The Cowsills In Magazines

Treme: Bulldogs and Napkin Ladies
June 2011
Offbeat Magazine

I may have made my dramatic television debut this weekend as “Guy on the Right” during Susan Cowsill‘s scene on this week’s episode of Treme. I qualify this not because I’m not sure I was there—I was, standing at the front of the stage in front of Sam Craft—but because I’m out of the country at the moment and have yet to see the episode to see if I got any screen time. I was an extra for this scene, and here’s the story.

At the request of the production company, Cowsill reached out to people who might have seen her at Carrollton Station in 2007. I got the call, as did Sue Ford and Jeff Beninato and Karen Dalton-Beninato (who interviewed Susan about the Treme experience) and a few other people I recognized by face but not name. We met at Southport Hall, where we signed in and had our clothes inspected by people from wardrobe. Since I have a mild allergy to Hawaiian prints, I was concerned when one woman thought I might have to change into one of their shirts from the floral family, but it was decided that my white western shirt with red pinstripes wasn’t too white for the camera and I could go with what I had.

Many of the extras were friends and fans of Cowsill, while others liked the show. There were some who seemed to be semi-pro extras who were supplementing their income with regular extra stints, and there were a few women who dressed as if they hoped to be discovered in the ranks of the extras. I was there out of curiosity, and was slightly worried that someone I knew from the production would spot me and run me off because I’d know about and might write about a scene that had yet to play. After I ran into music supervisor Blake Leyh, though, I realized that wasn’t going to happen and relaxed.

From there, we were moved to a parking lot near the Station where we waited as a cold front blew in. A crew member recognized that my friend Julie was shivering in her sleeveless purple dress and went into wardrobe to find her a sweater. When a light rain accompanied the cold breeze, they moved us into the Frat House. I hadn’t been in it since it was Jimmy’s, but nothing in the men’s room had changed in the intervening years. Still woeful.

After another 20 or so minutes of waiting, someone—possibly the director—walked in and started to point at some of us. “Bulldog,” he said to some of us, while others were simply passed by. Once he’d worked his way through the lot of us, all bulldogs were called to go next door to the Station. Julie, the Beninatos and I were bulldogs, so we were among those who lined up outside the bar while the interior was being prepped for the shot. We stood by a table and watched sadly as one prop wrangler emptied cases of beer into a tub and refilled the bottles with varying amounts of NA beer. The refilled drinks were set on a table with a grid drawn on it, and as we went in, we were given a beer and a number. That number was our spot on the grid, and when we’d walk outside during breaks, we returned our drinks to a wrangler who put them in the appropriate number spaces.

Once inside and armed with a half-bottle of lukewarm O’Doul’s masquerading as a Corona, I was positioned near the stage, right behind Alexis Marceaux—who I likely totally eclipse on camera—and near to Paul Sanchez. We were all less than 10 feet from the stage, with a track behind us that a camera ran on while shooting the band. Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli were playing a guest spot with Cowsill, and the scene started with the band playing “Just Believe It,” after which Cowsill asked Annie (Micarelli) if she wanted to play her new song. Harley (Earle) encourages her, but Annie demurs and Cowsill starts “Crescent City Sneaux.” And cut. I don’t know yet if that’s how it ended up on the screen, but that’s what they shot over and over again.

Fortunately, that was less boring than it sounds. Cowsill rarely sings a song the same way twice, so versions had nuance differences that were in some cases significant, keying in on the hopeful nature of “Just Believe It” for one take and the song’s defiant subtext in another. One of her gifts is her ability to make contact with the relevant emotions when singing, so while not all takes were equally powerful, each take was deeply felt and moving. Each take ended before we wanted it to because “cut” came during a Micarelli violin solo that was also hot and different each time, and we wanted to hear it played out.

Between takes, wranglers blotted Earle and Cowsill with handfuls of napkins because the bar’s air conditioning was shut down for shooting. They bantered with each other and familiar faces in the crowd, catching up on what was happening with mutual friends. At one point between takes, Earle played a verse of “Gulf of Mexico” from his then-upcoming album I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.

After an hour or so of shooting with the first set up, a camera was moved to my right to get a shot from the extreme right back toward Cowsill, and the process repeated itself. Beyond getting Cowsill and Earle in the same shot—I assume—it also gave the audience Alexis Marceaux’s point of view and likely got her in the shot. If a white arm made the shot, that’s me.

During breaks, everybody went outside to stand around in the streets, musicians and crew alike. I’ve now interviewed Steve Earle three times, so we know each other from the phone, but we had a chance to talk outside for a few minutes. Co-producer Eric Overmyer co-wrote the episode, and he was on hand and surprised to see me milling about. Since the weather had cleared, the non-bulldogs were standing around outside the Frat House. Some joined conversations with friends; others stayed on their side of the street waiting to be invited off the sidewalk.

I’d have been bummed if I wasn’t a bulldog. Late in the afternoon, the track that ran across the room 10 feet from the stage had been moved to the back of the room and everybody was brought back in so that the scene could be shot with a bar full of people, a process that lasted 45 minutes tops, then it was over. The band did two or three takes and one full-length version of “Crescent City Sneaux,” during which Paul Sanchez, obviously touched by the performance, turned and said, “It feels like 2007.” The band’s not the band she had then, but he was right. For the first half of 2006, Cowsill’s shows were some of the most public displays of grieving that I’d seen as she dealt with the discovery that her brother Barry had died in the days after Katrina. By the end of the year, though, she was very much in touch with her emotions onstage but she wasn’t a prisoner to them. “Crescent City Sneaux” stopped being simply heartbreaking and became something that moved from pain and joy in moments. It was that version that she performed to end the shoot, though it got a little ragged when they tried to incorporate the Treme theme song into the ending.

A couple of months later, a friend who works with the extras asked with genuine concern about how my experience was, and said that sometimes extras get treated like shit on other TV and film shoots. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised at how civilized it was. It’s not that I expected to be treated like dirt, but if we had to stand around, someone came by to let us know what was happening. When people worked around us, they didn’t act like we were in the way, even when we were. When Julie was cold, someone found her a wrap. If being an extra was always like this, you can see why people would try to do as many shoots as possible.

–Alex Rawls

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