Ah, yes. It’s about time I got around to writing about this! It’s been, without a doubt, the activity my friends and family are most interested in hearing about. I had a bit of cash saved up before I moved out here, so I was able to play a little bit before “buckling down” and finding a “real job.” I decided to skip on down to Central Casting and sign on to be an extra- sorry, “background actor.”
That’s right; I just basically implied that being an extra is not a “real job.” Also, I used a semicolon. Read on THAT!
Granted, some people have managed to make it such, and I applaud their success (and wonder how much Top Ramen they must eat), but it is NOT for the faint of heart. Often times referred to as “dots” or “blurs,” extras are treated with absolutely zero respect. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect respect (soon to be a new hit song), but here I am referring to such an extreme lack of respect that you don’t even feel like a human being. The props are quite literally treated better than you are. As a non-union extra, you make $8 an hour to stand on your feet all day, often in uncomfortable attire, and to be shushed like a five year old every time you yawn, sneeze, or say “hi” to your fellow extras. But if it’s worth it to you to have a little bit of yourself attached to a project or to see that star you always wanted to meet, read on:
Here’s how it works: you go down to “Central” at the most inconvenient time on a weekday morning. You listen to their spiel. You stand in a long-ass line with dozens of other Hollywood hopefuls. You register with them (SSN, DLN, W-2, height, measurements, dress size, special talents, car type, “how far will you go,” the works). You stand in another long-ass line. You stand in front of a camera (about as sophisticated as the DMV) and get a picture taken. One. You do not get to see said picture. They hand you a packet of papers and give you a phone number to call. You call said phone number. Again. And again. MANY times per day. You listen to pre-recorded job postings and hope to hear one that sounds like something you match and that is something you might actually like to do. You listen to the WHOLE THING because often they only want your car, or your specific breed of dog, or they want you to jump into a swimming pool with all of your clothes on (repeatedly) or shave your head or be a professional soccer coach or a biker or stripper or something (yes, I’ve heard all of these) and they seem to want to put this critical information last. You call another number to talk to the agent that posted this call. This number will be busy. Always. (I guess a lot of people fit “non-union woman between the ages of 21 to 71.”) You call again and again and again (because you have nothing better to do) or you pay $75 a month to have someone else do it for you (keeping in mind that you will still only make $8/hour when they find you work). IF you get the gig, they will give you almost NO information about where it is or what you will be doing or how long it will take because again, you have nothing better to do and can put everything else on hold. If you don’t get the gig (after all of that), you spend the next several hours worrying that you sneezed or a bug landed on your face in that headshot you never got to see. They give you yet another number to call the night before your job. You call that number (note: get a phone plan with unlimited minutes). They pre-scold you for being late and/or not having everything you need. They tell you to bring your own clothes and often something you would never own and will need to buy (i.e. pantyhose). You try to sleep the night before because your call time is often early in the morning (6:15AM) or late at night (10PM), running until early in the morning. You fight traffic to get to set on time. You fail. You park as far away as possible from the set. You arrive and check in with the 2nd AD or a PA who will either ignore you or call you sweetheart. You go sit in “holding” which is often a tent with a bunch of metal folding chairs in it. You talk to some cool people and a couple of crazy folks. They tell you to be quiet. They tell you to go to costume, hair and makeup, all three of which will tell you to go away because no one is really going to see you and they don’t want to waste their time. You swallow sadness and immerse yourself in a good book. You get called to set. They tell you to be quiet. A lot. Even if the crew is making all of the noise, they will blame the “background talent” for the hammering. You do your thirty seconds of bad “casual conversation” pantomime. You feel good because you SWEAR the camera is, like, totally right on you the whole time! They feed you (usually). You finish your “day.” You go home and tell all of your family and friends to tune into whatever show at whatever time. A week later, you get a paycheck for approximately $80 for ten+ hours of work. Your episode airs or your film is released. Two people report possibly seeing the back of your head for half a second. One of them is your mother. It turns out that it was not your head, but you don’t tell anyone that. You swear you are never going to do it again. Two weeks later, you call the pre-recorded line and start the process all over again. This time you just know you’re going to get that SAG voucher!*
However, like all experiences, crappy or otherwise, being an extra expands my library of fun stories to tell, and I shall share them here- with pictures (where possible)! You know, someone should make a television show based on their experiences as an extra. It might be really funny! They could get awesome actors to guest star. Ooh, ooh! I’d love to see Ian McKellan do something on a show like that…
(*You need to get three vouchers before you can join the Screen Actor’s Guild, which is every non-union extra’s dream. Once you have your vouchers, you pay SAG a large sum of money and then you can actually begin making a more livable wage from doing “background” work.)