Sunday, August 12, 2012
Just an extra day at the office
If you are 5’5”, balding and 20 pounds overweight, you can still be a great actor, but you’re not going to get a role as a sexy leading man. It’s just that “realism thing” coming into play again.
It’s August 2009. 8:15 p.m. I look down and see the gold flash of the LAPD badge on my chest. My now empty .45 is firmly locked in my holster. Standing in the smoke and shadows of the ruins of an old brick building located somewhere in South Los Angeles, my blue polyester police uniform is covered with dust from head to toe. A stream of blood has run from my ear to my neck and dried there like a battle scar. I hear the blast, then the scream. I know the creature is about to turn the corner to face me. What do I do? My heart is pounding; it is time to act. This is the moment I have been waiting for. I leap from my L.A. patrol car to flee. I decide to run for the shelter of a half burnt Dodge Charger on the other side of the street. As I take my second step, I hear… “CUT! Back to one. We’re doing it again.” I’m not in L.A. at all, and I’m definitely not a cop. I am an extra on the movie set of Battle: Los Angeles filming in downtown Shreveport. It is my third job in the film industry as an extra or “background actor.”
I woke up in Longview at 4 a.m. this morning, showered, and was at base camp at Shreveport Municipal Auditorium by 5:15 a.m. After over an hour of wardrobe, hair, and makeup, I was shuttled to the set. With the exception of about a 30 minute break for a catered lunch, I have been sitting in a holding area reading a book since 8 a.m. this morning. I’m an extra, so I have no trailer or dressing room, just a plastic folding chair. I am not allowed to be too close to the scene until I am called. It hit 98 degrees about 5 p.m. this afternoon turning my cop uniform into a sweatsuit. The makeup and dust ran down my face only to be replaced by a not so happy makeup artist. I am tired of sitting. I am hot. I am miserably bored. But after 14 hours of waiting, they are finally ready for me. I am in front of the camera for about five seconds. I sure hope “my scene” makes it through editing to the movie screen.
When I get home, all of my friends are going to want to know every detail. They jokingly call me “Hollywood,” or “Movie Star.” I think about the day and laugh quietly to myself. They imagine me hanging out and chatting with famous actors, being served lattes and martinis, and resting between filming in an air conditioned trailer. They have no idea what this day has been like.
Since the early 1900s, one of the favorite fantasies of almost every young American is to grow up and be in the movies. As many of us grew older, took jobs, married, and raised children, that dream became about as probable as growing our hair, grabbing a guitar and becoming a rockstar.
But there is a group of people who refuse to give up that dream. They aren’t famous, they work extremely long hours, they get no recognition except from friends and family, and they get paid very little. But they are there, part of every movie and television show.
Just look over the shoulder of the lead actor in any movie. You’ll see them. They are extras. Extras endure hours and conditions that would make the average office worker shiver with fear, all for the hope that they might have their 15 minutes of fame and earn a glimpse of time on screen.
Let’s take a closer look at the job of the movie extra. A famous actor and actress are on a date walking down a sidewalk in a city. There are people walking, talking and shopping in the background. The scene just wouldn’t look real with just the guy and girl walking in the middle of an empty city. So, you add a businessman with a briefcase getting off work, a mom with a stroller, an elderly couple going to dinner, a postman delivering mail, etc. The scene on the street just became similar to a sidewalk you’d see in any city in America. That brings realism to the set.
Part of the success of a film project is achieving a goal originally set in literature. It’s called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” That means that during this film, you are willing to set aside your doubts and believe that what you are seeing is real. With doubt and disbelief out of the way, you can watch a movie for two hours and actually believe in vampires and werewolves, believe that Tom Cruise really is a secret agent hanging by one foot from a rope while shooting 15 Russian mafia members, or even that superheroes are dawning our rooftops saving us daily from evil villains. To obtain this effect, you as an audience member must feel that what you are seeing on screen is comfortably accurate. The more people you see on a set, the more a crowd becomes real instead of a bunch of actors. That crowd must consist of ordinary looking people. That’s the job of extras.
I mentioned above in my personal narrative about early mornings, extremely long hours and not so comfortable conditions for little pay and no recognition. Even with that understanding, I think you can see why someone would want to do this once or twice just to achieve their childhood dream of being in a movie. But why do so many people endure these conditions again and again? I have now been in 24 movies, television shows, and independent film projects in the last three years as an actor, an extra, stand-in, photo double, stuntman, and precision driver. I have literally worked with thousands of extras from Dallas to Austin to New Orleans, and I have found the basic reasons extras return time after time are all the same.
Being an extra is the entry level position for the acting side of the film business. As in most big businesses, you have to start somewhere. If someone is serious about being an actor, working as an extra gets you on set so you can see how it all works. Just like any other business, it is all work, with methods, knowledge, and skills that you must learn to be successful. You may spend hours sitting in a chair as an extra, but you are watching professional actors, directors, and crew do their jobs. This is something that cannot be taught in a $3,000 a week acting class in Los Angeles. The set can be used as a classroom for a beginning actor while they study their craft and acting methods watching established professionals. You may know a few extras that have done exactly that: Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and many more. That’s right. They all started out waiting in those uncomfortable chairs for hours for their few unspeaking seconds on screen.
