31 August 2013: Casting call, Cambridge
After spotting a poster advertising for extras in Cambridge, I arrive with a crowd of hopefuls at the Arts School Lecture Theatre off Bene’t Street. The film being cast is The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with motor neuron disease while studying at Cambridge, just as his brilliance was beginning to emerge. All shapes, sizes and ages have turned up and we’re measured, photographed then herded into what feels like an exam hall to fill in our personal details. For some reason I panic and put ‘dancing’ in the box marked ‘special talents’. I can throw some moves on a Friday night but I’m hardly RADA trained – I hope they won’t look too much into that one.
11 September 2013: Costume fitting, Borehamwood
This place is huge! I’m in what looks like the biggest fancy dress shop ever. There are walls of hats and gowns from every era – even a whole row, 20ft high, dedicated solely to trench coats in varying shades of beige. By a rail of 1960s ballgowns I meet my costume lady, armed with my measurements and several garments for me to try. The attention to historical detail is unflinching: all costumes are 100% authentic, down to my pointy 60s style bra.
I’ve been selected for three days of filming and the dress I’m trying is for a May Ball scene where the two leads share their first kiss. It’s full length, floral, pale blue and rib-squeezingly tight, but gives me a tiny waist I could certainly get used to. Then I’m handed a less glamorous wool skirt and frumpy (very battered) shoes for a day scene. I look like my 90-year-old grandma.
Next up: hair. At the casting call they’d made a big fuss of my barnet – it’s gingery blonde, but apparently that’s unusual and therefore good. I watch the extra beside me receive a miraculous updo and giddily await the sophisticated transformation I’m about to undergo.
“Here we go, just hold this at the front!” comes a voice, and a stretchy stocking is forced onto my head, followed by a cropped, wiry ginger wig. More Cilla Black than Joan Holloway, then.
25 September: First day of filming
10am: A marquee has appeared at St John’s College playing fields. Outside it doesn’t look like much, but inside it’s abuzz with chattering extras. We’ve been ferried in from designated pick-up points (everything is VERY organised) to film a day scene in St John’s quad where Eddie, as Stephen Hawking, trips up – poor co-ordination being an early sign of the disease.
There’s a split in the marquee between young guys and girls (playing students) and older blokes (dons). I’m not-so-secretly smug at having been cast as a student at 27. Not that mine is the biggest ego here. My first conversation is with a don who proudly recalls playing a soldier in the Elizabeth films and making Cate Blanchett laugh. There are theatre students everywhere, clearly hopeful that this could be their big break.
In make-up (hello, wig), I discover the lady working on me as also beautified Mila Kunis – new claim to fame in the bag. The department is huge: there must be 20 ladies working on the extras alone. We also have our own director, a wiry chap whose main job is to tell us off for talking on set and remind us not to look at the camera. For all this, says my make-up lady, sticking grips into my skull, week-long scenes with hundreds of extras wearing complicated prosthetics can be scrapped in a second.
Predictably, there’s a lot of sitting around. Phones are strictly forbidden so some read; others knit. We’re given a cooked breakfast in the marquee then finally get the call and tramp en masse into college for our first glimpse of the set.
1.30pm: Eddie Redmayne has fallen flat on his face in front of me. I’m supposed to chat with a don about my thesis on the lawn (it’s Oscar-winning miming), before we rush towards him, looking shocked. Actually, Eddie has a stunt ‘collapser’, dressed in the same brown tweed and glasses, and the pavement too is false: a convincing painted sponge which people keep walking on, to the annoyance of the director. We shoot this scene all afternoon, the action freezing and unfreezing to the sounds of ‘cut!’ and ‘background action!’ (this gets the extras moving first, so the stars walk into a scene already in motion). I also learn about ‘banana-ing’ – walking in a curved trajectory which apparently looks more natural in a long shot.
7.30pm: De-wigged, back into my 21st century togs and home.
26 September: You shall go to the ball!
2.30pm: A morning at Edition towers then back to film the May Ball scene. There’s a pre-party buzz in the marquee as we get dressed up: the guys look adorable but awkward in their tuxes – even more so when we’re given an impromptu dance class and told to invent a backstory with our new love interests.
6pm: It’s dark and chilly when we’re called and my vintage sandals hurt, but all’s forgotten at the sight of the St John’s grounds dressed for a 1960s ball. It’s like a fairyland: the lawns are festooned with twinkling lights, there’s a spectacular, working steam carousel and little tables set with champagne glasses everywhere. Eddie and Felicity (Jones, playing Jane Hawking) arrive in big coats, talk seriously and do some mouth exercises before the cameras roll. With my new friend for the scene, I stagger tipsily (though it’s actually ginger ale in my glass) towards some fairground mirrors, laugh, then repeat.
Later: It’s very cold. The costume department throw blankets over us between scenes and I stamp my bare toes on the wet grass to keep them from going completely numb. I’ve noticed Eddie and Felicity get hot water bottles as well as coats… I guess that’s what they call star treatment.
2.30am: Done. I drive home to snatch a few hours sleep before my 7.30am alarm rings for work. Why did I sign up for this?!
27 September: Stephen on set
2.30pm: Same drill: gown, wig, make-up, food, wait. 6pm: Back to the ball, but this time I’m dancing. There’s no music, so we groove to our own beat in what’s hopefully an early-60s style. Like a basilisk the camera snakes among us and we keep our eyes averted, everyone dancing like their lives depend on it, secretly hoping we’re that bit better than everyone else…
Later: There’s a rumour flying that Stephen Hawking is coming to visit the set. Sure enough, a big shiny van rolls up and the genius behind black holes emerges. We’re firmly instructed NOT to talk to him, instead he and Eddie hang out. Earlier, on our dinner break (hot chicken dish wrapped in foil – delicious actually) I stole away to watch a cameraman looking back over an earlier scene. It showed a figure in a wheelchair crossing the Bridge of Sighs and I honestly couldn’t tell if it was Stephen or Eddie. This film is going to be good.
1.20am: The food tent is filled with hunched bodies. Some cluster round the heater, another is asleep on the ground. Bow ties and posh shoes peep from grey blankets and silence reigns: it looks like we’ve been rescued from the Titanic. We haven’t been in a scene in hours. Eddie and Felicity are kissing on St John’s Bridge but for us the magic has gone. I poke my itchy, bewigged head out of the tent and spy a group escaping early. I abandon my fellow refugees (and all thoughts of stardom) and flee after them, dreaming of my bed.
The following day, Saturday, I sleep until noon then wake with a temperature. My first experience as an extra has been incredible: I’m broken, but it’s been a rare treat to glimpse behind the scenes of such a beautiful film. I’ve attended my first ever May Ball – in the 1960s, no less – and been paid for the privilege. And while my phone’s hardly ringing off the hook with movie offers, if I spot the back of my head in just one scene, well, that’s good enough for me.