Dead cert: an extra’s adventure in Grimmlandia

A first-time television actor discovers the real world in the fantasy of NBC’s made-in-Portland "Grimm": just lie down and play dead

By CYNTHIA D. STOWELL

Two days before NBC’s Grimm wrapped its fifth year of occupying the streets, cafés, forests, and psyches of Portland, good news came to the cast and crew: the show had been granted a sixth season. Cheers went up on Twitter and Instagram from actors who had settled into houses in their adopted city, and from writers who’d been indulging in black humor about the number of characters they were going to kill off before the “finale” (ominously, they weren’t saying “season finale”).

It had been making me nervous, both as a fan and as a recent performer on the show, so I celebrated, too—happy that I’d have another whole season of mythological beasts, intrepid detectives, and Black Claw revolutionaries to watch … but also relieved that my amateur acting hadn’t singlehandedly driven the show into the ground.

Magic in the "Grimm" makeup trailer was performed by Morgan Muta, makeup artist, Corinna Woodcock, key makeup artist, and Laura Loucks, department head makeup. Their wizardry transformed 64-year-old extra Cynthia Stowell into 90-year-old Summer Blake. (Morgue-worthy wig by Shelia Cyphers, department head hair, and Emie Otis, key hair.)

Magic in the “Grimm” makeup trailer was performed by Morgan Muta, makeup artist, Corinna Woodcock, key makeup artist, and Laura Loucks, department head makeup. Their wizardry transformed 64-year-old extra Cynthia Stowell into 90-year-old Summer Blake. (Morgue-worthy wig by Shelia Cyphers, department head hair, and Emie Otis, key hair.)

“Acting” is an exaggeration of my contribution to Season 5 of Grimm. It’s more accurate to say that I sat in a makeup chair for three hours, laid down, held my breath, and played dead. And got paid an amount that certainly didn’t bring NBC to the brink of financial ruin.

But for the three months I had to wait for my Skin Deep episode to air, I worried that I’d not looked dead enough, that I’d twitched a finger or flared a nostril, and that they’d had to replace me with someone who knew what she was doing. Never mind that almost any transgression of mine could have been corrected with editing or CGI. In my imagination, the whole success of that episode—and the entire future of the series—was resting on my wrinkled body.

I began to relax somewhat on the Friday before my April 1st air date, when the “Next week on Grimm” promo showed me splayed on the floor, after which official Grimm Tweets started appearing with me on the morgue slab. It began to sink in that I’d had a small part in Grimm’s successful five-year run, even if the series was history.

But Grimm had already proven that it wasn’t just a passing Portland oddity. Since coming to Portland in 2011, the supernatural police procedural loosely based on the Grimm fairy tales has attracted loyal international viewers and fans in the millions, particularly in the 18-49 age bracket (a demographic I fondly remember). By its 100th episode in March, Grimm had contributed more than $250 million to the Oregon economy, and that’s not even counting the ways in which cast members have forged bonds with the local community through their charitable activities.

*

I’d been a fan of the show since the first episode, one of many Portlanders who tuned in initially to recognize and identify locations, then got sucked in by the appealing characters and storylines. It was soon commonplace to spot (and ignore, with classic Portland manners) Grimm actors shopping and dining in Portland’s neighborhoods, and to stumble onto the ubiquitous shoots. As a former photographer, I was fascinated by the behind-the-scenes machinations—how the crew modified locations, set up their cameras and lights, and wrangled doubles and extras. (And yes, it was fun to glimpse the actors.) One day it occurred to me that I could be an extra—excellent walker and café-sitter that I am—and get an even closer look. So I signed up with the ExtrasOnly agency and sat it out for a couple of years while my old car generated more interest than my old face.

Then, just before Christmas, I got a big bite: a “featured role” as a dead 90-year-old! Just months from Medicare age with cobwebs of silver hair, I figured I’d be giving the makeup department a bit of a break; but first I had to swallow what pride I had left by supplying close-up photos of my legs, spider veins and all. (They never thanked me for the unsolicited photo I sent of a morgue scene that my husband and I had simulated on our kitchen floor!)

