The Good Wife: Hurry Up and Wait

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Matthue Roth worked on the set of the new CBS drama The Good Wife as an extra, and first blogged about it Friday. The episode, “Unorthodox,” is about the Hasidic Jewish community in Chicago. It airs on Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 10 EDT.

The Good Wife takes place in Chicago — fictionally, anyway. There are three Hasidic synagogues in Chicago that I can think of, having lived there for a year, but even the mostly-Jewish neighborhood, West Rodgers Park, is scarcely a hotbed of Hasidic culture like they’re portraying it today, with dozens of Hasidic families swarming down the streets. And they definitely don’t live in the stately downtown brownstones that we’re filming in front of today.

It’s kind of bizarre, but it’s also kind of flattering. I mean, over the course of the day I will listen to Julianna Margulies inquiring again and again about the meaning of an eruv. Up-and-coming actors are dressed in the cultural garb of my people. What’s not to like?They bring us out to the street where they’re filming. Fake props abound: clip-on payos (for kids and adults), fake beards, strollers packed with plastic kids. It’s particularly disorienting to hear a bunch of ten-year-olds, all payos-and-yarmulked up, talking about the Wii games that they want for Christmas. But, in a way, it’s kind of nice to not get stared at by everyone on the street for the way I look. Or, at least, that the staring is divided up between me and all the fake Hasidim.

We are told to wait. I know about this part because everyone’s told me that this is the cardinal rule of being an extra: “Hurry up and wait.” In a fit of nervousness, I asked my token Hollywood-star friend Mayim Bialik for advice before the filming. She starred on a TV show in the ’80s, but more recently has recurring roles on Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She told me two things to remember:

1) Expect a lot of waiting (unrelated to your being Hasidic, just that’s what it may be like), and
2) Expect to be poorly treated (ditto)

She also told me: “People may ask you random questions, and you are representing all of us, Hasidic and not, so do us proud!”

A production assistant grabbed my shoulder and started steering me down the street. He grouped me with two other Hasidim (the real ones, that is) and told us, when they called action, we were supposed to walk down the street.

I looked down the street. There, for the first time that day, I catch sight of Julianna Margulies. She’s standing in front of the crane, inhaling wisps of coffee and talking to the other principal cast member there, Archie Panjabi. The director is telling them about the scene. I edge closer to the curb until I’m able to overhear, a process which causes several other extras to look at me like I’m crazy, but they do this for a living. They’re used to it.

I overhear, and the plot for this scene is thus: They are going to climb out of a car. Then Ms. Margulies is going to walk around to Ms. Panjabi’s side, and they are going to walk over to the curb together.

There’s a tiny moment of disappointment in my chest. I was hoping for big spoilers. Juicy spoilers. Or possibly a moment where Ms. Margulies makes eye contact with me, something passionate and familiar is sighted, and she decides that the show needs a recurring Hasidic character. In this moment, I realize that walking down the street with two other long-coated dudes, as badass as we look, will probably not make that happen.

Not that it matters. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to represent my people positively, and to look good. “Action!” the PA calls. We fall into step.

This happens two or three times. Then another PA, our original PA, walks up to us, shaking his head. “Something’s not right,” he announces, finally, after looking each of us up and down. “You. Come here.”

He is talking to me.

He takes my coat again, pulls me back down the sidewalk to the other end. There’s a young, short woman there who’s been doing exactly what we’ve been doing from the other end, walking down the street pushing a stroller. Three small kids are in tow. “Walk with her,” he tells me. “Be a family. Hustle your kids along. You know — help out the wife.”

I actually do have a wife. She’s small and Hasidic and dark-haired. I have a daughter, too. I peek inside the carriage. Yep. Plastic. This is not my wife. This is not my child.

the good wife orthodox


But, hey, I am an actor. That’s why I got here. Because I can lie so well, I can even fool myself.

Again, someone calls action. We hustle.

One thing I never thought I’d have to do on a film set: babysit.

My new wife and I have four kids — three real, one plastic. The real kids (the youngest is five, the oldest is eight; improbable, even for a Hasidic family) are pretty clearly not Hasidic. One boy is flicking the other’s payos. The girl is trying to reach into the baby carriage without us noticing and turn the baby upside down. “What’s your name, sweetie?” asks my ostensible wife. “Charlotte,” says the girl, sweet as pop rocks. “Well, Charlotte, sweetie,” she says, “please stop messing around with your little baby brother, or else you’ll never work in the industry again.”

