I’ve always felt bad for extras. They show up on set, get thrown into the fire of production, and are asked to stay put and stay quiet all while everyone works around them.
And they do all this in the hope of a brief glimmer of fame and a quick buck if they’re lucky.
They usually have no idea what is going on, what to do, or who they can talk to. That’s why you find the extras always trying to sneak from their holding area into craft services. What else are they going to do?
Living the Life of Cattle
Alfred Hitchcock once said:
I didn’t say actors are cattle. What I said was, actors should be treated like cattle.
Hitchcock was onto something. If you substitute in “extras” for “actors,” the metaphor holds even more true.
I know it sounds harsh, but give it a moment to sink in: They both get wrangled around, they both sit all day munching on food, and neither really knows what is going on around them. And just like their bovine counterparts, extras are constantly being referred to as dumb, dimwitted, and clueless.
They get shoved into small holding rooms while they wait to get taken to the factory floor of the set and become unknowingly submitted to the meat grinder of production.
At the end of the day, they’re sent home with either a pat on the back and a thank you or a small check for their services. Often tired and beat from a day’s worth of hurry up and wait.
OK, I’ll admit, it isn’t always that bad. Many crew do their best to treat extras kindly and the assistant directors (AD) always try to make sure they know what they’re getting into before the ball gets rolling.
But still, I wouldn’t ever want to be one — it always looks like a miserable experience to me.
There’s Always that One Extra
It’s because of the nature of my job that I interact with extras a lot of the time.
If there’s even a tiny moment where I look non-busy, standing by the camera, or doing some menial task like cleaning it, an extra comes up to me. Like flies drawn to the light, they see me near the camera and can’t help but approach.
In one instance, an extra hovered over my shoulder and never spoke a word. A different extra once handed me a business card with a mini pitch about their acting skills thinking I could somehow get them a gig.
Most of the time, though, it starts with an innocent question, “So what are you shootin’ on?”
If I have time, I humor the person with small talk about the camera, what it does, and try to put the technical terms into a more generic frame.
After a few moments, they tend to understand I’m busy and will carry on with their cattle strewn ways.
But there’s always the one who takes it a step further.
This happened to me on set early last month. The extra was, to be fair, a good sport about his less than stellar job, but at every chance he could sneak away from the AD’s glaring eyes and come over to the camera, he would.
“Yeah, I used to shoot some stuff back in the day, so I know a little bit about film.”
As he expounded on his breadth of experience, all I could think was, “if you know about film then why aren’t you making any?” or, more importantly, “if you actually did work in film, why the hell did you agree to be an extra?”
He told me how he was a cinematographer, how he used to shoot on Mini DV when those cameras first came out, and ultimately how he was trying to get back into the craft. This went on for awhile and the more he spoke, the more I got the sense he was never legitimate in the first place.
I was trying hard not to judge too much when I got saved by my 2nd assistant camera who needed some help. I briefly motioned that I had to go and scooted out of there.
I never once did talk to that one extra again for the rest of the shoot as the scenes started getting crazy and I had less and less downtime to be approached.
‘Till the Cows Come Home
At the end of the shoot, I was checking footage near the holding area where the extra who had approached me was talking to another extra, both happy to have just been wrapped.
“Well, today was fun!” he said nervously, “Say — I was going to go to the bar and grab a tonic. Would you like to join me?”
There was a long pause and moment of consideration here. This guy had built up the courage to drop the bomb and ask this woman on a date, but every moment she spent thinking about it, the less of a chance he had.
“Hmmm… No, I really shouldn’t. Thank you though, Roger!”
And with that she walked away. I didn’t turn around, but I could feel rejection stewing in the air.
At this point, I genuinely felt bad for him because he had spent all day with people he didn’t know, trying to be friendly, only to end up going home empty handed and alone. I also got the impression he was looking for some fame, recognition, and to be a part of something great.
In that sense, extras are in pursuit of the same thing crew are. They want to be involved, somehow, anyway possible, in making a movie.
Extras have dreams of more presence (read: featured extra) in the final film than the blurry face in the background. Similarly, you and I have dreams of having more presence in the industry than another face on the crew. Maybe that means you want to direct or DP. Maybe you simply want to be the best at the position you already do.
Just like extras, we show up to set and we’re all put through the same meat grinder. The difference being we get paid (most of the time) and they don’t get paid (usually).
As the card I was dumping finished up, I watched Roger saunter around the corner and muttered under my breath, “Well, maybe next time.”
What experiences do you have with extras? Good or bad I want to hear them, please let me know in the comments!