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On a movie set

Let me just say this straight away, in order for being an extra to be a good experience, you have to love movies.

I have been an extra six times.  Some for commercials, once for a tv show, and twice for a movie.  In fact that movie is actually presently shooting.  I don’t know how kosher it is to reveal details during production, so to be safe that’s all I will say for now about identifying the project.  I like being an actor so while this may appear overly cautious, just note that I know how easy it can be to really ruin an opportunity for yourself by making stupid mistakes.  So I will leave it at that.

There are people out there who have done it HUNDREDS of times, so I’m no seasoned expert.  Yet most of those people live in Los Angeles.  I’m a Chicagoan (and Ohioan…as far as my experiences go). But, the place where you probably shouldn’t have come to do film, say, five years ago, is quickly becoming a place where you should.

SO, that said, here is my advice on

HOW TO BE AN EXTRA (in Chicago- on a major motion picture).

Firstly, prepare yourself for the experience.  Here are some things to expect:

Things that will happen

  1. You will sit around for interminable amounts of time
  2. You will get free food
  3. You will get paid – not that day, but a day not too far in the future.
  4. If you take a picture of somebody famous, you will get booted whether by production staff, security or that person’s personal security team (who might be known for roughness…)  And if you take a picture and get away with it.  Good for you.  You’re an a$$hole.

Things that might happen

  1. You might appear onscreen
  2. You might end up on the cutting room floor
  3. You might not film at all
  4. You might see a celebrity

Things that probably won’t happen

  1. You probably won’t get to say a word, let alone make a noise.
  2. But then again, you just might.  Like 2% chance but it happens. BUT not because they like you.  Because they were filming and the writer realized he needed to add a line and they don’t have anyone to say it.  They won’t, as my dear friend Jay (and fellow extra) says, say “Dear God who IS that stunning human over there in the corner?  I MUST have them in my film!”

Things that definitely won’t happen

  1. You won’t become a star
  2. You won’t get “discovered” in any meaningful long-standing way.
  3. You won’t die if you have to sit around for 12 hours.

THINGS TO DO

  1. Bring a book.  Knitting.  Nintendo DS.  Laptop, even.  In short, bring something to do.  Bring a couple things to do.
  2. Do exactly what you’re told and really try to refrain from having an opinion about it.  Nobody made you show up.  Just play by the rules.  You are being paid.  It is a job, albeit a weird one in which you are paid mostly not to do anything at all.  For you, this might be a once-in-a-lifetime spur of the moment thing, but for others, it’s what they do everyday.  Look at the crew:  not a glamorous bunch.  Imagine how you would feel if you had a hundred people hanging over your shoulder at your day job, oogling your every move.  It’s something to note.

(Something to note about film and stage crews;  they don’t exist in a vacuum.  They perform skilled technical duties and are sought-after.  That means that the gaffer on your current gig, just might be the gaffer on the next one.  Seriously.  Be easy, be cool, and stay out of the way.)

  1. Be as pleasant, polite and unobtrusive to absolutely everyone you meet.  I have unknowingly shared an elevator with the costume designer.  The AD, and director’s right hand, and someone you wouldn’t notice necessarily might be the one that picks that lucky extra who needs to say “Oh dear god, a dinosaur!” or something.  Even the lowliest PA could have you booted off set for being a jerk.
  2. Relax.
  3. Learn.  I have a theory that show business has some sort of express plan with karma.  At least that’s how it is with me.  If I’m cranky walking through a door heading for audition, guaranteed that unbeknownst to me it’s the director that was holding the door for me.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the actors I truly love, the ones who have careers I envy, the ones I think are truly wonderfully talented artists, are the ones that work their asses off.  They are the ones running lines and scenes off camera or in the wings.  They are the ones clutching their script as if it is attached to their bodies.  AND, and this is huge, THEY LIKE if not LOVE what they are doing.  In show biz, working your ass off isn’t a favor you are doing for anyone, nor is it a tool just to impress somebody, it happens because you want to get it right.  Often, when training as an actor, you are told, “You have to love it.”  This is true.  You DO have to love it.  But you have to love it for YOU.  NOT for the director.  Not to impress someone.  There are no “lovin’ it” police that will check your lovin’ it level.  You have to love it because otherwise you will be miserable.  It’s that simple.  That isn’t to say you won’t sometimes resent it and be mad at it.  Working in entertainment is a lot like being in a passionate relationship.  The stakes are high.   You spend a lot of time with it.  A LOT of time.  You nuture it.  Curse it.  Embrace it.  Yell at it.  Write it off.  Come running back to it.  It’s a living thing.  So you have to love it.
  4. Listen.  So many times a PA will give an instruction…several times, and then without fail, ten minutes later, some a-hole will say “I didn’t know we were supposed to do that.”  If I was a PA I would probably call casting and say “Take this guy off the list.  He’s a dick.  We don’t want him on set anymore.”  I’m also a really uptight prude about rule-following but still, there are hundreds more where you came from who are willing to do what they are told, on time, the first time.  That’s another key lesson in entertainment:  there are hundreds, if not thousands more people that are lined up right behind you, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, ready to do your job.  You have to have a certain respect for that.  You got picked.  Don’t spit in the face of the guy that didn’t by doing a shitty job.

