AN OPEN LETTER TO THE ORIGINAL DREAMGIRL
I feel like I have been a Supreme all of my life, because I grew up with very little and dared to dream of a better tomorrow. I wanted to experience success. I wanted to see my picture in magazines and be interviewed on television. I learned about the ups and downs of show business by watching the Supremes go through personnel changes. And you in particular inspired me. You faced your fears, went out on stage alone, and fought for recognition. You survived an abusive relationship and helped others trapped in similar situations. You went back to school as an adult and triumphed. You brought honor to being a performer “in the background.”
I understand what you have gone through. You’ve paid your dues singing background with the Supremes. As a struggling actor, I have also paid my dues doing background work, also known as “extra” or “atmosphere” work. Just as background vocalists support the lead singer, background actors support lead talent.
When I lived in Baltimore, many actors did background work to break into the business. Most agencies outside of New York or Los Angeles will book actors for both speaking and non-speaking roles. Working in Baltimore, I’d get a call from an agent who would ask me to read for a speaking role, but also ask if I’d be willing to do background work in the event that I did not get the speaking role. Most of the time, you grab any union check available to you, because it helps pay into your pension fund and health benefits.
The acting world that thrives in New York and Los Angeles is a different animal. Actors should only seek speaking roles because background work can be the “kiss of death” to your career. An actor once told me, “If casting agents learn you have done extra work, they will consider you ‘just background’ and won’t look at you for featured roles.” Faced with a dilemma, you then ask yourself, “Do I make this quick money doing extra work, or do I hold out in case a ‘real’ role comes along?”
However, the extras in Los Angeles take their work seriously. For some, that’s all they do. There are specific agents who specialize in background work, and years ago the industry introduced separate (but not equal) unions for background and non-background actors. Background actors who intend to work regularly must provide agencies with photos that show their various “looks” or “characters”: policeman, homeless person, hooker, punk, goth, drag queen, doctor, nerd, business person, biker, etc. In order to stay competitive, a background actor should own his or her own costumes, and their resume should note any special skills that he or she has like surfing or horseback riding. Any tattoos or body piercings should also be noted on their resume, with the location of such body art identified and the number of incidences tallied. Background actors arrive on the set with a chair and a good book, or just about anything to fill the long waiting periods. They settle down and call the job hotlines, hoping to fit one of the stereotypes listed in the breakdowns so they can get work the next day:
18 to “look younger”
Character face (usually means UGLY)
I read somewhere that Robert Townsend did a lot of extra work when he started out. He partially appears in the scene in Mahogany where Billy Dee and Diana are arguing outside of an abandoned building. (Townsend tells his friends to watch for his shoulder.) He inspired other actors by sharing tales of his days as an extra, and used the money he earned from his background roles and character roles to fund his first film project, Hollywood Shuffle. Many other famous actors started out doing background work, including Dorothy Dandridge and John Wayne. Likewise, many successful singers first worked as background vocalists before stepping out into the limelight: Luther Vandross, Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston, Darlene Love, Nona Hendryx, and you, Mary Wilson. Timing is crucial.
When I moved to L.A., I was ambivalent about taking background work. I had been a well-known TV host, albeit in the world of home shopping, but the job had required the same skills as any other acting gig. I had also just come off a successful four-month run of FREEda Slave, my one-man show. I had gotten good reviews and was even cast in a pilot. Then the money ran out and the bills needed to be paid. My agents were not getting a forty-something black actor enough “featured role” auditions, so survival overrode pride and I went back to being an “extra.”
Mary, I remember seeing you do a hilarious tribute to background singers in your live shows. You would perform a medley of Supremes hits, singing only the background vocals. You would joke, “Honey, my ‘ooooh baby, baby(s)’ took me laughing all the way to the bank!” For you, there was no shame in it. Even though I didn’t always like background work, there was no shame in what I had to do either.
As mentioned in an earlier chapter, my favorite background experience was on the film Homicide, because of the kindness shown to me by David Mamet. My work on Boomerang, starring Eddie Murphy, was also a lot of fun; besides loving the soundtrack to the movie, I was able to wear one of own African designs in my scene. Some movie titles on my resume I have actually gone out and purchased, just so I can pause my scene and prove to myself that I really do appear in the film. One casting director told me I would stand out in the Snoop Dogg/Dr. Dre film The Wash, because I was the only background actor dressed professionally in suit and tie, and I drove a high-end, luxury car in the scene. She was right.
Although most films I have appeared in for only seconds, I do feel a sense of pride when a movie I have worked on wins a major award. These include:
Broadcast News (Academy Award) The Accidental Tourist (Academy Award) Dreamgirls (Academy Award) Philadelphia (Academy Award)
Other movies on my resume I treasure for their gay themes, such as: Stonewall (birth of the gay rights movement) To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (drag queen road trip, starring Wesley Snipes) The Jackal (gay niteclub scene with Bruce Willis)
I laugh at this next list of films because they were huge flops, but I tell myself, “At least I got a check out of it!”: Showtime (starring Eddie Murphy & Robert DeNiro) The Distinguished Gentleman (starring Eddie Murphy & Sheryl Lee Ralph) Gigli (starring “Bennifer”) The Meteor Man (starring Robert Townsend) Species II (just a bad horror movie) A Man Apart (appearance by Karrine “Superhead” Steffans)
I was fortunate enough to be cast as a stand in for three actors on three different projects. These include: Men (double for Ving Rhames, television pilot) Mission Impossible III (double for Laurence Fishburne) Robbery Homicide Division (double for Barry Shabaka Henley, television pilot)
Some film projects I completely forget about, because I can hardly be seen in them or I don’t even remember my scene: Training Day Baby Boy Random Hearts Tin Men Twelve Monkeys Suspect Washington Square Dark Blue Diner Clara’s Heart The Bedroom Window Enemy of the State Guarding Tess He Said She Said Her Alibi Home for the Holidays Ladder 49
Since television shows are less busy and elaborate, visually speaking, my scenes usually stand out and friends call me when they see my appearances. If I got a check for every time I was seen in one of these projects, I’d have a nice nest egg: The Steve Harvey Show The Parkers Moesha One on One City of Angels Days of Our Lives
Looking at these lists, I am proud of the work I have done. However, I would still like to one day appear in a featured role. Some background actors, like some background singers, are content with standing a few feet behind the “stars.” They work steadily and are well known in the business. Then there are people like me, and you, Mary, who respect background work but also want to graduate.
Mary, the lives and experiences of the Supremes have made an indelible mark on my life. As Flo used say, “Chile, we is terrific.”
With Parnell Damone, who has sung background with Mary Wilson for over 20 years
I have written my memoirs as a tribute to all the former ladies of The Supremes, to every Dreamgirl (past & present), and for every gay man who dares to dream.