INTERVIEW: Chris Cook from Modern Conservative Talks Politics, And About Being A Pro Genre Extra

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Today we've got Chris from Modern Conservative (dot) Com with us to talk about the absolute best Science Fiction series of the 1990s, Babylon 5, among other things.

Chris, thank you for being with us today!

CHRIS:

Thanks so much for having me. Gosh, I've never been interviewed by a robot before. What a wonderful time to be alive!

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Now, Chris: rather than the normal geekish blather we throw around here, you actually have a personal connection to the show, right? You were actually *In* a couple episodes?

CHRIS:

I suppose you could call it "in." Many are surely aware of this, but for those who aren't, I should explain something: A non-union extra is the lowest form of life in the Hollywood ecosystem. Seriously. Being unemployed is a more respected profession. Before I took a different path, I was looking into print modeling for a time. At one point, I went to an agency. The guy liked my look, liked my pictures, and then he asked me how I was making ends meet at the moment. I told him I was working as an extra (more officially called a "background actor," by the way), and that was that.

There's a real stigma. I could have told him I was a garroter by trade and at least he would have been intrigued. With that as my hook, I should have at very least been able to land an Abercrombie & Fitch spread . . . dark, emaciated, and holding a piano wire.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

That’s hilarious. Or a Drakkar Noir ad, I guess…

CHRIS:

But yep, I was in a couple of episodes. And the truth is, as TV sets go, it was a nice environment. Before I became steady on one show and went union, I was a journeyman extra (as most are), and I experienced a lot of different sets, in both movies and TV. You can often get a sense of how happy the cast and crew are just from the vibe in the air.

As far as I could tell, the cast and crew of B5 seemed a happy lot. There was a good feeling in the air. Then again, unlike the majority of the movies and shows that I did, I actually really liked B5, so perhaps I was just happy to be there

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Which ones were you in? Which episodes?

CHRIS:

I was in two: The first one . . . I simply don't know. I know that it was an episode that Bester was in (Walter Koenig). I remember a scene where Garibaldi was cranky . . . but of course, that describes half the episodes in the series! I never saw myself in whatever episode it was (though that's not hard with extras, as they are almost invariably not the focus of the shot, and if you blink, you miss 'em). If I went back and watched all the episodes with Bester again and really tried to remember, I might be able to figure it out . . . but, well, that's not gonna happen.

The second one was far more memorable and my "moment" is far more noticeable. It was the show on which I got my first SAG (union) voucher. (You need three vouchers to be eligible for SAG membership.) In other words, they hired me for that day at the union rate because they only had a few extras that day, and by the contract with the union (at the time), the first 15 had to be SAG.

It also happened to be the very last episode of the series, and my split-second on screen was in the last 60 seconds of the last episode of the series. As with the previous episode I was in, my long hair (at the time) made me perfect for a Centauri. I showed up, spent 45 minutes in hair and makeup getting my hair all crazied-up into a beautiful semi-circle, went to wardrobe for that awesome jacket, and then went straight to the set.

The director said "look worried and concerned"; they took a couple of takes and we were released. I gave back the jacket and headed out. Just as I was walking out the door, Claudia Christian was walking in. My hair was still in Centauri mode, and I said to her, "I'm driving home like this." She laughed.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

So what was a day in the life of an extra on B5 like?

CHRIS:

They stuck us in Brown Sector, in Downbelow. **Thrill as I make a desperate attempt to establish my geek cred**

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: [Laughing]

CHRIS:

It was fine. Sound stages are usually old and, other than the section that is currently lit for the scene, rather dark. You spend a lot of time waiting. I do remember thanking God that I wasn't one of the aliens requiring a mask. Those guys were in those masks for hours. I would have gone nuts!

Some sets are more segregated, some are less. One good example (since this is a science fiction site) --- I did a couple of X-Files episodes, and at lunch time, everyone ate together---cast, crew, even the lowly extras. I sat right across from Mitch Pileggi (Skinner) at lunch one of the times. Nice guy. Other shows and films, of course, are completely segregated, with a healthy separation between those "above the line" and the untouchables.

Anyways, Babylon 5 was not one of those segregated ones. Jerry Doyle and Jeff Conaway were at lunch with the rest of us in the first episode I was on. That was nice. But dang, if I had known at the time that Jerry Doyle was a conservative who had run for Congress as a Republican from the (San Fernando) Valley, I certainly would have made an effort to talk with him!

