Privilege Unmasked

I’ve been working at a fairly steady clip over the past several months, aside from a long break for the holidays, and as I’ve talked about before, we are adapting to this new normal of how to work on set during The Covid Times in various ways. On one TV show I worked on, everyone is tested every few days, every crew member must be masked at work at all times unless they are at least 10 feet from everyone else, and anyone anywhere on the stage when talent is there must also wear a face shield. If you’ve worn a face shield lately (and there’s a clause I would never have considered I’d have need of a year ago), you know that this is annoying — it’s hot, it’s hard to see (though — pro tip — easier if you are wearing a dark-colored mask), hard not to fog up, hard for other people to hear you, and if you’re wearing other stuff on your head, like headphones and glasses, there’s a good chance something is going to fall off at some point.

I’ve commented in earlier posts on “safety theater” imposed by production doing more harm than good, but given the way I’ve seen sets operate, I don’t think the mandatory face shield is that. The reason being that talent are almost certainly going to be taking their masks off to act on camera, and not always putting them back on in the space of time in which things generally happen that might involve crew members getting close to them — such as a makeup/hair/wardrobe touch-up, or body mic adjustment, or a lens change, or a prop reset. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a crew person within a foot of an unmasked actor who, in my mind, the moment they took their mask off, became a biohazard. I hate that I think like that now, especially because they are required to take their masks off for their job (Let’s face it: Nobody wants to look at an actor behind a mask, not only because we are all so so sick of looking at people in masks, but because, as we all now know, it is extremely hard to see what someone is thinking or feeling when they are wearing a mask, and that is kind of the whole point of acting, which is why “Botoxed actor” is an oxymoron), and it does also put them at greater risk, since, unless they are alone in the scene, they are performing unmasked with other unmasked people. I’ve even had one actor tell me he felt like he had to convince me that he a was responsible and careful human being, but it didn’t have anything to do with me trusting him. It’s that I can’t possibly trust every single person in his life that he might ever encounter, and even if I did, I couldn’t trust all the people that they might encounter, and the people that they might encounter, increasing exponentially to just an absurd amount of humans, at least one of whom has got to be doing something wrong, or else we wouldn’t have community spread. If you’re not wearing a mask because it’s your job, I totally understand that, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to hang out with you while you’re not wearing your mask any longer than I have to, because by the transitive property, I’m hanging out with all of those other people too. This isn’t personal, it’s just basic understanding of the virus that we’re dealing with here.

Testing helps with this, for sure, especially if you are testing frequently and regularly. But as the doctors say, testing only makes it clear that at the moment in time when you got the test, you didn’t have a high enough viral load to produce a positive result. But that doesn’t mean for sure that you weren’t infected at that time (perhaps were just infected and so there hadn’t been enough time for the viral load to build, which is why you don’t get tested until at least a few days after you think you might’ve been exposed), or that you haven’t been infected since. So given that it generally takes two days or more to get a test result, there is absolutely a possibility that, even if your test was accurate, you could have been negative then but by the time you’ve show up for work, you’re Covid contagious. This is why we are testing and socially distancing as best we can (whatever that means on a film set) and making sure we have ventilation (maybe) and, above all, wearing masks all of the time.

Unless, again, you are the on-camera talent. And that’s where it gets dicey. Because the only people on set who are treated with kid gloves and given a pass on just about everything are the talent — specifically, celebrity talent. It is expected that famous people get special treatment, meaning they don’t have to do the things that normal people have to do. And in a situation where they are now a danger to everyone else, that’s a problem. Masking is annoying, and nobody likes doing it, and nobody makes celebrities do things they don’t like doing. 

I was on one job where the celebrity actor was very concerned about Covid because she had a young child at home (never mind that Covid actually is much less dangerous for most young children). This actor was super careful about making sure everyone she came in contact with had been tested, that everything she touched got sanitized, and that everyone wore a mask — except her. She would travel to and from set with no mask and never mask up between shots.

Now, some of that might have to do with makeup and hair. I don’t think most people understand how much work goes into making stars look like stars. The reason that women on screen look so much better than you or I is that there is literally a team of people who spend anywhere from one to three hours getting them ready to appear on camera in the morning, several of whom regularly jump in every few minutes once they’re there to reapply make-up that may have gotten a tad less perfect or fix any, single hair that may have gotten out of place during the shot. I’m not exaggerating. Especially in commercials, which only last 30 seconds and generally have very little story to distract from the production values, the look of everything must be perfect all the time.

However, because everyone does in fact get touched up immediately before we roll, people who aren’t heavily made up — generally men, and women who are normal actors in scenes of everyday life (as opposed to celebrity actresses who must wake up in bed with full foundation, rouge, eyeliner and lipstick, just in subtler shades) — can actually put a mask on and take it off. And if they are made up enough that their makeup person doesn’t want them to wear a mask, they can wear a plastic shield over their face instead. I was just on a job with Bobby Flay, whose makeup person adapted a face shield that attached to the face via a glasses-type rig by adding a well-placed makeup sponge to the nose bridge make sure that the shield stayed far enough from his face that there was no chance it would mess up his makeup. Problem solved! They even make face shields now that go around actors’ necks so that it is guaranteed to touch no hair or makeup. I was on an Yves Saint Laurent commercial recently and they used those, so they must not mess anything up, because fashion

This celebrity actor actually had a shield just like that, that went around her neck, which I know because I saw her wearing it exactly once. And the thing is that this is a woman who obviously believes in science, and who is not a diva — she was friendly and made conversation with everyone. I think she would totally have worn that face shield every time we weren’t shooting, if somebody had asked her to do it. But aside from maybe that one time, nobody did.

