13 Secrets of Obituary Writers

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When Chicago Sun-Times obituary writer Maureen O’Donnell sits down to assess the lives of the recently departed, she feels less like a journalist and more like a historian. “I sometimes feel like I’m a frustrated history teacher,” she tells Mental Floss. “I get to teach a lesson every day and share it with readers.”

Unlike death notices, which only recite basic facts about the deceased, or funeral eulogies, which offer impassioned remembrances from loved ones, obituaries are a written memorial of a person’s legacy published for the world to see. Instead of dwelling on death they celebrate life, from the most recognizable celebrity to the quietest neighbor. They prove that almost everyone has a story to tell, and it’s sometimes only after a passing that people realize exactly how a person has left their mark in the world.

O’Donnell recalls a 2010 death notice for a Montana resident named Jim Cole, which mentioned his interest in photographing grizzly bears. Only after excavating details of his life did she realize Cole is the only person in North America to survive two grizzly attacks, 14 years apart. “They called him Grizzly Jim,” she says. “He wore an eyepatch because the second attack left him without an eye.” (Cole died of natural, not wildlife-related, causes at age 60.)

For more on how obituary writers approach the delicate art of human posterity, we asked several of them—including O’Donnell—to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say about a life spent covering death.

1. THEY LOOK FOR THE “ROSEBUD” MOMENT.

John Pope, who writes for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and assembled a book of obituaries, Getting Off at Elysian Fields, says that the goal of his work is to discover the “Rosebud” moment of an individual’s life. (That's a reference to the 1941 film Citizen Kane, and the desire of a reporter to define the mysterious dying word uttered by wealthy business magnate Kane.) “I look for ‘Rosebud,’ what makes a person tick,” he says. “When you talk to relatives, they talk about how he loved family, how he loved life, but you need to keep going and dig deeper.”

In 2009, Pope was tasked with profiling William Terral, a beloved pediatrician and gardening hobbyist. While the former was a noble career, Pope found his real jewel in the fact that Terral was once so struck by the bag of plasma separated from his blood during a medical procedure that he took it home, hung it from an IV hook, and pumped the liquid into the ground to see if it would help his garden grow. “His hibiscus flourished,” Pope says. So did his obituary.

2. IT’S ACTUALLY A PRETTY UPLIFTING JOB.

The stereotype of obituary writers toiling under the shadow of death, constantly aware of the fragile nature of life, isn’t exactly accurate. According to Pope, some family members have such fond memories of the deceased that talking to them can provoke a lot of amusement. “With Edward ‘Bud Rip’ Ripoll, a saloonkeeper, I had to ask his daughter to stop because I was laughing so hard and the stories were so good,” he says. (Ripoll was a Budweiser fan, and his urn was inscribed with the dedication, “This Bud’s for you.”)

O’Donnell describes it as “uplifting” work. “You’re frequently writing about people who made a difference in the world, large or small. The end of life is always sorrowful, but with someone like Mary White, who lived to be 93 and started the La Leche League [to normalize public breastfeeding] in her living room that now has tens of millions of members across the globe, that’s inspiring.”

3. THEY SOMETIMES KNOW WHEN DEATH IS IMMINENT.

Yellow flowers sit on top of a coffin
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Obituary writers have all kinds of information channels when it comes to mortality. Funeral homes may call to notify them; death notices in their paper or in another might provide a clue that a lesser-known person’s life is worth investigating further. Or they may simply be tipped off that the end is near. “For Barbara Harris, who was a founding member of Second City, one of my co-workers heard she was ill,” O’Donnell says. “I was able to prepare the obituary in advance, so when the time came, there was something comprehensive for readers available.”

Other times, that information can be a little off. When an editor was sure a prominent celebrity was going to die, Pope was told to prepare a lengthy obituary. “It was Paul Prudhomme, a chef who a line editor was convinced was going to launch to glory at any moment," Pope says. “He died 27 years later.”

4. THEY NEED TO BE READY FOR AN EMOTIONAL DELUGE.

Mike Bodine, who writes for the Sheet in Mammoth Lakes, California, says that an obituary writer will often be the first person a relative of the deceased has spoken to in depth about a loved one’s passing. “They can be really distraught,” he says. “It’s a matter of waiting it out while people just let their heart out. You can’t always use what they’re saying, but just listening and being patient can help open people up. It can feel a little bit like handling the body itself. You don’t want to push people.”

