By Suzette Standring
For The Patriot Ledger
August 28, 2009
MILTON — Amelia Ali of Milton wore “gangsta” garb – bandannas, white tank top and heavy makeup – as an extra on the set of “The Fighter,” a Mark Wahlberg movie about Micky “Irish” Ward, a pro welterweight who rose from the seamy streets of Lowell to fight Arturo “Thunder” Gatti in a legendary boxing trilogy.
Ali, 24, was cast to be part of a carload of Puerto Ricans in a street scene. “The casting director, Aaron at Boston Casting, saw promise in my ethnically ambiguous face. Apparently I can pass for a Puerto Rican and a gangster!” said Ali, who is of West Indian and Syrian descent.
Moviemaking is a financial windfall to Massachusetts, thanks to legislation that allows film producers to lessen costs through a 25 percent state tax credit and an exemption from state sales tax signed into law in 2007.
As a result, locally produced movie and television business is booming. According to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue at the end of fiscal year 2008 moviemakers spent $676 million. Direct employment of state residents in film production rose by 537 percent (3,177 new jobs) since 2006.
Ali is one of hundreds of movie extras hired to create “atmosphere.” Her scene in “The Fighter” depicts Lowell as a crime-ridden town in the 1980’s where Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund were popular locals long before the boxer’s rise to fame.
As extras, Ali and friends ride in a beat-up 1975 Ford. At 50 mph, the stunt driver screeches to a halt just as Christian Bale drunkenly staggers in front of the car, leading a posse of friends promoting one of his brother’s fights.
“As Micky and Dickie are rounding a curb, our car rolls up, nearly hits Dickie and he slams his hands on the hood. We pop out of the sides of the car and start screaming to him, “Eh, Dickie!” The day was very humid with a temperature of 95 degrees. The car was so old, it needed to be jumpstarted twice and the windows could not roll down.
“[Director] David O. Russell walked up to the car, realizing how incredibly hot it was, demanded immediately someone get a brick and break the windows,” she said. The movie’s opening scene took fourteen, exhausting takes. For one day’s work, Ali received $120 as a nonunion actress.
“He’s (Bale) a very intense and dedicated actor. I got a firsthand glimpse of how much work goes into a few seconds of on-screen time,” said Ali.
Ali first heard about the casting call from Andrea Johnson, her teacher at Berklee College of Music where Ali is a music business major, songwriter and composer. Ali is no stranger to entertainment. Out of 50 acts, she was chosen to open for Ludicris in 2007 and sang a Mary J. Blige cover song.
“I performed for an arena of over 2,000 people, sharing the stage with Latoya Luckett,” said Ali. For “The Fighter,” Boston Casting was looking for women ages 19-25 to play street toughs. On a whim, she sent a picture of herself taken at a family wedding. She was chosen and asked to show up at the Lowell set at 5 a.m. wearing “gangster-like” clothes.
For many working as extras, it is a chance to meet celebrities and people from varied backgrounds. Ali met an engineer from MIT, as well as local youths from Lowell. She recalled that Christian Bale stayed in drunken character all day. “I was so impressed with his intensity. He even introduced himself to us in character. I introduced myself as ‘Ali, sting like a bee,’ which he vowed to remember and scream out during filming,” she said.
She observed the keen attention to costume details, such as the one hundred pairs of vintage 1980 special edition Reebok sneakers actors and extras wore during the filming. Ali’s parents, owners of Ali’s Roti’s Restaurant in Mattapan and in Boston, are Caribbean immigrants and were dubious about the entertainment field for their daughter. But her love of performing carried her through Milton Academy, Pace University in New York and Berklee. Ali hopes someday to own a publishing and production company and to be a successful songwriter.
The list of movies being made in Massachusetts continues to grow: “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “The Proposal,” “Shutter Island” and “The Invention of Lying.” In July, “Furry Vengeance,” starring Brendan Frasier, was filmed at Topsfield Fairgrounds. In October at Franklin Park Zoo, Kevin James will star in “The Zookeeper.” Last year California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger publicly grumbled at the stiff competition by the Bay State for movie dollars.
The local filmmaking boom offers aspiring performers a chance to chase their dreams. For Ali, landing a spot as an extra in her first-ever movie is just another sign that pursuing this field was meant to be.