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

I don’t think he’d actually run by that point. I remember during the campaign, he was bragging about being the only candidate in American history who was also an Action Figure.

Part of the reason B5 was such a meaningful show to me was that it was actually *about* something, rather than just being a franchise. It was driven by ideas as much as plot, and although I know the creator and primary writer of the show is quite liberal, it still ended up being a very middle-of-the-road show, politically. In fact, on occasion, I think they ended up being considerably more right-of-center than they kind of intended to be. What did you think of the show?

CHRIS:

I loved it. It was sooooo much better than every other science fiction show out there.

1. It was darker. Real life is often dark and scary, and it portrayed that well. Definitely not utopian.

2. It was dirtier. Y'ever notice on Star Trek how everything is always so clean and pretty, with just the rare times when they smear some dirt on someone's face?

REPUBLIBOT 3.0: Yeah, that drives me nuts. It’s like living in EPCOT or something.

CHRIS:
Ha---exactly! "Welcome to the future, where everything is sanitary and works perfectly, all the time!" Babylon 5 seemed hardscrabble and kind of unsanitary. It just made it seem more real.

3. They faced existential threats. The plots of Babylon 5 were simply bigger. The situations were grander. The themes were broader and more profound.

4. Story arcs! Unlike Star Trek (again with the Trek comparison, I know), B5's episodes were not just self-contained bubbles. There were much broader arcs that went for episodes and even transcended seasons. Very cool.

5. FORESHADOWING! The single-coolest literary device out there. You got hints of things to come that didn't come to fruition until much later. Sinclair turns out to be Valen. How cool was that! Could point out the moments you thought were right of center? I suppose their might have been a few, but I'd like to hear the ones you noticed.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Well, there was “Learning Curve,“ in the fifth season, we’re told that the civilized way to deal with muggers is to hold them captive and let their victims beat the living hell out of them. There’s the obvious respect for traditional religions - show me another SF show where a Baptist Preacher, a Catholic Monk, and a Russian Rabbi play pivotal parts in the story! - there’s Marcus, who died a virgin because he was waiting for the right girl to come along…oh, and the very subtle distinction between loyalty to a government, and loyalty to individual politicians, which most liberals don’t seem to be able to wrap their brains around…

CHRIS:

Dang, y'know---you're right! Makes me love the series all the more.

Oh, and you'll have to forgive the Star Trek references. When it comes to science fiction, I only have one foot in the pool. Several books that I read and enjoyed, several TV shows . . . but I am not an expert or a connoisseur. I was raised on Star Trek by my older brother and sister. At age 5 and 6, I was at the conventions at the old Commodore Hotel in NY in the early 70s---the ones where all the cast showed up (as opposed to years later, when it would just be one of the principals and then a couple of random red-shirts or something). So, prior to Babylon 5, Star Trek (in its various incarnations) was the TV show I knew the best. Hence, it's the point of comparison/reference for me.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

That seems to be kind of standard for most people of our generation, you know? I still occasionally run into people who seem confused that there are SF shows that *aren’t* Trek. “Lost? I ain’t seen no Starfleet uniforms, so it can’t be sci-fi.”

I didn’t realize before speaking to you that there was such a thing as an "Background Actors’ Union" for professional actors that work in that capacity. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and how it works? I'm always kind of interested to learn how much of a trade acting is, you know? Like Plumbers and Pastry Chefs have...also, what other shows - if any - have you "Extraed" in?

CHRIS:

Actually, there's just one union now. Once upon a time, there was the Screen Extras Guild and the Screen Actors Guild. I heard the stories when I first got to town of union extras living like kings! Then, something happened---I think SEG went on strike and SAG didn't support them or something---and SEG collapsed. There's probably a lot more to it and I may have gotten it wrong; I never really looked too deeply into it.

Anyways, SEG merged into SAG and now there's just the one union. As I mentioned, I got my first union voucher on Babylon 5. At that point, I had already been lucky enough to become a regular extra on Chicago Hope. I told the Chicago Hope 2nd assistant director (my boss, for all intents and purposes) that I had gotten my first and I asked if she'd keep working me if I went union. She said she would, and she got me my second and third within just a few days, and I immediately joined SAG. That more than doubled my pay, and after year or so, got me a Cadillac health plan.

We could talk about the politics of unions, and as a conservative, I have strong views. Be that as it may, I did very well as a union extra, and it allowed me to become more than the (entertainment) industry equivalent of a Denevian slime devil.

Whoa, again with the serious geek cred---he shoots, he scores!