5. THEY CAN GET CAUGHT UP IN FAMILY SQUABBLES.

Phoning family members to collect memories of the recently deceased can be a sobering experience. Bodine says that children of the deceased can sometimes try to use an obituary to vent about personal vendettas. “When someone has passed and a lot of money and kids are involved, it can turn into animosity,” he says. “Someone will say a sibling is screwing them over on money. It’s just distortion you have to wade through.”

6. FAMILIES CAN GET UPSET AT THEM.

While an obituary writer’s job is to celebrate life, that doesn't mean they exclude the less-flattering components. When he was writing about a local politician, Pope discovered that he had once been to prison for misappropriating campaign funds. When he mentioned that in the obituary, the man’s daughter phoned in an uproar. “She asked why we were doing that. I told her it was because it was the truth.”

O’Donnell has had similar experiences. “Unfortunately, in Chicago, a lot of politicians have been investigated and convicted of corruption," she says. "It gets reported at the time it happened and readers would have known about it. It would be a disingenuous, fraud obituary if you didn’t include it.”

7. OTHER TIMES, PEOPLE LIE.

Family members may also omit certain facts. Because obituaries are perceived as the last word on many people, relatives and friends sometimes lean into the idea it should be a hagiography. “With [socialite] Mickey Easterling, no one was going to tell me her age,” Pope says. “I had to cite public records, which I’ve never had to do before.” On another occasion, the deceased’s loved ones refused to inform Pope that a suicide had occurred. He found out the truth months later, after listing the cause of death as “undetermined” in the obituary.

8. IT’S BETTER TO DIE ON CERTAIN DAYS THAN OTHERS.

A death certificate sits on top of a table
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If you want a well-read obituary, try to die on a Friday. According to Pope, people who expire that day of the week are more likely to be targeted for inclusion in the Sunday edition of the paper, which affords more space and more time for the obituary writer to do a thorough job. “Dying on a Friday will get you more play on a Sunday,” he says. Holidays are also ill-advised times to make an exit, as reporters with dedicated beats (politics, movies, sports) aren’t usually around to assist in reporting notable deaths in those fields, and readership is down.

While you'd think the dying and their associates would have more pressing issues, sometimes they prioritize that recognition: In 1936, King George V's physician injected the monarch with enough morphine and cocaine to hasten his death in time for the next morning's papers, rather than the less-desirable evening editions.

9. PEOPLE CAN BE A LITTLE NERVOUS AROUND THEM.

When an obituary writer becomes well-known in the community, their very presence can portend bad news. If Pope needs to phone someone for any reason other than someone’s passing, he’ll sometimes begin the call by saying, “It’s Pope. No one died.”

That slight unease can work both ways. Once, Pope walked into a social gathering where three people whose obituaries he had already written and banked for future use were standing. “I just kind of stopped,” he says.

10. THEY GET INVITED TO FUNERALS.

Obituaries are often treasured by families who appreciate how a writer has summarized and memorialized the deceased. Sometimes, that gratitude can extend to invitations to come to the funeral. “That happens with some frequency,” O’Donnell says. “I went to the services for a rock concert roadie, who I didn’t know, but he worked a lot of rock concerts I went to the in 1970s. I met a lot of people there who went to the same concerts.”

Other times, they’ll be dispatched to cover the funeral for the purposes of writing a piece. “I went to Al Copeland’s funeral, the founder of Popeyes Chicken,” Pope says. “There were 24 white Bentleys, a horse-drawn hearse, and a band playing ‘My Way.’” The solemn music continued until the procession reached the grave, at which point they broke into “Love That Chicken From Popeyes.”

11. CERTAIN PHRASES CAN ANNOY THEM.

Work the death beat long enough and certain recurring phrases begin to wear on a writer’s patience. Pope dislikes using the term the late to precede a decedent’s name. “What’s the point?” he says. “Can we get over that?” He also dislikes funeral service because “it’s redundant,” and avoids using “natural causes” as the reason for a death whenever possible, because it's non-specific. "Always get the cause of death," he says.

12. SOME PEOPLE USE OBITS TO TAKE REVENGE.

A highlighter is run over the word 'revenge'
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O’Donnell says she's struck by the more contemporary practice of “revenge” obituaries, which are penned by family members and tend to criticize their departed relative for allegations relating to abuse or other personal reasons that have prompted a vendetta. Pope recalls a time when a widow sent in a death notice to his paper claiming her late husband’s law firm had sent him to an early grave. “We spent a day with lawyers de-fanging it,” he says.