It was the same with a very famous male actor I was with on another job who never wore a mask. He wasn’t tough to work with, was totally friendly and professional, even joked around with the crew sometimes, but he just never put one on, like they didn’t exist, as opposed to being something that every single other person in the room and every other room around him had on their face. And nobody asked him to do it, because that’s what we do in this business: we build this idea of privilege around celebrity, and then we constantly reinforce it, even when it makes no sense, or when it’s dangerous.

As I’ve said previously, the situation of working with Covid is new to all of us, so you 100% do need to remind people to put their masks back on. I was on a job recently on which we had a ton of background extras, so the DGA trainee yelled out “Masks off!” in a booming voice every time we rolled, and “Masks on!” every time we cut. And you know what? For most people, even some famous ones, that works. All of the extras, and the regular commercial actors, and Paul Rudd, who was in the spot, would promptly unmask and then mask up every time. Because, apparently, Paul Rudd is a normal person who follows directions. Another celebrity we had in the same spot? Not so much. He came to set unmasked and he stayed that way. Talking to the director? Unmasked. Walking between stages to go to stills? Unmasked. No matter that everyone else around him was wearing one. No matter that the DGA trainee came up and offered him one, which he put on for about a minute. And he, too, seemed like a perfectly nice guy to everyone he had to deal with. He just clearly didn’t think that he was a person to whom the rules of every other person applied. And this was reflected in the fact that at some point, he and his team (all of whom wore masks) decided that, even though we hadn’t shot all of the variations that the agency wanted him to do, his day was over, and they all took off and didn’t come back. 

As with so many other things during this pandemic, this is not a case of the virus making things more fucked up so much as making clear how fucked up they already are. Every day that we work with celebrities, crew people see how much more they are valued than we are. We just accept that that hierarchy exists, we accustom ourselves to it, and to some degree, we even are responsible for upholding it, because working within that system and acting like it’s not at all weird is how we keep our jobs. This tiny group of folks make a ridiculous amount of money, are given basically whatever they ask for on production’s dime, and get to treat everyone around them pretty much however they want? Yep, that’s the entertainment business, aka my office. It’s only when the maintaining of that hierarchy means that some people are expected to make sacrifices for the sake of the people around them — small sacrifices, of minimal inconvenience and discomfort — and some people are not, that some of us are forced to re-examine this shit and think, Wow, there’s something really wrong with all of that. Sure, there are differences between me and a famous person, and me and a wealthy person, and maybe those differences mean that they have more talent or skill or bone structure or something than me. But 1) It doesn’t necessarily mean that, and we should never assume that it does, because look at Jared and Ivanka, or any Kardashian, and 2) Even if it does, what does not follow is that that person’s life has more value than mine. But every day, our culture is essentially telling them, and they are absorbing, that that’s the case.

And the stars themselves need to be aware of that — because that’s one of the most ridiculous parts of all this: They very often don’t remember the extraordinary amount of privilege that we’ve given them. Whoever is number one on the call sheet — meaning the actor who is at the center of a show or a movie — often sets the tone for the entire shoot. The director, the DP and the 1st AD can control it too; if they treat the rest of the crew with respect, like they are all partners in the making of the film, then it trickles down to everyone else that that’s the way you’re supposed to behave. But the stars, by far, have the most power. That’s why it’s just laughable that an actor can expect everyone else to be very serious about Covid precautions when they themselves refuse to wear a mask: Because they are the ones at the tippy top who should be modeling the behavior they want to see from everyone else. It’s why when Tom Cruise ranted publicly and at length at his Mission Impossible 7 crew over what he considered to be their inadequate observance of Covid precautions, I’m sure it destroyed whatever morale was left on that set (and it doesn’t sound like there was much). There are a million ways that a person with his level of authority on that movie (read: infinite) could have handled that situation that would have gotten the message across effectively and made everyone safer. The way that he chose to do it demonstrated that screaming at the people beneath you was how things got done on that job, and made sure that nobody wanted to be there any more. Which is why several of them quit soon after that.

But the thing that makes this all worse is that, right now, if crew people are on a job that we don’t like, or where we feel unsafe, quitting isn’t really an option. We were out of work for a long time, and when we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Those who were already on movies or tv shows might have gotten a week or two of compensation while they were down, but not enough to get them through the months that we were out of work, and the rest of us got nothing. And even though payments from the government and unemployment helped us stay afloat, they aren’t enough to get by on for very long, and they don’t provide the hours we need to keep our health insurance. 

So I have to keep going to work with actors who are unmasked during this pandemic. And I’m okay with that, I accept that as the nature of the job I do. But what I’m not okay with is people who have all of the power taking none of the responsibility for making our sets safe and pleasant workplaces, and all of us saying that’s just hunky dory. Because it’s not, and moreover, it never was.

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