AMAN, Jordan — The night before the big shoot, I got a call from the extras coordinator. I was to show up the next day on set as a business traveler passing through Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport on his way to Iraq.
As someone who regularly travels to Iraq on business via Queen Alia, this didn’t seem all that complicated: To my mind, she was asking me to wear what I do just about every day — a pair of khaki pants and a plaid, collared shirt.
Still, I confirmed with the extras coordinator that my “authentic” outfit would be OK. More than 7,500 miles from Hollywood and I was already prepared to sell myself out to make it onto the big screen.
I'd volunteered to be an extra in a Doug Liman movie filming in Amman in the hope of getting a little first-hand experience in Jordan's budding film industry. Even before he took the throne, King Abdullah II, a friend of Stephen Spielberg, had been working to make his country a destination for international filmmakers.
The Liman film, "Fair Game," tells the story of the former CIA agent Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) who was outed by the Bush administration. An ambitious project, Liman even traveled to Iraq to collect footage for the film, though most of the movie’s “Iraq” scenes were, in fact, shot in Jordan neighborhoods doctored to look like Baghdad.
Sadly for me, I found out about the movie too late to nab the role I coveted: a U.S. soldier at a checkpoint when it is attacked by insurgents. As a reporter, I’ve spent a significant amount of time embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, so I'd have been eager to see Hollywood recreate an American patrol coming under fire. I’ll also admit that I thought it would be pretty cool to be on set with pyrotechnics going off.
Instead, I got the airport scene. Not exactly exciting, but as I was later told by one of the film’s producers, it was the first time a film crew in Jordan had been given that level of access to the airport. So while I’d be more or less re-enacting a normal day in my life, I was at least participating in a red-letter day for Jordanian filmmakers.
In the airport parking lot on the morning of the shoot, extras indulged in the time-honored tradition of pilfering the food table as we waited to report to our positions on set.
A costume designer surveyed us. She came to my friend, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan who had been told to dress like, well, a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan. The night before she’d been ordered to wear something colorful, maybe a flowing skirt, but in the morning she was deemed to not be Peace Corps enough, so had to change into a form-fitting shirt and skirt that she says would have caused scandal in her old Peace Corps village.
My plaid shirt was also apparently too bland. I was ordered to change into a Hawaiian shirt that I would have been embarrassed to wear on any other occasion. In Iraq it would have made me stand out so much so that I would have considered it a safety hazard. But I was no longer going to Iraq. I was headed to the tropics. A sign that they had recognized me as being above typecasting, I thought to myself.
Inside the airport, the extras did what people do in an airport: check in, walk to their gate, wait in line, etc. In the scene, Watts, as Plame is supposed to send an Iraqi doctor back to Baghdad as a CIA spy. Though Jordan is next door to Iraq and there are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis living in the country, the Iraqi doctor was played by Liraz Charhi, an Israeli actress.
As we all waited for the crew to set up their cameras, I stood with a herd of extras about 30 feet away from Naomi Watts. “Do you want me to take your picture with Naomi?” asked a Jordanian extra standing next to me.
I flashed back to a story my New York friend, who works on big budget films, told me about doing a movie with Sarah Jessica Parker. According to my friend, at one point during the filming a memo was circulated to the entire cast and crew informing them Sarah Jessica Parker was not to be called Sarah or Jessica, but Sarah Jessica.
Sure, Naomi had been friendly enough a few hours earlier during a break when I asked her to move out of the way so I could get a candy bar from the food table, but I didn’t think the exchange had elevated our relationship to the point where we could start taking personal pictures together.
I tried to explain to my fellow extra that such a move might actually get us kicked off the set. Another extra, a Spanish fellow who’d managed to sneak into the duty free shop to buy a carton of discounted cigarettes, partially agreed, but I was accused of being too uptight all the same.
Several weeks after the shoot, I met with a Jordanian film worker who had served as part of the local crew for "Fair Game." When I mentioned that I’d been an extra in the film, she immediately asked, “Did you get your picture with Naomi?”
I assumed she meant, “Had there been an official opportunity to take your picture with the stars?” So I told her the story of the other extra’s offer to snap my photo with her, thinking that she’d agree it was a funny story.
“Why didn’t you?” She exclaimed. “You’re not going to get kicked off the set! This is Jordan, not Hollywood!”