Observations from the Background: What Being a Film Extra is Like

There ain’t no business like show business.

……Or so the saying goes.

As a cinephile, I have most likely spent the majority of my life sitting in front of a screen, staring at a film. My love of the cinema could simply not be quenched when I was younger that my parents practically had to tear me away from the television at every turn. I wasted (yes, wasted is the appropriate word) so much of my time watching movies, but never considered being in front of a camera. And why would I? I’m not an actor, per se. I have no formal training and the very idea of thousands of people watching me specifically is terrifying.

Then came the college years. I now had a summer to myself a year ago, and I needed to find some source of income and a potential resume filler. A few hours later and my searches across the interwebs mostly resulted in a frustrated Alec. Then on one site, one commentor noted that film extras get a bunch of work and they pay well. That was an intriguing prospect. This proved to be an answer to my problem, I could be in front of a camera and not have to say a word and be part of the making of a film or show. It sounded like a dream come true, honestly.

There are two places in the country where you can realistically work as an actor: Los Angeles or New York City. I happened to live an hour away from the latter so this proved to be quite fortuitous. It turns out, that with a quick internet search of casting companies in the Big Apple (specifically for extras), that there were multiple places to register yourself with an agency. I picked out an agency by myself that I thought was the best and proceeded with the registration process. The whole process to register is free, believe it or not, but if they charged fees to be a part of an agency, they wouldn’t get many new hires.

This is because the application process for an extra involves filling out so many forms, the completion of said task quite tedious. These get so comprehensive and so mundane that you end up tearing your hair out while swallowing your pride at asking your parents to help you with the information that you, undoubtedly, forgot. This, in turn, causes your parents to tear out their own hair out of the sheer frustration that filling out forms causes. After you apply your Rogaine, you now have to take these forms, plus some form of ID, to the casting office in downtown. Now you’re blowing $30 on a train ticket to get to the city, not including dining costs. Once there, you wait in a room with a bunch of other people while they briefly outline the rules with being an extra. These rules are rather intimidating, they mostly go over what you cannot do on set, but there are multiple paragraphs detailing tardiness (and being tardy for a shoot isn’t taken lightly). If you were late for a shoot, you were immediately kicked off the set, and if you did not notify anyone of your tardiness, you would then be booted off the registry and forbidden from ever scheduling with that company again.

It sounds harsh, but the world of film simply cannot wait for one extra. Face it, you are unimportant and will stay that way (unless you manage to break out). So, once you have dropped off your forms, you are now a film extra (in the official sense). You would think that you would just make a call and get an assignment right off the bat. Wrong. Most companies now use a portal on the internet and you can sign up that way (rather easily) but there is one niggling fact: there are so many people registered as extras and these projects require a very specific type of person to be portrayed. Your chances of ever snagging an assignment are quite slim, unless you have multiple talents and/or objects in your possession that a film could use to its benefit, such as a car.

However, if there exists such an assignment, and not enough people have signed up for it, the office may call you to ask if you are interested in participating, even if you have not signed up for the gig. This is how I got my first (and only) assignment. Unfortunately, getting an assignment does not mean that you will get all the necessary information immediately. Chances are, you will not even know where you are going until late the night before. On top of that, you are given a call number to memorize. This helps out with the financials. And with such a huge inflow of information, you are left to your own devices on how to get there.

I will revisit my scenario for this purpose. The assignment that I was given was to be a party-goer for the show Blue Bloods featuring Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg. I was asked to be a part of this assignment because I looked young enough to be in a crowd of supposedly 16-17 year olds without anyone batting an eye. My call time was at 10 AM but they wanted us to arrive by 9. This might not seem like a bad time but let me elaborate further. I had to wake up at 4 in the morning so that I could get prepared and the rush out the door to make my train, which left at 5. Roughly two hours later, and I’m standing in the middle of NYC. My location was a church in the East Village, so I had to run to the designated subway, cough up more cash for a ticket, and ride it down. I managed to get there by 8:45 and once there, I got dressed into my pre-selected wardrobe (it had been pre-selected because I had gone to a fitting by request at the show’s warehouse). Once dressed into my preppy clothes (more preppy than anything I’ve ever worn in my life) and had makeup applied (to hide the sweat from the heat of the room) the waiting game began.

This is what no one ever mentions about being an extra. The waiting. For the whole day, if there were 15 minutes of filming, there was about an hour waiting in comparison. I didn’t mind because I was on the clock and earning my pay simply for sitting in a chair and staring at a wall. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Eventually when the appointed hour arrived, all of the extras congregated around the location and were divvied up in terms of assignments. This was determined by how presentable we looked, and by some sheer stroke of luck, I was one in a handful out of the 70-something extras to actually be placed in the main scene (a dinner scene, as this shoot was taking place in a restaurant where a party for a 16-year old was taking place). Basically the majority of the extras were going to be dancing in a few scenes with the host but the end result takes up less than 10 seconds of screen time. I, however, would be placed sitting at a table with two other girls (I would guess, my supposed dates) right next to Tom Selleck himself. And if you don’t believe me, he’s proof for you:

Image

The guy sitting down right from the guy in the middle is me.

