My new project/brainstorming fest continues. This week I had some surprise opportunities come my way: specifically, a whole bunch of extra (background acting) opportunities!
Background work isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t pay much and it takes up a lot of time. BUT it does come with its own perks, and I figure I shouldn’t turn down an opportunity to make some extra cash until I have something more firm nailed down. Here is a little peek into my adventures so far as a TV extra in NYC.
A few months ago my coworker told me to go register with an agency called Central Casting. So I downloaded their application packet and went into an orientation meeting. (They do them every week, and you just show up). They explained that we could call into their work number to proactively apply for gigs, and they would also sometimes call us about projects. I finished up the paperwork, got my picture taken and I was off.
A couple of weeks later they called me for my first job. They wanted me to be a reporter on a show called Blacklist. A few weeks after that I was booked for HBO’s Girls as a “Brooklyn-chic partygoer”. The calls kept coming every two or three weeks or so, which was just fine for me because I was also doing my full time job at the time. Then by happy coincidence, right after I quit my day job they booked me as an FBI agent on three different shows! I guess there was a shortage of guys with suits that week. (I was wearing a suit in my registration photo, so I think that’s what did it.)
When the agency calls you to ask your availability for a shoot, they also make sure that you have any special clothing or equipment that the role requires. For my first role as a reporter, I just needed to have a suit coat or jacket. I confirmed that I could do it, and they gave me a check-in number and two phone numbers. On the night before the scheduled gig, I was to call both numbers. One of them had detailed wardrobe information for all extras. (Check-in numbers 10-18 are to bring conservative dark suits, numbers 19-25 are to bring brown or grey jackets with non-patterned button-up shirts and matching shoes, etc. etc.) The other phone number had specific location info and check in times. My check-in time was 5:45 in the morning, and I was checking this message around 9 pm. I’d have to wake up around 4:15 to get there on time. Ugh. (Though to be fair, that was the earliest call time I have ever had. I’ve had some that were as late as noon. You just never know).
Check-in and Holding
I got some different clothing options together that night and went to bed early so I could haul myself up at such an ungodly hour. I managed to stay awake on the train somehow, and before I knew it I was stumbling towards the address. It turned out to be a huge church. Neon yellow signs were taped to fence posts with the word “Holding” and an arrow pointing the way. I followed the signs into a big room full of tables and chairs. An official-looking guy at a front table asked me for my check-in number and gave me my “voucher” (a form with space for all of your info and hours worked for the day). As I was filling it out, the voucher guy stood up and told everyone to go to see Wardrobe and Hair and Makeup. Wardrobe was easy to spot due to its being surrounded by racks of clothing. I lined up to show them my humble clothing options. I feared great judgement. But luckily the girls there were OK with what I had on– they just told me to swap out the tie for one of theirs. Hair and Makeup were equally easy to spot- they’re the tables with tall mirrors and lights jury-rigged on top of them. A guy there spritzed me a little with hairspray and that was it. I was now officially OK’d to go get “propped”.
I followed a line of extras out to the Props truck, which was a few blocks away from Holding. They took my check-in number and my driver’s license as collateral, and gave me a fancy reporter’s microphone to hold. (Over the course of about seven gigs, I have seen everything come out of these trucks! Guns and holsters, briefcases, name badges, full SWAT gear, you name it… it’s like a magical bag of holding, but only for badass stuff.)
Now that I was totally inspected, propped and battle-ready, I went back to Holding to wait for the call. And wait I did. I learned very quickly that being an extra requires expert waiting skills– you better bring something to make use of the time! It was probably an hour before we were called to set that day, which is pretty typical. (Once I had to wait a full 8 hours before being used at all!)
On the set
The set was a little surreal. There were cameras, equipment, and people everywhere. Lighting people, audio people, camera people, PA’s, the director and his posse, and of course all of the extras (about 250 for this shoot, which is a big scene). There were even some famous people. But the famous people (i.e., “principal actors”) don’t come in until everything and everyone else is ready to go. I learned that they even have assigned “stand-ins” who take their place as the crew is setting up the scene. That way the director can see how the scene looks with someone of roughly the same height/build, without having to prematurely tire out the star talent.
An important side-note: as a background actor (i.e., living prop), you are to not speak to principle actors (i.e., people who are better than you) unless you are spoken to. Ever.
