Instead of “Curtain Up!” it was “Lights! Camera! Action!” as Queens Theatre, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, served as a site for the recently released film, “Love Is Strange.”
Shot last year at various locations around the city, including a couple of apartments in Jackson Heights, the film opened to strong reviews, with critics calling it “a warm, humane romance” and a movie about “things that actually matter in life.”
While it is perhaps premature for me to start polishing my Academy Awards acceptance speech, I was, after all, intimately involved in the making of the film.
Call that exaggeration, if you will. I was hired to be one of the film’s extras, more commonly referred to nowadays as “background actors.”
While I’ve been in the theater for years, “Love Is Strange” served as my first motion picture experience. In one scene, which took much of a day to film, I was part of the audience at a classical music concert, with Queens Theatre standing in for Manhattan’s Merkin Concert Hall.
I was seated three or four rows in front of John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, as director Ira Sachs called for take after take.
Cameramen reset their equipment and, for variety’s sake, members of the audience were asked to play musical chairs.
“It’s camera magic,” Sachs told us, explaining how an audience of 50 would be made to look like 200. “Don’t be bothered by that.”
Among the others participating in the crowd scene was Gerry Gazzara, whose late husband, Pasquale, was a cousin of actor Ben Gazzara.
Like many on hand, the part-time secretary from Flushing received an email from the theater earlier in the morning on the day of shooting asking her to be part of the experience.
“It’s not my cup of tea,” she thought to herself, “but my son said, ‘You might have fun.’”
Anita and Jack, a real-life married couple from Whitestone, were also invited by the theater.
“I jumped out of my seat,” Anita recalled. “It’s amazing how long it takes to do one short, little scene.”
Perhaps even more challenging were the prolonged periods of down time, during which the background actors had a chance to munch on wraps, oatmeal cookies and mixed nuts, while getting to know each other.
“I got a little glimpse of the time and effort and monotony that goes on. It’s enlightening,” Gazzara said. “I don’t want to be a movie star.”
Alescia Peyton might be more easily persuaded. Sitting on the sidelines waiting for the next take, the former professional dancer and model was recurling her hair and refreshing her makeup. She said she had done background work about 25 years ago.
“My kids are grown. Now I can have fun,” she said. “I enjoyed it. I have the time now. I think I’m going to keep doing it.”
Kim Howard said she had already worked background in nearly a dozen films, and has even gotten paid from time to time, though she said it is not something she pursues aggressively.
Of the latest shoot, she said, “It was so easy. Ira was wonderful. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina were cracking jokes and making people feel like they were having a good time. I look forward to tonight. It’ll be great.”
Wrapping up at the theater, the crew was headed for additional work on location in Manhattan later that evening, where much of the film was shot.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and was an official selection at festivals in Tribeca, Berlin and Los Angeles. It had its New York and Los Angeles openings last Friday, with a wider release coming this week.