On Set With Winona

Thursday, Mar 29, 2012

The following article, originally published in the Winona Fanzine UK, was written by a fan who describes how he landed a part as a crowd extra in the opera scene for The Age of Innocence.


In early 1992, I heard that The Age of Innocence, then entering production, would be filming on location in New York and Philadelphia (my home). I was alert to the possibility of trying out as an extra, and the local newspaper entertainment section finally mentioned that there would be an open casting call at a downtown hotel. As I was “between jobs” at the time, I was available to give it a shot.

Extra casting doesn’t really involve an audition. They’re really just seeking people with the appropriate look. In this case, they were somewhat frustrated, in that the 1870s opera audience they sought to fill would ideally be made up of middle-aged to older people…i.e, the sort least likely to take two or three working days off to “go be in a show”. I think I owe my good fortune at being selected to the fact that I was more “conventional” looking than many of the hip young “actor” types who showed up. I was one of about 100 people who were lined up as extras in advance and fitted for costumes. Ultimately they “shanghaied” about 200-300 more people during the two days of shooting and dressed them in rented tuxes or plain dresses to fill out the background. Even then, they resorted to cardboard cut-outs placed in the Academy of Music seats to make the place look full.

There were two days of shooting involving the audience, each lasting about 10 hours. The second day merely consisted of pan shots of the crowd (of which literally only a couple of seconds were used in the film) without the principal actors present. On the first day, however we were the background for the opening scenes of the film.

As the action of the opening scenes takes place in the character’s private boxes around the proscenium, they were kept rather separate from we rabble down in the cheap seats. Between takes Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona were escorted briskly through the mob to their trailers. Somebody did manage to catch Geraldine Chaplin (Mrs Welland) and say hello when she lagged behind the entourage. Somebody else shook hands with Richard E Grant (Larry Lefferts), who was in the ground-level bow right next to me, during a lull. Generally though, the extras seemed to want to avoid making nuisances of themselves. The only “brush with Winona” I can claim, occurred at the beginning of the first day. As we extras filed in and took our seats in no particular order, Winona was the first of the principal actors to enter the second level box.

She seemed both self-conscious and amused at being on display above us all, dressed in ruffled and glittering Cinderella-like ball gown. I later overheard two older women aptly describe her as looking like a fairy princess. Before adjusting her skirts to sit down, she gave a “royal” wave to the crowd, and blew a few kisses as if she were Princess Grace, or perhaps Evita. There was laughter and applause and waving in response.

When she was seated, she glanced over to the corner where I was sitting alone at the time (Front Row, Stage Left corner). Seeing me waving, she smiled and returned my wave (thus rendering me giddy for the duration of the production). I made the most to observe, if not speak to Winona. I noted that she and Michelle Pfeiffer seemed to get along very well. I later read that the two of them were socially friendly, and actually took at least one art class together.

While Winona looked even more ethereally slender in person than she appears on screen, she didn’t appear to have a very restricted diet. She struggled during one break to eat a chocolate-frosted donut without messing up her gown.

The day after my stint as an extra, I returned to watch the filming of an exterior scene (which required blocking half of Broad Street with dirt, and filling the trees and side-walk in front of the Academy of Music with artificial snow. While Winona was not present for this scene, I ran into a local University of Pennsylvania student who, finding me willing to listen, related how he had sneaked onto the set with some friends earlier in the day. This, he reported, was ridiculously easy. They just picked up a roll of cable and some tools, and were assumed to be part of the crew. While it seemed that neither he nor his friends were either dangerous,or even obsessive fans, merely curious thrill-seekers, I found the lax security a bit disturbing. The guy did have some stories though. Apparently the cast grew a bit tired of the the two-minute snipped of Gounod’s “Faust” which was played over and over through successive takes. Winona suggested that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” would be a good change of pace, and during one take, a stage-hand apparently found a tape and obliged. At some point my source ran into Winona in a hallway, and said hello. He noted that she merely seemed surprised, returned his hello, and hurried on her way.

Eventually, someone noticed that a couple of the crew didn’t have even the crude, photocopied I.D. Badges that they should, and the Penn guys beat a hasty retreat. No more than a few minutes after my source told me his tale, I saw a local cop and some of the film crew catch up with him and hustle him off. I doubt they did more than give him a stern talking-to, and recover the pair of pliers he took as a souvenir.

I found my experience as an extra fascinating and exhausting. We had to stand outside the auditorium for hours at a time when silence was required to film dialogue inside. The starched, near rigid, Victorian waistcoat I wore enforced good posture, and made the standing that much more tiring. The result of our two days’ work was approximately two to three minutes of screen time at the beginning of the movie, in which practically none of the extras are visible. Fortunately, I was able to spot myself at the moment when Daniel Day-Lewis takes his seat in the Welland family box. I am thus privileged to be captured in the same frame as Winona for posterity, as well as hold the image of her wave in my heart forever. 

4 Comments on “On Set With Winona”

  1. hi winona please tell me,love you,I do not want to bother you,
    but only ,let you know that I exist, and I hope you will read what the eyes ‘are your really, everything you do and’ beautiful, so it ‘hard to tell what and’ better, write me, I think …. francesco … . <3 <3 <3

  2. Great read really interesting. How can I get a copy of this winona magazine?

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