With my personality, I was geeking out the whole time at being in a room with actual film starts. But, seeing as I was an extra, there are certain hierarchies to follow. Generally you do not want to disturb the actors with your drooling awe as they would find the interruption rather annoying. That’s not saying that they cannot interact with you. For example, one of the actors, Peter Hermann, starting chatting with my group during the lunch break and I found him to be a quite amicable guy. Tom Selleck is…intimidating. You can tell because of his physique and gravitas that he is concentrating on the job at hand. Donnie Wahlberg, just sat around and checked his phone whenever the cameras were not rolling, so you had a reason not to approach him.

Image

Behind the woman’s head now.

But you could interact with the other extras. The two girls in my group were really nice and just as inexperienced as me with the whole ordeal, which was a relief. The extra portraying a waiter was an interesting person to talk to because she had already done several shows beforehand and developed an extremely pessimistic outlook on her career choice. At every other turn she advised us to “give up [being an extra],” which kind of put a damper on my euphoria. Then there were the extras who had done this sort of thing when they were children and were just douches and not even fun to talk to. There was the kid who was stoned out of his mind for the entire day, and bizarrely, there were a brother and sister who had came all the way from Texas to do this shoot. It was even more weird by the fact that the girl’s mother was constantly hovering over her, checking her makeup and hair. My guess is that she was trying to get her children to be noticed by the industry and get better jobs simply by their appearance, but from what I’ve researched, this rarely ever happens.

Another complicating factor was the difference between the union and non-union extras. If you’re wondering why being union is so important, the simple answer is that they get better wages. Every extra starts out as non-union and they have multiple opportunities to become union throughout their career, if they keep it up. Union membership is achieved through the distribution of SAG cards (the actor’s union). SAG cards are basically certificates that you can get during filming. These cards can be awarded at random and are considered incentives for good work. Acquisition of three SAG cards gives you the option to apply for the union, although there are annual fees with this so you’d have to be a pretty serious extra if you wanted to join the union.

When filming started for the day, I was amazed at how technical the process was. Every take was repeated at least three times, and then the cameras were set up in a different position for three more takes, and they were set up again to do the whole thing again. Believe it or not, this process took up most of the day as all of the equipment had to be calibrated correctly and the scenery reorganized so that the non-film material wouldn’t be in view of the lens. And with every take, none of the actors flubbed their lines which made me appreciate how hard acting is. It’s not like I didn’t have to act as well. For several takes, I had to walk to my table, drink in hand and proceed to have a fake conversation with the ladies that escorted me. We had to pantomime lip movements so that there was no background noise that drowned out the actors. Any noise that resembled other conversations or music from the party was added in post production (the extras had to dance to music that was not playing).

After this scene had finally finished filming, the crew moved on to shoot another scene but my group was not featured in any of the frames so we spent the better part of two hours waiting in a room in case they needed us again. At the end of the day (now 9 at night, well into our overtime wages) the majority of the extras came together to shoot one last party scene. For some reason, I found myself at the front of the pack for this shoot which resulted in most of my body being captured on screen. This actually resulted in a continuity error for the show because this scene and my aforementioned scene take place simultaneously in the film world. I got to be featured more so you didn’t find me complaining, and I doubt no one other than me noticed.

ImageThe schmuck on the far right, to be exact.

Once that scene finished filming (about half an hour) we were dismissed to get unchanged and then fill out another form for payment. This meant that I had to wait in line (queuing doesn’t quite work with me) for 45 more minutes to get my papers approved so that my check could be mailed properly. I then grabbed a subway, and then a late train back to Brewster to come home to a furious mother at having kept her up all night waiting for me to get home. (1 AM by this point).

So, is being a film extra worth it? Financially, it’s a tough sell because you might have to take out a chunk of your payday for transportation expenses but the average payday is around $100 so it might be worth it. I have occasionally applied for other shows since then, without much luck, but I never had any inkling of making a career out of it. In the end, I did it for fun and I got to put it on my resume, which I must say, works great with recruiters when you describe the whole process. Being a film extra that day was, in all seriousness, one of the best days of my life so if you are willing to wake up early and potentially lose your sanity at sitting on your ass for several hours, at least consider it. With the right assignment, you will never forget the experience.

And if you are interested in the episode I was in, it’s Blue Bloods Season 3, Episode 3. This whole section takes place near the end of the episode so you better have that fast forward button handy.

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