By Cara West '03
Note: Wellesley College alumna Cara West now works
for the Jan Judy for Congress Campaign in her home state
of Arkansas. During her senior year, she served as an "extra"
movie actress for the film Mona Lisa Smile, a fictional
story set at Wellesley College in 1953-54. Among her other
classes last year, she completed an independent writing
study with Writing Program Professor Alexander Johnson.
"I took that opportunity to spend some time writing
about my experience as an extra," West said. "When I brought
her 16 pages, (Johnson) told me that I needed to whittle
it down to 800 words-I balked, but dutifully did so. She
encouraged me to try to publish it in a statewide paper
or on the radio, so I called my local NPR station. I hadn't
had much hope, but they were excited about the piece, since
it focused on a rather unique experience of a 'local girl.'
When I went to record, he said there was six-and-a-half
hours of tape, so I should take my time when I messed up,
and did I bring a copy of my script? I was shocked that
he assumed I wouldn't be prepared, and impressed him when
I required only 10 minutes to record the entire piece. I
had expected a studio like on Frasier, but instead basically
sat at a computer with a microphone."
Here's her essay, which was broadcast on KUAF-91.3FM,
the University of Arkansas public radio station, in September
Mona Lisa Smile
As we wait in line to audition, girls prod each other,
asking "Am I too skinny?" "Am I pudgy enough?" All yearn
to be as classically voluptuous as requested. At my turn,
the casting company takes a Polaroid headshot and asks my
measurements and special talents. I respond that I twirl
baton, skills left over from Fayetteville High School. My
unruly curly hair will no doubt be a strike against me,
but surely they had baton twirlers in 1953.
It is September 2002, and Columbia Pictures is filming
a movie on location at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts,
called Mona Lisa Smile. A 1950s period movie about
a Wellesley professor, the movie is rumored to have Oscar
potential in Julia Roberts' starring role as the professor.
Over 800 Wellesley students, including myself, are in line
to audition to be an extra in the movie. After buying out
every local store of Polaroid film, the casting company
is forced to turn away eager students hoping for a chance
in front of the camera. Despite my obscure talent, I am
convinced that I will not be among the privileged chosen.
I resign myself that life in the spotlight, or at least
life in a huge crowd of extras in a spotlight, is not for
me-until I get a call from the casting director.
At my wardrobe fitting the next day, I am shuffled through
hairstyling and then to wardrobe, where I receive a girdle,
corset, and pointy brassiere to ensure period accuracy.
My assigned dresser emerges from racks of 1950s sweaters
and skirts with an armload of clothing, first handing me
an orange-brown plaid skirt and a white blouse with burgundy
stripes. Does this match? He buttons an embroidered three-quarters
sleeve cardigan on me, warning me not to tug on my sweater.
The 1950s look, he insists, is "long legs, short torso."
At 5:45 am the next morning, I squeeze into my vintage
undergarments and period outfit as a make-up artist and
hairstylist do their best to transform me into a Wellesley
student of the 1950s. Julia Roberts' cameraman husband directs
my first scene, a casual shot of students on campus. I am
supposed to ride a bike towards the camera, but between
my corset and knee-length wool skirt, I can barely saddle
on, and quickly understand why my vintage bicycle has no
top bar. Five other girls walk down the path chatting and
carrying books while I shakily cycle in the back, praying
to God that I won't bust it on film. We have our own make-up
artist whose sole duty is to refresh our six pairs (!) of
bubble-gum pink lips and blot our glowing foreheads.
For the next shot, dozens of extras bicycle across Severance
Green, a meadow on campus. We ride directly at the camera,
creating a Braveheart-like effect as we travel over a small
ridge and split directions. Our 1950s-era bikes lack trustworthy
brakes, and we must concentrate hard on not slamming into
each other, the camera or the crew. We are not very successful.
This filming is much more enjoyable than the large, severely
unglamorous scenes in the afternoon. Hundreds of extras
push and shove in front of the camera, vying for a split
second of fame, as we rush towards Julia Roberts, Marcia
Gay Harden and Julia Stiles.
After the arduous day of filming, itchy and sweaty from
biking, I run back to the holding area and am moments from
stripping off my restrictive clothing when Julia Roberts
Cameras flashing all around her, she announces the winners
of raffle prizes, a ploy used to entice the extras to stay
the entire 12-hour day. I fish through my bag for my ticket
stub. My mother has uncanny luck with door prizes, surely
I can channel her good fortune-but where is my ticket? "Last
prize!" Julia says. "Remain standing if I call your number
and everybody else sit down!" With great fanfare she yells
the number-4397-for the final prize, a $250 gift certificate
to a trendy shop in nearby Boston. But everyone sits down.
She quickly smiles and picks a new ticket, delighting the
The next morning in my economics class, tired and with
eyeliner still streaked on, I open my pencil case as the
lecture begins. I freeze when I see my ticket, sitting neatly
on top of my pens and pencils: 4397. Fate has decided my
days as a movie star are over.
Originally broadcast by KUAF-91.3FM, the University
of Arkansas public radio station.
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing
an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make
a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston
is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states
and 68 countries.