Extra, extra!
May 26, 2003 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Extra, extra! Think your job is bad? Film extras (or 'background' as they're commonly referred to) just stand around waiting all day, have to bring their own wardrobe, and must always obey the unspoken rule of not chatting up the real talent. It's the job that's pretty much 'about nothing', with no guarantees, no glamour, no money. Yet, with that said, there are already many who do it, and more trying to break in every day. Are movie extras merely suckers for punishment, or are they hoping to find fame and fortune?
posted by debralee (20 comments total)
The common misperception is that extras stand around waiting and doing nothing. It really depends on how many assistant directors are on the set and the scale of the production. In between setups, extras are creating a back story, a set of circumstances, and figuring out how to react to the key moment while listening up to make sure that their reactions don't interfere with the main action (i.e., principal actors).
posted by ed at 8:58 AM on May 26, 2003

Anyone who holds out hope that they can make a "living" at being an actor needs to grow up...and I mean that in the most uncritical, words-of-wisdom manner. Acting, IMNSHO, is a hobby, not something that (young) people should plan to make a true career out of. I admire the extra-wannabes for persistence and dedication, but I hope that they are planning for the likely -- not certain, but likely -- day that they realize that they will not be Katharine Hepburn or Harrison Ford.
posted by davidmsc at 9:12 AM on May 26, 2003

Back when I had a job working as a horse and carriage driver for tourists, we would occassionally get hired out for the day as period background for film shoots. Since I knew how to drive teams of horses, I was called up to drive reproduction wagons and such. Those were the easiest days we ever worked. Stand around dressed like an 1890s delivery boy, graze on the buffet, and chat with the other extras. I don't see what there is to complain about. It sure beat a real day on the job. The trick is to understand that it is an easy way to make a few bucks, not an opportunity to be discovered.

Also a good way to meet actresses is to have a cute horsey that they can pet.
posted by ednopantz at 9:22 AM on May 26, 2003

i had the dubious pleasure of being an extra in that awful film Circle of Friends. We did have to endure standing around for hours on end, but we were made wear the most ridiculous clothes / hair do's , so we ended up pissing ourselves laughing at each other half the time. Also, one of the extras was in a priests costume, and spent his spare hours wandering about the streets of dublin coarsely chatting up unsuspecting women. Very low brow, but well funny at the time. My most embarrassing moment was when the director said to me "you, you look great darling, but could you stand over there behind that column?". Bastard.
posted by kev23f at 9:34 AM on May 26, 2003

When I'm on commercial shoots you could tell the newbies from the veteran extras. The veterans always have a book, walkman, or other time killing device. The newbies always look bored to death after about an hour of a 12 hour shoot.

I've been on about a half dozen spots in Toronto and in every one of them, an older guy is there as an extra - he must have an in with the casting agent. But he uses the shoot to chat up young female extras. Not a bad use of the time.

The low pay is a fortune compared to the non-union jobs where the extras get paid with a big "thanks" at the end of the day.
posted by birdherder at 9:48 AM on May 26, 2003

...have a cute horsey that they can pet.

Heh...nice euphemism. :-)
posted by davidmsc at 9:50 AM on May 26, 2003

most extras i know are deluded. there's a movie or book waiting to be done about the personality that the job draws. there are exceptions, of course. i have a friend whose dad makes a living as an extra. he's been in over 1000 films since 1985 and occasionally gets speaking parts (Coctail, A Kiss Before Dying, among others). but mostly, yeah, they're deluded.

slightly different from being an extra is the small-part actor (usually speaking roles). Marco Perella's book Adventures of a No Name Actor was rather funny.

On preview: birdherder, that's probably my friend's dad. heh. Does he have an scottish accent?
posted by dobbs at 9:55 AM on May 26, 2003

there's a movie or book waiting to be done about the personality that the job draws

Shhh dobbs, I'm trying to sell my script about extras at the moment, so don't go giving anyone else the idea.
posted by ciderwoman at 10:35 AM on May 26, 2003

if you want to be in the movie/entertainment biz never listen to people who say you shouldn't count on it to make a living. you'll have to do more than extra work, but don't count it out as it works for some folks. i've been acting since the age of 5 (where my first few gigs were as an extra on various tv shows) and while i'm not famous (and wouldn't want to be) i don't have to do anything else to support myself comfortably.

if you think being an extra might get you a better "behind the scenes" job, absolutely go for it, because sometimes it will indeed pan out. my baby sister started as an extra, which led to her being a famous tv star's personal assistant, which led to various jobs in production, which landed her on the set of the x-files for the first 4 years of that show's run. these days she's an in demand assistant director.

if you dream it, do your damndest to try and be it. do not under any circumstances listen to the advice of people who throw the word "hobby" at these careers. you may fail but that's better than always wondering if you could have been successful, especially if the straight world of work makes you unhappy.
posted by t r a c y at 11:09 AM on May 26, 2003

I was an extra in this movie. I did it on a lark - had a friend interning at a casting agency. It was very interesting to see the movie-making process from the inside but I wouldn't do it again. It was very boring - lots of standing around while lights and cameras were moved and sound tests done. There were several "professional" extras on the set who made enough of a living that they could afford to appear in off-off-off Broadway productions for little or no money while waiting for their "break".
What I learned from three days of shooting is that there's a reason movies are so expensive to produce. A full day with dozens of technical people, many actors, directores and assistants, about one hundred extras, plus caterers, teamsters, dressers, etc. was lost because they discovered after viewing the dailies that a lighting tech was visible in a window throughout the entire shoot. Three days were required which resulted in about six hours of filming which ended up as about five minutes of screen time.
posted by TimeFactor at 11:33 AM on May 26, 2003

I was an extra from 3rd through 9th grade in Los Angeles and I'd go on about 4 or 5 shoots a year. Back then there was an extras union (SEG to the actor's SAG) and kids got paid the same as adults, about $120 for a day's work.

