By Tara Dublin
The Portland arts scene got another great boost last month when the locally-filmed NBC-TV series, “Grimm,” was picked up for a full season by the network. This came as no surprise to me, because I’ve been working on the show as a background extra since the fourth episode, and I knew we had a “Monster Hit”…
…on our hands from the moment I saw the pilot. Actually, I knew the show was special from my first day on the set, and it’s a feeling that’s only increased the more I work there.
“Grimm,” if you haven’t caught it, is not just any police procedural. It poses the question, “What if the Grimm Brothers weren’t telling mere fairy tales, but were really the first police profilers?”
The fairy tales we’ve heard via Mother Goose are watered-down versions of the darker, scarier original Grimm Tales. “Grimm” tells the story of Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli), whose dying aunt (Kate Burton) revealed to him that’s he one of the last of the Grimms, the only humans who can see the creatures who live among humans for what they really are. Nick’s mission is to find and stop the evil creatures from having their way with humanity.
He’s aided in his quest by the only person who knows about his true self, a Blutbad (in modern layman’s term, a wolfman) named Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell). Monroe is emerging as a fan favorite already, providing much-needed comic relief as he literally helps Nick sniff out the bad guys.
I’m one of a group of regular extras now who fill out the precinct scenes when Nick and his partner, Hank Griffin (Russell Hornsby) confer over cases at their desks. My desk is right across from Russell’s, thanks to a fellow extra, Paul Jordan, who hooked me up with that placement my third time on the set. Paul suggested the move to the desk across from his because he found me funny, and we do a lot of sitting around and entertaining ourselves while waiting for the next scene to begin. Thanks to Paul, I’m often in the shot when Russell and David are filmed at their desks. Just call me Detective Dublin.
Detective Dublin is about to tell you all about her latest experience on the set.
On this particular Monday, we are beginning Episode 112, entitled “Last Grimm Standing.” The call time for me and my fellow precinct detectives, as well as uniformed officer/actors, is 7:18 am. When you arrive at the Crew Parking lot (the main shooting stages are located among the factories and warehouses in the Northwest Industrial area), white courtesy vans await to shuttle you to the set. By now I know the way, and it isn’t far, so I walk quickly through the cold morning fog, past the Craft Services tent and the trailers, to the Extras Holding area. When I arrive, many of my friends are already there, decked out in their detective clothes. We all bring our clothes from home, at least three different changes’ worth, so that the lovely folks in Wardrobe can decide how they want us to look that day.
Quite often, we shoot three different days’ worth of scenes in the precinct, and need to change accordingly (just like in real life!). The police officers are issued exact replicas of Portland Police uniforms; the last name written on their name tags belong to producers (“Pavlonnis,” “Oster”) or other members of the crew. There is plenty of humor on this set, something I discovered on Day One, and it’s just one of many reasons why I’m delighted to keep coming back to work.Another reason is WORK…something I’ve been sorely lacking in the recent past, when I used to be a Person of Interest in Portland.
Instead of the jobs rolling in, I’ve been desperately seeking opportunities for over two and half years. This is just one of many opportunities to come my way since then, and I feel very lucky to be here and to be making these fantastic personal and professional connections. Besides, the coffee is strong , the people are nice, and there’s food aplenty. Why wouldn’t anyone be happy to be here?
We are checked in at Extras Holding by Sally, one of the extras’ coordinators, and Jesse, one of the head production assistants, or PA’s. The PA’s keep things humming on the set. They’re constantly on their headsets, checking in with what’s happening on the set and exactly when it’s happening. They tell us when and where to go, and Jesse helps direct the background action for the scenes. Once we’re checked in, we walk over to the Props truck, helmed by the good-natured Stefan. Today he issues me a standard detective badge on a chain to wear around my neck, a briefcase, and a notebook. I am responsible for these props all day and must turn them in when we wrap.
After Props, it’s over to the Wardrobe truck, where we stand in line and talk about our Thanksgivings. The camaraderie here is real: we are all becoming a tight-knit team as the same core group of people is asked back again and again. There’s a special feeling on the set today, however, thanks to the news of the full-season pickup. Now we all know we’ll be working together at least through April, and, we hope, far beyond that. We are all happy, chatty, and energized.
Joey, the head costumer on set today, could be Vanessa Hudgens’ sexier older sister. She’s always dressed in a funky, layered way that I envy. Her sharp eye for detail and amazing memory (“You wore that blue shirt on the last episode,” she’ll say) help all of us look as authentic as possible. Today, I am wearing a new gray blazer (thanks, Mom!) over a black shirt and black dress pants. I’ve brought a black suit jacket and four other shirts. Joey quickly sizes me up, and tells me that since there are only two changes today, to wear the purple blouse with the black pants, no jacket, for the second change. “You look great,” she says, smiling, then turns her attention to the next in line.