In my observations, another common reason I have found for someone working film after film as an extra is more fantasy-minded. So many people have read and believe in the Hollywood glamour stories of “being discovered.” Let me tell you, it is possible, but for the most part this is a MYTH. The film business is just that, a business. How many people do you see take a job in the mailroom of a company such as Microsoft, get discovered the next week, and become a top executive with a high rise office and a secretary? It’s not like that in the film industry either. You work extremely hard to climb the ladder as an actor, the same way you would with any other career. Confidence in yourself and your abilities is a must to be successful in any business, but a reality check is needed.
I have seen many diva background actors (male and female) on set that have never had an acting lesson, have a horrible work ethic and an attitude of, “Where’s my dressing room trailer?” They cannot understand why the director has not seen their star potential. Why, with their natural talents and average good looks, they didn’t even have to take acting classes.
I am thankful every time I have gone to set for the lessons I learned from my acting teacher Raymond Caldwell, founder of The Texas Shakespeare Festival. He not only taught students like Jaysen Dry, myself and so many others the approaches of Stanislovski, the Meisner technique, and improv acting, but he taught us the sincerity and honesty of the mirror. If you are 5’5”, balding and 20 pounds overweight, you can still be a great actor, but you’re not going to get a role as a sexy leading man. It’s just that “realism thing” coming into play again.
What I am trying to say is this: if you want to be a background actor, be one and enjoy it. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. Enjoy what you are doing right now. It takes years of hard work to be an overnight success.
This brings up the most enjoyable group of extras you will find on a set: the ones who do it for fun. It’s a hobby for them. Some choose to go to the golf course. This group chooses to go to the movie set. Usually this group is made up of retired people, the self-employed, or just someone who has a few days off with time on their hands. A person from this group is not wanting to be a star, doesn’t mind that they are getting paid $64 for eight hours work or that they will have to wait until all the cast and crew go through the catered lunch line before them. They sit in the waiting area and get to know each other. They come from diverse backgrounds and are interesting people with interesting stories. They are friendly. They laugh and have a good time while they are there. They get to watch Nicholas Cage acting in his newest role. They might even be asked to stand beside him or dance with him on camera. They get to see a vampire or werewolf in person. They get to eat an incredible meal for lunch – usually steak, grilled tuna, or chicken. The main thing is they are a part of something that will be seen for years to come. This is much better than sitting on the couch watching daytime TV or doing yard work.
Movies and television are the center of entertainment for most of us on a daily basis. When was the last time you sat down on the sofa in the evening and did not turn on the television? Other than a few behind the scenes specials from HBO to promote a new movie, most have no idea of what actually goes on during the day-to-day grind of shooting a movie.
If you’ve ever thought about being in the movies and have a day or two off, I encourage you to give it a shot as an adventure. A lot of film projects are being shot in Shreveport and Dallas. You may decide you want to be the next Brad Pitt or Katherine Zeta Jones. If not, you’ve seen things most Americans will only get to see on TV. As for the extras already out there working, next time you watch your favorite movie and see all those people dining in the restaurant in the background or running to get a safe distance away before the bomb goes off, give a little thought to those people who got up early in the morning and sat in the holding area for hours just to make you believe all this is real.
From the diary: It’s early June and already extremely uncomfortable at 11 a.m. in the New Orleans warehouse district as the sun and humidity join forces to create what feels like liquid heat under this suit and tie. The casting director has chosen me from the roster of actors listed with the extras casting company because he liked “my look.” It’s a good opportunity for me as an actor to play a guest detective on the second season of TNT’s Memphis Beat. While they change camera positions, I am standing here talking about Elvis songs with the stars of the show, Jason Lee and Sam Hennings, as we all drink water to keep from dehydrating under the heat of the lights and sun. We’ve been shooting a scene all morning where we chase a bad guy through an old building. On the third take, I strained a calf muscle and am trying extremely hard not to let the director know in fear of being cut from the scene. I left Longview at 3 a.m. this morning to get here by call time. I am very sleepy. It is hot, and the sun is beating down. The director called in a lady from wardrobe to hold an umbrella over me between takes because I was starting to burn badly in the sun. There was no time for breakfast this morning because I was rushed through wardrobe and makeup, so I am starving. Speaking of makeup, it’s time to be reapplied for the third time as I continue to perspire profusely. When the day is wrapped, I will drive six hours back to East Texas because I have an appointment tomorrow.
The director has just said we’re about to roll footage again. That means more running. My leg is on fire from the strain. If I can just get through this day and make it to bed, I will never do this again… you don’t believe that do you? I LOVE this! I would do this every day of my life. It’s what I’ve dreamed about since I was old enough to dream. I went from sitting in a holding area with 50 other people and standing in the middle of a crowd of 500 to being featured with the two stars and the guest star of this show. I am on the screen. I have worked my tail off for this for over two years. I am in the movies! I will survive. I don’t mind. Let’s do the running scene again – ACTION!!!
Post script: If you would seriously like to be an extra and have the time to do so, I recommend you register with Legacy Casting. Legacy casts extras in the Dallas and Shreveport areas. The staff of Legacy stays extremely busy. I beg you, please don’t waste their time if you are limited on availability or travel. If you are interested and available, find them on Facebook or their website. Break a leg, and have fun. See you in the lunch line!