|Anna and the King: Robert Raymer holding crocodile|
Taken on the set of Anna and the King, I'm in my period costume, complete with fake sideburns, proof that I held a live crocodile in my arms, a teenager according to one of my students from Sarawak, from the "The Crocodile and I" in my newly released collection of creative nonfiction, Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat's Life in Malaysia.
During the filming of Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King in 1998, while everyone else on the set was busy trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive Jodie Foster (who played Anna Leonowens) or Chow Yun-Fat (who played King Mongkut of Siam), I had my sights on bigger game.
For the opening port scene, when Anna arrives in Siam (shot in Penang, Malaysia), I was cast as one of the ten English gentlemen traders. Like the other 800 extras for the scene, we were put in various positions along the U-shaped pier. I was positioned with Andre, who actually was English. Together we were given a minor task to look like we were doing something other than just standing around. With a lot of leeway to improvise, we worked on a routine pretending to check our imported goods against the custom ledgers so we could bring them into the country.
We then roped in two other extras assigned to move crates back and forth across the pier; soon “their” crates became “our” crates, which we fussed over to make sure they passed inspection even if we had to “bribe” the custom officials.
The routine was fun, and after a dozen takes from different angles, we had it down pat. In addition to making us feel important, it gave Andre and me a valid reason to crisscross the pier, with ample opportunities for the cameras to pick us out of the crowd and perhaps even linger on us in our quest to get discovered, or at least noticed, so we could later see ourselves in the film. This gives you a certain degree of bragging rights. You could say to people, “Did you catch my latest film?”
Some of the extras who noticed us, especially the children, mistook us, the English Gentlemen, for the stars. Later they hounded us for autographs, which we obliging gave. That in itself made us feel like stars, which by the way, is huge step in getting noticed. To be a star, you have to look like one.
Who did notice us was the crocodile. . .