13. THEY HAVE THEIR OWN AWARDS SHOW CALLED “THE GRIMMYS.”

Acting as a kind of unofficial trade organization, the Society of Professional Obituary Writers invites devotees of the dead to exchange information on their work and attend functions like ObitCon. Each year, awards—known as the Grimmys—are awarded for best long- and short-form obituaries, as well as for lifetime achievement. The trophy resembles a tombstone. “I was nominated last year,” Pope says.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of TV Meteorologists

nicoletaionescu/iStock via Getty Images
nicoletaionescu/iStock via Getty Images

The first weather forecast to hit national network television was given in 1949 by legendary weatherman Clint Youle. To illustrate weather systems, Youle covered a paper map of the U.S. in plexiglass and drew on it with a marker. A lot has changed in the world of meteorology since then, but every day, millions of families invite their local weatherman or weatherwoman into their living room to hear the forecast. Here are a few things you might not know about being a TV meteorologist.

1. SOME PEOPLE JUST NEVER MASTER THE GREEN SCREEN.

 A meteorologist working in front of a green screen.
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On-camera meteorologists might look as if they’re standing in front of a moving weather map, but in reality, there’s nothing except a blank green wall behind them. Thanks to the wonders of special effects, a digital map can be superimposed onto the green screen for viewers at home. TV monitors situated just off-camera show the meteorologist what viewers at home are seeing, which is how he or she knows where to stand and point. It’s harder than it looks, and for some rookie meteorologists, the learning curve can be steep.

“Some people never learn it,” says Gary England, legendary weatherman and former chief meteorologist for Oklahoma’s KWTV (England was also the first person to use Doppler radar to warn viewers about incoming systems). “For some it comes easily, but I’ve seen people never get used to it.”

Stephanie Abrams, meteorologist and co-host of The Weather Channel’s AMHQ, credits her green screen skills to long hours spent playing Nintendo and tennis as a kid. “You’ve gotta have good hand-eye coordination,” she says.

2. THEY HAVE A STRICT DRESS CODE.

Green is out of the question for on-air meteorologists, unless they want to blend into the map, but the list of prohibited wardrobe items doesn’t stop there. “Distracting prints are a no-no,” Jennifer Myers, a Dallas-based meteorologist for Oncorwrites on Reddit. “Cleavage angers viewers over 40 something fierce, so we stay away from that. There's no length rule on skirts/dresses but if you wouldn't wear it to a family event, you probably shouldn't wear it on TV. Nothing reflective. Nothing that makes sound.”

Myers says she has enough dresses to go five weeks without having to wear a dress twice. But all the limitations can make it difficult to find work attire that’s fashionable, looks good on-screen, and affordable. This is especially true for women, which is why when they find a garment that works, word spreads quickly. For example, this dress, which sold for $23 on Amazon, was shared in a private Facebook group for female meteorologists and quickly sold out in every color but green.

3. BUT IT’S CASUAL BELOW THE KNEE.

Since their feet rarely appear on camera, some meteorologists take to wearing casual, comfortable footwear, especially on long days. For example, England told the New York Times that during storm season, he was often on his feet for 12 straight hours. So, “he wears Mizuno running shoes, which look ridiculous with his suit and tie but provide a bit of extra cushioning,” Sam Anderson writes.

And occasionally female meteorologists will strap their mic pack to their calves or thighs rather than the more unpleasant option of stuffing it into their waistband or strapping it onto their bra.

4. THERE ARE TRICKS TO STAYING WARM IN A SNOWSTORM.

“In the field when I’m covering snow storms, I go to any pharmacy and get those back patches people wear, those heat wraps, and stick them all over my body,” explains Abrams. “Then I put on a wet suit. When you’re out for as long as we are, that helps you stay dry. I have to be really hot when I go out for winter storms.”

5. THERE’S NO SCRIPT.

Your local TV weather forecaster is ad-libbing from start to finish. “Our scripts are the graphics we create,” says Jacob Wycoff, a meteorologist with Western Mass News. “Generally speaking we’re using the graphics to talk through our stories, but everything we say is ad-libbed. Sometimes you can fumble the words you want to say, and sometimes you may miss a beat, but I think what that allows you to do is have a little off-the-cuff moment, which I think the viewers enjoy.”

