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From BASE to extra on the set of ‘Yellowstone’ prequel ‘1923’

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In between takes on the set of "1923," shade was prized as cast and crew endured an astounding September heatwave in Butte. PHOTO BY CAREY O'DONNELL


Editor’s note: A version of this story first appeared in the Palm Beach Post

Carey O’Donnell and her husband, Steve Barry (locally infamous for outrageous cycling, snowboarding and ice climbing outfits), have divided their time between Big Sky and Palm Beach for more than 20 years. Last year, Carey sold the advertising and PR agency she’s owned since 1995 and is hard at work fulfilling a book contract.

Both are members of BASE where they use the gym regularly. That’s where the “1923” crew member—a guest of a Big Sky resident—spotted Carey and asked if she could horseback ride (she previously lived in Ireland where it seems to be an unspoken requirement of residency) and whether she’d be interested in working as “background talent” on the “Yellowstone” prequel “1923.” She didn’t end up on horseback. They picked her for her height advantage as a sign-waving Temperance woman in an opening scene with Harrison Ford.

“You look strong and … forgive me, but kind of hungry. Would you be interested in working as background talent on a “Yellowstone” prequel set in the 1920s?” 

Not exactly the typical chit-chat among side-by-side strangers working out in the local fitness center. And for the record, I don’t look hungry, at least not in soulful bakery-case-staring kind of way. I’m just lean and fit enough to catch the eye of the visiting crew member. 

“We need background artists who look like they could have survived in Montana during the 1920s,” she explained, adding that Montana’s Great Depression began a full decade before the infamous financial crisis hit the rest of the nation. “The demands of daily life in the Mountain West back then called for a lot of physical resilience. If you have the time, we could use you.” 

I had the perfect window of opportunity for a lark like this. It was the tail end of a glorious summer in Big Sky, where my husband and I built a home 20 years ago, and I had a week before I needed to be back home in Palm Beach. The production headquarters was an easy drive from our place, and “Yellowstone” was a huge hit so it was a safe bet to think that a related series would deliver a wagonload of fun.

Presto-chango! Within two weeks I ended up playing a screaming, sign-waving “Temperance Woman” in the wild, wild west on the set of 1923,” the western drama and “Yellowstone” prequel starring Harrison Ford and Helen Miren.

The show is also the sequel to “1883,” the second of co-creator Taylor Sheridan’s two record-breaking cable series produced by MTV Entertainment Studios and 101 Studios that center on the fictional Dutton family (so it’s the sequel to the ‘Yellowstone” prequel, if you’re still in the saddle here).

The storyline is slowly being revealed now that the series has debuted, but the producers told us that the Dutton family will “struggle to survive historic drought, lawlessness and prohibition, and an epidemic of cattle theft; battled beneath the cloud of Montana’s Great Depression.” 

Old meets new on the Butte set of “1923” where part-time Big Sky resident Carey O’Donnell spent days working as an extra. The cars are vintage, but the building was not, so it was draped in blue to be digitally replaced. PHOTO BY CAREY O’DONNELL

A background filled with true characters

They weren’t kidding about needing people who are lean.

When I turned up for my costume fitting a week before filming in the back of a hungry-looking mall in Butte, the first person I saw was a rangy, mustachioed “Rancher” in a cowboy hat and vintage jeans at least two sizes too large, cinched comically at the waist. He was skeletal. No Hollywood fakery going on here, I thought. We should expect a brutally authentic portrait of Montana in the 1920s.  

The contents of the expansive costume department affirmed that observation. Except for some buckskin clothing that looked like it might be from the set of “1883,” the wardrobe items on 100-plus racks were unquestionably vintage. Cracked-leather shoes; quaint flowered hats; bunchy cotton camisoles and petticoats, and elaborate dresses for the flirtatious “Flappers” and female “City Folk,” as the strolling extras on the street were called. 

While clean, they all showed the stains and strains of a century of wear. Original hook-and-eye closures and snaps the size of sugar ants confounded my ability to try on the pieces selected for me in a timely way. My unpracticed fumbling with the pearl-buttoned footwear was humbling. I went from fast and efficient to halfway helpless when challenged by the way clothes fastened 100 years ago. 

For her role as a “Temperance Woman,” O’Donnell was told to wear foundation and mascara, but no other makeup. PHOTO BY CAREY O’DONNELL

Nimble-fingered costume assistants buttoned us up and then swept for watches, jewelry, tattoos and anything else modern-day so that the next step—a photo of the look against a screen with our names and roles—would portray us the way we’d appear on set—minus the hairstyling.   

“No smiling, Carey! You’re a sign-waving Prohibitionist. Drink is the Devil, remember! Let’s see your angry face,” I was prompted.

The (unflattering, in my case) images were texted to an art director for approval before my costume pieces were bagged, bundled and labelled with my name and character grouping.  

At 5:30 a.m. on the first day of filming, 200 extras—or “background artists,” to use the industry’s newly preferred term—lined up in one of the mall’s deserted department stores turned production Base Camp.

Under the guidance of a well-oiled production team

With military proficiency, we were greeted cheerfully and routed through five stations: COVID testing, costume, hair, makeup and a hot breakfast buffet before we boarded a bus to the set. 

