A Finder of Lost-Looking Souls Turns Hollywood Street Punks into Human Scenery for Videos and Films
Mid night is fast approaching, and the director is anxious to wrap his latest rock video. But before the fog machines can belch and the cameras can roll, he sees that something isn’t quite right. “Where’s Bobbi Brat?” he bellows. Instantly, Janet Cunningham snaps into action, scouring the soundstage for the missing extra. It doesn’t take long to locate Bobbi. With her ghost-white complexion, crimson lips and black bats tattooed on her wrists, she’s hard to miss.
Brat is just one of the bizarre-looking characters Cunningham has found to work as extras in rock videos and video-inspired feature films. Cunningham, 39, knows that although punk is passé in the era of the yuppie, the leather-and-chains crowd is still in demand for big and little screens. “Punks are hot now,” says Cunningham. “It might be dead as a cultural movement, but it’s marketable in the mainstream.”
Cunningham’s clients are appearing in a growing number of feature films (Fast Forward, Protocol, Body Double and Ghostbusters) as well as several TV series (Cagney & Lacey, Hill Street Blues and Night Court)—not to mention numerous videos for the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Steve Perry, Chicago and “Weird Al” Yankovic. Directors and production designers with an eye for the wild and freaky call Cunningham’s agency, CASH (Contemporary Artists Space of Hollywood), when they need “really good atmosphere people,” as Cunningham puts it. When the producers of Frances put out a call for extras to play inmates in an asylum, for example, Janet answered with a group of her “anorexic types.” And when Brian DePalma wanted sexy, punk-rock types who looked “harsh and raunchy” for Body Double, Cunningham sent them, along with a sumo wrestler and six “leather cowboys” for good measure. She has also answered calls from producers for bikers, street-variety punks sporting the standard Crazy Color Mohawks, “a guy tattooed like a zebra and Dynasty types as well.”
Cunningham, whose clients can earn up to $375 a day (her fee, paid by producers, is 10 percent), guarantees that they will show up sober and in costume. So far that hasn’t been much of a problem. Punks, she insists, are “genuinely creative, kind, honest and supportive of one another.” She’s worked on pictures where the crew had misconceptions of punks. “Some of these people might look like criminals and bums, but they’re not. I cast punks nearly every day. People find out they are nice. Punks are not what they are portrayed to be on TV. Punk is an art.”
Hollywood’s top punk-purveyor has always been fascinated with the offbeat. Born in Binghamton, N.Y., Cunningham was raised in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, where her father worked for IBM and her mother, an Eisenhower Republican, served as postmaster. In Metairie, Janet developed a taste for B films with titles such as A Bucket of Blood and, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. A late-blooming interest in writing led her away from an art major in college and onto the staff of an underground newspaper that so displeased campus and government authorities that she was expelled from Southeastern Louisiana University in 1968.
Drifting to New York, Janet went with the cultural flow of the ’60s—the antiwar movement and Andy Warhol’s underground. She bleached her hair white, donned freaky clothes and changed her name to Civil (“not Sybil”) Sex. In 1971 she hitchhiked back to Louisiana and married an old high school acquaintance named Terry “Toad” Baker. Divorced five years later, she moved to L.A. with their son, Beau. After working briefly for a Beverly Hills plant rental service—”I used to water the orchids around Rod Stewart’s tub”—Cunningham devoted her time to work on an as-yet-unpublished book about marriage titled Sperms, Muscles and Money before immersing herself in the world of punk rock.
In 1981 she moved into a Hollywood storefront hoping to make the place she called CASH into a federally-funded arts center to showcase new talent. It went bankrupt after 18 months. The club’s rowdy clientele drew the attention of L.A. police, who became frequent visitors to the CASH pad. “We were always getting raided,” Cunningham says. After being jailed for the third time she “just gave up and quit.” In 1983, she and Beau, now 10, moved into a loft above a Chinese grocery on Hollywood Boulevard. Word soon spread throughout the underground that an independent film producer needed hundreds of punks to cast in a film called Get Crazy. Rounding up a bunch of pals, Cunningham shepherded them to a casting call and helped in the screening process. “Suddenly,” she says, “I had some credits.” Cunningham was in business.
“It’s a kick,” Cunningham now says of search-and-employ missions that have taken her to the streets of Hollywood and into suburban shopping malls in search of the right types. One sweep through the Sherman Oaks Galeria resulted in her ejection for soliciting. “We were like a commando squad,” Cunningham remembers. Appearances aside, Cunningham and her troupes are disciplined pros. Even punks must be on-set by 6 a.m., so they begin arriving at Janet’s loft as early as 5 a.m. for coaching and a ride to their shoot. “While I’m getting dressed and getting Beau off to school,” she says, “someone is always fixing someone’s hair, fooling around with the hair spray to get it to stand up.” Besides recruiting extras from among her friends, Janet goes to great lengths to find just the right person with the “greatest Mohawk and the newest dyed hair.”
So far, none of her clients has fulfilled the extra’s ultimate fantasy, but film writer Larry Gross (48 HRS” Streets of Fire), who employed several CASH punks in his directorial debut, the upcoming feature 3:15, predicts that “someday one of Janet’s people will be a huge star.” Punk will inevitably lose its allure, even for TV and movie producers, but Cunningham also knows that in Hollywood there will always be a demand for the wild and the weird. She’s banking on it.