THIS excursion into fantasy started innocently enough while I was shopping for vegetables in Nairobi, where my family and I had lived for three years. A poster in a shop window advertised, ``Wanted! 500 European men for Out of Africa. Contact room 902, Chester House.'' The rumor of Sydney Pollack, Meryl Streep, and Robert Redford being in town to film the tragic romance of Karen Blixen's (the Danish writer Isak Dinesen's) life in Africa generated a certain excitement and curiosity. Despite having never acted a day in my life, I wandered over to Chester House and signed up. That was it. They were desperate for bodies.
The following Saturday was a cram course in the logistics of moviemaking. More than a thousand European (a term applied in Kenya to all white people) and African extras were bused to the set. Only weeks before, this place was an open field, punctuated by a row of eucalyptus trees. Now, the field was gone. As I walked onto the set, my field of vision in any direction held no evidence of the late 20th century. I was surrounded by the mock-up buildings of old Nairobi.
Late in the afternoon, an acquaintance who worked for the local casting company spotted me. ``Can you work on Thursday?'' she inquired. I hesitated, knowing I should be at my desk.
``Please,'' she said. ``It's a small scene in the railroad station with Meryl Streep. Thursday's a bad day; we're short of people.''
The Walter Mitty in me took over. I had come to Kenya from Boston three years earlier to head a group of economics advisers to government. The idea that someone would ask me, almost beg me, to be in a ``small scene with Meryl Streep'' was ludicrous. But I couldn't resist the notion.
``Great,'' said Robin. ``Show up at wardrobe on Wednesday at noon. You're going to be an officer.''
As Thursday approached, expectation turned to misgiving. I was taking a leave day (that made it all legal), but what would my African colleagues in the ministry say if I was discovered in full colonial garb -- pith helmet, swagger stick, the lot -- strutting in front of black Kenyans dressed up as soldiers in the King's African Rifles? I decided it was best to be very quiet about this.
The next morning, as preparation was under way for the day's filming, I watched Meryl Streep walk into the mock-up of the Nairobi railroad station wearing the bonnet and simple long, white dress that were common among white settler women in Kenya in 1915. Moments later, an assistant director approached and motioned toward me, ``We need an officer inside.''
I was led into the station and told to climb aboard one of the two plywood railcars coupled together in front of the camera. As I mounted the steps, she suddenly emerged from the car, smaller and prettier than I had guessed from seeing her in movies. But the high cheekbones and long, straight nose were unmistakable. ``Bigtime,'' I said to myself. ``This is really bigtime!''
The assistant departed, leaving the two of us. Standing there, cinched up in the stained, lusterless clothes of some long-gone British captain, I felt an acute sense of self-consciousness. But it was clear we were at least 10 minutes from even a rehearsal of this scene. I had to do something. Digging deep for conversational material, I rubbed my finger across the fa,cade of the railcar and tried. ``Do you suppose this is real dirt?''
``I doubt it,'' she replied with a smile. ``It was probably sprayed on.''
OK, the ice was broken. Let's try for something a bit more sustained. ``What is this scene all about, anyway?'' I asked.
``I haven't the faintest idea,'' she said. ``I was going to ask you. They just told me to show up this morning.''
``Really]'' I blurted, the realization that this was not Meryl Streep sweeping over me.
She was Helen, who had arrived in Nairobi from England 10 days ago to see her boyfriend. This was her second day as an extra in ``Out of Africa.'' As I looked at her, I realized she could not be more than 23 years old -- a remarkable likeness to Meryl Streep's kid sister.
I was still feeling ridiculous when, a few minutes later, the real Streep took her place quietly and naturally among the extras on the steps of the opposite car about five feet away. But the moment was an anticlimax. I had spent my nervousness and anticipation on Helen.
If I can be seen at all in the movie, it is most likely to be on the steps of this train. Meryl Streep emerges from her railcar just as I step out of the one opposite. We walk down the steps in parallel, and I proceed off camera. For this taxing assignment I was paid the reasonable sum of $25. Having now played opposite Meryl Streep in a major motion picture, I figure I've made it to the top in the extra business.
I continued working as an extra in ``Out of Africa.'' It was difficult at times to distinguish past from current time. The African extras were real Africans, primary and secondary school leavers, generally in their 20s. They grew up in independent Kenya but were, nevertheless, acutely aware of the vast gulf in wealth and opportunity that separates most blacks and whites even today.
The Europeans, many of them, were members of the white settler community -- those who came to Kenya, or were born here, before independence and then stayed on. They, being older, found the scenes as well as the themes of the movie familiar. Some of them were retired planters. A couple of my fellow ``officers'' had served in the British Army at the Khyber Pass before World War II. They patiently taught me how to wrap and tie the military puttees around my legs.
Friends were curious when I spent 12-hour days at the set on weekends and, on occasion, during the week. They asked about the role of my character in the movie. My character! It was not easy to explain that my character is a uniform and mustache that walks across the street, leans against the bar, watches the parade or the governor's reception, and gets off the train.