THINGS NOT TO DO

  1. Don’t wear black, white, red, logos or bright colors unless specifically told to.  White, red and bright colors draw focus (which you are there precisely NOT to do).  Black absorbs light and looks like a void on film.  Logos put the production at risk of paying licensing fees as well as refuting the supposed location, ie your Bears sweatshirt makes it kind of hard to believe we’re on a train in Hong Kong.
  2. Don’t try to talk to the actors*, director, or crew aside from the PA’s.  Feel free to talk to the PA’s when they are available, which isn’t all the time.  Also expect to speak with wardrobe and occasionally hair and makeup. I’m not saying that no extra ever got to talk to a movie star.  But if that’s your goal by being an extra you are pretty likely to be disappointed.
  3. Do not…under any circumstances aside from sudden life-threatening illness or injury (And even then I would suggest avoiding it), attempt to draw focus on camera. You are there simply to make it look like there are people living in this world of the film.  That’s it.  You are a form.  A body.  Hardly even a face. If this threatens your individuality or your need to express yourself, I suggest not being an extra.  Yet, even in a business that makes everybody feel really small quite a bit, sometimes it’s good to know just how non-integral you are in the scheme of things.  You can always be replaced.  Best that you aren’t, of course.  It takes up time, money and resources to replace you.  Truly, no one wants to replace you.  They want everything to work out with you just peachy keen.  AND, unlike when you actually have a role, once cast as an extra, you are in COMPLETE control of whether or not you stay.  All you have to do it put up, shut up, and do what they tell you.  It’s that easy.
  4. And yet…some people are just incapable of doing this.  I guarantee you will witness an example of this nearly upon arrival at the location.  Don’t make demands, requests, or suggestions.  They aren’t welcome and they only serve one purpose:  to make you look like you aren’t easy to work with and that is death in showbiz.  Of course we can all tell stories about how we’ve heard Jennifer Lopez demands all white towels, candles, and servants in white in her rider, or Marilyn’s famed on set antics, but those are aprocryphal tales that are notable because frankly, jokes aside, they are rare.  VERY rare.  The vast majority of people in the entertainment business are workaholics who survive on tons of coffee, little food, and less sleep.
  5. This is the rule:  don’t try to hand anybody your headshot and resume.  BUT.  You should still be prepared to do that.  There is a 99.9% you never will, but imagine how you would feel if somebody asked.  But seriously, don’t give your shit to people unless someone asks for it without coercion on your part.

THINGS TO NOTE

I think that one cannot truly conceive of the marked tedium of filmmaking unless one experiences it first hand.  It’s all well and good to note, cocktail in hand at a party, that that 30 second scene took three hours to film.  But to be sitting there for the entire three hours gives you a much larger idea of why so few people ultimately become actors.  (Someday I will write a post about the stages of becoming an actor).

A movie is a living breathing thing made up of hundreds of people, millions of dollars (sometimes), and vast amounts of organization and effort.  As such, here is an illustration (ranked from highest importance to lowest) of  the hierarchy of what the production staff cares about:

  • The present scene being filmed
  • Light levels
  • The needs of the actors (Note:  Actors does not include extras*) and director
  • The score of their favorite team’s game
  • The eye color of a moth
  • The atomic weight of chlorine
  • Whether or not you have something scheduled for later that evening.

Movies are always off-schedule.  Anything from weather to traffic to human error can effect production.  Casting knows all the details up until shooting starts.  Then they cease to be information authorities and production staff takes over.  Meaning that if casting told you that shooting will begin at 7am and is likely just a day shoot, that certainly doesn’t mean you will only be there until dark.  You will be there for as long as they need.  This is partially because casting only really cares about the future, so by the time you are on set, they are working on casting a different day.  Also, shit happens, locations change, weather is unpredictable.  Go with the flow.  You’re in the movie business if only for one day.  Watch and learn.  I know that for one production that shot here in Chicago, the extras were there from early in the morning until 2am the next day.  That’s rare, of course, but again…it happens.  It’s the movies, folks!  No two days are ever alike.  If you remember nothing else, remember this:  if you leave early, you don’t get signed out and you don’t get paid.

MISCELLANEA

Extras rank absolutely lowest on the totem pole.  Nobody knows you and nobody gets to know you aside from, perhaps, other extras.

The Extra motto is:  Hurry up and wait.

All this straight talk is not meant to make it see like being an extra isn’t worth it.  If you want to know what movies are like behind the scenes, if you want to be an actor, if you want to be a part of something really cool, special and big, it’s a worthwhile thing to do. BUT the experience in and of itself has to be the reason to do it.  It’s not a stepladder to stardom.  In fact, they aren’t really related at all.  It’s not the army. There’s no ladder to climb…at least from that angle.  If there was, who could possibly explain the likes of Taylor Momsen?  That girl, from what I’ve heard, can barely handle being the star of a show which, from a luxury standpoint, is a lot more fun than being a “background artist”.

But here’s the thing, there are people in LA that do extra work literally as their living.  That’s what they do.  That’s how they pay for things.  Sort of.  At base rate, no overtime, before taxes…that’s 12,000 a year.  Still, they could pay better in LA and overtime (which often happens) takes the rate of pay up substantially.  Everything from commercials to major motion pictures requires extras, after all.

My personal mantra for extra work (and theatre work that isn’t as glamorous as I would occasionally like) is “You’ll be fine.”  You’re hungry?  You’ll be fine.  You’re thirsty?  You’ll be fine (OR say hello to mr water fountain).  You’re tired?  You’ll be fine.  Someday sooner or way later, you will sleep.  You hate your outfit?  You’ll be fine.

So do it.  But do it right.  Put up, shut up.  And learn about movies.  And that’s probably the best advice I can give…acting, directing, day job, even if you are just doing it for the experience the main prerequisite is you HAVE to love movies.  AND if you hate your time as an extra, think how hard your day will be if you actually have to ACT the whole time.  It’s something to think about.

*An extra is not an actor on a movie set.  “Actor” is a term set aside for people who went through an entirely different process (generally speaking) to get a role.  Actors have lines and a script.  They are nearly always a member of the Screen Actors Guild.  Even though you may occasionally, as an extra, be enlisted to act, you still answer to “extra” or “background”.