Something extra happening in Stonington

People hoping to land jobs as extras in "Great Hope Springs," which will soon be filming in the area, wait in line during a casting call at Stonington High School on Wednesday. The film stars Meryl Streep and Tommie Lee Jones.
People hoping to land jobs as extras in "Great Hope Springs," which will soon be filming in the area, wait in line during a casting call at Stonington High School on Wednesday. The film stars Meryl Streep and Tommie Lee Jones. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo

Stonington - Abe Mendel was ready for his close-up. Well, at least he was ready for his background shot.

The Trumbull actor was among the first in line Wednesday happily seeking to become an extra in "Great Hope Springs," the Meryl Streep film that will be partly shot in southeastern Connecticut.

Mendel was also probably among the most experienced in the group. A few credit highlights: He just played a kosher butcher on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." He acted the roles of a peasant and a European executive in the movie "Borat." He hosted a pilot for The History Channel called "Back In My Day."

Oh, and outside of acting, he was a precision driver on the action flick "Salt." (He said being a precision driver "means you can stay in place while stunt drivers drive in and out of you at high speeds, you can hold a certain distance, you can go on a timing run ...")

With all his past film and TV work, it came as little surprise that the resume-happy guy already knew Barbara McNamara, whose casting company was screening the potential extras at Stonington High School.

The possibility of sharing the silver screen with Streep drew a modest line of hopefuls that snaked around the high school auditorium mid-morning (someone had left the Uta Hagen book "A Challenge for the Actor" sitting unobtrusively on one chair). They were all vying to be part of "Great Hope Springs," which is set to film in Essex, Mystic and Stonington, among other locales, this fall.

The romantic comedy, directed by David Frankel, finds Streep and hubby Tommy Lee Jones seeking help from a famous relationship guru, played by Steve Carell. The finished product is expected to hit theaters in late 2012.

As for his fellow extra wannabes, Mendel had this word of advice about reactions from casting agents: "The two kisses of death for auditions are 'great' and 'excellent.' That means 'get lost,' " he chuckled.

If you do get cast, he said, pay attention on set. Be alert.

"The key thing is what they call 'low main' - low maintenance. Do not be a pain in the ass. 'What time's lunch?' 'When do we wrap?'" he said. "This is a business like any business."

When you're working as an extra, Mendel said, all you have to do is follow orders. A movie honcho says to stand over there and cross this way, and you do. You work in the background and avoid obstructing - or distracting from - the leads.

Some people at the casting call had no acting experience - like Elaine Dodge, a Gales Ferry resident who is semi-retired from her work in financial public relations, and Gwen Basilica, a New London-based artist. A number of locals said that it sounded as though being an extra would be a great experience and that they loved Streep.

John Olsen of North Stonington, who did some acting in high school and community theater, decided to try out after working as an extra once before, in "The Bronx Is Burning." Some scenes for that ESPN movie were shot in the region. Among Olsen's sequences: while a reporter was interviewing someone in the foreground, Olsen and another guy were in the background looking under a car hood and miming as if they were working on the vehicle.

"I had a lot of fun doing that, so I thought I'd try it again," said Olsen, whose real-life work includes hanging wallboard and being a part-time minister. "They had told us when they had us as extras in 'Bronx Is Burning' that you'd never watch movies the same again. They were right. You no longer just pay attention to the scene and the action. You start paying a lot of attention to all the stuff going on in the background."

Courtenay McKelvy of Pawcatuck, meanwhile, acted back in the early days of TV on such shows as "Playhouse 90" and has performed locally in such productions as the Chorus of Westerly's "Celebration of Twelfth Night." She figured "Great Hope Springs" might need some senior citizens.

As for being an extra, McKelvy said, "It's easy. I mean, you don't have lines. You get paid scale. You show up on time and you do what the director tells you to do. So it's professional work - you don't go there to goof off and kid around - but it's fun."

And sometimes, Mendel said, you get upgraded from background to principal, meaning a speaking part. He said you'd know that you're being upgraded "when they start breaking out the powder and start looking at your wardrobe."

Having a principal role is an ideal. Mendel and his wife did supporting roles on one project, and, he said, "We were treated like golden ganders."

But that was followed immediately by a less-than-golden experience.

"Then we did background work on a Lindsay Lohan MTV video. We, like, had soggy pizza and cold water at night, and that was about as good as it got," he said.

His wife quit after that. But Mendel has continued on, and he explained why: it's how he feels when doing principal work. After he recently shot the French film "In Memoriam" in New York City, he said, "I was completely gone- a high like no other." He got so distracted, he said, that he first couldn't find the subway station and then ended up in Harlem rather than Penn Station.

"It takes me hours, sometimes days, to come down from that high," Mendel said. "That's why I do it. It's an absolutely wonderful feeling."

k.dorsey@theday.com

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