Monday, June 21, 2010

UE #41 I Touched Liam Neeson's Wig

Perhaps you've looked at someone playing a small part on TV and thought, 'That looks easy, I wonder how I could get a job like that?'
I did get a small part recently, playing ukulele in the new movie: The A-Team released last week in North America. Here's what happened.

A Tuesday morning last October. I'm in my pajamas. Home from an event in New Brunswick I am looking forward to 2 days of packing before leaving for festivals in California, Oregon and Nova Scotia. The phone rings.

1) When Opportunity Comes - Say Yes
"Are you the ukulele player Ralph Shaw?"


"I'm calling from the set of The A-Team. They want you in the movie. Can you come to the set right now?"

"Er, sure, I think so. My wife has the car but as soon as she's done I'll drive over."

"Bring all the equipment you need to perform and get here asap."

There followed 20 minutes of me grabbing my gear and hopping from one foot to the other while I waited for the car. It was a 1 hour drive and when I arrived I saw a perfect Baghdad desert military base complete with sand, palm trees, tents, armoured vehicles, helicopters and lots of dust.

They quickly put me in a uniform. Wardrobe had a hard time deciding on insignia because although I'd be playing a low rank I look too old to be a private or corporal. Thanks ladies. They made me a staff sergeant. I even had a cloth name badge that said Shaw. This detail was important because my suitcase drum, which has my real name on it, might get seen. Product placement!

Hair and make-up was next. While there I saw the actor who plays BA (Mr T in old TV show) having his mohawk glued on. Yep its not real, sorry.
Wigs belonging to Liam Neeson's character, Hannibal, were on 3 styro-foam mannequin heads by my chair. I stroked one of them with the back of my hand. A sort of brush with fame.

On my face they applied make-up to give me a tanned look, and baby oil to make me look sweaty. Then I had lunch and waited 2 hours with over 200 camouflaged, gun-carrying extras all looking unnervingly warrior-like.

Soon I was given my own small dressing room in a trailer. I sat and reflected on how I came to be there.

2) Get Noticed.
Getting in movies usually involves taking acting classes and finding an agent to send you for auditions. But I got this part through doing street performance. I regularly do street shows in our local tourist haven known as Granville Island. A few weeks previously a couple of guys had approached me saying they liked my stuff and were in town filming The A-Team. Maybe they could use me.
Not taking them seriously I joked around with them and then forgot all about it.  

3) Show Them Your Best Stuff 
A knock on my trailer door.
"You're needed on Set right away."

I grabbed my banjo-uke and we hustled across the sand. I was told to wait in front of a tent. About 15 people came out of the tent including Director, Assistant Director, Cameraman, Sound-guy and the 2 guys who had seen me on the street. They stood before me in a semi-circle and someone said, "Sing us a song".
I ummed and ahhed for a moment pretending to think about it but I already knew I was going to sing an original song of mine: Movie Stars, High Rollers and Big Shakers. If they decided to use it in the film it could mean royalties!

I sang and played. All around I could see movie folk stopping to listen. I expanded the net of my performance to include them too. I finished and was loudly applauded by the host of US and Arab military personnel. As I stood there smiling in my fatigues I thought, 'How odd'.

Someone said, "Nice job. Be here tomorrow, early"

4) When you have the Chance to Speak Up - Do So
Next day, 7am. Into makeup & uniform and straight to set. They were preparing for a major scene that would involve all 200 extras plus vehicles, helicopters and Bradley Cooper (who I didn't know of at the time). I was brought to the director who said,
"Hey, do you know the Led Zeppelin song, Kashmir?"

"You want me to play Kashmir on a Banjo-ukulele?"

"Don't worry we'll find it for you"

I had read somewhere that Led Zeppelin rarely allow their music to be used in movies or TV. However I was sufficiently awestruck by the situation to not mention it to the director. In retrospect I should have.

5) Use Your Experience and Fake the Rest
A couple of assistants were sent scrambling to download the song. While the complex 8 minute scene was being rehearsed I listened to the song over and over. I felt close to falling apart. Not only could I not figure out the chords but the timing was weird. The guitar played in 3/4 time and the drums in 4/4. Within minutes I needed to figure this out, learn it and play a one-man-band version with cameras rolling. Great.

Someone got a print-out of the chord changes. The first chord was a D5. D5?!! Never heard of it. Apparently '5' chords are known as power chords and often used in Rock music. Ignoring the fact that I didn't know what '5' chords were I worked quickly to figure out a version of the song that was easy to play and sounded kind of recognizable. The director looked over at me, smiled and nodded,
"Yeah, you got it."

6) Enjoy The Moment
The rest of the day entailed filming the same long scene over and over again. My reworked Kashmir, adapted for one-man-band and ukulele was fairly easy to play. I had fun entertaining the troops gathered around me as they reclined with their snacks, magazines and sudokus.

The scene felt strangely reminiscent of the photos you see of George Formby entertaining soldiers in the second world war.

It was one of the most surreal episodes of my career. Suddenly it was over. 8:30 pm and dark. Everyone left. The lights were turned off and I was left standing cold and alone on a Baghdad military base with more gear than I could carry by myself. I thought, 'I'm going on tour tomorrow morning and I still need to pack'.

The Details...

What You See: Ralph, his red ukulele case and a view of the suitcase with his name clearly readable on the front.

Screen Time: 3 seconds

Can You Hear Him: Hardly, if at all.

Number of Andy Warhol fame-minutes remaining: 14 mins 57 secs

DVDs, CDs and Flea ukuleles available from:

Birds of a Feather - UnPlucked!
CD of Music for Children
" of the best albums of family music ever made." CD = $14.95

By George!Collection of Ralph Shaw singing his favourite George Formby numbers. CD = $14.95

Table for Two 1930s and 40s hits plus some wonderful originals. CD = $14.95

King of the Ukulele Ralph Sings his favourite songs of the Tin-Pan-Alley era.
CD =$14.95
Improve Your Ukulele Playing:
The Complete Ukulele Course DVD series shows how to play and perform better. The DVD system is the best way to learn by yourself. You get to see and hear everything you need to know and can pause and rewind as often as you wish.

(btw. for those of you in far-away places eg. Australia, Europe, Africa and Asia I have very reasonable shipping rates just use the Paypal 'Add to Cart' button on my website to buy your dvds).

1 The Complete Ukulele Course shows you how to get started with tuning and strumming. It then teaches you a variety of techniques to make your playing more and more interesting!
2 Essential Strums for the Ukulele will give you specific strums and a song to go with each one. These include: samba, blues, frailing, bossa nova, bo diddley, reggae and much more. Essential!!
3 Ukulele Play Along has the chord changes up on the screen and you get to strum and sing along. Great fun and excellent practice at a great price!
4 The Complete Ukulele Course for Kids - Get this dvd and a ukulele for the child in your life and it could change their life. Music is a wonderful way to learn and have fun at the same time. The ukulele is a non-threatening and joyful introduction to music education. 


  1. I was filmed earlier this year for a movie. And yep, I got the part because I was out busking.

    Didn't meet Liam Neeson nor touch his wig though, if I made it into the final cut (and I haven't seen the pic yet) I was seen for however many seconds at Cannes this year.

    I think I probably have a number of minutes left on my 15 too.

  2. Wow, Ralph! That is not only one of the best movie cameo stories ever, the filmmakers should know that now, a whole battalion of ukulele fans and players are going to go out and make a point of watching A-Team. Good on ya!



  3. Hi,

    I've also put together a list of chords for the whole Physical Graffiti album. It's here if you'd like to take a look!