Her lips curl back in a cruel smile. She manages to be elegant, polite, and unflinchingly brutal. She could completely pass as a Hasidic mother. Well, she could if it weren’t for the hair and the hat. She introduces herself as Beatrice, and offers her hand — a telling sign (as if everything else wasn’t) that she’s only Orthodox for the day.

And now, a note about the clothes: She’s wearing her hair short, tucked up under a cloche, which is a ’50s-style hat that’s become weirdly fashionable in Modern Orthodox communities in recent years, but is next to anathema in most Hasidic circles. All the women are wearing flats (correct) and dark tights (depends which neighborhood you’re in, but, okay, potentially correct) and long skirts, which definitely are Hasidic…although there’s something unspoken, something intangible about some long skirts that is Hasidic, and something about others that isn’t. I can’t tell you what it is. Maybe I’ve been Hasidic so long that I have some sort of Hasid-dar, like when I had a gay roommate and developed really good gaydar? But right now, I am ostensibly surrounded by Hasidim, and it ain’t goin’ off.

One thing I will say that they got accurate: the kids aren’t wearing Hasidic clothes. For some reason, although men are required to wear white shirts and black pants, and women have to have their wrists and nostrils covered, young boys can wear Gap jeans and girls can wear two-inch skirts and spandex everythings. (As a parent, my hypothesis is that kids will ruin clothes as fast as they wear them, so you’re better off just getting the cheap stuff.) Similarly, these kids were dressed in their Children’s Place best — except for the fake payos and (real) yarmulkes, you couldn’t tell they were Jewish. As a matter of fact, the next time that Beatrice tells the kids to be quiet and pay attention, they’re discussing what Halloween costumes they’re going to wear.

A costuming person runs up to us in a frenzy, stopping the action just as it’s about to be called. “Your rings!” she yelps. She empties a variety of small gold bands into her palm. The PA grins at us wickedly. “Wouldn’t do for that baby to be born out of sin,” he says, gesturing toward our plastic progeny.

Beatrice chooses a ring swiftly. With me, it’s harder. “I’ll wear one,” I offer. “But married Jewish men don’t wear rings.”

The costuming person doesn’t believe me. I tell her, I’m married — do you see a ring on my hand? We go back and forth a bit. Eventually, she shrugs it off and leaves.

“Typical,” Beatrice says — gently, but unmistakably critical. “The women get marked, and the men get let off easy.”

“That’s not true!” I insist. “There are ways to tell if a man’s married, too.”

“What are they, then?”

I flounder. The 5 a.m. curtain call is catching up with me. Then I recover: “By this coat,” I say, remembering for the first time in a while how I’m dressed. “Only married men wear coats like this. There are also special kinds of hats, and socks”–well, okay, stockings, but I don’t want to get too (ahem) technical–“and unmarried men don’t wear a tallis when they pray…”

We both fall silent. The Hasidic guest stars for the episode arrive on set, and everyone is checking them out.

The woman looks legit. Her clothes are a little frumpy, but manageable; at least, they don’t scream I’m a backwater shtetl girl from the 18th century like the Hasidim in Stranger Among Us. She actually looks pretty decent. And pretty, well, pretty. That’s another unexpected development, that the Hasidim are young and actually sort of cool-looking. (She’s also in a clochet, though.)

The guy, though. He has a three-day beard as if he came from the other half of Williamsburg. His hat would look more appropriate on a snowman. His jacket is buttoned the wrong way on top. He has long curly hair–not long, but much longer than a Hasid would–and his stuck-on sidecurls aren’t much longer than the curls of his actual hair.

When the scene cuts, the Hasidic actors crowd together to complain. One of the younger ones is all afire. “He looks ridiculous!” he shrills. “He looks like a moron!” The older actors laugh at his outburst. “It’ll never show up,” they say. “When people watch on TV, they’ll edit it out of their heads.”

In Part III: Pork loin for lunch. Never Mind the Goldbergs. And a push for Hollywood’s first Hasidic sitcom.

Posted on November 10, 2009

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