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Well, he shoots, anyway…

CHRIS:

[Laughing] Oh, you wound me, mon capitaine!

How's that? Better? No, wait, don't answer...

Chicago Hope was very very good to me. I continued to work as an extra; they also had me do stand-in work. I went to the wrap parties, got the crew Christmas presents, and went on the crew fishing trips thrown by one of the cast. I even played on the show's softball team in the "Prime Time League." The only actor I ever encountered in a game was when we played Mutant Enemy; Alyson Hannigan was their right fielder. (I figured you geeks would dig that :-)

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

And how!

CHRIS:

Yeah, everyone on their team was saying, "C'mon, Ally, you can do it" and such when this one particular gal was up to bat. I'm wondering to myself, why are they being so extra supportive of this one player? Then, in the "good-game," hand-slap line at the end of the game, I suddenly got it when I realized I was slapping Willow's hand :-)

I made many connections and many friends in the nearly four years on that show. Before Chicago Hope, I did scores and scores of shows, films, and commercials. After a short time on CH, I stopped doing anything else. After CH, I did one other show as a regular: Gideon's Crossing was good enough to have me. But they went for just the one season, and I was moving on to a new career anyways. As far as all the other shows and movies and such . . . ask me another time; it's just too long to list :-)

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Science Fiction is generally perceived as being really liberal, and as a result it's kind of frightening to a lot of conservatives, particularly Social Conservatives. Why do you think that is?

CHRIS:

I'm sorry---remind me again what part of the culture isn't really liberal? Seriously. And it's not just the culture: leftists nest everywhere. The American Library Association. The American Psychiatric Association. Things that aren't supposed to be political at all are taken over by the left. The left sees politics everywhere, and they insert politics everywhere. If we want to this nation to survive in any way that resembles what the Founders set up and intended, conservatives have to realize this and learn how to combat it. The left exercises a near-complete hegemony over the culture, and as far as I know, science fiction is generally left-leaning because it's a part of their cultural dominion. Discussing the reasons for that hegemony would be a bit of a diversion here, of course, but I'd love to talk about those at another time.

In the meantime, though, if there is a reason above and beyond that why science fiction is more inclined to be left-leaning than other parts of the culture, I'd love to learn more about it. I'm sure y'all are just the ones to educate me on that count. Maybe because science fiction allows utopian and dystopian visions to be created more easily and plausibly . . . ?

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Oh, undoubtedly the ‘Utopian/Dystopian’ thing is part of it. I also think that the central tenet of SF is “what if things changed, and we have to redefine who and what we are as a result?” That’s a huge gulf for some people to get over. It’s outside the comfort range of a lot of us.

But a lot of it is just that some people insist on insulting conservatives - ‘Belief in God is stupid,’ ‘Patriotism is stupid,’ ‘Capitalism is stupid,’ and so on. Do you think Science Fiction is important in the culture wars? Why, or why not?

CHRIS:

Heck yes. I am of the belief that every front is important in this political struggle we're in. The left sees no arena of society as off limits. There is nothing that they won't politicize or try to take over. They turn funerals into political rallies, for goodness sake.

Now, while I am not suggesting that conservatives ever become as crass, we have to start fighting back, and we have to do it on every single available front. Our counter attack against the left has to be full-spectrum, 24-7-365. I hate saying that, because frankly, I'd rather move to the country, farm bees, and sit in my back yard talking about theology. But the left has made that impossible by their relentless assault on EVERYTHING. They must be stopped.

You guys are doing exactly what you should be. You are conservatives with a particular interest area, and you are fighting back on that front. That's exactly the way to do it. Don't cede any ground to them. If science fiction helps shape the way people think about possible futures, then the last thing we want is those possible futures being described by collectivists, closet totalitarians, and people who think Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are heroic figures.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Wow. That’s a hell of an endorsement! Thank you! So how does one go from being a professional extra in an SF show to being a conservative pundit heading up a website like Modern Conservative?

CHRIS:

A generous application of monomaniacal obsession.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Tell us a little bit about your site - how it differs from other Conservative websites (Including our own, here, which - as you noted - is tied to a specific medium), and what you hope to accomplish.

