UA Students, Faculty Work Behind the Scenes of True Detective

Junior Taffy Kavanaugh sits outside Peabody Hall on Aug. 24. The theater major worked as an extra in scenes that were filmed in the building for "True Detective." 

In various undisclosed locations around Northwest Arkansas, one UA student found himself at the heart of a thriller full of grit, mystery and cold hard crime as an extra and production assistant.

Taffy Kavanaugh is a junior theatre major who has experience in the film and entertainment industry. He has worked as a stagehand at both the Walton Arts Center and the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion.

While working at the Walmart AMP, he learned about the application process from a coworker who had done scenes for True Detective. He sent a headshot and his basic information, and was called in to be an extra as a college student, and later volunteered to be a production assistant because he had time to commit to the job and experience in the filming industry.

True Detective, a crime drama television series by UA alum Nic Pizzolato, began filming in Northwest Arkansas in February.

Kavanaugh’s job as a production assistant required him to make sure cars do not go on set, and people do not cross into the shot, Kavanaugh said. Another part of his job occasionally was watching out for the actors.

“I tell actors, ‘Hey, watch out there’s a car. Don’t get run over, you’re worth money,’” Kavanaugh said with a chuckle.

Senior Carly Page was also asked to be an extra in July after a professor reached out to students at the Walton College of Business. The shoot only took two days, the first entirely revolving around wardrobing, where extras got into costume. Staff took pictures, fixed outfits by rolling up sleeves, tucking in shirts and perfecting their look before taking the extras on set. The second day was dedicated to filming.  

Her favorite part of working as an extra was meeting other college students during the job, and learning about the functions of all the different departments, she said.

“It was really cool to see all the different elements of the show,” Page said. “There are so many different departments and they all have to work together to get the scene where they want to be.”

UA professor Brandon Jackson became a stand-in in June after sending in an application in May. As a stand-in, Jackson acted as a substitute for actors, allowing cinematographers to test the lighting and camera angles before they shoot the scene with the actors Jackson was standing in for.

One of the things that Jackson enjoyed about working as a stand-in for True Detective was seeing how much work the different departments put into making it. Cinematographers would film one scene three different times at three different angles, Jackson said.

Meeting Mahershala Ali, who is starring in True Detective, was also a highlight for Jackson as he was a huge fan of his performance in ‘House of Cards,’ Jackson said.

“The very first day, Mahershala Ali walked in and I was sitting there talking to another stand-in who was giving me a little background on the show,” Jackson said. “My jaw dropped and my eyes flew wide.”

Once he had regained his composure, Ali introduced himself, Jackson said.

The people he met on set were very down to earth and answered any questions he asked. It was overall a positive experience, he said.

Yvonne Wema, a UA alumna and dancer, found out about the True Detective casting through a Facebook post. She sent in her headshot for a position as an extra in January, and didn’t hear anything until she received a call in July and was told she looked just like one of the main actresses and was asked to be a stand-in for her.  

Acting is something that Wema has always had an interest in, and as a both a dancer and choreographer it was something she felt that had always came naturally to her.  

“On a lot of days [staff members are] like ‘Oh we have to do this,’ and then ten minutes later you have to go in a van and you need to go somewhere else,” Wema said. “As soon as the camera guys tell you need to do something, you need to do it right away. So [being a dancer has] definitely been beneficial.”

The True Detective filming was the largest film production in Arkansas history, said Devin Howland the Fayetteville City Hall Director of Economic Vitality.

Northwest Arkansas is heavily involved with the arts, and the filming of True Detective was a direct extension of that. HBO showed Arkansas that it can support major motion productions and it has the crew base and talent here as well, Howland said.

“I thought [the True Detective Filming in NWA] was fascinating, it was exciting, and it was a great win for the region,” Howland said. “I’m sad to see them go honestly, but as they say in show business, that’s a wrap.”

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