The dozen Temperance Women were introduced to a production assistant who would manage us all day—coordinating bathroom breaks, keeping us hydrated and reminding us to brace for up to 12 hours on our feet. In pointy, high-heeled footwear. 

The pervasive friendliness and lack of flustered hustle by almost everyone who handled us was surprising and contagious, “… most likely by design,” according to Los Angeles-based entertainment attorney Clay Lorinsky.

“The tone on and off the set usually starts with the director, and is adopted down through the ecosystem,” Lorinsky explained.  Coordinating hairstyling, makeup and last-minute costume corrections for 200 appeared, to my uneducated eye, like a very tall order at 6 in the morning, but I saw no signs of impatience.

“A happy cast and crew logically improve efficiency, cost containment and the likelihood of profitability,” he said.  

The team of hairstylists and makeup artists (HMUs) hailed from Texas, where Sheridan’s ranch, the legendary Four Sixes, is located. Quite a lot of “Yellowstone” was filmed there; and its preeminent, real-life reputation for horses and cattle is featured in the story line of “Yellowstone” Season Four.  

The stylists tackled the transformation of about 150 heads of hair in under two hours, working from posterboards featuring photos of each extra in his/her costume.

The fabulous Elijah introduced himself with a hug and sat me down in front of his makeshift camp of lights and mirrors as if—another surprise—I were a paying client. His goal, he apologized, was to make me look “frumpy and frowsy,” true to the character I played. That meant braiding my hair into three straight stalks and pushing them up in a bunchy tease before pinning the frizzled mess into a low bun to be visible under my flowered black hat. A layer of hairspray and I was off to makeup. 

The casting company had warned all female extras to arrive wearing foundation and mascara only. Anything additional would be wiped away. That includes the verboten lipstick, which later proved to be a pervasive temptation among the plainly dressed Temperance Women over the course of the day on set.

Multiple attempts by some of the Temperance Women to sneak on a little lipstick backfired repeatedly when a staffer from the ever-present costume department materialized out of the shadows to wipe it away.

The attention to detail was astonishing. 

At Camp Makeup, I got a nod of approval for minimalism as brush-wielding artists worked their magic to achieve a humorless, Puritanical look for me, as well as era-accurate painted faces for the feminine “Flappers,” and outdoor complexions for the street-strolling “City Folk.” 

I laughed aloud at the sight of a dozen whiskered “Sheepers” and some 40 “Miners” in bygone bib-and-tucker queuing behind a sign that read “Dirt Line.” They thumbed through their smart phones while waiting to be smudged and smeared—hands, neck, fingernails, face and clothing—with either copper and zinc mine grime or trail dust. The Sheepers were supposed to look “as if they’d been out on the range for about two months”—as measured in whiskers.

The breakfast buffet was a startling quick-step back in time for a newbie like me. Every person bent over their scrambled eggs was suddenly someone from a century ago, with smart phones and plastic utensils as the only tells of modern day. 

A cast of disparate characters culled from everyday life

Who were these people dropping their lives in CPA firms, dental offices and retail shops to pledge grueling long hours to this production? For a click above minimum wage, I might add.

I spoke to kindergarten assistants, faculty from Butte’s Montana Tech, actual farmers, retired mining industry managers, truck drivers, local historians, multi-generational Butte residents and starstruck Bozeman soccer moms who set out at 4:30 a.m. in their Audis and Escalades to make the 6 a.m. call.  

Most of the extras were Butte residents who treated the opportunity like community theater on steroids. A few had also been extras on “Yellowstone” and continued to sport the beards and boots of cowboy culture even after their pivot back into real life. 

“You should be on Yellowstone,’” people would tell me,” said a 50-something “Rancher” at the coffee urn.  “Now I tell them, ‘I am, ma’am.’”   

O’Donnell and fellow background actors on the bus. PHOTO BY CAREY O’DONNELL

The excitement and pride about playing a small part in the cult-like success of the Dutton family saga was all-pervasive among our group, due in part to the starring role that Montana’s history and way of life is celebrated in the series. All Hollywood exaggerations forgiven.   

Even so, it was a little eerie how 200 strangers were instantly united through pitch-perfect costumes and unfamiliar roles in service to this meticulous production. 

Stripped of our real lives and social frameworks, we chatted like old friends with none of the exploratory caution. I felt like I’d left most of myself hanging on the costume rack and had hologrammed into a woman with another life from another era.  

“Nothing fully prepares a first-time extra for what it’s like on set,” said Marcie Bigelow, a veteran of the professional extra scene in New York City. “This is especially true if it’s a period piece where your normal surroundings are completely replaced with the trappings of a bygone era. It can feel other-worldly.”  

Modern streets transformed back to a century earlier

Our set was built by a SWAT team of Los Angeles set designers that, in less than two weeks, transformed four city blocks in Uptown Butte into a somewhat historically accurate Bozeman, circa 1923.

