First Time on the Set of a “Chicago” Show – Part 1 of 3

If you’ve never worked on the set of a big budget TV show, your first time can be super stressful. It’s hectic, there’s a ton of people everywhere and even more stuff to look at, and there’s all kinds of protocol actors need to be aware of.

Watch the video of this post here:

Once you’re past the audition process and booked, sometimes the realization sets in that you may know how to play the scene, but you have no idea what to expect from the work experience. That can push your nerves into overdrive, which can shut down your brain and make your acting suffer.

I want to help get you ready for your first time on set. I shot over 20 episodes of Chicago PD, appearing as ASA Steve Kot. I’m going to use this experience as an example, but the information can be applied to virtually any show.

Let’s assume you booked a co-star role that shoots for one day, something like a bartender, or a witness to a crime. Your role is to push the story along.

Shortly after you’re officially booked, you should get a call from the costume department. They’ll want to check your sizes and possibly get you in for a fitting before your shoot day. Be honest about this, because they’re going to pull options for you based on what you say. If you fib, the fitting will take much longer because they’ll have to pull more clothing.

Rule number one of working on set: Don’t waste anyone’s time. There’s too little of it. They’ll take some photos of you in your costumes so the director can sign off on them and you’ll be out the door.

Early on you should also be contacted by the 2nd assistant director (or the second 2nd AD) about your shoot schedule. Depending on how far in advance you book the job, this could happen right after you’re booked, or the day before you shoot. The 2nd AD will give you an idea of what your call time might be. You should be added to the script distribution email list, so you’ll start getting script updates from the production office.

Rule number two of working on set: Stay on top of these since you want to know if the writers have changed your scene. If you show up having memorized one thing and everyone else is working off different words? You. Are. Screwed.

Most shows do table reads, where the cast and heads of crew departments gather around a table and read the episode out loud. If you’re asked to join in, this will be the first time you meet everyone. Enjoy it and be friendly, but this isn’t the time to schmooze! Remember, this might be a big deal to you, but to everyone else there, it’s just another day at work. Do everyone a favor and be cordial, but don’t go out of your way to chat with anyone, even if you’re star struck by the series regulars.

On the shoot day, plan on arriving early. A lot of call times are early in the morning anyway, but even if yours isn’t, try to get there at least 15 minutes beforehand. Arriving early will relieve the stress if you have trouble parking. It will also take the stress off your 2nd AD who is responsible for you every minute of the time you’re supposed to be there.

If you’re late, that AD will be blowing up your phone wondering where you are. Their morning will be miserable because they’ll have people breathing down their neck looking for you, and your lateness will ruin the day of a lot of other people, too, and possibly cause production to slow down or rearrange the shooting order. Rule number three is show up early. You’re a pro now. Pros show up early.

Truck parking sign
Chicago PD Truck Parking

If your scene doesn’t shoot at Cinespace (the home of Chicago Fire, PD and Med), you’ll be told to go to an alternative shoot location, maybe a bar or a neighborhood street, and the second AD will give you directions.

You’ll park at crew parking, which will hopefully be close to base camp, where production parks all the trailers and trucks for the show. Base camp will be your home for the shoot. When you park, if the lot is far away from base camp, there should be someone to drive you there. Anyone with a walkie-talkie will be able to help you.

If base camp and the lot are essentially in the same location, then park and text your contact person, probably a second 2nd AD. S/he will meet you and show you to your trailer.

Rule number four of working on set: Be really nice to your second 2nd AD. Like I said, they’re responsible for you from the second you arrive until the second you leave. They work really hard and multitask constantly, and you don’t want to be one of the things they have to worry about. They also brave a lot of bad weather working on these shows. Besides, if you’re ever invited back to the show, they can sometimes give you a nicer trailer than your role calls for.

Next post, I’ll talk about what working on set is like, and how to behave like you’ve been there before.