Once I’m approved by Joey, I’m seated in front of the makeup mirror and the sweet Patty flat-irons my hair. We do our own makeup, but we also get the once-over from Makeup to make sure we’re not too shiny or too un-detective-y. By now everyone who is supposed to be here has arrived. There are a few new faces, but most of us have been here many times and know the drill by heart.
We’re getting to know each other. Danny, a regular detective, just welcomed a new baby girl into the world and proudly shows off her pictures on his phone. Those of us with kids compare notes on their progress. Andrew Buck, another regular who’s been working on the show since the pilot, not only works as a detective, but he’s often used as a stand-in for the guest actors. An artist by trade, Andrew’s been enjoying the work he’s gotten as an extra in Portland. Like a lot of the others in the group, he’s worked on “Portlandia” and “Leverage”, but he agrees that the “Grimm” set is something unique.
“’Grimm’ has presented opportunities and opened doors into the television industry on a scale that is exciting even from an extra’s perspective,” he says. “The scope and setting of Portland as a character of its own is great to see on the national platform as a native of this city. It’s great to be involved even in a small way with such a production and crew that takes the time to make even an extra feel appreciated.”
Soon, Jesse gathers up the uniformed officers and a couple of detectives to take to Stage 2, the precinct set. They’re shooting a scene where Nick is walking down the hallway and then into the precinct, speaking to his girlfriend, Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) on his cell phone. They’re discussing dinner plans; Paul Alary, a PA, reads Juliette’s lines, which Bitsie will perform later. To make the shot authentic, the extras will walk up and down the hall, or cross back and forth in the hallway perpendicular to the main hallway behind David as he walks. Even if we look like just a blur in the background, we make the show come to life. Without the background, the show would look like a badly staged play filmed for television. We make for a busy-looking bunch of police folk, I must say.
At 9:30, another PA summons the remaining detectives to the precinct. We walk to Stage 2 and onto the set. David and Russell are standing in the middle of the precinct, swaddled in their winter coats (it’s 34 degrees outside, and because heaters make noise, we can’t run them on the set, so it’s chilly in here. too). David greets me by name, and asks about my Thanksgiving. He and Russell were in the Thanksgiving Day Parade, and talk about how fun it was, that the weather wasn’t that bad and they were glad to have had that experience.“So,” I say to David, trying not to openly swoon (oh, those blue eyes!), “now that you know we have a full season, how does that change things for you?”
“Well, you’re not worried anymore,” he replies amiably, while Russell nods in agreement. “You know where you’re going to be for the next six months. You get more settled, you know your character’s going to have a longer trajectory. You can start asking questions like, ‘Where is my character heading?’ and you know there’s going to be an answer.”
David, like the rest of the cast, is still getting acclimated to Portland after spending so much time in Los Angeles: “Now, I just need a place to get my bumper fixed!”
While the crew is assembling the lights and cameras for the next shot, I walk over to my desk and find this note waiting for me…
… and for the rest of the day, I remain in Detective character and try to figure out who might be the author of the note. Ironically, I have no luck. I joke that I might need to turn in my badge if I can’t find the culprit. I can only assume it’s one of the crew guys who doesn’t know my name yet, despite the small tin of mints with “TARA” stamped on it resting near the notepad. I can’t help but smile every time I glance at it. It makes my day.
Angelo, he of the adorable dimples and dressed in his cop uniform, pretends he wrote it, but I know better. I show the note to Christine, Shawna, and Jill, who are occupying desks towards the back of the precinct. We joke that it’s from Giuntoli, who has anointed me with the rap nickname “T Dubz.” Yeah, that’s not the case.
While the crew basically remains the same for every episode, with the Assistant Directors (AD’s) taking turns for every other one, we get a new director every week. Today we are graced with the hilarious presence of a TV veteran who works very fast and swears like a stevedore. I immediately love him. He lopes about the set, his blue eyes bright and dancing mischievously all around him. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Creed from “The Office,” but is twice as funny without being at all creepy.
During the set up of a scene where the camera will be behind Russell’s desk (and where he will cross behind my chair, meaning I’m totally getting on camera in this episode, huzzah!), the director (sorry, he must remain nameless here) seats himself across from me at Paul’s desk and begins chatting with me. Most of the things he says are industry insider type things, and I lap it up like water. At one point, when an actor apologizes for flubbing a line, the director says, “Never apologize for working.” I am co-opting that as my new life motto. I want that tattooed on my back.
The scene with Russell and David is shot from several different angles, so that later, the editor has options when bringing the scene together. Whenever the camera moves, so do the lights, part of the set, anything that is in the way of getting the shot just right. I watch and listen as the director speaks to the cameramen, Tim and Elliott. This is the kind of thing you can’t learn in film school or from a textbook, and I’m hanging on every word.
