For six months in 2007, I was a professional criminal.
I was paid an hourly wage to mug, pickpocket, vandalise shops and beat up my wife. Once arrested, I would set fire to mattresses, self-harm, get my head smacked in by prison guards - and once I spent a whole day pretending I was dead, which was remarkably unrestful.
Who funded this half-year of carnage? Why aren’t I still in prison? Who (other than a sadomasochist who doesn’t like dressing up) would actually pay for domestic violence?
As it turns out, the police will.
Every young actor who didn’t play Harry, Hermione or Ron in the Harry Potter films will eventually need a day job. Just something basic to keep the cash flowing while you wait for callbacks for such roles as, “Nerd #3”, “Bank Customer With Haircut” and “Man Urinating in Alley” (acting is the only business where it’s possible to be auditioned – and turned down for – your ability to urinate in an alley.)
I had two jobs. Most days, I was a kid’s puppeteer – and when I couldn’t get shifts doing that, I was a “scenario role-player” at the local police academy. I’d turn up, be given a crime to commit – and then I’d commit that crime six times in a fake town that had been built out the back of the main training facility.
It was a good mental jump to make. On Monday, I’d tell kids about the food chain. On Tuesday, I’d stab a cop with a screwdriver. On Wednesday, I’d go back to the kids, where I’d teach science with a smile and a stuffed guinea pig and usually get punched in the balls a few times by the next generation of enquiring minds.
(Most of my week was spent wishing I had that screwdriver.)
The police academy had a fake gas station to fake rob, a fake prison for fake riots and a real wall to get my head actually thumped into (I got out of hand during the fake prison riot and got a dose of reality in the shape of a 6’ 2’’ prison guard with massive arms.) That particular work day ended with a concussion, the blowing of a whistle and the supervising officer yelling, “Officer Mitchell! The actors are our friends!”
Some thespians end up as waiters and die the death of a thousand tables.
I was genuinely happy, since I was harnessing that creepy ability actors have where they pretend to be real people. Some people call this “acting”, but since there was no stage or camera, let’s give it its traditional name, “fraud”.
I was also pleased because I was doing something my subsconscious had always lusted after – seeing if I could get away with crime.
Stealing a woman’s wallet in a carpark.
We did this one six times with six different sets of trainees. She would give me her wallet, two cops would turn up and I’d try to convince them that I didn’t have her wallet. This never worked, though I did once manage to throw it underneath a car without either officer noticing. This meant that, when they took me back to the station, they had no evidence of any crime – and nothing to charge me with. Also, since the trainee who frisked me didn’t check my boots properly, I fake-stabbed him in the neck with a screwdriver.
While you could interpret this as a vital lesson to “always be vigilant”, I have it on good authority that if he ever picks me up for a speeding ticket, I’m going to pay for that.
We did this five times one way and a final time with a slight change. For the first five exercises, my “wife” put fake blood under her nose. For the last run, she was clean – and I had fake blood under my nose. The story was switched around. She was beating me.
When I was the aggressor, I was arrested every time, while my wife got to go and stay at her sisters. The sixth time we did it, with me as victim, the responding officers opined that maybe I should “calm down” and she could maybe go stay at her sisters. If memory serves, this made the supervisor blow his whistle repeatedly and use exciting phrases like, “TAKE HER TO JAIL YOU __________ MORONS.”
Aside from, say, a transgendered P.E teacher, have you ever seen someone with a whistle and a clipboard smash the bullshit out of traditional gender roles? I have. Well done, that supervisor.
Rioting in Prison.
This was tremendous fun, even if budget and safety concerns meant that I had to stand near a mattress and jump around shouting, “It’s on fire! It’s on fire!” making this the least frightening prison riot of all.
Every part of me wanted to set the mattress on fire, at least for realism, but since realism gave me a concussion a few hours later, just relish the vision of a prisoner in a jumpsuit leaping next to an imaginary mattress fire and remember that I was playing dress-ups for a vital purpose.
But as life affirming and socially useful as the job was, I eventually quit.
My Day of the Dead
I didn’t quit for any particular reason, but it may have had something to do with the day I was given an eight-hour shift as a corpse.
Wannabe cops need training on how to deal with corpses. Since corpses are hard to get, actors will do. It makes sense – we do have the same amount of free time. This was another useful part of police training, even if I did start work by wrapping an electrical cable around my neck and lying down.
Was it morbid? Yes. Was it hard to do? No. You just shut your eyes. Several trainee patrolmen ended up faced with a dead body that snored.
The scenario was the interior of a residence. My character had committed suicide. An actor playing a friend of mine was waiting on the front step of the house, having called the police with grave concerns about my mental state. Two patrolmen would arrive – and the scenario would progress from there.
To pass the assessment, the trainees had to meet my friend, open the door, find me, send one officer outside to gently counsel my friend and prevent her coming in, while the other inspected the scene, and then radioed the police station. This ended up being a simple exercise sabotaged by a combination of student ineptness and the ruthlessness of actors.
At 5pm, we met the final trainees for the day. These were two young women being graded on their knowledge of procedure. They were also two young women who were failed on their knowledge of procedure.
Both officers quickly greeted my friend, opened the door, came inside – and left her on the doorstep. While a bit more flippant than in earlier exercises, this was not necessarily bad. They closed the door behind them, and found me sprawled out on the carpet. Procedure meant that one officer now needed to return to the front doorstep, while headquarters was contacted. Instead, both stared. This was bad.
One was heard to ask, “Is he dead?”
The other asked the supervisor, “If he is, do we have to strip him?”
It’s possible, as it turns out, to hear the sound of a whistle that hasn’t been blown. The supervisor looked at them in disbelief.
“Why would you strip a dead body, trainee?” he asked.
“I… I don’t know,” replied the one who seemed to think that CSI was a porno.
After a pause, the officer who’d asked, “Is he dead?” took my pulse and confirmed that I wasn’t. This agitated the supervisor, who roared out the information that actors, like most people, are unable to voluntarily stop their hearts from beating.
Aware of the amount of time that was passing, my friend on the doorstep began crying hysterically, which should have been enough of a warning for both officers that something had gone wrong, since hysterical crying is something of a universal signal that something is amiss.
Since both officers had neglected to counsel my buddy, inform her of the situation, or even lock the door – my acting partner was now given licence to burst into the scene. She opened the front door and the scenario progressed with realism.
She saw her best friend lying dead on the floor ran down the hall, had a nervous breakdown and jumped up on top of me, screaming. As a trainee police officer, the moment you’ve allowed someone to run past you and jump on the recently deceased, it turns out you’ve failed your assessment.
Corpses shouldn’t laugh, but this one did.
I quit the minute I got back to the office. I have great faith in the police force and have been treated nothing but supremely well in all my dealings with them, but sometimes in acting, you have to retire when you’re on top.
And I knew it would never get better than being a laughing corpse with a screaming woman on top of me while two confused officers looked on – probably still wondering if they needed to take my clothes off.
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