Butte’s magnificent brick buildings from its rock mining heydays are largely intact, reducing the investment required to create a very believable set with an astonishing, magical sense of place. Vintage signs for hotels, saloons, saddleries and pawn shops replaced everything 21st century. The only visible stumbling block was a modern building in the middle of the action that had to be shrouded in a giant blue tarp so an era-consistent image could be projected there, post-production. 

It took a full nine hours to wrap my single, five-minute scene that was big, complicated and choreographed with about 100 moving parts over three action-packed city blocks.

Given the complexity, I expected frustration-laden exchanges among directors, production assistants, camera crew and extras. The opposite happened. The intensity of the assistant director’s (AD) job responsibilities was never reflected in her bull-horned directives from the center of the street before and after each take.  About seven hours into shooting—and re-re-re-shooting—I overheard another AD managing the action near me radio to his presumed higher power, “Did we get that, sir?” And “Please let me know, sir, if we need to re-shoot when Harrison ties his horse to the hitching post. Thank you, sir.” 

Harrison, as the star was referred to by everyone throughout the day, was easy-going and outwardly friendly over hours of filming the same three-block scene from above, from behind, from the left, from the right, with a close up on him, with a close up on them, and once with a big, fancy camera mounted on a robotic rig to get the ultimate, immersive tracking shot of  Ford’s point of view atop his horse as he makes his way into town.  

A ‘fangirl’ exchange outside the saloon

Before filming began, we were cautioned by the AD not to “fanboy” the actors, directed with emphasis to my group that was positioned in proximity to Ford, who plays Jacob Dutton, the great-great-great uncle to Kevin Coster’s character, John Dutton, in the “Yellowstone” series.

The scene begins with Ford on horseback riding down Bozeman’s main street. He looks right as he passes a raucous, streetcorner boxing match in an elevated ring, then left at hay wagons and magnificent passing cars in totally unrealistic spotless condition (vintage Hudsons and Fords) driven by prosperous gentlemen in suits and jaunty bowlers.  

Ford dismounts—without a hitch, by the way, which is not easy at 80 years old—ties up his horse outside the saloon and bobs and weaves his way through us sign-waving, screaming Temperance Women.

Erin Coker, the only professional among our group, had a speaking part as she pursued Ford through our tumult. The star, who looks at least 10 years younger than his age, conferred amicably with Coker and an AD a few times over the course of the day to tweak the high-decibel exchange for a more natural dynamic.

Twice we had to pantomime the scene, waving and yelling without sound (not as easy as it sounds) so the lines between the actors could be cleanly recorded and then blended with our background noise (the mics are supersonically sensitive, so the actors speak much quieter than you’d expect).

After each take Ford would exit the “saloon” that was cowboy-western perfection from the outside but a tight-squeezed, long-abandoned retail space behind a timeworn front door.  After the first take cut he smiled hello to us protestors, true to his nice-guy persona.

The second time he lifted his chin at my “Prohibition for Montana” sign and quipped, “You’re on the wrong side of the issue, you know.”

I responded that the back says, “Wanna buy me a drink?” He laughed, à la movie star, while I waited to be scolded for engaging. I guess it was fast enough not to be a problem, so no one came to admonish me. 

O’Donnell hoists a sign prop between takes on the set of “1923” with her fellow background actors, a group dubbed the “Temperance Women.” COURTESY OF CAREY O’DONNELL

Our long day on set was under the mantle of a monster heatwave that blanketed the entire American West last September, smashing Montana’s weather records. The 100-plus degree temps prompted the production to cancel two of its three-day shooting schedule despite the obvious expense of suspending everyone and everything for a couple of days.  

Standing around in the sun in our pinchy heels and heavy black dresses required more physical stamina than I thought, despite being prepared by the casting company for a demanding day. The relentless heat and long hours standing in the sun finally took its toll on three extras—two from my Temperance group who felt seriously faint and needed to be helped off set to cool down and hydrate.

Endurance was the clear expectation, but no one anticipated the toll the freakish heat would take.

I was happy to learn via email that evening that the next day’s shoot had been postponed, releasing me from another long round of high-heeled, sunbaked standing. I was still in rehydration mode the next morning, despite the very best efforts by the crew to get all of us to drink and shift into shade at every opportunity.  

“Background artists—union and non-union—shouldn’t expect first-class creature comforts between takes or even to be able to sit-down every time a scene cuts. It can be a real challenge for outdoor shoots with large casts to provide enough places for extras to sit in shade or shelter,” Bigelow said.  “A production with a decent budget will do its best, given the environmental conditions, but you shouldn’t expect to be comfortable all day.”  

The Temperance Women were lucky enough to have access to a building that was part of the set across the street from our “ones” (initial positions in the scene) that offered a cool, cavernous interior with folding chairs, pallets of water and a rough, tough whiskey barrel prop comically filled with Doritos and candy.

The heat had intensified by noon to a degree where it was worth the foot pain to cross the street for a few minutes of relief (resting against building ledges or windowsills was prohibited to prevent damage to our vintage attire).

The best extras are game for anything, ready to listen carefully to everything and willing to tough out whatever conditions present on set. They show up in every way, with the patience to run through a scene as many times as it takes until the director says it’s a wrap.

Great art comes from great pain, as the saying goes, and I happen to have the blisters to prove it. 

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