CHRIS:

Pursuant to a previous answer, Modern Conservative is designed to take that full spectrum approach. Our most important department is AnyStreet (HTTP://www.AnyStreet.org ). That's our activist arm. It's a national grassroots entity with a focus on the formation of local activist groups. The focus is not online activism so much as it is on low-tech, local, physical activism---literally, conservative community organizing. Think of it as ACORN without the evil.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

[Laughing uncontrollably]

CHRIS:

In addition to AnyStreet, we have a number of other departments in various stages of growth and development. We have services focused on helping other conservative entities and groups expand their reach and enhance their cooperation and interconnectivity. We have a Culture Front department, the most exciting aspect of which, at the moment, is our Liberatchik project, which is focused on sparking a conservative, liberty-based revolution in the visual arts. That one has recently begun to snowball, and we will soon be announcing a nationwide art tour run by a bunch of terrific artists. (The art world---now there's a part of the culture that is so left-leaning it's ready to fall off the earth---imagine if we can spark a movement in the other direction!) We've got other items in development as well, things we expect will one day be (political) household names. Our growth has thus far been gradual due to the fact that we've been entirely self-funded. That is all beginning to change, though, and things are really starting to pick up. AnyStreet has the most momentum right now, but the whole organization is designed to interconnect and synergize, and some big things are right around the corner. We've also got a brand-new website coming soon. We're very excited

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Finally, since ModCon first went up and running, what's the thing you're proudest of it for? What is - in your opinion - the thing that makes you smile and say "This was all worthwhile?"

CHRIS:

I could be self-serving and continue with a description of our services, how we're different, how we've got the best approach, the best activist training materials, etc. But you know what . . . . . . maybe it's the Christmas season and the fact that my blood is now 23% egg nog, but I really have to say it's the human connections that have made it all worthwhile. It's the people---and not just the people I have met as a result of this, but the people who have now met each other . . . very much including people I have never met and whose names I don't know. Allow me to explain:

For the longest time, this was just me. My wife jumps in it with me at times, but she's mostly been working straight jobs so that I could continue doing this. So it was just me and a credit card. Then one wonderful gal came along to help. Then someone else and someone else. Now, I have a staff of terrific committed patriots, all volunteering their time to bring to fruition this grand vision we have.

Modern Conservative and AnyStreet are not small plans----they're virtually all-encompassing in their scope and ambition. And the people who have come aboard are sacrificing a lot to bring it all to bear. It truly is an honor to have them at my side and to be working with them. But more than an honor, it is also a joy. We have become good friends. Most of them are people whom I have never met in person, and yet some of them have become among my absolute favorite people in the world.

And it's not all centered on me, not by a long-shot. They are also making friends with each other, and bringing new people into the fold. Professional associations have formed. Friendships have formed. Mutually beneficial business connections. Heck, I would not be the least bit surprised if there were love connections coming in the near future! We may have linked up as soldiers in a political struggle, but it's become so much more than that.

And then there's AnyStreet. AnyStreet, as I mentioned, is a national organization that is forming local groups across the country. This means a complete nationwide leadership hierarchy and an ever-growing number of activists . . . and untold potential for more. Five regions, 50 states, 435 districts, 3,100 counties, thousands of towns, tens of thousands of precincts, and hundreds of thousands of neighborhoods and streets. And we're organizing them all, house by house, street by street, county by county.

We're just at the beginning of this journey, and already, it involves thousands of people. And all of them are connecting with each other, building friendships, business connections, political associations, and more. Most of these people I will never know personally, but they are all coming together, in their local areas, counties, and states, because of what we're doing at AnyStreet and Modern Conservative. It's a beautiful thing. Heck, there's even Liberatchik, the art movement I mentioned earlier.

For the longest time, that was just me and one tireless artist named Frances. Quite some time ago, she and I decided that the art world needs to be shaken up and conservatives need to start a revolution in the arts. She's been working at it relentlessly ever since, meeting people and trying to connect up with conservative artists (most of whom are in hiding). Now, just in the last few weeks, she has connected with enough people that a small movement is beginning to coalesce and a nationwide art tour is in the planning stages. Imagine all the people who will be brought together by that!

So, perhaps I should put up a sign in my office, to remind me when I get caught up in minor details or day-to-day frustrations, that "it's the people, stupid."

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

Excellent! That’s fantastic. Absolutely the best of luck to you with that! Well, that's it for now. Thank you very much for being with us, and all the best to you. For our readers who've never checked it out, the website is called "Modern Conservative" and it's online here at http://www.ModernConservative.Com

CHRIS:

Thanks so much for having me, and for letting me be a Republibot for a day. You guys have a great thing going here, and it was an honor to be a part of it.

REPUBLIBOT 3.0:

No, no, the honor is all ours.

[NOTE: This interview was conducted in mid-December, 2009]

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