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Spicer woman gets bit part in 'A Serious Man'

Deb Nelson of Spicer, above, is anxiously awaiting the opening of the new Coen brothers' film, "A Serious Man." Nelson will be watching to see if her bit parts in the filming of the movie survived the cutting room floor. (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)1 / 2
Deb Nelson of Spicer has a file of memorabilia from her experience playing a bit part in "A Serious Man." (Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange)2 / 2

For a woman who takes her community theater seriously, getting a bit part in the Coen brothers' new film, "A Serious Man," was pure fun.

"It was an opportunity to see how a major film was made," said Deb Nelson of rural Spicer, who's eager to see the movie, which opens Friday.

She'll be looking for glimpses of the "gorgeous lime green" dress she wore in the synagogue during the bar mitzvah scene and the "ugly gray double-knit" dress she wore in the funeral scene. She was assigned to sit along the aisle during the bar mitzvah segment when the young actor in the movie was filmed walking in the synagogue. She figures that's her best chance of actually being seen in the movie.

But even if every scene she was in ends up on the editing room floor instead of on the big screen, the three days in November she spent as a cast member of a Coen brothers' film was a worthwhile and memorable experience, said Nelson.

"It was a lot of fun," she said.

As a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen's movies, which include "Fargo," "O Brother, Where Art Thou," "Burn After Reading" and "No Country For Old Men," Nelson was just happy to be on the set of "A Serious Man."

The film is a dark comedy about Larry, a suburban Twin Cities Jewish man who faces as many trials as Job.

"Who wouldn't want to be in a Coen brothers' movie, even if their scene gets cut?" said Nelson, who enjoyed watching the "meticulous" care the brothers took in directing the actors. It was "amazing" to see all the work that went into producing just one small scene, she said.

As a long-time actor and board member at the community theaters in New London and Willmar, Nelson has a great appreciation for performance art and has always kept her eye out for new opportunities. Last fall, when she read that the Coens were looking for 250 Minnesotans to work as extras for the 1967-era movie they were shooting in their home town of St. Louis Park, she sent an inquiry. She was invited to send a resume of her acting experience and a photo.

"If you don't take an opportunity when it's offered, you might not get another one," she said. "I was lucky to be chosen."

The Coens were seeking just the right physical look for their extras. Information about that particular look said "cyber tans," tattoos and ultra-modern hairstyles would not be acceptable and that "big noses" and "interesting faces" would be a plus.

With natural gray hair, strikingly attractive -- and just an average-sized nose -- Nelson was selected. She said she was one of the few non- Jewish extras to be cast. Many had apparently heard about the movie while attending synagogue.

One of the conditions of being cast as a Minnesota Jewish woman from 1967 included being dressed head-to-toe in the fashions of the time. "The underwear was a stitch," said Nelson, who had to wiggle into and pull up a girdle over her slim frame.

Special costumers fit each cast member with attire for different scenes and local hair-dressers used ratting and hair spray to create poofy bouffants.

After leaving the large warehouse where extras dressed -- but before they were allowed to board the shuttle bus -- the extras had to "pass inspection" by the casting crew to make sure their make-up and hair were just right. On the third day, Nelson got sent back to the hair dresser when there apparently wasn't enough "poof" to her do.

Another requirement of being an extra was patience and a willingness to wait for hours at a time until being brought onto the scene for several minutes of filming.

"It was like a herd of cattle," said Nelson. "We were kept in a holding area and then herded in and herded out."

There were wonderful meals and an abundance of snacks and beverages for the extras to eat while waiting in large, heated tents across the street from the B'nai Emet synagogue. But the tight form-fitting girdle she wore discouraged any over-indulgence. "My, you felt thin," Nelson said.

Extras were also asked not to ogle the actors who had the big roles. Cameras, and even cell phones cameras, were prohibited.

To prevent gawkers, extras weren't told until the night before where they needed to be early the next morning.

Nelson was impressed with how the extras were treated and how organized the crew was. Since one of the filming days was Election Day, the crew had even provided the extras with forms for how to vote absentee. "They were very thorough," she said.

The kicker to the whole experience was that all the extras got paid. "I would've done it for free."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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