March 8, 1998 in Features

Tinseltown Dreams Extras Are Hooked On Hollywood, Hoping To Make It Big

Story By Jim Kershner
 

This Hollywood thing of Nancy Hanks’ - some would call it a “midlife crisis.” But Hanks wouldn’t. This 48-year-old Wallace, Idaho, woman calls it a journey, an awakening, an adventure. In fact, “midlife crisis” trivializes the most exciting experiment she has ever conducted with her life.

Like Clark Kent, Hanks has slipped into a phone booth and emerged a new person. She went in as a buyer of Boeing airplane parts; she emerged as a Hollywood player.

A bit player, maybe, but a player. These Walter Mitty stories take time.

In September, Hanks packed up her belongings, locked up her Wallace house and moved to Hollywood. Her mission: to become an actress and a screenwriter. So far, she has shopped a screenplay around with few nibbles and worked dozens of jobs as an extra on shows like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Star Trek Voyager.” She has hobnobbed with Elliott Gould and traded witticisms with Garry Marshall.

“It’s a journey, not a goal, so I’m not really grading it along the way like that,” said Hanks. “As far as journeys go, I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

The seeds of this new life lay dormant for decades. In her youth, Hanks was an actress and performer, appearing in shows at the Spokane Civic Theatre. But then she fell into a life that was as far away from the creative arts as possible. She was living in Seattle, working for the Boeing Co. as a “requirement support specialist in materiel,” a job she said was every bit as exciting as its title.

“I was living in Seattle in this four-bedroom house with a rec room and huge yard to take care of, and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I don’t need this. I don’t want this,”’ said Hanks, the divorced mother of a grown son. “What am I supposed to really be doing with myself? Buying airplane parts or what?”

So in 1993 she took a voluntary layoff and moved to Wallace to care for her grandmother. Some of those dormant seeds reawakened

She started writing some fiction (“amateur fiction,” she called it) and showing it to friends.

And then came “Dante’s Peak.” She didn’t actually work on this Wallace-filmed blockbuster, but she helped cover it for a low-power TV station in Kellogg. She became enthralled with the excitement of moviemaking, the power of the medium.

One day, she was sitting in the middle of her living room floor, asking herself, and God, questions such as, “Why the hell am I here?” Suddenly she walked over to her computer and started writing.

When she stopped, two days later, she had written what looked like a movie.

In fact, she had written a screenplay called “Dream Gulch” about a young actress who comes to Wallace to star in a big-time movie and ends up chucking it all and staying in Idaho.

She and some friends actually filmed this little half-hour story for the Kellogg TV station.

“It was very amateurish, but boy, I got bitten by the bug,” she said.

This was no nibble. She was bitten hard. Even now she has trouble explaining what happened.

“This gets a little weird, probably,” she said. “I really believe that everybody has something they’re supposed to do in their lives.

“A lot of people miss that, and I think I was missing it. You know when you’re doing it. You’re just happier than you’ve ever been.”

Writing and creating stories for movies did that for her. But why movies? Why not short stories or novels?

“Right now, there is no greater medium than the screen,” she said. “It is the most influential tool we have right now. Our ideals are being transferred through this medium.

“I want to be part of that. I need to be part of that.”

So she went Hollywood. Her first stop on this journey was a most unlikely one. She stayed with the Sisters of St. Mary’s, an Episcopal convent near Pasadena. She had heard that the nuns sometimes put up travelers, and she thought that a week or two in a convent might be a good buffer for Hollywood culture shock. It worked perfectly.

“Sister Elizabeth was really excited about it,” said Hanks. “She always introduced me as a screenwriter. She’s so cute!

“Then I’d get into these long discussions where I would explain that I wasn’t really a screenwriter yet, just aspiring to be.”

The nuns provided more than a safe haven; they provided her with show-biz contacts. They may be nuns, but they’re Tinsel Town nuns.

After a week she found her own apartment in North Hollywood, and she immediately began getting work as an extra. Her plan was to work as an extra as a way of gaining entree into Hollywood and to meet producers who might be interested in her scripts.

The jobs came far easier than she imagined.

“It was surprising to me the amount of work down here,” said Hanks. “You can work any day you want to in Los Angeles on a movie or TV set.”

