Horror Film: My Very Short Career in the Movies

Horror Film: My Very Short Career in the Movies McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2002 > Summer 2002 > Horror Film: My Very Short Career in the Movies

Horror Film: My Very Short Career in the Movies

McGill's Stone Age Scholar

by Hélèna Katz, BA'87

I was hunched over, lacing up my boots, when the wardrobe lady walked over and told me to step on it. I still had my slip, corset, dress and shawl to put on. "We're sending you to base camp," she added, without further explanation. Is that where they send people to teach them to dress faster, my sleep-deprived brain naively wondered. Base camp, it turned out, was the trailer where my blonde hair was pinned up and a hideous curly white wig glued to my head. It was to be but one of the indignities I would endure during my 14 hours on the film set of P.T. Barnum.

I never wanted to be in the movies, but when a casting agent phoned me out of the blue and asked if I would be an extra in a Beau Bridges film being shot in Montreal, curiosity got the better of me. A friend of a friend had passed on my name. A month later, I stumbled bleary-eyed at dawn into a large, drafty warehouse.

The first clue that I wasn't just another extra in a crowd scene came when I was asked to fill out a form. Then I was sent to wardrobe to pick up my costume. "What's your number?" the man demanded. "I don't have one," I timidly replied. "Every extra has a number," he insisted. It was starting to feel like the first day of university, when you can't do anything without a student number.


When I finally got my costume, the tag on it read, "Scene 125, albino woman." As an albino woman in real life, this wouldn't be a big stretch for me. Apparently I had a non-speaking role as an exhibit in P.T. Barnum's museum. People often stare at me for being so fair -- well, at least now I'd be getting paid $17 an hour for it.

Barnum was a marketing genius who, according to one biography, "had a knack for convincing people to part with their money." He opened a museum in New York City in the mid-1800s where he exhibited what he billed as "500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe." One big draw, the "Feejee Mermaid," turned out to be the top of a monkey sewn onto the body of a fish, but that didn't daunt ticket buyers. He also offered performances featuring wild animals and melodramas in a theatre he called the "Lecture Room." He toured Europe with the museum's star attraction, "Tom Thumb," and eventually founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

As I was laced into my corset by the wardrobe lady, I could feel my ribs closing in menacingly on my lungs. Deep breaths would have to wait until the shoot was over. No wonder nineteenth-century women were prone to fainting -- they couldn't get enough air into their lungs and oxygen to their brains.

After dressing, I climbed into a car with "albino man" for a trip to the hairdresser at base camp and more humiliation. My wig of white curls looked suspiciously like a mop. The itchiness would drive me crazy for the rest of the day, as would the hairdresser constantly hovering around me like a large, annoying mosquito.

What followed were stretches of boredom punctuated by excursions onto the set every few hours for takes. I would clamber up into the three-sided cubicle where albino man and I were on display in Barnum's museum as a crowd of extras filed past. Half an hour on, two or three hours off. The holding area for extras just off set had a table on one side with bottled water and snacks for grazing.

Worst of all were the "pee pee" chairs. Whenever your bladder sent you a signal, you sent one to the film assistant and everyone else in the room by sitting in one of the designated "pee pee" chairs. Once they were full of people with crossed legs and brimming bladders, the assistant took everyone to the washroom at once. Kind of like when you were in kindergarten.

And have you ever tried stuffing yourself into a bathroom cubicle wearing a hoop-skirted dress wider than the stall? Trying to manoeuvre myself into position was a time-consuming challenge. I decided to restrict my bathroom breaks to avoid yet more humiliation.

There's one character who, I suppose, is bound to show up on every set. An agent. This one walked up to me, handed me his card and told me to call him. He wanted me to join his menagerie of "special cases," he said. He already represented the albino man, the giant and a couple of other Barnum "freaks" huddled together in one corner of the room. He asked if I knew an albino girl in Longueuil, a Montreal suburb. "No," I replied frostily, "I don't know every albino in the area."

I never did see the movie about P.T. Barnum, so I don't know whether my scene ended up on the cutting room floor. But the memories of that day still play vividly in my brain.

Hélèna Katz, a Montreal writer, did appear briefly in the film. The illustration is a promotional poster for Barnum's New York museum.

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