By Juanice Gray
“Do you feel lucky?’ Well do ya, punk?”
Who over the age of 35 doesn’t know that infamous line uttered by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry? What would you consider lucky? Nancy James feels lucky because she “fell into the film business over 30 years ago” after Steel Magnolias was filmed. Today, because of that lucky fall, she calls Eastwood friend. Yes, that Eastwood, the one who made his mark in Rawhide, carried a .44 magnum, hung ‘em high and went every which way but loose.
So how did a woman from Natchitoches Parish wind up hobnobbing with the likes of Eastwood? Let’s backpedal a bit. James doesn’t call it hobnobbing or rubbing elbows with the stars, she calls it a day at work. She runs her own craft services business on movie sets and says being starstruck went away pretty fast. “You’re there to do your job and they’re there to do theirs. They’re just people, I’m just a person and that’s all there is to it,” James said.
She got her start when she befriended Jimmy McKinney, a grip on Steel Magnolias. James moved to Atlanta, Ga., and lived there for seven years where she was working as a physical education coach. McKinney was working on a movie with Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame. On one of her off days, she accompanied McKinney to the set and wound up hired to drive actors around town. “It was a total fluke,” James said. “I was driving Hector Elizondo (most recently of Last Man Standing) around. Then within a week, the craft services person left for another job. I took it not knowing what I was getting myself into.” Craft services provides for the needs of the actors and crew on set. “We take care of every person from the director to the production assistants. It’s funny, I didn’t even know how to make coffee at the time and had to call my mom for help.”
Craft services, unlike caterers, are actually on the set providing snacks, drinks and meeting all their dietary needs. James said she does everything from putting out the trash cans and floor protection to icing down the drinks, has every kind of coffee and creamer imaginable, has specific products for every dietary need from diabetic to vegan and non-red meat to a sweet tooth and even does all the shopping personally. “Oh, I’m a professional shopper,” she laughs. “I can hit a grocery store with five buggies and be loading up the truck in 45 minutes. Sometimes people stare when I’m dropping five bags of grapes or eight packages of rolls and 20 different types of drinks into the cart.”
So back to the juicy stuff – the celebrities.
Does she know anyone besides Eastwood? Yes, and the list is long and impressive and if you don’t know James, you’d swear she was name dropping. Luckily Natchitoches knows James and knows that is not her at all. “I don’t want to leave anyone out or make them think I forgot them,” she says as she lists directors like Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Seth Rogan and actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock, Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks as people with whom she has worked, and gotten to know.
Really? She actually does know them all.
“Craft services is all about the morale of the crew. Producers worry about the crew so a good craft services person gets to know who they are tending to, the more personal the better. I need to know how this person likes their coffee and if this person likes sweet or unsweet tea and what brand of gum that person prefers. I take my job seriously and work really hard to be as good as I can personally be at it,” she said.
While movie and television sets (yes, anyone recall the show Lost? James was there) seem so glamorous, she says there is a lot of hard work that goes into it. “I have to stay in pretty good shape. I may get everything set up from the tent to the food to the coolers while one scene is shot, then find out where I set up will be in the next shot and it all has to come down and be moved. It’s physically demanding.”
The benefits are certainly there though. She knows Eastwood well enough that she “developed a really close bond” with him and his family. She says he’s really down to earth and just a real person who doesn’t have much of an ego. “The one movie wonders are the ones with the egos,” she laughs. “The more successful they are the more humble they get. To them it’s their job, it’s just work.” Other benefits include the obvious, celebrities, movie sets, retirement benefits and meeting people, but there is also a downside. “It’s why I’m still single, but engaged now,” she smiles. “The life is not for everyone. It’s hard to maintain relationships, much less have kids and a family. You live out of hotels or apartments or whatever for months, you constantly travel and even pets are pretty much out of the question.”
It is also not always smooth sailing on movie sets. “Oh, we’ve had deluges come through when filming outside and everything gets ruined but they still want their coffee! There was even a hostage situation on one set and the production office was where SWAT came in to take the suspect down and as soon as it was over the director literally said ‘the show must go on’ and we went right back to work.” James said she actually made it into a movie once, albeit by accident. Eastwood called for her to bring him something to drink during filming when the cameras were rolling.
“There it was, ‘Hey Nancy,’ right in the middle of the scene. They had to reshoot.” So to answer the question we started out with, “Do you feel lucky?” Yes, James feels lucky, but mostly blessed, but paid her dues to get where she is today. With every job, you have to pay the price to enjoy the benefits. “I’ve been on movie and television sets, met many stars, worked at all three major studios, but I learned to appreciate that people are just people, no matter where they are or what they do.”
Nancy James with Matt Damon. Part of her job is getting to know the cast and crew to better serve them. Her duties include stocking their trailers and having their requested snacks and drinks available.