Extra! Extra! The World of the Film Extra…
Picture a day on the set of a big-budget Hollywood film. The scene comprises pimped-out trailers peopled with an entourage of lovies. You have make-up artists and busybodies loading dressing tables with edible gold leaf (low cal, obv) and Peruvian mineral water chilled at exactly 1.5 degrees, not to mention L.A.’s most sought after spray-tanner contouring in washboard abs on some screen starlet’s 14” waist.
Okay, now exit the trailer and look to your right… a bit further… yep, that bus. That’s where the extras are. Sorry, “supporting artistes”. I like to imagine that the difference here is comparable to that between the top and bottom decks of The Titanic, that is, the stars are actually having a bloody dull time compared to the MENTAL ale-fueled jigs that the extras are indulging in on the party bus.
So what is it like to be an extra?
You can expect to start your day at one of those mythical hours that exist between 2am and 7am, and from thereon the ‘self’ that you once identified with is no more. As a supporting artiste, you are now to embody the very essence of anything from a retired Roman gladiator to a sea-faring alcoholic… though more often than not, you are just “40+” or “rustic”.
One agency specifies that extras must be “infinitely adaptable”, adding that “they need to convince the audience that they are believable in all their roles”. The extra is a blank canvas, nay, a sexless ether, whose ability to endow the back of a head with a soul and a unique story in a mere moment’s notice knows no bounds. It’s no wonder then that some extras have inspired some brilliant parodying of the aspiring actor who fails to read “turn up, wait patiently, don’t make eye contact with the stars” in the words “they are believable in all their roles”.
Just last Friday a high spec advert was put out in search of extras with a “remote island look” for a coming film featuring David Tennant. Though on the Isle of Man where the film is being shot, it might be said that this is synonymous with “of human species, four limbs preferable, but ratio of arm to leg unimportant”. Undoubtedly, some young hopeful from across the shore will have caught wind of the opportunity and immersed himself in full-on method acting. Somewhere on the Great British coastline, a resilient supporting artiste is currently washed up on a rocky spit of land with a deflated football named Wilson in preparation for casting. Seaweed-lashed and carrying the weight of a world-weary yokel, the undiscovered thespian just has to cross his salty fingers that the emotion he exudes when he enters/exits a building in the background of a shot will get him noticed by the director.
I’m a big deal.
So, I just go along and Spielberg will soon be addressing me affectionately as “Musey”, right?
The thing is, the whole point of being an extra is that you are adaptable, infinitely adaptable… a bit like a chameleon. In other words, you blend in with your surroundings entirely. You are a human prop, and if your presence in a scene is in any way notable you are a malfunctioning human prop. Film buffs may recall Ben-Hur for all the wrong reasons. The 1959 blockbuster scooped a record-breaking 11 Academy Awards, but we all prefer to remember the extra who forgot to take his watch off for the chariot scene.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m knocking film extra work. Quite the opposite. It can be a nice little earner and you’re likely to have some good dinner party material at the end of the day. Having spoken to some friends who have dabbled in this mysterious world, the general consensus is that the perks outweigh the long hours spent waiting around playing Sudoku and hoping that you have managed to look enough like a 40+ rustic seafarer to get picked for a scene. I remembered that a friend had been an extra in The Other Boleyn Girl and asked him about his experience: “yeah I was in that film. I saw Natalie Portman’s nipple and got paid for it. Pretty cool.” Can’t argue with that one.
I asked another potential insider, who after some long consideration came back to me and casually said “The only thing I can think of is that when I was working for Nickelodeon they asked me if I could play the part of a grandmother who had accidentally been pasted to the wall underneath the wallpaper…” See, it’s tales such as these that make the increasing digitisation of what would be extras’ roles such an almighty pity. Many film makers are opting for computer-generated crowds, 3D inflatable props and even simple cardboard cut-outs to take the roles of our freakishly adaptable heroes. We may have the crazy software to create the image of a bustling scene without having to pay £100 each to a hoard of locals, but what is the real cost here? When I discovered that this serious, satirically-minded acquaintance of mine had been subjected to such an indignity at Universal Studios, I laughed so hard that I choked on my drink and dribbled on my boyfriend, and you can’t put a price on that. Film makers, support the support artistes, put the human first, so that students and the unemployed everywhere may glimpse the nipples of stars once again (and their friends relish in the tales.)