In 2003, during the run-up to the war in Iraq, I was living in Hollywood, where at the time I was working as Ben Affleck’s stand-in on the movie Surviving Christmas. The experience is recounted in my book, Dreams That Die, just published by Zero Books. Given that Affleck has just won the BAFTA for the movie Argo, and with this week marking the tenth anniversary of the historic international day of protest on February 15 2003, here is an extract from the book on my experience on the set of the movie in the immediate aftermath of the February 15 demo in Los Angeles.
The Monday after the demonstration saw me arrive for the start of another week on the movie in high spirits. The enormous size and number of demonstrations that had taken place around the world had hit the headlines, managing to knock the pro-war consensus within the mainstream off the front pages of all the major newspapers, as well as relegating them in order of importance on the TV news bulletins.
On the set it was interesting to hear the differing opinions of the antiwar movement. More than a few, consisting of those who supported Bush without equivocation or condition and wholeheartedly believed in the ‘mission’ to get Saddam, dismissed the protesters as traitors. Others, more liberal in outlook, though still of the belief that the US was the greatest nation on earth, abhorred the Bush administration. Conscious of what they referred to as ‘America’s place in the world’, which they viewed as a shining example of other nations to follow rather than a hammed to be feared and loathed, they watched aghast as Bush and his cronies set about turning their beloved country into a rogue state. The liberal antiwar stance they espoused was reflective of the view that the US should only go to war against Iraq under a UN mandate and not unilaterally. They weren’t concerned about the damage already that had already been done to the Iraqi people by the sanctions, nor were they overly concerned at the prospect of innocent Iraqis being blown to smithereens if the US went ahead and attacked. Their primary concern was the welfare of the troops (our boys) and America’s image and standing in the eyes of the world. In other words, they supported the same aims as the neocons – namely US domination – but advocated different, subtler means of achieving those aims. This difference in form not content is what separated Democrats and Republicans and had done more or less throughout the nation’s history.
By now word had gotten round that I was involved in the antiwar movement, and I began to detect hostility from various quarters as a consequence. Affleck’s bodyguard Scott for example had taken to throwing me dirty looks when he wasn’t ignoring me completely. The same with his personal assistant. Too bad.
There remained one of two sympathetic voices on the crew as well, though. Sadly they weren’t very vocal, preferring to keep their antiwar and anti-Bush sentiments quiet. Their reluctance to speak out was illustrative of the fear, now commonplace, of being labelled unpatriotic or anti-American. It was a fear prevalent not just on the set of this movie but within the country as a whole.
Later that day another UN debate was due to be held on Iraq, on whether or not the Iraqi government was complying with the inspections that were now scouring the country looking for stockpiles of WMD. Despite being at work, I was determined to listen to some of the proceedings on the radio one way or another, especially now that events were approaching the point of no return.
Finally, Manny the DP announced that the shot was ready and the call went up for first team. Along with my fellow stand-ins, I began making my way off the set to make way for the principals, who began to arrive in their usual ones and twos. James Gandolfini as ever was the first to appear, hitting everyone with his customary jovial smile and friendly greeting as he took up his position. I was just heading over to the corner of the soundstage where the stand-ins were congregated when the soundstage door opened and in came Affleck’s entourage, followed by the man himself. Standing directly in their path it was a moment that called for acknowledgement in the form of a nod or a polite greeting. But this was Hollywood, where a different kind of normality prevailed, and all five of them walked right past me as if I didn’t exist, had never existed, and would never exist in any shape or form worthy of recognition. I continued on over to my chair and picked up the book I was reading – the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels – and resumed reading where I’d left off.
‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freemen and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.’
Five or ten minutes later, I got up again and began walking across the soundstage in the direction of the exit, heading for the bathroom. As I passed the set I could hear the voices of Ben Affleck and his many sycophants, interspersed with loud laughter. Suddenly, Affleck led off on a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Almost immediately he was joined by others, until the entire set was united in song.
I continued on my way to the bathroom. What else could I do? I was desperate for a shit.
Dreams That Die is currently available from Word Power Books