Her picture is on file at an agency. She calls in the morning to see who needs an extra of her type (middle-aged, female, white), and most days, there’s a job if she wants it. This, despite the fact that hundreds of people from all over the country converge on L.A. every day to do the same thing.

“I met this one guy who worked in a car lot in Oregon,” she said. “He comes down here six months of the year to try to get his Screen Actors Guild card.”

She has appeared in the background on shows everyone has heard of (“Third Rock from the Sun”) and shows that nobody has heard of (“Jess and Jess,” an Elliott Gould vehicle that isn’t even out yet).

The pay, unfortunately, is not exactly the same for the Nancy Hankses of the world as it is for the Tom Hankses. It boils down to about $5 an hour, meaning an average day’s work nets only about $32. Hanks has quickly learned to spot jobs that promise more - jobs that go over eight hours, or even over 12 hours.

Once overtime kicks in, she has hauled in as much as $115 per day, plus all the catered food she can eat.

Still, she said she has been doing secretarial work on the side as a temp, “just to pay bills.”

Her goal, along with most of her fellow extras, is to get a Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG) card. You do this by getting three SAG vouchers, given when an extra is promoted on set to fill in for a SAG actor.

Hanks has only one voucher. It can take months or even years to get three vouchers, but once it happens, Hanks will be eligible to get an agent, get speaking roles and to get union scale.

However, Hanks’ ultimate goal is to sell a screenplay. Her acting is strictly a way to make contacts with directors and producers, and so far, that hasn’t quite worked out.

At one time, she imagined she could hobnob with Hollywood big shots between scenes and casually drop feelers like this into the conversation: “By the way, Mr. Spielberg, I have a screenplay that you might be interested in.”

So far, her only contact with Mr. Spielberg has been a rejection letter from his company.

One day, however, she received the chance she had been dreaming of. She was an extra on the set of “The Other Sister,” a movie directed by Garry (“Pretty Woman”) Marshall.

They were on location in a gymnasium at a Long Beach high school, and it had been a long, frantic day. Hanks was seeking some peace and quiet on the bleachers, behind a curtain, when here came somebody else seeking some peace and quiet.

The man sat down beside her and closed his eyes.

“He said, ‘I just had to get away from everybody. I had to find a place where nobody knew who I was,”’ said Hanks. “I said, “Garry, everybody knows who you are!”’

Here was her perfect chance! A big director, all to herself. But her own sense of decency got the best of her.

“At that point of the day, when you’ve been sweating all day long - well, there are times you can bring things up and times where it’s not a good idea,” she said.

So she left him in peace.

Oh, well. There will be other opportunities. In fact, just recently she met a producer on the set of “Dr. Quinn” who is now giving her screenplay a look.

That screenplay, by the way, is called “Dream Gulch.” It’s the same one she wrote back in Wallace, another life ago, although she has revised it extensively since then.

“You never know what’s around the next corner,” said Hanks.

Neither did Rick Douglas, now a news anchor at KHQ-6 in Spokane, when he put his TV career on hiatus in 1993 and went to Hollywood to become an actor.

He, too, landed some jobs as an extra (“Tales From the Crypt”) and auditioned for some larger speaking roles. He got some serious nibbles, but his money ran out before anything panned out.

He came back to Spokane six months later to get back into TV news. He learned a few things along the way.

“It was an amazing extrapolation to go from having been in a Spokane Civic play to being the next Tom Hanks,” he said. “I knew that. But if you don’t do it, you’ll never know.”

Far from being discouraging about Nancy Hanks’ quest, Douglas thinks she’s doing exactly the right thing. In fact, he looks back on his days in Hollywood with immense fondness.

“It was quixotic and ill-advised in some respects, especially in terms of money,” said Douglas. “But not in terms of happiness.

“I found it immensely fulfilling. I’d do it again in a New York minute.”

His advice for Hanks is simple: Don’t get discouraged.

So Hanks is not exactly rehearsing her Oscar speech yet. But she is enjoying this journey more than she even imagined.

“I was going to go back to Idaho in the summer, but now I don’t think I’m going to,” said Hanks. “I think I’ll just stay down here and keep at it.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn


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