Film, Pop Culture

The Art of Seat Filling

fresh off the bus

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my early years in Los Angeles. This is due to the fact my first employers in Hollywood have been nominated for multiple honors this award season and I’ve been joyfully watching them on TV as they walk to the stage to receive their statues. There is a good chance they will be bringing home some Oscars this year as well.

I moved to Los Angeles when I was 20 after being offered a job at said employer’s company while interning there. Before my internship ended, I interviewed the president of the company for a class project and within our three hour meeting, he asked if I wanted to be his assistant. I was shocked. I politely reminded him that not only did I have zero experience in Los Angeles, but I was still a student and completely clueless as to the ways of the world.

He assured me that I would learn.

It was then I knew that my life would change forever.

I remember getting into my car, The Beatles “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” playing on the radio. A mix of unbelievable excitement that I had never felt before and absolute terror pinned me to my seat as I drove back to my dorm room. I called my folks and said with quivering certainty, “I think I’m moving to LA…”

The semester quickly ended and I flew home to tie up some loose ends. I met with the Dean of my school and explained that I was leaving to go work for a celebrity. I cried for a week straight as I knew that the end of my relationship with my high school boyfriend was near. I recall my mother throwing me my 21st birthday party three weeks before the actual date because I was going to be celebrating it with absolutely no one once I arrived in Los Angeles.

On June 1st, 2004, I got on that plane to Los Angeles to start my life.

And boy, was it a roller coaster.

But every second was worth it.

I had so many wonderful and weird and humbling and exhausting moments in Los Angeles. Some that I’ve forgotten, many that I miss, and a few I hope to never experience again. An occurrence marked under “exciting” was being a seat filler at the Screen Actors Guild Awards my first few weeks in Los Angeles (when I was still an intern).

I first ended up in Los Angeles by participating in my college’s abroad program. The program helped to facilitate internships for their students while they studied. Outside of school, they made sure we were actively entertained with sitcom tapings, studio lot tours, and the occassional award show seat filling. Seat filling opportunities were rare to come by and only a few students were selected. For whatever reason I happed to be one of the chosen for the 2004 Screen Actors Guild Awards at Shrince Auditorium. I was so piss my pants excited that I didn’t even think about the fact that my only formal dress in Los Angeles was my high school prom backup gown. Meaning it wasn’t even my actual prom dress.

The evening started like any normal evening with seeing a dead body laying in the middle of Interstate 110. No bigs. A dude had decided to jump from the 3rd street overpass into the 7-lane freeway specifically to make us late to the award show.

We pulled up to the USC campus traumatized. We had been in Los Angeles no more than three weeks and I was about to see a dead body AND Clint Eastwood all in one night.

Seat filling doesn’t sound difficult, but there is an art to it. Normally a seat filler arrives to an award show in their formal wear, and gets thrown into line with 50-100 others. You’re then led into the auditorium like cattle and told to wait in the wings. When a seat opens up and you’re next in line, you are to go sit in the appointed empty seat. This seat could be empty due to the guest being in the restroom, onstage to present an award, or onstage receiving an award. There are to be no empty seats in an award show and they’d much rather have you pretending to be Jack Nicholson than having a sparse looking crowd. Once the guest comes back to their seat, you are to get up and go back to the end of the line.

This is the part I didn’t adhere to. Our beloved teacher who was an expert seat filler instructed us not to go back into line, where we would most likely not have the chance to seat fill again that evening, but to find the next available empty seat and just sit in it. That is exactly what I did, and I spent the entire evening hopping from table to table sitting at the Lord of the Rings table, the Mystic River Table, the Monk table, one of the police drama show tables, and so on. I sat next to Sean Astin who was as sweet as could be and asked me where I was from and gave me his bread sticks to eat. I stepped on Jane Leeves foot and she gave me a crotchety look. I sat in Karl Malden’s seat as the 92 year-old was onstage to receive a lifetime achievement award. The highlight of the evening was when I plopped myself in an empty seat next to the stage and quickly picked up that I was in Clint Eastwood’s seat. I realized this after I noticed that Sean Penn was sitting to my right and Tim Robbins was sitting to my left. This realization unnerved me and I suddenly became extremely self-conscious of my gaze and movement. I tried to avoid eye contact with everyone at the table and focused on my fingers in my lap. It took me a second to realize that Sean Penn made a joke directed at me. He nudged Tim Robbins, pointed to me and said, “And they say that Clint Eastwood didn’t have plastic surgery…”

Eastwood’s wife was very sweet and chatted me up but I knew it was time to go when a dark shadow cast over the table and I could feel a heavy presence standing behind me. I tried my best not to look at, touch, or acknowledge Clint Eastwood out of fear that his his voice alone would break me like a twig.

Just when it started to get fun, the evening ended and I was to go back to my normal life as a student. I called my mom who immediately started screaming in the phone that she saw me at least four or five times on the TV. She was so proud of her daughter that she ordered still shots from her VHS recording and they now adorn one of her most prized scrapbooks.

Little did I know at the time that this was the beginning of five years of experiencing this stuff. Once you join the machinery of it all, jadedness kicks in and the excitement you once experienced becomes a thing of the past. Though I miss those times hobnobbing with Hollywood’s rich and famous, it took me moving to Austin to fully appreciate all that I got to experience. I can now look back and remember the excitement I felt those first few months in Los Angeles and that may be worth more than anything.

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  • Reply Roxanne and Lorraine January 31, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I've never been surrounded by the famous but there is something to be said about being removed from a situation to truly appreciate it.

    I probably would've been tripping and drooling all over myself, but that's just the type of social grace that baby Jesus bestowed upon me.


  • Reply Courtney January 31, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    This is exactly why I never could work in Hollywood. I would have been shaking in my seat, and too chicken to not return to the end of the line.

    Although I do understand not appreciating the excitement of an experience until later on… That experience certainly sounds like an exciting one. Especially when it was within your first few weeks in LA! I'd shit my pants.

  • Reply Jade Carver February 1, 2011 at 4:52 am

    "And they say that Clint Eastwood didn't have plastic surgery…"

    That made me laugh.

  • Reply Benny February 3, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    Haha! Good to know that Spicoli wasn't Sean Penn's last-ever attempt at not taking himself too seriously.

    Other than that… I could really feel that excitement. Goodness. I imagine Austin must feel like youthful retirement.

  • Reply Stephanie February 9, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    great read.. I just moved to California.. watched the grammy online.. and noticed the seat fillers. In my head I thought.. wow in putting up a production like the Grammy’s im sure they have to be in need of volunteers some way? I guess ‘seat-filling’ would be that. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “once you join the machinery of it all, jadedness kicks in and the excitement you once experienced becomes a thing of the past.” I’m curious to know what that ‘other’ side entails..

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