"Do you want to be in an Aryan gang?"
It's not a question I'm often asked. It's around 6PM in Phillipi, a large township 20 minutes east of Cape Town, South Africa. For the past few days, I've been assigned to hang around the set of 'Death Race 2,' the sequel to the 2008 Jason Statham film about prison officials who control overpopulation by staging lethal races between the prisoners.
On the last day of our trip, one of the film's producers asks if we want to be extras in a prison fight between Zander (Henie Bosman), leader of the aforementioned gang The Brotherhood, and 14K (Robin Shou), the head of the prison's Asian Triad gang. The jaded, mature critic in me briefly scoffs at the dangling carrot before being overtaken by the allure of fleeting screen time. There's an old cliché that all music journalists are failed musicians. While there's no exact parallel with film critics -– substitute directing for acting, I suppose -– I can see the same giddy, mischievous look in the eye of two of my peers on the trip. Where's wardrobe?
The rundown, industrial setting lends itself perfectly to the film's milieu, as the filmmakers can simply build the sets on top of the existing, decrepit backdrops. I'm told this was an abandoned cement factory built in 1930 that has been deteriorating since the company left in the 1960s. I believe it. Chips from crumbling buildings fall by your feet; countless pieces of exposed wrought iron grow like kudzu along the antiquated edifices; and debris, broken glass and empty beer bottles from long-forgotten brands litter the area. In other words: It's the ideal setting for a post-apocalyptic prison movie.
This is probably a good place to get my previous acting experience out of the way. In the seventh grade, I portrayed The Wizard in 'The Princess and the Pea,' in which I was banned from singing and forced to talk-sing my lines. It was well-deserved. Four years later, I played a gang member in 'West Side Story,' in which I was unceremoniously referred to as "Shark Number Three." Upon asking if I could have a name like everyone else, the director rolled his eyes and said, "I don't know. Sure. José," presumably blurting out the first Puerto Rican name that came to mind before dutifully teaching the Jets how to roll cigarette packs in their T-shirt sleeves. My role involved a lot of jumping, finger-snapping and broken Spanglish. It wasn't pretty.
But that was then. Today, I'm issued the standard blue prison shirt and dark wool hat you've seen in countless jailhouse films. Conventional wisdom says this will make me look tougher. A mirror says I look like a cross between Prison Mike and the Halloween costume of an adult who still lives in his parents' basement. My mind constantly returns to a skit on the brilliant HBO comedy sketch program 'Mr. Show,' about Borden Grote, an extra so dedicated to his craft that he removes the frontal lobe of his brain and replaces it with bubble wrap after being cast as an inmate at a mental institution. If he can do that, I can mimic what I've seen on those MSNBC jail shows, right?
The author trying, and failing, to look menacing
The prisoners are separated into four elevated areas cordoned off and segregated by chain-link fence. Surprisingly, there is no quadrant for sarcastic, neurotic New York Jews –- hey, we commit crimes, too! –- and my lack of melanin might earn a mention on IMDb's Goofs page if I'm placed in the black or Asian sections. I start out in the European area before being moved to the Aryan Brotherhood. (The differences are minimal, but as best as I can tell, the former have European affectations and the latter stick with their native South African accents.) Someone from the crew takes pictures of the other prison-attired journalists and me grabbing onto the chain-link fence and trying to look tough. One of my peers remarks that it looks like a publicity shot for an awful boy band. He is not wrong.
The extras are situated on the second floor of a giant courtyard, where 30 feet below, Zander and 14K will battle to the death. A dilapidated prison bus stands on the other side of the courtyard and in the makeshift ring, scrap metal, assorted weapons and a double-decker bus litter the dusty, jailhouse Colosseum.
Even though I know (hope?) that these are all just actors playing prisoners, a tinge of panic involuntarily overtakes me upon entering the outdoor cells. Self-doubt kicks in. Are these guys staring at me because they're in character? Do they view me as some imperialist American interloper journalist whoring himself for a good story? Maybe they're not staring at all and just waiting patiently until dinner. As I continue walking to my position, I hear someone whisper "Fresh meat" loud enough to ensure I hear it. These are either the best extras or worst people on the planet.
