Extended Eye Contact with a Stranger, Or, How I Inadvertently Became a Paid Face

I received a call on a sunny Sunday morning. “We’d like you to come out to a casting call for [well known and loved video chatting software company] on Wednesday. It’s for the part of ‘female lovebird.’ Dress like you would on a date with someone you really like. Are you interested?”

Last summer I had submitted my info and a couple photos on a lark to be an extra on Portlandia. I made the list of extras, but never set foot on set. Apparently the company that cast the show still had me on file, and between them, the San Francisco ad agency, and the software company they narrowed down a field of possible lovebirds to include me.

Wednesday morning I show up to a studio in an industrial north Portland neighborhood looking like this.


Cheeseball cell phone self portrait, stumpifying limbs since 2007.

I had agonized over my outfit. Scrolling through the photos on my phone will show I tried at least 5 others, sending them to girlfriends for advice (as well as getting Sean’s in person opinion). I even curled my hair, something I’ve done maybe three other times in my life.

I saw only one other girl who was my competition during my brief time at the casting call. A short, petite brunette who was definitely cute, but chose a more Portland hipster look for the occasion. Considering I was the exact opposite, I figured it could go either way.

I filled out a form, they took some photos, and I briefly joked with the photographer about having acting experience. First answer to his inquiry: “No, not really.” Second, after dramatically whirling around: “But! I could.”

Late Friday I received a simultaneous text and email saying I had received the part, and it would shoot the following Wednesday. I sent them my acceptance, personal information (including clothing sizes), and over the next few days emailed with the stylist and the producer about what I should bring (flats, heels, nude bra, same lipstick I wore to the casting call) and that I was curl my hair as before and not wear makeup. I also badgered the producer about more information on the project, inquiring about the agency handling it and what type of campaign this was for. My advertising major, geeked out enthusiasm was thinly veiled and I totally betrayed my act of being cool.

That Wednesday I went to work for a few hours before zipping home, spending an hour curling my hair (it seriously takes that long), and heading over to the cavernous warehouse space where the shoot was happening. Getting there 15 minutes early allowed a chance to sneak a peek at my “male lovebird” counterpart– a well dressed and coiffed dude that looked like a slightly Japanese Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The producer and I went over my personal details (including the all important address for sending the paycheck), the stylist showed me my outfit (a blue gingham dress startlingly similar to one I own already with a bright yellow cardigan) in a couple sizes, and then I aimlessly wandered around the warehouse, waiting for “my moment.”

There were representatives from the ad agency and the software company were camped out on a table, all furiously typing away on their Macbooks, none of them talking to each other. I felt riotously uncool. Later in the day when I asked the table a question regarding the producer’s location, it took them a good 5 seconds to recognize someone was talking to them. It was awkward.

The smaller sized dress fit me perfectly, but we declared it “too booby.” Well, only I used that phrase– they much more diplomatically decided “more fabric” was a better option. So I wore the larger dress, and we yanked it up and tightened the straps so that my cleavage wasn’t a distraction from the large button that read, “I’ve upgraded!” on it. The bright yellow cardigan was pinned to the dress, and after a debate between the stylist and photographer as to how the cardigan was to open on my chest (“Should it lay like this or like… this?”), they taped it to my skin so it didn’t move during the shoot. A disturbingly small amount of makeup was put on my face and I was determined to be ready to roll.

Note wonky bustline, candy pink nails, and the “I’ve upgraded!” button.

The camera set up was the most professional I’d ever seen. But then again I haven’t been around very many professional shoots that aren’t using natural lighting as its main light source. The camera and its ring flash were gigantic (so much so that the photog had to take frequent breaks to rest his arms), and the lighting set up was fascinating. They had me use my own phone (“Is it an iPod? No? Awesome.”) and I would pretend like I was texting, and then when prompted, look up at the camera like I was trying to stay engaged in a conversation while texting. Since I have totally practiced that face dozens of times, I nailed that shit. Only halfway through the shoot did someone from the software company think to ask me if my Android phone was the kind that allowed video chatting. When I said it didn’t, they went through the shots on a mega computer screen and determined it could be Photoshopped to avoid the inevitable tech nerd backlash.

That’s me on the screen, the photographer assessing, and the software company dude is about two seconds out of the frame. Since I was already using my phone, I snapped a pic.

When I wasn’t pretending to text, I was smiling. A lot. Sometimes directly at the camera, and sometimes I was looking off camera. During those times they had me maintain eye contact with a photo assistant, and let me tell you, extended eye contact with a stranger is awkward. Even more so when you have to lovingly smile at him, or pretend to laugh, or look like you’re sharing a secret. I felt like I was flirting, but doing so for a really drawn out period of time while being analyzed by a half dozen people. I made sure to mention at some point I had a fiance just so he didn’t get any ideas.

In between takes I’d contort my face and make fishy faces just to stretch my muscles– smiling that much was actually becoming strenuous. And it was hot under those lights– my feet were definitely sweaty. Every now and then the stylist or her assistant would come over, blot my nose or adjust my curls or my sweater. They would all talk with each other about my smile or my hair like I wasn’t a conscious person attached to them and within earshot– I started feeling like a face rather than a person. Quite like a piece of meat. It was weird. Suddenly any notion of my intelligence or skills or experience was a non-issue… I was “the talent” and my job was taking direction and not appearing too hideous. Most of them didn’t even recall my name, they just referred to me as “our lady lovebird.”

After 3 hours at the studio the shoot was complete. I shook hands with the people involved and changed back into my less clean-cut street clothes, and that was it. The second I changed clothes I was done, and clearly it was time to leave as they were moving on to their next model– a dude with giant sideburns whom they dressed in acid wash denim and a vest and referred to as “throwback guy.” I departed and despite the all of the awkwardness, felt like I had accomplished a little bit of something. Outside the sun was shining and I determined a beer on the front porch was the perfect way to celebrate my afternoon as a model.


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2 Responses to “Extended Eye Contact with a Stranger, Or, How I Inadvertently Became a Paid Face”

  1. Baron Ritter Gustav von Swabenland Says:

    “You’re a star! You’re on top! Somebody bring you some haaaam…!”

    This is so cool. I think I speak for everyone when I say we look forward to seeing whatever results from this shoot 🙂

  2. Secrets Behind the Photo « Madam von Sassypants Says:

    […] experience also explains my naive surprise at the elaborate set up at the photo shoot I did earlier this summer. I had never really seen an honest-to-goodness commercial photo shoot that wasn’t at least […]

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