You want to know what it’s like to be an extra? Let’s start before you even get to set. All the bookings are done online. You get dozens and dozens of emails throughout the day, a small fraction of which will apply to you (despite the filters you’ve set up on the casting site). Why are you getting emails looking for middle-aged African American women with large dogs? Because no one at casting could be bothered to check the right boxes. You have to reply immediately to any of them that you want to work on. Assuming someone sees your submission in time and thinks you’re right for what they need, they’ll call or email you, and you have to then respond immediately to that to get confirmed for the gig. This means you can never be away from your phone or a computer, and you have to scramble every single time you hear your email ping. Every time the phone rings you hope it’s someone getting back to you (it’s probably not—and this is also a problem for real actors who’ve been auditioning). You are enslaved by this device. Miss a call? Miss an email? Try to get outside for some exercise? Take a shower out of earshot of your phone? No work for you.
Somehow you make it through that minefield and hey, you’re working tomorrow! What time? Who knows. Where? Down the street or an hour and a half away in the Bronx somewhere. When will you find out? 9 PM. 11 PM. 2 AM. 6:30 AM. They’ll get to you when they get to you. You are now a number. Check-in #19. Hopefully you’ll get an email with all the details you need, but you might have to call and listen to a pre-recorded message with all this stuff. What’s fun about those is that they have to assume at least one person listening has never done this before, and they will explain everything to an excruciating degree. You have to listen to the whole thing because at the end, there will be a beep and you have to leave your name and check-in number to let them know you’ve gotten the info.
You have to bring as much of your wardrobe as you feel like carrying to some church basement somewhere, hopefully at a time of day when the trains are running more often than every 30 minutes. If you’re union (and if you’re not, why in the world are you doing this?) you’ll get a little cash for those clothes, but that doesn’t make them any lighter. When you get there, there will be exactly two fewer seats than there are bodies. It doesn’t matter how big the space is and how few people are working, there’s some weird physics that happens in these instances and you will be touching a stranger. You’ll want to put all your clothes and your bags and whatnot on a chair, or the table, but there’s just no room. You rush to grab a bite, you rush to get approved by wardrobe, they hate all your clothes and give you something that barely lets you breathe, and then you sit around for five hours wondering if your phone’s going to last the day (it won’t).
You finally get taken to set! The big moment is here. But wait, now you have to stand outside for 45 minutes while they figure something else out. Ah, NOW you’re going to set! Nope. They only need half the extras, but holding is five blocks away so you should just stick around out here on the sidewalk where all the chairs aren’t.
OK, the camera is turning around to see the other half of the set, so it’s your turn to go sit at a bar and pretend to drink and pretend to talk while making absolutely no noise whatsoever. I personally prefer being an ND (nondescript) pedestrian. You’re far from camera, continuity doesn’t matter, you’re just walking around like you’ve got some place to be. Your heels can click all you want, the mic will not pick them up. No ninja walking for ND pedestrians, no. Lots of sun exposure, and hopefully you’re dressed for the actual season. I’ve done winter shoots in summer, but never summer shoots in winter. I think I might actually prefer the latter.
On set, you’re furniture. On a good set everyone does their best to pretend this isn’t true, but it really is. It’s fine. It’s a good way to earn a buck. It’s also a good way to watch people with the exact same qualifications as you do work you’d love to do for exponentially more money than you’re currently getting paid. Thirteen hours later you might get to go home.
To draw a parallel, let’s say you’re an accountant. That’s always my go-to counterpoint to acting. You went to college, you’re certified. You’re beyond qualified to balance a corporation’s books. But you don’t get to do it every day. Most days you don’t do it at all. But you have to jump on those emails with leads for one-day gigs, knowing hundreds of other accountants just like you are getting the same email and rushing to get in their submissions as well. You finally get through and get hired for the next day, and you show up, but do you open any spreadsheets? Do you get to talk to the client? No. You’re not even using Quickbooks. You’re just there to install the update to Quickbooks. That’s it. While you’re doing it, plenty of people around you, regular nine to fivers, are accounting their butts off and making unbelievable money doing it. They’ll come back and do it tomorrow. You’ll be lucky to come back to this place as soon as six weeks later, or whenever there’s a new update. If the client does somehow become familiar with you, you may never work there again, certainly not for the good money.
So why do I do this? As I mentioned, if I weren’t in the union I most certainly would not. I made pretty good money Tuesday. It took me 14.6 hours on set, two lunch penalties, a dinner penalty and a night premium in addition to my wardrobe bump, but I made it. Doing little to nothing, when it really comes down to it. It was a pretty good day, all things considered. It’s flexible, I work when I’m free (assuming they’ll have me, which, see above ugh). And I don’t do it often. Honestly a few days a month like Tuesday and I’m good. I couldn’t handle it more than that. Some of the gigs are pretty great. I will always work Saturday Night Live when they’ll have me, but little of what I’ve said here applies to that and I haven’t been watching any of the other shows I work on since 1988. A lot of the PAs are pretty cool. Some of them would rather not be there, and there are always one or two extras who are just too much, but what workplace does that not apply to?
But every once in a while, just, shit, man. I get fed up with it all. And I gotta write a blog about it.