Extras: The Scab on the Ingrown Toenail of the Film Industry
(Annoying but sometimes necessary)
I love it when friends introduce you to a new person and in order for you to get to know each other, they give you each a bit of a background on the other. It’s fun. I’m interesting. I always forget how interesting I am until such moments and it always makes me feel better about myself. Well, at first anyway. They tell them about my seafaring days, about my world-travelling lawn flamingo and then they mention that I was a featured extra in a rather successful Oscar-nominated movie this one time – and that’s cool. And then there’s the part where they tell them that I also used to be an extra on a certain South African daily drama – actually that’s the problem, they don’t say “extra” they say I used to “act” on it. Then I have to correct them (acting and filling space should never be confused) and that’s the part where I cringe. A lot. I wish I could edit out that part, but it’s not my story …except that it is.
So I feel I should explain the difference between being an “extra” and being a “featured extra” for them and anyone else who may be confused and then perhaps, people will understand my objection to being associated with the first term. I didn’t realise how much it bugged me until last weekend. A friend of mine who works as a makeup artist was on a commercial set that was short of extras and roped me into fulfilling this horrifically demeaning job. It’s been a difficult couple of months and the money was really good – See, I’m trying to justify it to you - That’s how ashamed I am! The point is, I was reunited with different versions of the same people that I used to know back in my days as a non-featured extra. To give you a bit of a background, I was a “regular extra” on that daily drama which means I was there continually for over a year, doing my thing in an office set as if I was an employee for a fictional company. At that time I was a student and one that was studying television and so I thought it would be a good way to learn something while earning some money in my spare time. And yes, I know, I’m still trying to justify it to you.
Anyway, I spent last weekend surrounded by extras and it was nice to see that the same stereotypes from before are still thriving on sets to this day. By describing them I’m sure you will understand why I do not want to be associated with such sad human-beings:
Extra Stereotype #1: The Super-Excited First Timers
The first type of extra I should mention are the super-excited first-timers who are convinced that this is their lucky break. They are the only people smiling at call-time at 5am and are convinced that somewhere in the two-second crowd shot of 300 people they will be noticed by some famous director who will hunt them down and cast them alongside their favourite Twilight actor in a blockbuster movie, where they will take to acting like a duck to water despite not having any training whatsoever, forcing them to relocate to Hollywood to live in a house somewhere between Sharlto’s and Charlize’s by next Wednesday, leaving them with almost no time to write their Oscar acceptance speech with some inspiration for the kids out there back home who are like they once were: just an extra with a dream. If I was that deluded I would probably also be in a good mood at 5am. Usually by lunch reality has set in, but sometimes it takes longer...
Extra Stereotype #2: The Guy who Thinks He's Funny
Without fail you will always find one guy who thinks that he’s hilarious despite only using jokes from 1995 and before. He’s the guy who will clap moving his hands in a circular motion when told to give someone a round of applause and then look around for a reaction. On a rare occasion these people can be found among the featured extras where, having been cast for having “the right look” they have interpreted this as having some real acting talent, and with their egos now stroked, they will be particularly annoying. They are great at making people laugh but only in a nervous way.
Extra Stereotype #3: Girl with Mom
These ones are rarer but on occasion, you will come across an extra who has to have her mother present to hold her bag, do her hair and provide moral support for her as she fills space. The mom will inevitably mistake the first AD for the director and ask him if her daughter can have a lead. It is unlikely that she will take ‘no’ for an answer anyway, but if he so much as hesitates before responding, she will be his shadow and headache all day. The reason that these are so rare is that usually stage moms are more successful at figuring out who the right agents are, getting their daughters into the right acting or modelling courses and auditions, and then pressurizing them to be the star that they failed to become. They are definitely far more common at auditions but sometimes get lost. Despite having no legitimate right to be there, they will still help themselves to lunch and fight with the wardrobe department about their daughters’ costumes (or lack thereof).
Extra Stereotype #4: The People who Think they’re Already Famous
Among the most annoying of extras are the people who think they are already famous. Part of their celebrity entitles them to cut in front of you in the lunch line and help themselves to five plates of food. They will brag about all the other things that they have “been in” (as if that one elbow shot was a legitimate achievement) and then gossip about real celebrities in the most negative way to make themselves feel better about their complete anonymity. Sometimes they will refer to themselves as “Background Artistes” (I swear I am not making this up) and discuss the importance of extras in a film/show’s production. For the most part, however, all they will do the entire time they are on set is complain. The fact that they have been paid for the entire day is beside the point, they are terribly inconvenienced by having to wait to be used. These people can not, will not, come to terms with the idea that if you are being paid to fill space then just by being there you are already doing your job. They will speculate about the day’s events without any understanding of the process and are unable to comprehend why the shotlist (whatever that is) wasn’t composed with their convenience as the main priority.
Extra Stereotype #5: The Lifers
You might find this hard to believe, but there are people out there who are really satisfied with the idea of filling space for a living. I mean sure, lots of people do nothing at work but look busy, but for extras, it’s actually their job description. These people pride themselves in the amount of screen time they are able to achieve per scene and have perfected their own strategies to get behind the most featured actors in order to accomplish this. There is, in fact, a name for people who constantly manage to “sit” on the shoulders of actors in shots, yes, they are known as “parrots”. I personally cannot fathom what kind of people would want to find a job where they are able to do the least they possibly can to get by and then excel at it, but these people do exist. They are happy enough to be associated with someone else’s celebrity and therefore do not need their own. They would make great actor shadow-dwelling ego-stroking trophy girlfriends – if only they were good-looking enough.
These stereotypes are what comes to mind when the word “extra” is used and so, although sometimes they get paid pretty well, please forgive me for my lack of enthusiasm when offered such work. On the other hand, if anyone has a job for a “featured extra” by all means contact me or my agent. That one word separates two very different classes of people. Featured extras for a start, often have to audition for their parts and if not, they are at least taken from a reputable agency that actually represents actors or models and not just random people that were sheep once in a nativity play and know how to take a headshot on their cellphone. Featured extras come without the egos, the bitching and the complaining. Featured extras are civilized enough to dish up only one plate of food and are therefore given the privilege of eating their meals indoors with the crew, the actors and even the director, as opposed to the extras who get B-grade food and no name brand soda in an underground parking garage (and rightly so). Featured extras understand the process, understand their part in it and don’t ask stupid questions about why they have to wait (or any other stupid questions for that matter). They are also given more screen time and on occasion even get to say (wait for it…) lines. They are secretly happy about the extent to which they are featured, but will never admit this as long as the rate is the same.
And so, to my friends (you know who you are), yes, I may once have been an extra on a daily drama and I’m honoured that you think that that’s cool, but anyone with the ability to look vaguely normal (and yes, that is a challenge for some) can walk into any extras’ agency tomorrow and be on set the day after. I love that you talk about it as if it were an achievement, but congratulating a person for doing such a thing is like celebrating the fact that they watched the Comrades. So next time you introduce me to someone and tell them a little bit about me, by all means, mention that I was once a featured extra, remember to include the part where my line was cut from that movie and then please apply the same principles of editing to your story.