6. MOM’S THE AUDIENCE.

A retro image of a weatherwoman.
H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images

Part of a meteorologist’s job is to break down very complicated scientific terminology and phenomena into something the general public can not only stomach, but crave. “The trick is … to approach the weather as if you're telling a story: Who are the main actors? Where is the conflict? What happens next?” explains Bob Henson, a Weather Underground meteorologist. “Along the way, you have the opportunity to do a bit of teaching. Weathercasters are often the only scientists that a member of the public will encounter on a regular basis on TV.”

Wycoff’s method for keeping it simple is to pretend like he’s having a conversation with his mom. “I’d pretend like I was giving her the forecast,” he says. “If my mom could understand it, I felt confident the general audience could as well. Part of that is also not using completely science-y terms that go over your audience’s head.”

7. SOCIAL MEDIA HAS MADE THEIR JOBS MORE DIFFICULT.

Professional meteorologists spend a lot of time debunking bogus forecasts spreading like wildfire across Twitter. “We have a lot of social media meteorologists that don’t have necessarily the background or training to create great forecasts,” Wycoff says. “We have to educate our viewers that they should know the source they’re getting information from.”

“People think it’s as easy as reading a chart,” says Scott Sistek, a meteorologist and weather blogger for KOMO TV in Seattle. “A lot of armchair meteorologists at home can look at a chart and go ok, half an inch of rain. But we take the public front when it’s wrong.”

8. THEY MAKE LIFE-OR-DEATH DECISIONS.

People plan their lives around the weather forecast, and when a storm rolls in, locals look to their meteorologist for guidance on what to do. If he or she gets the path of a tornado wrong, or downplays its severity, people’s lives are in danger. “If you miss a severe weather forecast and someone’s out on the ball field and gets stuck, someone could get injured,” says Wycoff. “It is a great responsibility that we have.”

Conversely, England says when things get dangerous, some people are reluctant to listen to a forecaster’s advice because they don’t like being told what to do. He relies on a little bit of psychological maneuvering to get people to take cover. “You suggest, you don’t tell,” he says. “You issue instructions but in a way where they feel like they’re making up their own minds.”

9. DON’T BANK ON THOSE SEVEN-DAY FORECASTS.

A weatherman reporting during a storm.
pxhidalgo/iStock via Getty Images

“I would say that within three days, meteorologists are about 90 percent accurate,” Wycoff says. “Then at five days we’re at about 60 percent to 75 percent and then after seven days it becomes a bit more wishy-washy.”

10. THEY’RE FRENEMIES.

The competition for viewers is fierce, and local meteorologists are all rivals in the same race. “When you’re in TV, all meteorologists at other competitors are the enemy,” England says. “You’re not good friends with them. They try to steal the shoes off your children and food off your plate. If they get higher ratings, they get more money.”

11. THEY’RE TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME JOKE OVER AND OVER.

“There’s always the running joke: ‘I wish I could be paid a million dollars to be wrong 80 percent of the time,’” Sistek says. “I wanted to have a contest for who can come up with the best weatherman insult, because we need something new! Let’s get creative here.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie and TV Extras

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them—because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here are a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.

1. Extras Are Not Professionals.

The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU.

Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.”

And there are always a few extras on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.

2. Extras Have to Do a Lot of Hurry-Up-and-Wait on Set.

Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”

Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says.

3. What Looks Like Booze On Camera Isn't Actually Alcohol.

A glass of apple juice spritzer
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While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.”

“Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.)

4. Smokers Get Paid More.

When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone).

Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.”

5. Extras Have Been Wearing the Same Duds for Days ...

On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”

6. ... And They Usually Have To Bring Their Own—The Blander, The Better.

Row of men's shirts in blue colors on hanger
Tatiana Dyuvbanova/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of gray and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says.

If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.

And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.

7. Wardrobes for Extras Get Recycled.

If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.

8. Extras Are Great Mimes.

Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later.

While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”

9. For Actors, Seasons Are Irrelevant.

It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.”

For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down.

10. The Movie Stars Are Off Limits for Extras ...

“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist.

While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says.

But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.

On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.”

11. ... And Social Media Is a Good Way for Extras to Get Blacklisted.

Young people taking photo with smartphone
YakobchukOlena/iStock via Getty Images

Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” McHargue says. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”

If you’re sneaky, you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says.

12. The On-Set Catering Is Pretty Good.

Vats of catered food
kckate16/iStock via Getty Images

The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster, and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.”

The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time.

13. Extras Can't Watch TV Like Regular People.

Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says.

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