When I was little, and when I was a young adult, I always thought I was going to move to LA and become an actress. This was before I realized it would never work because I have stage fright, I’m camera-shy, I don’t like to have to talk to strangers, and I like to eat a lot more than champagne and air.
You may know, a few years ago around the time the economy tanked, the TV and movie industry got some kind of tax credits or breaks to film in Michigan (don’t ask me for specifics because that was the full extent of my ability to explain it), so it really got going here. Well, thru a friend, I found out you could get into being an extra. Oooooh, well, this sounded really glamorous and exciting! So, even though I was married, old (okay, young-old), and settled down, I could still do this. And, being an extra means you don’t have to actually say anything, but you get to see how all that Hollywood magic works, yippee!
I've done it 3 times now because you basically have to have your ENTIRE DAY free from sun up to sun down (and maybe later). And this girl works already, so not a lot of free time here. So I'm going to tell you what I learned from those experiences.
1. You are just background. And yes, you may be saying "duh!" to this, but I don't think you really understand what that means. You are literally referred to as "background" on and off the set. You are not a person; you are an object in the scenery. You get placed on the set just like a potted plant, and then you will stand thre until they get the lighting right, get everything else placed, and get the main characters placed and ready to say some lines. Then you'll do the same thing over and over and over and over again as they film the same scene over and over and over and over again. From every. Single. Angle. Sometimes, this can be a bad thing, and sometimes it can be a good thing. Let me give you a few examples:
Bad: The last project I did, I spent a LOT of time walking the same 100 yards over and over again in a park on a hot and humid Michigan summer day, after standing there for a long time before that, waiting to walk. This was not so fun.
Good: The first project I did, I sat in an ice cream shop, posing as a customer that was eating ice cream. Every time they re-did the scene, they gave me a fresh bowl of ice cream because it couldn't look eaten or melted at the beginning of the scene. I was a month or two pregnant, and this was heaven. Ahhhhh.....I still remember that fondly.
Bad: A man who had been an extra many times said that a year or two ago, he was part of a pool party scene, and had to stand in the water for hours...in late September. And it was freezing. The main actress (I can't remember who it was now, but I remember that she was really famous) looked at all of them and said they were all crazy.
2. You eat meals when the film crew eats meals. For the last project I did, report time was at 8am. We were told to eat breakfast before showing up. So, that would probably be 7am or earlier for most. While our group was sitting around at the set location, waiting to either be placed on set, or just waiting for the crew to finish that scene, 11:30am rolled around and the other extras started wondering what we would get for lunch. Well, that conversation lasted for the next 4 1/2 hours until the crew finished filming that one scene. We got bottled water and random vending machine snacks, but this girl needs to eat. Or I go crazy. Stomachs were growling, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth (okay, that part isn't true, but it was pretty miserable), until they told us they were finally taking us back to the base camp to eat lunch (which really at this point, we could just call dinner). Technically, the crew's union can fine the production for not calling the lunch break earlier because there are union rules about how long they can work between meal times. I learned this from a union crew member while discussing how I almost starved to death. The first 2 projects I did, we ate on time. So, it was probably a fluke this last time.
3. When you do get to eat a meal, it's yummy catered food. So, I just told you about the timing of the food. Now, let me tell you about the actual food. This is THE BEST part of being an extra. Or at least it is for people like me who like to eat. For all 3 projects I did, meals were served buffet style, and I assume it's like that for all the jobs. Now, let me repeat that in case you missed it. BUFFET STYLE. That means you can eat as much as you want. And, if you know me, you know I'm a good eater. And since you're just background and not the stars, they feed you yummy comfort food, and not just lettuce and diamond dust.
4. You cannot leave when you want to. When they say you must have your whole day free, they really mean it. Once you're there and they have okayed the way you look/are dressed, they put you in a van and ship you off to the set location. That is your transportation to and from the set. And once they drop you off, that van leaves. You are stuck. And just like with mealtimes, you will be there until they are done with you and with filming for the day (even if that is just having you sit in a holding area). For me, this is the ABSOLUTE WORST part of being an extra. EVERY single time I have done this, at the end of the day, I'm in hyper-whining mode and am DYING to go home. And I have let every other extra I'm waiting with know how I felt, and they were probably also hoping I would get sent home so that they didn't have to listen to me anymore. But, in my defense, this is no longer my dream and I'm not young and free. And, I'm just whiny. For a lot of the extras, this is still their dream; that they will be "discovered". And they are perfectly happy to wait to be called on to the set, no matter how late it is. I'm not that person. When I'm done, I'm done. And I get annoying. So, what seemed like a good idea in the morning, feels like the worst idea ever by the end of the night. Every time I've done this, I've said I would NEVER EVER in a million years do this again. And then I clearly forgot. But I think this last time will stick because I got a few extras to escape the set with me and then I begged to be sent home. If you want to be there, it's a great experience, but if you're like me and want to leave when you feel like it, it literally feels like you're being held hostage.
5. You do not make a ton of money for doing this. You are not joining the ranks of the rich and famous here. You're making a little over minimum wage, with overtime kicking in if you're there over 8 hours, which you probably will be. If you don't have a job, this is a pretty good paycheck. When the economy tanked, and the movie industry picked up in Michigan, this was a Godsend for people that were out of work, and for some of them, they were able to do it on a semi-regular basis. So it may or may not be worth it to you, depending on your financial situation, or whether it is your dream. The exception is if you get to actually say any words on film. Then, you get paid a lot more, and you get your name in the credits. EVERYONE there is hoping the director is going to look at them and say, "Hey, you! I need you to say some lines!". This rarely happens.
6. You may never show up in the final product, or even get used during filming at all. Just because you have spent your day waiting around on set, pigged out at an all-you-can-eat yummy buffet, and are collecting a paycheck, that does NOT mean that you will ever be seen in the show/movie you're at. And, sometimes, it doesn't even mean you'll ever leave the holding area for the extras. We all know that many movies and some TV shows have huge budgets. Well, part of that big budget is to pay for the extras that may or may not even be used. For the first project that I did (where I got to eat all that ice cream), you only ever saw the very blurry back of my head for a millisecond in that scene, and then when I was a driver in another scene for that movie, it was nighttime, and you couldn't even see the car, let alone me. And that was again for only a second. The second project I did, we waited ALL DAY LONG on a hot summer day in some burned out neighborhood, and around sunset, they called us to stand in the middle of an intersection as bystanders at the scene of a car accident. Well, as soon as they called "Background!", the extra behind me starts gesturing wildly and pretending to be talking on her cell phone (yeah....because that's what bystanders do....eye roll). Soooooo, I knew we were never going to make it into the scene, and we didn't. The last project hasn't been on TV yet, but I doubt I will actually be seen. But at least I got to pig out at lunch-dinner, right?
7. You may or may not see a famous actor/actress. I have only seen a famous person once out of the 3 times that I did this. And that person wasn't even in the actual scene. The director for the first project I did (the ice cream shop), was David Schwimmer (Ross Gellar to us Friends fans!). And, in that tiny little ice cream shop, he walked around to each extra to okay our outfits because the scene took place in the late fall, but it was actually summer outside. So, he walked up to me, looked me up and down, smiled, and said "okay". ROSS SAID I LOOKED OKAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Woohooooooo!!!!!
Well, I hope you enjoyed this little sneak peek into the world of being an extra in Michigan. It was definitely interesting, and I even met some nice people while doing this, and now I know what it looks like. But.....I think my days of being an extra are over :)
Until next time!