Lucky Penny Makes Movies in Michigan

From Transformers (2007)

Michigan extras have to run for their lives as giant flying robots tried to kill them and buildings exploded around them. Trying to avoid being trampled by Transformers is easy compared to the bigger threat to Michigan’s film industry.

Penny Gibbs is far from your average actress, only partially because her current vocation required a midlife career shift. Her home state, Michigan, might as well have been a world away from Hollywood. To say the odds were against Gibbs working alongside George Clooney or Sigourney Weaver would be a supreme understatement. Detroit is far better known as the birthplace of the automobile or the hometown of hockey’s Red Wings. Even so, the birth of Gibbs’ acting career paralleled an influx of film-production companies arriving in Michigan, and neither Penny nor her home state would ever be the same.

As Gibbs tells the story, becoming an actress was almost a fluke: “I was watching the [Detroit] news one night, and they were talking about a huge casting call for extras in movies. Michigan had just started the biggest film tax incentive in the United States, and movies were expected to start filming here very soon. I had always had a huge interest in being in movies, but because I live in Michigan, that wasn’t going to happen unless I was willing to move, which I wasn’t.” At the time, Penny’s children still needed their mother close by, and Penny’s own mother was suffering from cancer.

Hollywood might have been subconsciously calling her, but Gibbs wasn’t quite ready to answer. Nevertheless, she went to the casting call, thinking “maybe I get a chance to be in a movie one day!” Like a modern Michiganian Cinderella, lucky Penny was cast as an extra in Prayers for Bobby, a Lifetime network’s movie starring Sigourney Weaver. After that film, she was hired almost every month as an extra.

Gibbs’ exciting new career requires her to audition, a process she endures rather than enjoys. “The worst by far are open casting calls. You can wait around for hours and hours before ever being seen.” The better auditions provide her a scheduled call time. Some auditions are “cold reads, which means I get my lines, or sides, as they are called, just before I go in. Sometimes I’m emailed them well in advance. I prefer cold readings—less pressure! I usually go in to audition before one or more people; often my audition is videotaped, as well.”

A typical audition goes like this: “You state your name and the role you are auditioning for, and then you start. If you mess up, you just keep on going. Sometimes [casting directors] will give you some direction and let you try again. Sometimes you will be contacted a few days or weeks later saying you have the role or to come back for a second audition.” And sometimes, of course, “you never hear from them again.” Then there are those magical times when Gibbs finds out right away that she has a new job. “When I auditioned for Cedar Rapids, I was told in the parking lot that I had the role. They wanted me to come back in and get measured for wardrobe before I left!”

After that, Gibbs decided to get serious about her new career, which was proving to be more than luck or a random opportunity to work as an extra. “I started working on some local independent films, got an agent, and worked on some wonderful projects.” Upcoming features that wrapped in Michigan include “Politics of Street Crime, from Planet 4 Films, and We are Legion, from Paramore, [which] will be amazing when they are completed.”

Such opportunities might not have been available a few years ago. Michigan’s incentives to bring film production to the state not only increased the number of films being shot on location but also gave newcomers like Gibbs their big break. The life of an actress is one to which Gibbs has quickly become accustomed and one she is loathe to surrender easily. Although she began acting fairly recently, she well knows what to expect whenever she heads to the “office”, which might be a studio set or a remote location in bad weather.

“I arrive usually very early in the morning, check in, and get my voucher. I see the wardrobe and makeup people, then sit and wait to be used. I have been on set 14 hours and wasn’t used once! I still got paid, of course, but I’d prefer to be on set! During the waiting time, which is about 80 percent of the day, I strike up friendships. I play cards, chat, read books. Sometimes I’m in an extras holding area or on set for 17 hours, like I was for Prayers for Bobby. Sometimes I wrap in as little as five hours, like I was in The Double, starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace. On indie [independent film] sets, it’s more casual, but the days can be just as long. Sometimes I have to do a night shoot, which is my least favorite.” The benefits, however, sometimes outweigh the hours of lost sleep. About that night shoot, Gibbs adds, “I did get to see the sun rise with Gerard Butler once, so it wasn’t all bad!”

Simply getting work as an extra would be considered a lucky break by many aspiring actors, especially those trying to break into the industry from a state previously not known as a major market for film production. Gibbs’ talent and perseverance occasionally pay off with speaking or featured roles, even if she initially was tapped to be an extra.

“I have been quite lucky and sometimes get pulled by the director and put in great spots or get to do something cool like walk in front of the camera. I also have a weird knack of almost always getting to speak to the stars. Extras are not supposed to talk to them, but if they speak to us first, then it’s all right. I don’t really get star struck, but there have been a few that totally make me tongue tied. I’ve worked with George Clooney twice, Sigourney Weaver twice, Hugh Jackman, Drew Barrymore, Richard Gere, and Pierce Brosnan, among many, many others. It’s been such a great experience.”

“Walking in front of the camera” was easy compared with Gibbs’ work as an extra in an action film. “In Transformers we had to run for our lives as giant flying robots tried to kill us and buildings exploded around us. Seriously, what fun!” Trying to avoid being trampled by Transformers may be easy, given what Gibbs and Michigan’s other actors are facing in 2011—the dissolution of much of Michigan’s burgeoning film industry.

According to Gibbs, “Last year there were more films being made here than I could keep track of. Because it was such a new industry and I had gotten in from the start, I kind of knew everyone. I would go on set and see so many friends that I had worked with on previous films. We were a tight knit group. We helped each other by giving out information about gigs, good acting classes, places to get head shots, ways to compose an acting resume, reputable agencies, and so on. It was all so new and exciting, with endless possibilities.

“This year is going to be terrible for us. This year was supposed to be even bigger [than last year’s number of films]. But, thanks to a 25 million dollar cap on the [tax] incentive, films have been leaving Michigan in droves. I personally know two directors, one in Los Angeles and one in New York, who told me they were planning on filming here, but not now. I will have to look for more steady work, of course, but so is most of Michigan.”

Jackie Headapohl, writing an article in February 2011, quoted the Detroit Free Press’ statistics about movies made in Michigan during this boom period: “135 productions have been filmed in Michigan [since 2008], and filmmakers have spent $649 million at Michigan businesses. According to the Michigan Film Office, more than 6,763 production-related jobs have been created, along with more than 4,000 jobs for extras.” Citing industry insiders, Headapohl noted that “a loss of jobs, an exodus of talent and an end to big budget movies being filmed in the state” would be a likely result of the loss of the industry’s tax incentives.

Penny Gibbs

Gibbs is naturally displeased with Michigan’s change of fortune in the film industry and believes that most citizens want Hollywood to visit the Midwest more often. “When a huge film like Transformers shoots here, it not only employs hundreds of extras, but also crew, makeup and hair professionals. They all stay in hotels. They all rent cars, buy food, and rent out buildings and houses to film in, as well as rent tents, tables and chairs. They buy tons of supplies like lumber for sets and so much, much more.”

Although Gibbs, along with other professionals dependent on Michigan’s film industry for work, plans to keep fighting for production to stay in state, for now, “the damage has already been done for this year, I am afraid. I know many people who will be leaving Michigan because of this.”

Will Gibbs be one of them? “I would love to see myself continuing working in films here in Michigan. I really have found something I am truly passionate about.” Besides, if the film industry decides to stay, Gibbs may be able to copy Detroit’s Red Wings and get an actor’s “hat trick” of film making—a third Michigan-made movie starring Sigourney Weaver or George Clooney.

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