July 19th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Confessions of a French Film Extra (Part Three: Mila Jovovich in her Underwear)

Maybe it was luck, maybe it was my manic breast beating but I was selected as one of six extras to be called back the next day for a close-up. They needed a block of 6 extras (two rows of three with me front and centre) to fill the foreground in front of the Duke of Bedford and a histrionic French princess.

This was my moment. I could feel it. I'd listened to Michael Caine. Film acting is all about the face. And my face was ready to act. Subtlety was the key. No histrionics, no arm-waving, just bags of subtlety.

And an eyebrow lift or two.

I barely slept that night as I ran through my game plan. I'd start quizzical, turning slightly to my right for the Roger Moore left eyebrow lift. And then back, a look of shock, a touch of horror, a steely gaze of determination. And then, just as the air was thick with smoke and burning undergarments, I'd turn to the left and hit the camera with my piece de resistance - the right eyebrow lift. Luc Besson would inhale through his teeth. Roger Moore and The Rock would fall to their knees. For verily an ambi-browed thespian was in their midst.

Then disaster struck. One of the six extras had missed the 5:00 am bus from Sees. The one who was supposed to be standing next to me. They delayed shooting waiting for him to turn up. I stood in the muddy courtyard watching the cameras being set up. A make-up girl patted anti-dazzle powder onto my forehead and a coiffeur preened my right eyebrow. Still he didn't show.

Luc Besson looked at his watch. Maybe they should cut a row and just go with three extras.

Nooooo! We could do it with five. I could fill the space. Subtle Stevie Wonder-esque head shifts. No one would notice.

Luc Besson had no vision. And I had no close-up. I watched instead as three poker-faced extras stared at the camera. Not one eyebrow lifted. And in the background a black-clad French princess screamed and arm-waved and complained about being cold. I could have done her role too. I can wear black.

Which brings me to Mila Jovovich's underwear. Now, as a rule I'm pretty good at spotting famous actors; I can identify anyone who's appeared on Star Trek from forty paces - including the Cardassians. But my record on Joan of Arc was appalling. I stood within three feet of Mila Jovovich for about a minute, being nudged by the extra behind me - isn't that the actress from The Fifth Element? "No," I confidently replied. "Nothing like her."

The same went for John Malkovich. When asked if I knew who he was I replied that I was sure I'd seen him in an English soap. The only actor I thought I recognised was Timothy West but as I told the noble next to me. "It can't be him, he's dead." Which would have been news to Mr. West who was indeed playing the part of the Archbishop.

But, recognise her or not, I couldn't help but be impressed by Mila Jovovich. During the long day spent filming in the cathedral she'd kept the children - a dozen eleven year-old choristers - amused during the scene breaks by playing with them. And keeping a dozen bored kids amused for ten hours in a dusty cathedral is no easy task. And she even came back after shooting to ask why so many extras were being kept hanging around in the cathedral an hour after filming had stopped. We were being searched. The film company, paranoid about pictures getting out, were searching all seven hundred extras for cameras and recorders as we filed very slowly through the single exit. I watched from a few feet away as she argued with the security staff. She actually cared.

But it was her performance on that last day of shooting that impressed people the most. It was freezing and the two hundred or so extras had come prepared. After a long day standing around in freezing rain, we'd packed our extra vests and socks. But Joan of Arc was only allowed a thin shift.

And there was no heated trailer for her to repair to during scene breaks. All she had was a coal brazier at one end of the courtyard where her dresser would throw a blanket over her and try to rub some heat back into her body.

The hours went by. The Archbishop gave her the chance to repent from several camera angles. Her judges debated, the crowd remonstrated. And then four burly English captains dragged her kicking and screaming through the mud to the castle gates. For five takes.

In between each take Mila was taken to the brazier. I was wearing four layers of thick clothing and was still freezing. My hands were numb. I watched from a few feet away as Mila shivered in that thin, wet, cotton shift. I could hear her teeth chattering.

When she came out for the fifth take - shivering, white-faced and uncomplaining - two hundred extras spontaneously applauded. If she'd have asked the crowd to storm the castle and free her we'd have gone.

On a final note I did notice some tension that day between Mila and Luc Besson. Later I found out that their relationship had been going through a sticky patch during the shooting of the film. Whether having your husband pay four large men to drag you across a freezing courtyard in your underwear five times is grounds for divorce I do not know. But I suspect it would not be wise to try this at home.