What are y’all crazy kids doing in Atlanta? It can be hard to describe what we do exactly, but to put it shortly: We are extras. We are “background artists” in films and TV Shows. When I got cast in my first show, my stomach filled with butterflies. What did I get myself into? Would I look like a total newbie? Did I actually need acting skills to pull this off? Now that I’ve worked for 9 months as an extra, I’m here to answer all those random questions you might be wondering.
Booking: Snagging a job on a cool project is actually surprisingly simple. I don’t know what I expected the casting process to be like, but I definitely didn’t expect it to be so easy. Every local casting agency has a Facebook page, and here is where they post most of the listings for what they need. Example: “Seeking men and women 20-40’s for a hip coffee shop scene.” They list an email address, and tell you to put COFFEE SHOP in the subject. Here is what I send in almost every email:
Next you attach 2-3 recent photos. That’s it! It is a pretty simple process.
The Night before: The night before you will get all the info you will need! This email will normally include how they want your hair styled, the call time, location, and what to wear. Wardrobe always requests that you bring at least 3 outfits fitting their criteria and a couple pairs of shoes. Want to wear that beautiful red dress you have? NOPE. Red is never allowed on sets. In fact, white and black are also heavily discouraged. Red and white do not translate well on screen. I believe the reasoning behind the ban on black is this: Everyone and their brother brings black clothes, so they need the extras to bring variety. Not everyone can wear black…. unless of course if it is a funeral scene.
Once you get to Base camp: The time has come! You are finally here… but where is extras holding? This is my least favorite part of the job. I often find myself wandering around the cube of trailers trying to figure out where the heck it is. Everything is so fast paced in the film industry, so you certainly don’t want to bother a crew member to ask, but sometimes you have no other choice. There are times they are kind and helpful, and there are times they look annoyed by your presence. Extras are notoriously at the bottom of the totem pole(which I get), but luckily I’ve never had a horrible experience so far. Less than friendly maybe, but not unreasonable.
Once you find out where extras holding is, you will be checked in with the Extras PA(Production Assistant). They will hand you a pack of paperwork to fill out( I have filled out an unholy amount of W2’s this year). Once you finish your paperwork, you are sent off to wardrobe, hair, and makeup. Once wardrobe decides what they want you to wear, 90% of the time you will be sent to a white tent to change into your clothes with all of the other women. Hair and makeup is hit or miss. To be honest, I have noticed on TV sets someone will just skim you over and approve you if you don’t look overly horrible. Movies are a bit more complex, especially if it is a period piece or if you are playing a specific part. In one blockbuster film I got the chance to be a senate aide. This was one of the more elaborate parts I’ve done. I had a wardrobe fitting the week prior, and they gave me brand new clothes from Banana Republic to wear. When I arrived to set, hair and makeup gave me a complete makeover. They pinned my hair back and curled it so that I truly looked like an intern who graduated from harvard.
Extras Holding: Once you have done all of the above, you wait in extras holding until they need you. IT IS ALWAYS DIFFERENT. A common place for holding is a church, warehouse, or a white tent. You could sit there for 5 minutes or you could sit there for 5 hours. It really just depends on if they are on schedule. You also may never get used. It has only happened to me twice, but I have heard about plenty of extras sitting in a room for 14 hours and never being used, but fear not! There is food! All sets have a “crafty” table, filled with goodies. Sometimes the snacks are amazing, sometimes they are less than satisfying. I know some extras who avoid sets just because their snacks aren’t good! Crafty staples typically include: granola bars, cheese balls, fruit, oreos… If you are lucky they will have coffee! Which is a big deal, since the average working day is 8-12 hours(my longest day was 15 hours). The crew has a separate table for crafty that always have 10x the amount of snacks we do. So you get to gaze on all the goodies you will never have. Ah, sweet torture.
What about lunch? 6 hours after crew call, everyone will break for lunch. If you are on a relatively small set you might crew food. The good food. Example: lobster, steak, cookies, brownies, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes etc. If it is a huge cattle call, you will probably get some chicken, fish, beans, and rice.
You’ve been chosen: When I get chosen I kind of feel like those little aliens in Toy story. Some sets will give you a little course on what to do on set, others will just assume that you know what you are doing. Here is everything you need to know to be an extra:
- No loud talking on set. If you have to talk, whisper very quietly, because the crew has a job to do.
- You will be given a “start mark”. This is where you will begin at the top of the scene. The AD will yell, “background” and then “action”. Background needs to move before action so that we already in motion when they begin to film.
- Keep a mental note of where you are during each part of the scene. You have to do the same action over and over for the sake of continuity. Remember when you picked up your glass and when you pretended to take a bite of your food.
- That leads me to the most important part, fake it! All those extras you’ve seen on screen your entire life? They are pantomiming. You can’t talk during a scene, because this would ruin the audio for the take. Also when you pretend to clink glasses with a, “cheers!” you better make sure you aren’t making any sound.
- Always do as your told, and be prepared for things to change fast. They will run the scene once saying, “rehearsal’s up!”. If the AD or Director thinks that something looks off, they will come give you a different action or different timing.
That’s basically it! Just be flexible and a good listener. And YES, it is extremely awkward to look into the eyes of a stranger and pantomime for 8 hours, but the good news is they probably feel as weird about it as you do. One trick that I have is, I normally try to explain a plot of one of my favorite movies. That will normally keep me talking for the whole scene, and I’m not struggling to find things to say.
We shoot numerous takes from one angle, and then they change the camera to the other side of the room and do it again,.. And so on until they have done as many angles as they want. At the end of the night they will call, “Martini!” to announce that this is the last take. The crew and extras may not bond over much, but we all cheer when we hear that sweet word. At the end of the night we give back any borrowed clothes to wardrobe, and get in line to get our vouchers signed.
I love my job. It is new and exciting everyday. Sure, there are some days where I complain about sitting in a room for 8 hours, but I would take it over other jobs any day. The friendships that I make on set are really like nothing else. When you are stuck in a room with a stranger for 12 hours you can get into really deep conversations. This job has really brought me out of my shell and helped me learn how to be a people person again. A lot of the time I feel like I get paid to mingle with new people and read good books.
I could lie and say I am too cool to get starstruck, but that would be a lie. I don’t freak out as much as I used to, but seeing an actor I really admire is a huge bonus to the job. No, we are not allowed to get pictures or autographs from them. In fact, it is set etiquette that you never speak to an actor unless they speak to you first.
I had never really considered all that goes into making a film. It’s complicated, exhausting, and takes longer than I could ever have imagined. One day we filmed a 3 minute scene for 14 hours. But even though it is the most unstable and tiring job I’ve ever had, nothing compares to witnessing movie magic.
Let me know if you have any more questions in the comments!:)