Unless you’re serious about getting a foot in Hollywood’s door or you really need the check, being a movie extra isn’t that great.
Working from home sounds swell, but as a freelance writer, I sometimes find more time on my hands than I would prefer. This usually means work is slow, which usually means my pockets aren’t as full as they could be. A little over a year ago, I noticed that a few acquaintances had been working as extras on the myriad of films and television shows being shot here in New Orleans, especially HBO’s Treme. Like many children, I had fantasized about being a movie star when I grew up, but never pursued it in any manner. As an adult, I figured it would be interesting, at the very least, to be a part of a major film and get paid for it. Hell, maybe I would even learn something.
After a reasonably positive experience as an extra in an episode of Treme (I was a heavy metal fan at an Eyehategod concert), I figured I could manage the longer shoots feature-length films typically require. I did know from reading Facebook updates that one could be quite uncomfortable on set. Thirsty? There’s a giant cooler of water somewhere, but you can’t just get a cup whenever you feel like it. Five hours into shooting and you’re getting hungry? You’re probably shit out of luck (more on that later). Gotta pee? Those with incontinence issues need not apply. Stuck in a period costume out in the summer heat? Tough titties. While I have the bladder of a camel, I didn’t want to be standing up nor outside for hours on end, so I replied to a casting call for a multi-day shoot of Now You See Me, one which sounded pretty cushy, as far as these things go.
Shortly after submitting my photo and contact info to the casting agent, I received a call confirming my availability. An email providing the details on wardrobe, call-times, etc. soon followed. I would be paid $88 for 10 hours of my time, and if shooting went into overtime, I would receive time and a half for those hours. Now, $88 doesn’t go far these days, but I was guaranteed several days of work, and I really didn’t have much else going on, so, why not make a few bucks, right?
Let’s just take a moment to recall the old adage, “There’s no such thing as easy money.”
My call-time was something ridiculous, like, 6:30 a.m. That meant that I had to wake up at a time that is not conducive to me standing, driving or speaking. I drove to the parking lot of a building that I cannot recall, but I believe it was no longer in use. From there, buses picked up the “background players” and brought us to our holding area in the CBD. Paperwork had to be done, but there was liquid that resembled coffee and assorted snacks for us. That was quite nice of them. And then we waited.
You do a lot of waiting when working as an extra. I made the most of my time by working via my phone and my tablet. Eventually, it was time to walk to the theater we would be shooting the scenes, and, of course, there was more waiting. Thankfully, I had seen what everyone else was doing at the holding area and stuffed my handbag with a bottle of water and a few snacks, which kept me from passing out from dehydration and hunger. Did I mention it was hot? Everyone was sweating, and, unfortunately, some of my fellow faux-thespians did not care to or were unable to shower prior to call-time. Have I mentioned that I am absolutely terrible at disguising disgust or annoyance? It’s becoming quite evident that perhaps I am not cut out for this, isn’t it?
The theater we would be filming in was the State Palace Theater in all of its hot, musty, moldy glory. For those not local to New Orleans, State Palace sat in the waters from the levee failures post-Hurricane Katrina. The film crew assured us that they had spent oodles of money having the mold removed, but my overly sensitive nose told me otherwise. The seats had mysterious substances on the upholstery. Giant fans were brought in to circulate the interior air that smelled mostly of sewage, but only while the camera was not rolling; they produced too much of a din to run during taping. But, really, that was the worst of it. I sat the entire time, switched seats in groups when told to, sipped on water I brought from home, and played games on my phone in between takes. And it was pretty cool to see Hollywood stars Woody Harrelson cracking jokes, and being instructed to boo Michael Caine. If Woody could deal with the poop smell, so could I.
While extras are usually discouraged from bringing phones on set, we were asked to whip ours out and take pictures with flash or take video for a certain scene. While not exciting, the following footage is a nifty behind-the-scenes video of the “audience” in action.
After six hours or so, we took a break for lunch. It was free. I wanted to be grateful. I even lucked out and snagged some of the vegetarian lasagna originally meant for the crew before it was depleted by those that were truly vegetarian and/or repulsed by the mystery meat put out for us plebs. Eating the latter dish was not an option knowing I had to return to that rank oven of a theater. Just thinking of the consequences makes me shudder today. While adding packet after packet of salt and pepper to my lunch, I thought, “W.W.W.D.: What Would Woody Do?” Well, Woody is vegan, so I ate the damn lasagna and kept quiet. Vegetarian dining would have to suffice, but I’m sure Woody would have given me a righteous high-five for hanging in there.
At the conclusion of lunch, we were herded back to the theater for more scenes to be shot. Working as an extra does provide a bit of insight into movie-making magic. Prior to arriving on set, I hadn’t considered that I just might be surrounded by dummies.
Really creepy, unfinished dummies. And yes, the one on the end is a living person.
I also did not know I would be so close to the actors.
The same scene, but an official still from the studio.
The first day of filming went on for 12 hours or so, and then we had to crawl back to the holding area, and then wait in line for quite a while to turn in our paperwork and confirm wrap times. I was tired, sweaty in uncomfortable places of my body, and beginning to experience the sinus pains of an infection I was developing from sitting in that theater. While I managed to make the second day of filming, the sinus infection spread and my throat was killing me by the time we wrapped, so I cancelled my remaining days. Sure, I felt guilty since I had committed to several days, but I could not put my health at further risk for $10/hour (after overtime and taxes). From what I had heard, there were a few people that called out the first day or so. (Man, do the seasoned extras like to chatter and gossip about what goes on at sets.)
As someone that is accustomed to working in their underwear, using the restroom as needed, and making a sandwich when I want a damn sandwich, I’m probably not the best candidate for work as a movie extra. I don’t have aspirations to be a famous actress, and, for me, the amount of time one must commit to being on set can be better used at home and work. But if you do want to acquire experience or you just need an extra paycheck, there is plenty of work to be found here in Hollywood South. Just remember to pack a lunch or a bottle of Maalox.
Minus the terribly moldy theatre (I really do not envy that one bit), my experiences as an extra were similar.
Lots and lots of waiting. And while my lunches were pretty decent (I remember pasta options and having a salad bar), starting your day at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and having to wait until noon or many times 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. to break for lunch was painful, to say the least.
I did it a handful of times while I was in college because some days I would just rather get paid to sit around on set than make about the same amount to wait on greasy, unpleasant customers at a chain restaurant.
Also, a few times I extra'd with a friend. We'd both sign up for the same shooting day so those days were slightly more pleasant. I certainly enjoyed having someone to make snide comments to about the rest of the extras (some of which were "professionals," I mean you could just tell). Not to mention lots of giggling on set.