There was one very busy-looking Assistant Director (A.D.) running around the set and explaining to each group of extras what they were supposed to be doing. The scene was a huge outdoor protest/news frenzy taking place at a funeral for a prominent political figure. As a reporter, I was to be fighting for interviews from the press box as dignitaries passed by. When everything and everyone was finally in their places, someone yelled “rolling!” then “background!” (all the extras started moving) and “action!”. But this is what surprised me: after “action!”, it was so silent that you could hear a pin drop. There were hundreds of people outside: protesters shaking signs, reporters clamoring for attention… all without making a sound. That was the surreal moment when I realized just how much of the audio is done in post-production. The principals sometimes had lines, which they would deliver directly under a boom mike. But other than that, everyone was expected to be seen and not heard.
This quietness was at its strangest when my character was supposed to be talking with someone. In the protest scene I had to sit there for at least 30 seconds at a time, moving my lips as if I was interviewing the politician in front of me. We had to communicate just with our movements and expressions. In my head, I was asking every grisly question I could think of: “Where are the victims buried? What possessed you to soak the bodies in vinegar before dismembering them?”
In between takes I asked the politician what he was saying back to me. I was a little affronted to discover that he had been evading my hard-hitting questions by talking about his dog and describing what he had for breakfast that morning.
(I’ve since discovered that many people have their own preferred tricks for this. This is my favorite one so far: one of my tablemates for a dinner scene on Girls told me that she just mouths the word “vagina” over and over again. Now you’ll always be trying to lip-read what extras are saying in the background, just watch).
I’m going to break out of the story format for just a moment to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: food. It was a very nice discovery to learn that extras actually eat pretty well! Craft services is magical, and they keep you going with plenty of snacks and drinks throughout the day. You can just run over whenever you have a break between shoots, and help yourself to fresh fruit, coffee, granola, chips, yogurt, and all manner of tasty snacks. There’s usually a hot breakfast in the morning too. But then for lunchtime they usually go all out with the catering. I kid you not, at my last shoot they had a carving station with roasted lamb and mint jelly. At the one before that they had a similar station with prime rib with horseradish sauce. And that’s just the beginning- they also have plenty of salads, pastas, veggies, breads, desserts, pretty much anything you could wish for! I have been consistently impressed with the lineup. It’s a very nice perk that adds some extra value to extra-dom. (Let’s be honest, I’d probably work for free if the food is good enough). OK, food diatribe over.
It’s a wrap!
People literally cheered when they heard those words. It was past seven and getting dark, and we had been there since 5:45 in the morning. We had spent the majority of the day in the sun, repeating the same actions over and over, take after take. I looked around, unsure of where to go next. Then I noticed the massive swarm of extras heading to the Props truck. They all knew that before you leave, you must first be de-propped and then de-wardrobed of anything that the set gave you. Then you still need to hand in your voucher for the final review and check-out. With all the lines, this probably added another 45 minutes onto the end of the day. (Which felt more like five hours because I was pretty much a sun-baked zombie by this point).
It has already been a fun and crazy ride for me in extra-land. I got to see parts of the city I never would have otherwise, and I got to witness first-hand what actually goes into making telvision shows (it is daunting— it’s no wonder it’s so expensive). The mix of people that do background work is so varied that it’s positively fascinating. I mean to be totally honest, anyone who is able to reflect light can probably make it onto a set as an extra (at least once, anyway). That makes for a very strange mix of folks. I have met a lot of super interesting and friendly people for sure– a lot are looking to be full time actors, and some are just like me, doing it purely for the hell of it. And then there are some who are desperately struggling to hang onto dreams of stardom, and some who just have nothing better to do than sit around on a set all day and eat free food.
Like in pretty much any other industry, if you’re dependable, optimistic and friendly, you will stand out from the crowd and people will like working with you. Your agency will keep finding you more gigs. And who knows, you might find bridges to permanent work or better positions. Just be aware that you will also deal with your share of douches as an extra. You are the very bottom of the totem-pole. Some people do remember that extras are in fact human and will treat you as such, but others regard you as some kind of rodent, or maybe a creeping fungi.
And on the flipside, I really do respect AD’s and PA’s who can manage a crowd of new extras every day without growing super bitter or jaded. It’s probably worse than herding cats.
So hey, if you’re flexible on time and you live in an area where they’re casting for extras, give it a shot! At the very least it will be an adventure, a story. How many people can say that they got paid to run around and play pretend?