All I have to do is sit at my desk and pretend to work and mime talking to the people who are directed to cross over to me. Quite often they bring me files, which are filled with sheets of paper lined with in-jokes. The Wanted one-sheets sport photos of crew members, with the most hilarious descriptions of their faux crimes. Jesse and the Second Assistant Director, Jackson, give the background, their direction based on what the director wants to see on camera. I have a special affinity for Jackson, a sweet teddy bear of a guy, because he once came over to my desk before a shot and physically moved my chair back about three inches. He smiled and said, “There. NOW you’re perfectly framed in the shot.”
That is the sort of thing that happens again and again on “Grimm.” Most of the time, seeing my elbow would suffice for the AD, as long as his star was in focus. But this is unlike any other acting experience any of us have ever had.
“The environment that’s created here, we all know our roles,” says my buddy Paul Jordan during a break. Paul is a strong, solid wall of a sharp-dressed man who is just sweet as anything, hence the nickname I’ve given him: Big Poppa. “It was made known to us that we’re a critical part of the show’s success, so you feel like you really belong. The PA’s want us to be successful, so they’re really happy for us when we get on camera.”
It’s this kind of feeling that keeps us driving in from all over the Portland Metro area and beyond to be a part of “Grimm”. Vancouver, Albany, Corbett, even Salem — and none of us would miss out on being here, not for all the traffic or bad weather in the world. It’s why we’ve all been able to connect with each other, in real life and on Facebook and Twitter. We’re getting closer and closer, and it’s all thanks to this show that was specifically written for Portland.
At 2:45, we break for lunch. On the way, I finally get to meet Bitsie (despite her name, she’s taller than I expected) and her adorable French bulldog, Henry. Bitsie and I have chatted on Twitter, but this is our first face-to-face meeting. Sasha Roiz, who plays Captain Sean Renard, stands next to me, petting Henry while the dog nips at his ankles. Sasha, tall and handsome, is an imposing figure on the set. He plays the Dude in Charge Who Has an Evil Secret, one we’re slowly discovering as the episodes progress. Since we only get to hear slivers of dialogue, out of order and out of context, we really have no idea what’s going on in this episode. Sasha, like all of the other actors, is very accessible and chats amiably with all of us.
Right: lunch! On some sets, the extras eat separately from the cast and crew, and maybe get cold sandwiches. On “Grimm”, we follow the cast and crew and sit amongst them under the Craft Services tent. There, everyone chooses from a generous buffet of hot items (usually chicken or fish, pasta for the vegetarians, an assortment of fresh vegetables and sides), salads, special desserts, and all the sodas of the carbonated rainbow. There’s also usually a carving station, and today I treat myself to two slices of steak with roasted fingerling potatoes, Caesar salad, fresh cantaloupe, and a blessedly ice-cold can of Diet Coke. We sit at long communal tables and remark on the quality of the food. Most of us live on ramen and grilled cheese, so we’re eating better here than we do at home. There really is no bidness like show bidness, especially when there’s cake!
I see Sasha again as I toss my recyclables and compostables (“Grimm” is a green set, of course). I say, “Dude, Sasha!”– (because this is how I can talk to him now)—“You were such a badass in Goat Guy episode!” If you haven’t seen it, Sasha’s Captain Renard corners a Reaper in his hotel room, makes the Reaper kneel before him, threatens him in French, and then severs the guy’s ear with his own scythe. If that’s not badass, I don’t know what is. Sasha laughs and thanks me. We are all in awe of this guy.
We’re all aware that this will be a shorter day on the set than others, but we also know we’ll be back for the next episode. The final scene in the precinct takes place inside of Captain Renard’s office, known as “the cage.” At certain angles, my back will be seen; from others, not at all. When I’m not in the shot, I can sit back and watch it all happen. It’s never boring for me. I’m not playing games on my cell phone to pass the time. I’m learning, every minute something new.
Once the director is satisfied with all of the takes he’s gotten in the Cage, everyone in the precinct is wrapped for the day, including David and Russell. They call warm goodbyes to everyone as we all hustle off the set. The sun has set, even though it’s barely past five p.m. Then it’s back to Extras Holding, where those in uniform change back into their civvies and return the clothes to Wardrobe. We all line up at Props to return our stuff to Stefan.Back in the office, Jesse and another PA, Paul Alary, sign us out for the day. The question most asked of Jesse, aside from “When’s lunch?” (which I never ask, because I think it’s rude) is “When are you going to need us again?” I know I’ll be back whenever they shoot in the precinct.
It’s a great feeling to belong to such an amazing group of creative, cool, fun people. No matter how many hours I spend on that set, it never feels like enough. The most exhilarating thing is to watch the work and then see how it comes together, knowing what it took to get those shots, that angle, that performance. It’s just the coolest experience.
Well, that and being able to see yourself on the teevee…