The perfect extra -- or ``crowd'' as we were called by the movie people, as in ``I don't think I could bring myself to play crowd'' or ``no crowd allowed to eat here'' -- is characterless. His purpose in the movie is to be seen but not looked at. Every extra develops a personal strategy for overcoming this. They fall under the general category of ``Hollywood creep.''
Maneuvering oneself during the rehearsal period into a forward position likely to be seen by the camera is an easily learned skill. It is the great source of sustenance for the extra. But after some reflection, and there is ample time for it in this modest profession, the extra confronts a bitter irony. The camera lens, the only source of opportunity, is also the source of the extra's biggest enemy -- depth of field.
The most complicated scene in ``Out of Africa'' was the night filming of the World War I victory parade. Nineteen hundred extras assembled on the set at 5:30 in the evening. It took three hours to get everyone dressed, made up, and fed. By 11, we had got through only half a rehearsal. Then it rained. It poured. Lightning and thunder. Wind. It was the wildest rainstorm in my three years in Nairobi. People took shelter wherever they could find it. Under shop awnings and in the doorways of two-dimensional buildings. Under vehicles and tarpaulins.
A large group of extras and members of the production crew was stranded on the covered patio of the Norfolk Hotel for two and a half hours. Many of the extras were long-time residents of Kenya; some were teen-agers when Karen Blixen was preparing to leave Kenya in 1931. The set and costumes prompted memories, and there were some fine stories told that evening as strangers gathered close to stay warm and dry.
When the rain subsided at 1:30 in the morning, the set was a mess. The parade route through town was a sea of mud. The extras were damp and cold. Sydney Pollack wanted to keep shooting. Fortunately, it started raining again, and we were all sent home. The consensus estimate is that $200,000 went down the drain that night. Not to worry, however. Sydney had the scene insured.
Which may explain why he was so eager to have us try again the following night. Incredibly, the entire complement of extras turned up. By 8 p.m. we were on the set ready for filming. Pollack paced the entire parade route, giving instructions to various groups of extras as he went along. At the Norfolk Hotel he briefly summarized the scene for the large crowd there. He wanted an uninhibited celebration of the end of the war.
He admonished us not to ``act.'' Acting, he said, was bad for our health. We should imagine that this was really the end of the war and behave accordingly. If we saw someone we wanted to kiss, go ahead and do it. But he cautioned that he didn't want a scene with 300 people kissing on the veranda of the hotel. He also didn't want a scene with ``300 people staring at the camera and going `Whooppee!' '' It was not clear that any of us had the ability to stay within these constraints without acting (badly).
As the parade commenced, the crowd's enthusiasm was full and spontaneous. The zany procession, which lasted about eight minutes, was led by torch-bearing African soldiers and European officers on horses that preferred, most of the time, to walk backward or dance nervously in circles. Moviegoers will probably not see the beautifully painted, horse-drawn ``Rifkin's Family Butchers'' van pulled apart at the seams when it snagged a banner hung across the street. Nor will you sense the real fear among the crowd as the terrified 16-ox team began to surge, their horns inches away from the spectators, separated only by the African drovers, who barely managed to prevent a rampage with their long whips snapping against a background cacophony of crowd noise, hoofbeats, fireworks, and martial music.
Even before the last scene was shot in late May, the main sets, those incredibly detailed replicas, were pulled down and sold for scrap plywood. Old Nairobi was once again a bare field. It was as though nothing had happened there. Seeing this, I was reminded of an incident that had occurred five months earlier.
On the weekend following the shooting of the railroad station scene, I took my daughter to the Nairobi game reserve for an afternoon of bird watching. We decided to walk along a popular game-viewing trail. There was no one around, and after a short walk we stopped at a small clearing overlooking a stream. I was searching the stream with field glasses when a voice behind me said, ``Is that a hippo over there?''
I scanned the stream and replied, ``No, just a deadhead.'' I turned to explain and recognized the person behind me.
``Sydney Pollack,'' I said matter-of-factly.
He acknowledged my identification with a slump of his shoulders and a bit of a grimace.
``Sorry,'' I said. ``It's not fair to be identified like this in the middle of a wilderness.''
``Well, it is a little unusual,'' he replied with a smile.
``I was one of your extras last Thursday,'' I explained.
``Really!'' he exclaimed, as a grin spread across his face. ``Gosh, I hope you enjoyed it. I mean, I hope you didn't find it too boring. It can be pretty slow.''
I assured him I had found it fascinating -- and boring.
Now he wanted to know what I was doing in Nairobi. The three of us, Pollack, his companion, and I, talked for five or 10 minutes along that trail, mostly about Africa and the kind of work I did, as my seven-year-old daughter called out various animal identifications and tugged impatiently at my arm. ``C'mon, Dad, you promised we'd walk to the end of this trail.''
When we finally split up, I turned to Leslie and said, ``Do you know who that is?''
``Was that the head of the movie you were in?'' she asked, unimpressed.
``Yes,'' I replied. ``Do you know who the other person is?''
``No,'' she said.
``Do you know who Robert Redford is?'' I asked.
``No,'' she said.