We had to have 6 hours of schooling on site which usually meant I'd just bring my homework or a book and sit in the school trailer. It was a lot of fun seeing how filming worked, learning the role of the AD versus the AP and the gaffers and grips. Compared to the alternative of sitting in school classrooms, I never thought of it as boring. In fact I'd always hope shots would run late, as about half the time we'd get called back for a second day.

I agree that extras work is nothing to make a living at, but it's a great hobby I'd have done for free anyhow.
posted by kfury at 11:43 AM on May 26, 2003

Extra work is also a decent way to fill in the gaps if you don't have a consistent work schedule. My father is a professional musician, but if there's ever a week where things are slow, he'll call up one of the extra agencies and see if he can get a few days on a show. It's money he wouldn't make otherwise, and he always comes home with a new story to tell after it's done.
posted by brookedel at 1:01 PM on May 26, 2003

I was an extra in this movie. It was fun, standing around, moving in the background. Couldn't imagine doing it every day for a living. It's being background, nothing more.

Course it also gives you the opportunity to meet some celebrities if they come up to you. Or at least people who aren't celebrities who might be some day.
posted by benjh at 1:40 PM on May 26, 2003

My friends have been buzzing lately about the pros of being an extra.

Of course, when I think of the friends who have been buzzing, they're all twenty-ish males, and they're all aware of the fact that this movie featuring her is being filmed in our city right away...
posted by dgt at 3:59 PM on May 26, 2003

correct me if im wrong but david niven started out as an extra in hollywood.
if you do acting for the money then you really should give it up immediately.
posted by sgt.serenity at 4:42 PM on May 26, 2003

I was an extra twice last year, and still have nightmares about it.

We were supposed to be recreating a midway, and I spent about an hour on a ferris wheel in the hot sun. At least I did better than the extras who foolishly volunteered to ride the tilt-a-whirl ('tho the director was nice, and stopped the ride whenever anyone actually threw up).

I was amazed at how many of my fellow extras actually thought they had a chance of making it.

Never, ever, ever again.
posted by Badmichelle at 4:44 PM on May 26, 2003

What I learned from three days of shooting is that there's a reason movies are so expensive to produce.

And how! I was an extra on Wonder Boys, and Curtis Hanson was afanatic about realism. For example, there's a scene where Michael Douglas turns onto his street to find three guys walking in the road, heading to his house where a major party is going on. I'm the guy on the left, and two of us were carrying real, full cases of beer (the other guy had four or so real pizzas) that we had to carry for a couple of hours or so (in the freezing cold). You never saw what we were carrying, let alone that they weren't props, but I guess it added realism, or something. That's just one small thing, but all these things (shooting on location in a house, printing up programs for the attendees of a fake book fair, etc) really add up.

All told, it was a terrific experience, but I couldn't imagine making a living at it. It was really fascinating to watch all the behind-the-scenes stuff, plus we got to eat the same food as the crew a couple of nights. As an extra you really are nothing more than a living prop, and they pay you (minimum wage on WB) just so they can do with you what they want, such as make you wait around for hours, stand outside in the freezing cold all night, and so on.
posted by arco at 4:57 PM on May 26, 2003

I was an 'extra' extra in the pretty terrible Pet Sematary (visible on screen for about .0003 second.) A very striking looking friend was approached by a casting person and told to bring a 'husband' for the little boy's funeral scene, and since her boyfriend (also a good friend of mine) was hundreds of miles away, she asked me to come along.

I can't believe it would be much of a career, or even a way to get a break in the business, but miracles do happen. (I would think you'd get farther if you actually carried stuff, or built sets -- be a carpenter, like Harrison Ford -- and made yourself useful.) But I think everyone should do it if they get the chance, just to see how boring making movies really is. We spent at least 10 hours doing a scene, over and over, that ended up being less than a minute in the movie.

The money was poor but the food was good.
posted by LeLiLo at 11:03 PM on May 26, 2003

I worked as an extra about five years ago, the most notable gigs being "Babylon 5" and "Lethal Weapon 4."

I returned to working as an extra when I got fired late last September. Three days I worked on the remake of "Freaky Friday," only to find out in the trailer that I was blocked from the camera by a Sideshow Bob lookalike's hair.

I'll also be one of the high school reunion members skulking in the dark background during Cameron Diaz's dance number in Charlie's Angels 2.

But yeah, the food is good.
posted by antoine_bugleboy at 5:37 AM on May 27, 2003

Anyone who holds out hope that they can make a "living" at being an actor needs to grow up...

Wow, I guess I should tell that to several of my friends--who are making a "living" as actors.
posted by witchstone at 9:42 AM on May 27, 2003

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