Background Actor’s Commentary: “Freshman Year”

I am a big fan of storytelling, and within the last five years, I’ve gotten to experience it in many forms – mostly in writing. However, last year I took a big step in seeing how far my bandwidth can go when I got involved in the making of two feature films. For one of them, I was a background actor, otherwise commonly known as an extra, for an independent film called “Freshman Year.”

The debut feature film of writer and director Jude Okwudiafor Johnson, it’s a coming-of-age story about a recent high school graduate (Diallo Thompson) whose whole life has been all about his devotion to the Lord. However, when he gets a change of scenery during his freshman year at a state university, he is challenged by social and peer pressure; so much to where it may or may not lead to life-changing consequences.

The film came across my radar last year when someone I know posted in an alumni group page on Facebook on how extras were in need for scenes shot at my alma mater, CSU East Bay. While I have no aspirations of ever becoming an actor myself, I found it to be a great opportunity for two reasons: 1. I would be continuing the unofficial tradition in my family of being extras in TV shows and films and 2. I was writing my first feature-length screenplay at the time, so I found it wise to observe how a film is shot.

I wound up taking part in three days of the film’s shoot. I took part in so many scenes, I honestly couldn’t tell you how many I did. It was interesting to pretend like you you’re carrying on with your everyday life, when these two actors (Thompson and Natalia Dominguez) are on the verge of something in the middle of it all. That’s the sort of unique quality that comes with being an extra: life goes on even when there’s a story happening.

Like any shoot, there was a lot of waiting around in between time. Luckily, that made way for befriending some of my fellow extras. Everyone on the cast and crew was really nice, and I think that their energy really cemented the enjoyable experience this was.

If I had to name a favorite moment during filming, I know for a fact that it was the time spent filming the classroom scenes with Gregory Alan Williams as the professor. When filming the scenes, it’s clear as day that he’s been acting for a long time, for his performance made me feel like I was in college again. But it was in between takes that made the biggest impression on me. He sang at one point and he was funny. In fact, following a take of one of the scenes, he improvised this: “Evolution: The birds and the bees.”

It was all a part of storytelling, and going back to the synopsis from earlier, this was quite a story to take part in. While I’m not a religious person by any means, I do find the film’s message powerful: The notion of holding onto your beliefs and values can be tricky when in an environment where you’re exposed to so many others. While at the time of this writing, I have not seen the final cut of the film yet, my impression from being a background actor for it is that ultimately, it’s all about finding a balance and not comprising yourself for the sake of others.

This was my first (and hopefully not the last) time I was an extra for a feature film, and I’m so glad that that film was “Freshman Year.”

“Freshman Year” is now playing in select theaters. Please follow the film on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and check out its website to either see when it will be playing at a theater near you or if you’d like to request a screening.

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