Did you see me get off the train with Meryl Streep?
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.