratitude. One of the other extras turned out to be a real snake charmer, and I could tell he was bitter when I told him the closest I had ever come to a snake was from behind the glass at the Reptile Museum and Show in Sarasota, Florida. "Well," he sniffed, "I'm glad I'm not doing it. I don't like working with strange snakes. They're more likely to bite you."
Eventually I was sent with the group of Shopkeepers to the makeup wagon outside. We were waiting for the harassed staff to finish with the group ahead of us -- "What are you?" "I'm a Miscellaneous Woman" -- when a very young black man in a goatee and round sunglasses wandered up and shook our hands. He looked like a production assistant trying to dress like Spike Lee. "Anybody here speak Arabic?" he asked. "I do, I do!" said Anthony, the guy next to me. "Great," said Goatee, and he wandered away to sit in a golf cart and stare off into space. "That's him," whispered somebody. "That's who?" I said. "That's Singleton. That's the director." Anthony, proud at having grabbed an opportunity, took me by the shoulder. "Hey," he asked. "You know any Arabic?"
My first glimpse of Jackson was both lucky and brief. I was wandering back into the soundstage, having waited around for more than four hours, when a golf cart shot out. At the wheel was an older man, Jackson's "chief of security," and on the right side was a blond woman. Between them was Jackson. His nose and mouth were covered by a black cloth mask, his eyes with sunglasses. He waved languidly to the crew members as he shot by, and vanished around a corner.
I turned and looked back into the north end of the soundstage. That end of the building was empty except for an ultra-deluxe Winnebago, almost completely hidden by black curtains. Two security guards stood nearby. "Our company works for Michael all the time," one told me. "He likes us, because we protect his privacy. We keep people away from him, fans, people who are hanging around, extras like you. He's very sensitive -- if he doesn't feel safe on the set, he just doesn't show up. On `Black or White' he just didn't show up for two days." The guard said he liked his employer, although he thought him odd at times. I asked him why Jackson wears the mask. "To keep out the smog," he said. "And not to be recognized." The entire crew, I was told later, had to sign agreements not to approach, talk to, or harass Jackson in any way, including asking him for an autograph or simply staring.
At about 3 p.m., seven hours after we arrived, vans took us to Soundstage 40, the location of the "Marketplace" set. The first shot, which featured the Pharaoh's guards rooting through the marketplace, presumably looking for the evasive Jackson, went off well. Watching on a monitor, I saw that Anthony had landed a prominent role, playing the Irritated Shopkeeper. He gesticulated wildly and shouted as the guards overturned his baskets and boxes. I hoped he was shouting the line I taught him in makeup, the one Arabic phrase I could remember: "Anna mish khawaga," or, "I'm not a dumb tourist."
After lunch at 5 p.m., we were back on the set to prepare for the first shot with Jackson. After an hour of rehearsal, everything was set and silence suffused the cavernous stage. A door swung open and two large, well-dressed men entered, followed by an attendant or two, and then Jackson himself, resplendent in his Neo-Egyptian skirt and something resembling a brassiere made from fish scales, followed by his entourage. For a man who didn't want to attract attention, Jackson certainly knew how to make an entrance. He held the hand of a remarkably beautiful young girl of 10 or 11 years; his niece, someone said. Whenever he was not on camera, he was holding her hand. The security guards cleared the way through the soundstage for him, and of course everyone stared, although we tried not to be obvious about it.
The shot called for Jackson to enter the set from a doorway, lip-synching the song, and sashay across the marketplace; no serious dancing. Jackson handled himself well, and the shot soon wound down. Afterward I tracked down Singleton, who was talking to some of the extras. I said hello and was trying out an opening schmooze gambit when everyone became distracted by something over my shoulder; they straightened and fell silent. I turned to find myself not two feet from Jackson, on his way off the set.
"Hello," he said to me, holding out his hand. "Nice to meet you," I said, shaking it. His grip was very weak and gentle; so was mine. Another extra cheerfully called out something about a softball team that he had played on, apparently, with one or two of Jackson's brothers; Michael nodded gracefully and said he remembered. But he was eager to leave, and so he did, his hand tightly held, his way carefully prepared. The door closed behind the last of his entourage, his personal archivist turned off his camcorder, and we broke for dinner.
What happened to the snake? Union troubles delayed the shoot, and the "Snake Charmer" sequence was cut to save time. At 11:30 p.m., after sixteen hours of standing around, I was told to turn in my burnoose and go home. I did. They say out here that if a film is made well, you can see the money "up on the screen." I can say with certainty that there is $92.16 of "Remember the Time"'s budget that even my mother can't see.
Peter Sagal is a journalist and playwright living in L.A.
By Peter Sagal