I enter the Brotherhood ward and immediately feel at home. My participation will only last an hour, but most of these guys have been doing 13-hour days for minimal money, barely-there screen time and virtually no chance at a substantial future role. They've spent so much time together on set that familial bonds, not uncommon to actual prison life I'd presume, can't help but kick in and they welcome me as one of their own.
The author preparing for his role (Not pictured: 'Back to One: The Complete Movie Extra Guidebook')
If only all neo-Nazis were this nice. Werner is a menacing-looking, yet genial, bald man with a Jim Neidhart goatee and a short, but hulking, physique. He tells me he's a software developer who was spotted by the film's casting director at a local tattoo convention and this is his first time as an extra. Henrik reminds me of Steve-O, a slight man with intense eyes who looks like he would start a fight with another inmate on a dare, but ends up telling me about a successful catering business he runs. And then there's André -- my personal favorite -- a jovial thirtysomething chef at a local restaurant who literally laughs after every sentence. There's an initial cognitive dissonance at hearing him say things like, "We're the ones who scream 'White Power!'" and "Our race will prevail!" followed by a manic, high-pitched laugh, but I get used to it.
Strangely Comforting Fact Number One: The absurdity of hate-filled vitriol being screamed for hours on end by some of the nicest guys I've ever met. Sure, you never forget it's just a movie, but if I had to yell these things for 13 hours straight, I'd probably laugh, too.
When cameras are finally ready to roll, I'm told to grab the fence and root for Zander as loud as possible. For the next hour, I scream various iterations of "Kill him!," "Kick his ass!" and "White power!" until my voice is shot. It is very fun but very repetitive, as each part of the complexly choreographed fight scene needs to be checked, re-checked, staged, shot, shot again from a different angle and repeated over and over.
But even with the best of planning, things can go very wrong. On the first take that includes the most non-threatening prisoners in South Africa –- AKA us –- a miscommunication between the cast and the stunt coordinators causes a rapidly descending metal gangway to land inches from Shou's head, nearly killing him. I, of course, had no clue it shouldn't have been that close, and continue to cheer on Zander while the other, more seasoned extras, knew that a nearly fatal mistake had been made. "I really could have died from that," Shou tells me the next night. "I was reacting calmly, and I've jumped out of buildings, been ran over by cars, but I've never been so shaken and that close to death."
The author's big-screen debut
After that incident, nothing is left to chance and the scene goes off as planned. When it's over, I walk back to the trailers with Werner and André, who detail their past week as a 'Death Race 2' extra. Like most of the extras on set –- and unlike their peers in Hollywood –- no one here has any professional acting aspirations, though all will endure bruises, beatings and abrasions during the film's demanding schedule. Being an extra in an action film is like being a professional wrestler: It's fake in that no one's really getting piledrivered head-first into the mat, but those tacks being pulled out of your back are painfully real. Werner describes one prison riot scene the day before in which numerous extras had to be slammed down on two inches of sand with brick underneath. I'm thankful it's only my voice that's sore and, for the first time, feel bad that extras never get a shout out when an actor wins an Oscar.
Strangely Comforting Fact Number Two: All the "inmates" sitting around after shooting was finished for the night, sipping tea and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. It's not that I thought a race riot was going to break out between takes, but after being "in the moment," as it were, for an hour, if only as an inevitable bunch of indistinguishable pixels in the corner of the screen, normal felt good.
I returned home the next week and gamely explained the experience to my parents. Not since 'The Believer' has a Jewish parent taken such interest in their child's neo-Nazi tendencies. Months later, a copy of the 'Death Race 2' DVD arrives in my mailbox. I want to say it was no big deal and I wasn't curious if I was in it, but of course, I went straight to the Zander/14K fight scene. In the history of recorded film, only the Zapruder tape has been pored over closer than this, as I analyze each frame looking to see if I made the cut. There are no close-ups, but a sea of blue shirts and wool caps dot the background. There are no distinct yells, but a steady din of vague threats and cheers can be heard. After taking a step back and reliving the experience in my head, though, making the final cut is just an afterthought.
"And besides," my parents would reassure me later. "You were so good as José."