Stole trying to lie very still and not put in her own two cents while detectives Nick (David Giuntoli) and Hank (Russell Hornsby) discuss her character’s cause of death with the medical examiner. (Photo by NBC/Scott Green/NBC - © 2015 NBC Universal Media)

Stowell trying to lie very still and not put in her own two cents while detectives Nick (David Giuntoli) and Hank (Russell Hornsby) discuss her character’s cause of death with the medical examiner. (Photo by NBC/Scott Green/NBC – © 2015 NBC Universal Media)

On Monday, January 4, after the Grimm holiday recess, I received an e-mail from ExtrasOnly saying, “Congratulations, Cynthia, YOU GOT THE JOB!” A flurry of texts and e-mails ensued, with details about locations, call times, and contract terms, all in a language and protocol that was new and foreign to me.

The very next day, I was in the costume department at Grimm HQ in the Northwest industrial area getting fitted for short-shorts that I wouldn’t normally be caught dead in (but was apparently about to die in), as well as a set of Spanx for under my morgue sheet.

On Wednesday I was lying on the floor of an apartment trying not to betray my excitement—or my inexperience.

All I knew of the plot, which wouldn’t be completely clear to me until I watched the Skin Deep episode along with the rest of the world, was that beautiful 24-year-old Summer is attacked by a youth-sucking creature (“wesen” in the Grimm lexicon), causing her to age seventy years in the course of a short evening … and that I am the unfortunate, and for a time unidentifiable, result.

To help pull off this illusion, I had reported before dawn to an intriguing location in St. Johns (The Colony event space, appropriately a former funeral home) for a full day of makeup, wig fitting, waiting, and filming the apartment scene. From the start I was made to feel like a starlet, greeted in the dark by a walkie-talkied crew member who magically knew my name, then turned over to another walkie-talkie who escorted me to my own trailer, offered me a warm coat and fuzzy slippers, and saw to my every need for the rest of the day.

Soon I was surrendering my face and legs to a bevy of makeup magicians for three hours of latex application, age-spot and “lividity” painting, and every trick in their trailer to make the young Summer look like her own great-grandmother. Then it was off to the green room, where I unexpectedly came face to face with my younger self (played by Portland actor Amber Stonebraker) in identical costume and coif. I don’t know who was more surprised, but my bewilderment was just beginning in this house of mirrors, where actors and their doubles—and doubles of doubles?—were shuffled from one crew-and-equipment-filled room to another by whispering handlers getting their orders on headsets.

Extra Cynthia Stowell and actor Amber Stonebraker as the 90-year-old and 24-year-old Summer Blake, waiting to go on camera for the “Skin Deep” episode of Season 5 of NBC’s “Grimm.”

Extra Cynthia Stowell and actor Amber Stonebraker as the 90-year-old and 24-year-old Summer Blake, waiting to go on camera for the “Skin Deep” episode of Season 5 of NBC’s “Grimm.”

My prop of a body was arranged on the floor in a tight corner of the apartment living room, a ride-on camera and a fallen lamp looming above me. Then the three Portland policemen, Nick, Hank, and Wu, came in—over and over—to stare at me and speculate about who the heck I was. As I lay there with my eyes closed, I tried to remember terms from the film-set glossary the agency had given me so I could work out where the camera might be pointing or if it was even rolling. All I could recall was that I wasn’t supposed to ask a lot of questions, though “When can I breathe?” would have been a handy one. During a break, David Giuntoli, who plays lead detective Nick, kindly advised me that I didn’t have to hold my breath during rehearsals. Could he see me blush under my inch of makeup?

I managed over the course of the next couple of hours not to jump out of my skin when Summer’s roommate screamed bloody murder upon finding a dead old lady on her floor, and not to laugh while Sgt. Wu (Reggie Lee) pondered aloud over my body, “But I’m thinking, why would a woman who’s in her—what, 90s?—come here sometime last night to put on Summer’s clothes, ring, and ankle bracelet just to die?” Since it was the first time I’d ever worn an ankle bracelet, I was in no position to offer insights.

By my second Wednesday on the set, Summer had taken up residence in the morgue, located on one of Grimm’s two big soundstages not far from HQ. Installed on my slab, prewarmed and padded by the thoughtful crew, I listened to the medical examiner’s theory that I’d died of a rare form of progeria and it was all I could do to keep from sitting bolt upright to disagree with her. Only on Grimm is an ME’s scientific explanation less plausible than the existence of an Egyptian wesen with crablike mandibles who extracts and regurgitates victims’ youth juices!

