It's not often Hollywood comes to little old Cambridge, New Zealand. A town more familiar with cafes, trees and several buildings described as "quaint", Cambridge became a slightly more frenzied place in November, 2000.
A small film crew, led by a Kiwi director, shot a movie about Queen Elizabeth's tour of New Zealand in 1953. The team settled on Cambridge for their filming of several key scenes—and promptly put out the call for any locals to be extras.
I was probably busy trying to be ironic on the day of filming, so missed my shot at stardom. But, in conditions of incredible winds and pelting rain, over 1200 Cambrian's huddled in the street, dressed in period clothing and pretending to be excited when a car drove past.
They had no lines, no named credits, no song-and-dance routine—they were extras. They were essential to the background of many shots, and helpful in setting the scene, but their identity was superfluous to the story. All that was needed was willing, nameless bodies, to clap and cheer the actors on.
When we watch a movie, we rarely pay much attention to the extras walking past. They type away in Mad Men, walk past in Breaking Bad and buy houses in Modern Family—yet they don't seem to resonate with us. They fade into the background, becoming part of a living set for the others to work their stage craft around.
Chilling with Jay-Z
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to be sitting at a Brooklyn Nets game. There, less than 40 meters away from me, sat Jay-Z, the team's owner. As expected, he was looking stylish and down-right dope. As expected, he radiated cool—with hundreds of fans leaning forward to snap blurry photos of their hip-hop hero. As expected, he played his role to perfection—enthusiastically clapping when the Nets played well, looking nonchalantly cool when the opposition caught up, drinking bottled water delivered by wait staff, and leaving through a special exit the moment the game was up.
All of this seemed unique and special, but upon reflection this was a star simply doing what famous people do. We expect these people to be visible but unreachable, to have major success and scandalous failures.
The famous person of today is plucked from seeming obscurity; embodies the ideals of beauty and rebellion, enjoys a public romance and the high-flying life before the inevitable indiscretions rear their heads.
Famous lives are aloof yet appear exciting—always just out of reach—and are filled to the brim with the myth of spontaneity, mystery and surprise. Yet, so often this is a paper-thin facade, and each one of these idealised mortals—whether the popular kid at school or the A-list celebrity at the Oscars—is really living a life of startling same-ness.
Perhaps, deep down, this is why we idolise these people. They provide us with the illusion of freedom and an electric, dynamic life. Yet they live this out in predictable, familiar ways. It is a life of fire that is really just smoke and mirrors. Others will come, espousing uniqueness and a fresh perspective, but so often the fame is the same.
Extras in DC
A week after Brooklyn, I was finding my seats at another NBA game in the heart of Washington DC. As I settled into my chair four African-American men swaggered down the centre-aisle. They were decked in colour with doo-rags and chains, yet they did not have the fame of Jay-Z. They were extras in the grand story of life walking with an imposing power.
Eventually they walked into my row and the burliest of them all sat down next to me. As a proud Kiwi, I practiced our nation's well-trained gift of awkwardly keeping to myself, but was quickly tapped on the shoulder by this man. I'd survived New York—was I going to get mugged in DC?
As I turned, the man raised his hand and enveloped me in my first American bro-hug. Although our accents and lexicon were far removed, we shared stories and jokes. He showed me photos of his favourite NBA players. I told him New Zealand wasn't Australia. He offered me some of his fried chicken. We strolled to the over-priced concession stand together. We yelled to distract LeBron James as he shot free-throws. We parted with a final chest bump—two nameless extras in a scene no-one else would notice.
The Joy of the Ordinary
The joy of the ordinary is that we enter with no expectations. We don't think the extras we walk past each day will surprise us with mystery and depth. In our celebrity-creating culture, our default position is to assume the rich and powerful have the lives worth noticing while everyone else—the Subway sandwich artist, the students filling the room, the middle-aged couple walking the street—are background characters. This lack of expectation allows for encounters of grace and surprise.
When I read the gospels, I am constantly amazed at how Jesus subverts the story of celebrity. His most famous encounters are with people who would normally fade into the background: a nameless woman caught in adultery; a group of blind, homeless men outside a major metropolis; public drunks and criminals; ordinary tradesmen and village children. There is a sense of divine delight as the Messiah encounters extras, and enacts glimpses of the Kingdom, transcending our minimal expectations for each scene.
The celebrities play their usual game. They are impressed by this up-and-comer, and try to mould Jesus into their story. They invite him to play the game of fame; to embrace the riches and beauty on offer, to live out predictable power and a life of palaces and paparazzi. He rejects their narrative—exposing it as a fraudulent fiction—and reveals a way of life grounded in the ordinary, yet resounding with the riches of heaven.
Blessed are the ordinary, the down and out. Blessed are those on the sidelines. Blessed are the poor, the usual, the ones who fade into the background.
May our eyes be opened to the rich possibility of the everyday extras, and the faith, hope and love to be expressed and received by those who see the Kingdom in the common.
Jeremy is an Innovation Advisor who is fairly ordinary at golf, cooking and the sacred game of basketball.
Jeremy Suisted's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-suisted.html