Have you ever seen someone that looks really familiar, even though you KNOW you’ve never met them before? You might be looking at an extra. What exactly is an extra? It’s a person who is hired to be the background for TV and movies. The Hogwarts students in the Great Hall. The munchkins in Wizard of Oz. The townsfolk from Once Upon a Time. All of these people are extras. Including me.
I’ve decided to write this to give some insight to a world that many people don’t know exist. It’s surreal, and definitely not for everyone, but I love it. I’ve been in many productions now, starting with a certain amazing book turned movie that has a “fiery” sequel coming out in November *hint hint*. Since then, I’ve been on various other productions. So, here’s the scoop on being a part of the background.
The people I’ve met on sets are some of the most interesting and amazing people I’ve ever met. Everyone comes from different backgrounds. Most people I see everyday are all like me. It’s a breath of fresh air to meet people who are all not afraid to be themselves, no matter what anyone else thinks. Sure, you have a few people there who do it solely to get famous (they usually like to remind you that Brad Pitt started as an extra), but most people are there for the same reason I am. They enjoy it. You can really get to know someone after a twelve hour day, doing take after take. Which brings me to my next part.
Yes, the days are long. My longest ever started at 5am, and ended at 8pm. That’s just the time I was on set/in holding (where you wait in between a scene) for. That’s not including the hour drive I had before and after. Sometimes it can be shorter, but even a short day is usually about 7 hours. It’s tiring, but that split second that you make it on screen is worth it.
As an extra, waiting is a part your job. You need to arrive early, so you can be ready when filming begins. It might not be for 6 hours after you get there that you’re needed. It really depends on if you’re in the first scene of the day. So the best thing to do is just bring an ipod, a book or some cards (no cameras or phones!) and just relax. You’ll probably be there for a while. Sleeping is always a good way to pass the time, unless you sleep through an announcement the PA (Production Assistant) makes. Then you might be sort of confused about what scene you’re doing.
The clothing on a production differs depending on what the premise is. Sometimes you have to go to a fitting a few days before filming begins. Sometimes you get fit on the day of filming. Sometimes you’re asked to bring your own clothes. Usually you have guidelines if that happens, as everyone has to fit into the scene. Sometimes they can be very specific, and sometimes guidelines can be as lax as giving you some colors you aren’t allowed to wear. It all comes down to how the wardrobe department wants you to look. Essentially, an extra is a living prop; there to make the scene look real.
Usually one of the ADs (Assistant Director) gives you a give specific sequence of events you have to carry out.. The scene unfolding is what the Director's vision is, so it’s important to follow directions. Even if it means only the back of your head makes the final cut. It’s very important not to look at the principle actors when a camera is rolling. The point of being there is to look natural, and having two people gawking at a character just looks awkward on film. If filming is going on and you’re not in the scene, it’s really important to be quiet, as the microphones they use to film with are super sensitive.
After you’ve wrapped:
Being an extra is sort of like Fight Club. You don’t talk about it. There have been times I’ve wanted to tell my friends about the set I was just at, or a movie I was just booked in, but I can’t. Being on set makes you privy to information that the public isn’t. Usually until after the TV show/movie has aired, you’re under strict contract not to talk about it. Even after the production has aired, you can’t talk about how the actors were, or any specific details of wardrobe, hair and make up. That’s probably the hardest part, going back to your world after a fun day on set. It’s like you’re bursting with excitement, and you have to act like everything is completely normal.
Well that’s all for now (hopefully I didn’t bore anyone too much!). If anyone wants to learn more about background work, I’d love to write about anything I didn’t cover in this one! I can’t answer specific questions about anything I’ve worked on, but I can answer general questions. If you enjoyed it, be sure to give it an upvote!
Originally published on April 18, 2013.