Excited about the fourth season of Key and Peele (Sept. 24 at 10:30 pm on Comedy Central)? Right there with you. I recently had the good fortune to be a day player on a sketch called “Alien Imposters,” which is featured in their season premiere. FYI, a “day player” is an actor who is hired on a short-term basis, usually somewhere between a one day and three of work. They play the characters that have lines in a production, but aren’t main cast.
Like many actors, my day-to-day mostly consists of repeatedly checking my ever-present digital smart-leash — my phone (I don’t know what you call yours, but this is what mine answers to). It alerts me to audition and/or booking requests while I’m involved in miscellaneous activities, seeking to create my own opportunities. With Key and Peele, the producers remembered me from a sketch I did on a previous season. It was gratifying to be asked back.
So…what’s a day in the life of a day player like?
The Call Time: Once you book a job, you get a call time — the date and time you need to arrive on set. Your presence is required on a set long before your performance. Your call time also informs your day’s schedule. In this case, I had a 1pm call time, whereas the production was set to start at 6am. As such, I was unlikely to be in for a long shoot as by the time I got there the crew would be more than halfway through a potential 12-hour day.
The Trailer: Who cares about the size of a person’s trailer? In the acting world, this is actually kind of important because it lets you know where you land on the priority scale. Depending on the day’s production size, stars and series regulars will be set up in a full mobile home — a full Star Waggon — or half of one. After that, it scales down to three-room Star Waggons, and then the honey wagon. The honey wagon’s rooms are the size of a walk-in closet. That’s where they hold the rest of the “notable” players for the day. (I was a day player on a smallish production day so… honey-wagon.)
The Wait: After checking in with the base camp production crew, you’re usually rushed into wardrobe, hair, and makeup. The goal is to make you as camera ready as possible, as quickly as possible, because nobody (including you…especially you) wants the production to be held up waiting on you. Then after that whirlwind, the Wait. I always utilize the Wait to go over my sides, a 4”x5” printout of script pages that encompass the day’s scenes. Once I have reviewed them and any changes (and there can be changes: I once had a half-page audition that turned into three full pages of dialogue that I received on the day), I’ll head towards set.
On this particular day our location was the abandoned section of the Hawthorne Mall. It appropriately looked like a post-apocalyptic waste land, trash laden, boarded up and partially demolished. The setting of the sketch itself was a post-alien invasion modern-day America. The Dynamic duo — Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — utilize their particular brand of satirical humor (and moderate fire power) to navigate the dangers of such an event.
As I approached the set I ran into Keegan-Michael Key, who was showing some visitors around. I met Keegan back when I was a day player on Season Two, and have bumped into him again since at 2013’s San Diego Comic-Con.
Ever sit around thinking and planning what you’d say if you run into someone you admire? Actors do the same thing. First and foremost, you want to be a decent human being: neither stalker nor sycophant. But then there’s this added pressure when you’re an actor. Interactions with Power Players can be potential job interviews. If the person asks what you’ve been up to, you’re supposed to give them a brief rundown of recent gigs, and then maybe they keep you in mind for more work. For a day player, we hope to make a good impression because, while day playing is amazing, having a recurring role is even better.
I’d like to say I was Mr. Smooth, but… I blanked. I didn’t remember to tell him about any of the pertinent projects on my list I had prepped for just such a meeting. We had a pleasant conversation and went our merry ways. “Yay” and “Damn.”
I headed over to the “video village” to watch what they were shooting — yes, despite the fact that what they were shooting was taking place live less than 50 feet away, I was watching it on a monitor. Key and Peele were interacting with a fellow day player who’d be day playing “The Businessman.“
A sequence like “Alien Imposter,” despite its brevity, takes a good deal of planning, as it contains a lot of moving parts: firearms, squibs, stunts, and VFX transformations, all of which are overseen by the prop master/armorer, pyrotechnics/practical effects department, stunt coordinator, and wardrobe/ VFX coordinator, respectively. And all of those people are in constant conversation with Key, Peele and the sketch’s director, Peter Atencio.
First Key and Peele did several rehearsals where they dialed in exactly what would be said and done, and when. (That, of course, was accompanied by a good deal of laughter.) Once all relevant parties were satisfied, they did a “dialogue pass” without gunfire, squibs, or falling, to be certain performances were captured satisfactorily. Next they did the same action with several cameras, but this time with blanks in the firearms, and in this case, squibs on “The Businessman.”
I headed to craft services for a little grazing. I plucked an orange off the table and turn to see Jordan approaching (Power Player Alert!). We conversed about our last encounter (at Comic-Con) which lead to a discourse about comics and the upcoming TV season’s glut of comic properties. Jordan got pulled away by a PA requesting him back onto set, so I headed back towards base camp. Keegan was walking towards me and as he hit me with the “Hey man!” look, one of his producers stepped in with a question. He stepped over to deal with that query, and I stood around until I started feeling awkward… then I headed back towards my trailer to await my turn.
My Scene: There was a knock at my door, and I was invited to set. I left my digital leash in the trailer and headed down. My scene takes place amongst some wreckage. The wreckage is real so several members of the crew came over and cleared it of any potential danger spots that might have impeded me being able to perform multiple takes. (Injury: bad for the performer, bad for the production.) We went over the same process I mapped out earlier: figuring out dialogue (I offered a few accent options for my dialogue; the response was “let’s keep that as an option,” which is a Very Polite way of saying “dumb idea”), and walking the positioning for camera and effects.
We ran the scene and I actually got a few laughs. This pleased me immensely until, a few moments later, when the “Old Man” day player caused most of the set to burst into belly laughs. My mind instantly started seeking ways to make my bits more notable, but I remembered I was there to help tell a story not fluff my ego, so I set my mind to just doing the hell out of what they liked. We did it several times for performance, effects, etc., then I was done and wrapped. I walked around and said thank yous and goodbyes and was headed home in time for dinner.
The Wrap Up: I had an amazing time working on Key and Peele again. Of course, as an actor you always want bigger roles, but one cool thing about being a day player is that it keeps you focused on serving the story. Working with Key and Peele was a great chance to story-tell with a team that has mastered the art of the sketch.
Ah, there goes my digital smart-leash again. I’m really grateful that I’m about to… well, we’ll get into that another time.
Damion Poitier began his professional career both Ghostbusting and bearing the mantle of Victor Von Doom for Universal Orlando. Since then he’s appeared as either an actor or a stunt professional in Firefly, Jarhead, Black Dynamite, Hunter Prey, True Blood, Pair of Kings, and Real Husbands of Hollywood, among others. He tweets at @DamionPoitier.