August 23, 2019

A year ago today, Crazy Rich Asians opened in local movie theatres. Shot and set in Singapore, this was Hollywood’s first all-Asian cast in 25 years, and the first Hollywood rom-com to place our Little Red Dot at the centre of the story. In America, viewers sobbed at the sight of the long-awaited representation of Asians in mainstream cinema. In Singapore, spectators cried at the sound of Singlish in a Hollywood flick. For me, I was celebrating a more personal milestone, whilst in the theatre with everyone else, watching the first film I’d ever been a part of.

My story began on Facebook, where I chanced upon a post a friend of mine shared. It was a casting call for background extras for Crazy Rich Asians, a poster in bright pink and yellow, screaming out at me to sign up. I paused my mindless scrolling, and decided to be spontaneous. Now you should know that I’m not an actress, by any means at all, and I’d never been onscreen, even as an extra. I was a bona fide neophyte, preparing to send my headshots (read: candid travel photos) to the casting agency. The next thing I knew, I was bombing at the audition.

I’d been asked to pretend I was schmoozing at a wedding reception, while holding an empty champagne flute that I had to pretend wasn’t empty. Needless to say, my spastic self ended up spilling the pretend champagne 10 times over without even realising it. Weeks passed without any word. I was sure I didn’t get the part of “Girl #78”, until I got a text that said I was chosen to be the female lead’s body double. Technically, I was right.

Despite not being chosen as an onscreen extra, I was nonetheless whisked out of my boring life into the world of filmmaking for 10 whole days. The hours stretched past a typical work day, the craft services table (packed with gourmet snacks) kept me sedated, and I got to gawk silently and discreetly at Ken Jeong and Michelle Yeoh, while absorbing this strange, new world of Hollywood from the inside. Here’s a peek into the diary of an accidental actress on the set of Crazy Rich Asians.

1. Anyone can be a background extra or a stand-in.

I was selected to be Constance Wu’s stand-in, through no talent of my own (except to rock what my mother gave me—measurements that are similar to Constance’s). A stand-in is essentially a human prop that resembles the real actor, used to prep the cameras and lights. Unlike a background extra, you don’t get to be on screen. This is how it works: The actor rehearses a scene, while the stand-in watches the whole thing. As the actor gets their hair and make-up done, the stand-in gets in front of the camera and tries to repeat what the actor did. Most of the time, you don’t have to recreate the exact performance.

Though there are professional stand-ins who pay attention to every flick of the wrist and turn of the eye, chances are, you’ll just end up standing or sitting at a fixed spot for half an hour, maybe more. All you need is to go where the director tells you, do what the cameraman says, and you’ll ace the job. A background extra’s job is criminally simple as well. If you can walk like a normal person, you can be a Hollywood extra. Trust me. Before Crazy Rich Asians, I had never acted before or been on a real set—local or international.

2. It’s better to be a stand-in than a background extra.

As an extra, you’re pretty much just a faceless person in a crowd. Onscreen, you’re blurred out. Offscreen, you’re addressed as a group. A stand-in, on the other hand, interacts directly with the crew. The cameraman literally has to look at you to frame a scene. It also takes a while to get it right, so you’ll be in close quarters with these Hollywood folks for a good period of time. You’ll get to know the gaffer who’s worked on the set of Game of Thrones, the key grip who’s rubbed shoulders with the Avengers, and the camera operator whose resume includes hits like Sex and the City, The Bourne Identity, and your favourite romance film, Before Sunset.

Because these behind-the-scenes folks tend not to have the ego of international celebrities, they’ll be more open to talk to you and, if you’re lucky, add you as a friend on Facebook. To top it all off, a stand-in gets to participate in the coolest scenes where there aren’t a thousand extras. One of the greatest moments of my brief Crazy Rich Asians experience was when I got to ride in a pink sports car, the one Peik Lin (played by Awkwafina) drives in the movie.

3. Hollywood is intimidatingly hierarchical.

I suppose it makes sense, for the sake of productivity and professionalism, to instruct the extras not to speak to or fangirl all over the stars on set. Still, you can’t help but feel invisibly small in the presence of these celebrities. It’s like that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, when Meryl Streep’s character, a revered magazine editor, walks into an elevator, which prompts the lady in the elevator to apologise, leave and wait for a separate lift.

The Hollywood set is a no autograph, no selfie and no hug zone—at least between the small fries and the big stars. We had to be silent and compliant. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. At times, we even had to bring water to our famous counterparts, even though that’s not exactly what we’re there for. You may encounter a chatty, affable actor every now and again, but don’t expect to befriend them. That fantasy isn’t real.

4. There’s a whole lot of waiting involved.

It’s natural to associate the Hollywood set with all the glitz and glamour you’ve been programmed to imagine, but in reality, it’s a lot less thrilling. Not because the scenes for this particular film are all set in locations familiar to us (Newton Food Centre, Raffles Hotel, Garden By The Bay), but because 90% of your time on set is spent waiting. You’re just getting paid to do nothing. This isn’t great news for someone who gets bored easily or who hates to be idle. Thankfully, the couch potato in me didn’t mind at all.

It’s hard to believe, but a single scene could take days to film. For a stand-in, the waiting game lasts much longer because you’re not part of the actual shoot. Here’s a case in point: I once spent nine hours waiting for my day to start. By the time I was called in, I’d seen the sun rise and set. What makes the waiting bearable is the fact that you’re not alone. With all those hours spent with the same group or people, you’ll eventually grow to know them better, engage in surprisingly deep heart-to-hearts, forge bonds, and create memories you won’t soon forget.

5. You’re working with the best of the best.

There’s no comparison between Hollywood films and local free-to-air television. Not that I’m bashing home-grown talent, but the scale of production I witnessed on set of Crazy Rich Asians was unlike anything else. And this isn’t even an action blockbuster, which undoubtedly requires more effort and elbow grease. On one of the final days of the shoot at Gardens by the Bay, which wrapped in the wee hours of the morning when it was still dark out, Jon M. Chu, the director, decided to reshoot a scene from the “$40-million-dollar” wedding between Araminta and Colin at Chijmes.

As long as you’ve got the props to set the scene, it shouldn’t be a problem right? Except this scene didn’t take place at night. They needed it to look like the golden hour, and the actual sun was nowhere near rising. Of course, Mother Nature wasn’t going to stop this film crew, who with an insanely elaborate lighting setup, managed to pull off the impossible. That’s what I call movie magic.