Well, that was interesting
Friday, April 29, I had the privilege of working as a background actor (i.e., extra) on the set of the Netflix series Longmire. I had submitted my name and a terrible selfie/headshot to a local casting company over a year ago and promptly forgot about it. When I received a call asking if I was available on Friday, which just so happened to be one of my days off, I did what I suspect most people would do: I said yes. To say it was an interesting experience is an understatement and I certainly learned A LOT, such as:
No, you’re not going to be “discovered” while working as an extra.
You’re not going in as a non-union scrub and coming out the other end with a SAG card or even a voucher to help you get your SAG card.
But you will experience the joy of being herded into a cramped, dark room at the end of some long forgotten hallway where you will sit for hours waiting for your five minutes of acting. (They will provide snacks or, at least, water.)
No, that acting won’t really be acting. Instead it will be walking, sitting, or performing any other number of mundane, silent, repetitive tasks. But, hey, you will be getting paid for performing those tasks and you’ll be getting paid for sitting around doing nothing, too. Did I mention that you’ll likely be getting paid minimum wage?
The majority of the principal actors won’t give you a second look or otherwise acknowledge your existence. (I actually got lucky in that one of the principals from Longmire introduced himself to everyone individually, asked our names, shook our hands.) The production crew is even less interested in you, except …
… the Production Assistant (PA) in charge of wrangling you has likely worked three to five years just to get to her current position. She is your immediate boss so do what she says when she says to do it and do not piss her off under any circumstances.
The director may give you a cue that you can neither see nor hear yet he will expect you to be on your mark. Be on your mark.
If you’re a half hour early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late. If you’re late, you’re turning right back around and going home. And if you’re late or, gods forbid, a no-show you will not work again.
Everyone eats before you do. Everyone. Craft services, however, will have plenty of food and they really appreciate it if you tell them how delicious it was. Of course, you’ll be wolfing it down in 10 minutes and tasting it later but it will likely be very, very good.
You’ll never quite understand how you went so long without speaking or having to urinate.
If there are any film delays, such as for weather, the Associate Producer has the authority, as bestowed upon him by almighty God, to cut whatever he sees fit in order save time and, thus, save money. Pretty much anything involving more background actors than principal actors is going to be eliminated first. So, even if you’ve been on set for eight hours and still haven’t had your chance to push that rickety wheelchair down the hallway in your big debut, if production is running late you’re going home unless the scene is necessary.
Whipping out your cell phone at any time unless safely cloistered in the aforementioned
dungeon holding room and nowhere even remotely close to the door is a huge no-no. Turn that thing off, or at least put it on airplane mode, and only use it to make an emergency call such as “Yeah, Dad, I know it’s been 10 hours. We’re still on set. It’ll be after midnight. I’ll call you back when I get to the car and am ready to leave.” And only make that call when your PA says that you may.
Being polite, quiet, totally unobtrusive in appearance and manner, and staying where you’ve been put by whomever has put you there is considered professionalism. Just because you’re essentially a living prop doesn’t mean that you can’t and shouldn’t be professional. If nothing else, your PA will appreciate it.
Background actors are a mixed bag. There are odd ducks, those who expect at any second to have their big break, extras who think they know everything yet know surprisingly little, folks who are actually related to members of the cast and crew, friends of parents of old college roommates of the cast and crew, retirees who work steadily just to get out of the house, and people such as myself who took the job on a whim, did a little reading beforehand about what to do and expect, went into the experience with an open mind, and had a bit of an adventure on their day off. Do I recommend working as an extra if the opportunity arises for you? Oh, yes! You’ll come away with a greater appreciation for how television shows or movies are made, understand why they cost a fortune to produce, and have the self-satisfaction of being able to say to yourself, “Yeah, been there, done that.”