Movie extras may seem unimportant, but wouldn't the stars look silly without them?
“We need males in their 20s to 30s, any ethnicity, to play security guards,” the phone recording said. I fit the bill, so I quickly called the casting agency to see if they could book me. The female agent on the other end looked at my photo. I looked the part, so I booked the gig. (Whew.) Of course, this meant that I was going to spend the day working as an “extra” on a movie set, and with the fifty bucks I’d earn (before taxes) for 12-16 hours of work, I just might be able to make rent that month.
I was an aspiring screenwriter, but I needed a way to pay the bills that still allowed me time to write. My roommates, all hopeful actors, suggested doing “extra work.” It was an easy way to make money (just walk by in the background) and you got to be on set, meet people, and learn how a movie production works. So I registered with the local casting agency, and began my part-time career as an extra.
Every morning, I would call the casting hotline and listen to the recorded announcement of what new roles they were seeking that day. Some days they needed older Chinese men; on other days, tall black men; on others still, nerdy high-school types. You could only hope you fit the description and that you called in time to book the job before some other starving actor beat you to it.
Being an extra, or “background artist” (a title the casting agents would use to lend us a modicum of dignity) didn’t pay much. But all I had to do was stand or sit or walk behind the lead actors, and if I was lucky, I even made it into the shot. Or at least my shoulder or the back of my head did.
Being an extra also exposed me to all kinds of interesting people, from would-be actors brimming with optimism to veterans jaded by years of literally going unnoticed in the background.
On the set of one TV show, I struck up a conversation with a man beside me. He was in his fifties and doing extra work to pay the bills while he waited for his big break. He confided in me that just two weeks earlier, he had finally booked a lucrative job on a national TV commercial, but then his ailing father back home in Virginia suddenly died. The funeral was scheduled for the same day as his commercial shoot, and so he flew back to Virginia, ceding his role in the process. As he told me this, his eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. “Damn you, dad,” he seethed. “Couldn’t you have held on a little longer?” He was dead serious. I politely excused myself from the conversation.
Another time, I got cast as a security guard in a big-budget action movie. It was me and three other guys playing guards, so we got a little more screen time than usual. We also got to meet the star, Bruce Willis. We shot the scene in the middle of the night near the ocean, and it was freezing outside. Between takes, the other extras and I huddled together to fend off the cold.
Nearby, Willis warmed himself in front of the only space heater available. He saw us shivering and invited us over. Grateful, we shuffled over and gathered around the star and the space heater, and he shared stories of when he used to sleep on friends’ floors while he was an up-and-coming actor and working as an extra. If you look closely, you can see him in the final courtroom scene in Paul Newman’s 1982 film, The Verdict. Everybody starts somewhere.
While extra work can be a fun way to (barely) pay the bills and learn and meet movie stars, it’s also an exercise in humility. After all, your job is literally to not be noticed. To blend in to the atmosphere so that viewers can focus on the stars.
Alfred Hitchcock once famously compared actors to cattle. When asked to clarify, he replied, “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said is that they should be treated like cattle.” Hitchcock saw actors as pawns to be shuffled around on set at will to help the director realize his vision. And he was talking about icons like Cary Grant and Janet Leigh. Imagine how he must have viewed extras. Indeed, movie productions with large numbers of extras are described as “cattle calls.”
Yet without all those people milling about in the background, the stars in focus would look rather silly. They’d be sitting in empty coffee shops, walking down streets with no passersby, and dancing at parties with no partygoers. So in the end, the director and stars need the extras. However small a role they play, in the end, extras are indispensable, crucial to maintaining the illusions that make the stars look so good.
So all those mornings I would call the casting hotline in hopes of booking a gig, maybe I wasn’t as extraneous as I’d imagined. If you dream of making it in Hollywood and need a way to pay the rent, extra work is not a terrible way to go. You may really need those jobs. But they need you, too.