*

Sometime after midnight the director called it a wrap and the actors stampeded for the door (though the ever-empathetic Giuntoli hung back to make eye contact with me and deliver one more kind remark, endearing himself to me forever). My joints were stiff from being a rigid corpse for an hour or so, and I was helped from my morgue table as solicitously as if I were really 90 years old.

Outside in the cold rain, I caught the van back to “basecamp,” a vast and unglamorous collection of trailers and tents that looks more like a refugee camp than a Hollywood studio lot. The warm red glow of the distant Montgomery Park sign reminded me I was still in Portland, and I silently congratulated myself for staying grounded through two surreal days of sharing sets, green rooms, buffet lines, and jokes with actors I’d watched and respected on my TV screen for years. And not once had I let on that I followed them on Instagram. That was the best acting I did all week.

But they made it easy. I could chat freely with Grimm luminaries about movies and makeup because these part-time residents of Portland were as natural and down to earth as they’d been described in the media. It made me wonder in a chicken-and-egg way whether it was their easygoing temperaments that made them particularly drawn to this Portland gig, or whether their time in Portland had smoothed off any LA edges.

The morgue scene in the “Skin Deep” episode of “Grimm” opens with a scary close-up of extra Cynthia Stowell after an amazing three-hour makeup and wig job. (Screen shot from NBC's "Grimm.")

The morgue scene in the “Skin Deep” episode of “Grimm” opens with a scary close-up of extra Cynthia Stowell after an amazing three-hour makeup and wig job. (Screen shot from NBC’s “Grimm.”)

I don’t have a lot of basis for comparison, this being my first exposure to the TV industry, but I was struck by how friendly and unassuming the whole crew was. Working in a traveling-circus atmosphere, on a drafty soundstage or a rainy location, with dozens of people and tons of equipment crammed together in small spaces, never knowing what ungodly hour they’d be starting all over again the next day—they had every reason to gripe or snipe. But I never heard a cross word or complaint. They all seemed to feel privileged to be doing the creative things they were doing, and they made me feel the same way—even when I was waiting in my trailer for hours for a difficult stunt scene to finish up or trying to enjoy the canteen bounty with an immobilized face.

By 1 a.m. my latex and paint had been scrubbed off at a portable makeup station, the makeup trailer having been hauled off to the next day’s location. As I signed my time sheet and tried not to eavesdrop on the assistant director discussing the next morning’s schedule, I realized my name was being swapped for new names that would soon be on the lips and clipboards of the walkie-talkie crew. I could feel my magical coach turning back into a pumpkin, while new extras were getting their beauty sleep before arriving in the dark at one strange encampment or another—where they would no doubt be treated as royally as I’d been.

*

I drove out of the nearly empty parking lot just behind the lead makeup person, both of us heading to the I-405 onramp. She bore left for the Fremont Bridge, toward her baby long asleep in Vancouver, as I peeled off onto the southbound lanes. For me it was the sober return to a life that was imitating Grimm a little too much, my own 93-year-old mother not expected to recover from a fall she’d taken a few days before. I’d had to stuff that awful irony down into my subconscious while the dead and aging jokes flew through the unreal air of the Grimm set.

But is it so unreal? We are, after all, humans—even the wesen!—trying to do our work and live our lives as best we can. And isn’t it a very Portland thing to blur that line between the professional and the personal? On a muddy industrial lot, and in nearby streets and forests, hundreds of seasonal transplants and local commuters sacrifice any semblance of a normal life to pool their talents and create an original fantasy world in obsessive detail. Sometimes this world reflects the human strife in the “real” world, and sometimes…it’s just crazy fun. With Portland as their Muse, the Grimm team has found the likable intersection of quirky and earnest.

And that sweet spot was evident throughout my brief cohabitation with the Grimm production company. It might be an efficient, well-oiled machine but it is also a very human and collective endeavor. That’s why it pleases me to know that the creative people I met and worked with will be back together in Portland after a few months’ hiatus to continue weaving the story they fashioned out of whole cloth five years ago.

I can stop holding my breath now.

*

Portland writer Cynthia D. Stowell’s Faces of a Reservation won an Oregon Book Award in 1988.  She is readying her novel New Old World for publication.

 

 

One Response.

  1. Maryellen Read says:

    Nice!! Sounds like fun- exhausting fun. Good show too-I caught it
    M. Read

Comments are closed.

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