I received a phone call within one hour of applying to a post on a movie-casting website without any expectation of a response. The person on the other end was from the production crew of a movie that was being filmed near my hometown. He told me I had been selected to play an extra in the movie. After the call, he e-mailed me stating that my check-in time was 6:45 a.m. and that I needed to bring personal apparel. I received the e-mail at 10 p.m., so I quickly went home and packed. I put clothes, a book, and my passport into a gym bag and hit the road at 5 a.m. the next morning.
I drove for more than an hour to the Extras lot, parked, got out and was directed to the bus for my extras unit. The bus was necessary, because the Extras lot was far from the set. I boarded the bus and immediately noticed a group of attractive passengers seated in the front half. It was clear: These people were aspiring actors and actresses.
On the bus, tax and employment verification forms were distributed and completed. We arrived to the extras prep area, got out, and waited in line. I was checked-in within minutes. Then, more forms were distributed to complete and hand to people in wardrobe where I would be outfitted for the scenes to be shot that day. Afterward, the wardrobe crew and I went through my gym bag of personal clothing. A few, but not all of my clothes worked for the scene. I was handed additional clothing for the scene I would be a part of, which I knew nothing about.
Now things were rolling. Slowly. For the first of multiple times that day, I waited to be called to the set. During the first wait, I signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement (“NDA”), which legally forbade me to share anything about what I saw on the movie set. No movie-related social media posts or talking about the scenes without legal ramifications. No spoilers allowed. After signing the NDA, most of the remainder of my 15-hour workday was spent waiting to be called to the set, walking to or from it, or standing near the set. While getting ready for a scene within the set, I, and the other extras were led into position, repositioned, and moved back to our original spots over and over again. I estimate that 45 minutes of the entire day was spent within a live movie scene. The remainder of time involved waiting. It was worth it.
Working as a movie extra was completely new to me, so I only had a handful of expectations. Or, in some cases, misconceptions. Let me explain what movie extra work is NOT. Playing a movie extra is not necessarily taking baby steps on the path to an Oscar nomination. Breaking into the extra workforce has few barriers. It requires looking presentable, having an e-mail address, and being able to be quiet on set. You do not need unique acting skills. As an extra, the most intense acting amounts to looking and trying to act like a natural person would in the position and setting of the scene you are part of. Although the experience might teach you how to act on a movie set, it will not automatically put you closer to landing a heavy role in a major motion picture. Extra work may give you an up-close view of actors going about their business, but it does not necessarily give you acting practice. As an extra, your name will not be in the movie credits and you are not even assured of appearing in the movie if a scene is shot with you in it. The director may edit parts out of it. Extras and actors are distinguishable.
Additionally, doing extra work is not an opportunity to rub elbows with Hollywood’s elite. Among the instructions we received was not to speak to the actors unless spoken to. It was clear we were separate from the actors and crew. Lunch, for example, was divided between one buffet for extras and one for the actors and crew. Both buffets were equally tempting, so I appreciated the free meal. It was not unfair. I presume that the actors-crew/extras segregation was primarily a protective measure for any high-profile celebrities in the cast. Extras only need an e-mail address, profile pictures, and two valid forms of government ID to get to the set. The list of prerequisites does not weed out obsessed psychopaths. It is certainly safer for the cast and crew that the extras do not have unfettered access to them.
Moving on, extra work is not a reliable or steady job. Doing extra work on one day is no guarantee of being selected to do it on another day of shooting. While an extra’s charisma may ingratiate them to the people working on the production, working as an extra on one day of shooting does not necessarily lead to future work of on that or any other production. I worked as an extra for 15 hours in one day, and followed all rules and directions. At the end, I asked how to be selected for another day of shooting and was told to apply to the online postings. Extra experience may gain you opportunities based on who you meet while doing it, but it does not, in itself, provide inroads to being in more movies.
Moreover, the pay is low. Spending 15 hours at work should generate enough money to buy food and pay rent, but the extras hourly rate started somewhere close to minimum wage and only increased after eight hours of work. I am not complaining about this. The work was not taxing. It didn’t warrant heavy pay. But it will not raise your standard of living unless you are already familiar with living near the poverty line.
Not to disparage the experience. The Extras Crew I was part of was taken care of, assiduously. Beyond the free buffet lunch, we were regularly offered nutritious snacks and never waited longer than 30 minutes for water to be offered. If any shooting was done outside, we were provided with and encouraged to apply sunscreen every 30 minutes. Safety meetings were held. All of these measures may have been taken primarily to avoid liability in the event of a lawsuit, but, nonetheless, I appreciated them. In my experience, extras are treated well.
As for what extra work truly is: I consider it a bucket-list experience. I saw and experienced the making of a major motion picture. You can’t fathom the increments and segments in which movies are filmed. You have to see it for yourself. It’s fascinating and makes you appreciate more deeply those who make movies for a living. Acting is so challenging. Parts of scenes were filmed and re-filmed ad nauseam. It requires extreme patience and sustained focus by the actors.
Moreover, it was a novel way to meet new people. I am not regularly associated with that many appealing, even dynamic, people for such a length of time. It was like going to Pretty People camp without any planned activities. We waited to be called to set in a fair-sized, crowded hotel banquet room. This forced us to interact. It was a terrific unintentional networking event.
If nothing else, working as an extra is a way to have your likeness, image, body, and face transfixed into a publicly distributed medium. I could be having a future conversation near a TV or computer screen and decide to interrupt the other person: Hey, I’m on TV (or the computer or tablet). Even without the job’s other perks, which outweigh the negatives, being in a movie is worth it. It was fascinating, humbling and most importantly, a great way to interact with new people.