Film extra

If you’ve ever been to watch a television show being recorded, you’ll have seen what goes on behind the glamorous facade – lots of people dressed in black, running around, muttering into the kind of face microphones singers wear these days, while gently but firmly keeping you, the audience, in your place.
Now imagine being part of the show, on camera, but without having to learn any lines. That’s a partial description of the film or TV extra’s job. You might occasionally be given a line to act, but that’s unusual. You might be asked to do something on your own – walk across the shot, sit in a railway carriage next to a principal character, or walk out of a shop – but for the most part you will be in a group of people mingling at a party, dining at a restaurant, drinking at a pub, walking purposefully down a hospital corridor, strolling through the park…you get the picture.
Extras – or ‘background artists’ – provide colour, noise, anything to give the shot more authenticity – whatever the director needs to tell the story. In the United States, in fact, film extras are called ‘atmosphere’. Make of this what you will!
Some would say extras don’t need to be able to act, but there’s nothing more distracting than some guy in the background who looks so awkward that your eyes are glued to him and before you know it you’ve missed vital dialogue, and then you’ve lost the plot. It’s actually quite difficult to act as though the camera’s not on you. Most often, though, you’re filmed in groups or crowds and that makes it a lot easier than, say, sitting alone, in shot, at a cafe table, endlessly stirring your coffee and waiting for your fictitious date.
Established extras casting agencies are the best way in, so try and register with several of them. They have a particular time of year when they accept CVs and photos –read their websites and follow their instructions. They’re bombarded with applications and they’re busy people. It also helps if you have an interesting skill or three, like horse riding, cycling or CPR. Some extras even maintain a wardrobe of uniforms and specialised work clothes. But tell the truth about skills: it’s easy to get caught out, and you will not be popular.
Film extra work is never steady – you might be out of work for weeks or months and then get a three-week job on a feature film. The agency isn’t interested in how you pay the rent in between; it’s not their job. You could be working days or nights. Very often you won’t know when you’ll be finished, so you can’t make plans. Most of the time you’ll be on location and you’ll usually have to find your own way there, often in the early hours. You will almost always miss breakfast, or be in wardrobe, or hair or makeup when it’s being served. Take something with you to get your blood sugar up and running. Just don’t eat it on set.
If all this sounds like hard work, which it often is, it’s offset by lots of good stuff: dressing up in ll sorts of costumes, watching films being shot, making friends and generally being part of the action. Extras are usually treated (and fed) well, even if sometimes, of necessity, they’re herded around. Sometimes you’ll be treated less professionally, but if you treat your environment and your co-workers with respect, listen to instructions – and most importantly of all, you don’t chatter on set while the cameras are rolling – you should be respected in turn. And as most people know by now, you need to possess a healthy dollop of patience. Filming is a painstakingly slow process. You need to love being there…because you will be there for hours…and hours…and hours.
One small health warning: if your heart’s desire is to become an actor, film extra work is not for you. It may look like a way in, but generally it isn’t, and it could do you more harm than good. Extra work is for people who want to be in the background, and stay there.


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