Film extra work: Show business open to everyone
It's just not work we'd all want to consider doing
By Sharon Agassi
Admit it. You've wondered what it's like to be a movie extra.
As long as there have been movies, there has been the desire to get close to movie stars. And there have always been more than enough people happy to hang around for hours as anonymous, uncredited passersby, just to be able to get a closer look.
Strolling along Bloor St., you've seen the crews that crowd Toronto sidewalks. Maybe you've even slowed your pace in the hope of spotting a famous face.
Extras are those sitting, standing or walking bodies who decorate the background of movie and TV scenes while the camera focuses on the stars. They are the nameless but necessary wedding guests, restaurant diners and panicked crowds. No shopping mall or church scene would be realistic without them.
But as far as movie and TV personnel go, extras loiter at the very bottom of the food chain.
And no wonder. Extra work - or background, as the category is referred to by ACTRA, the Canadian actors' union - is the job that's pretty much "about nothing."
Besides having the right look for the given scene, the main requirement is the ability to tolerate a great deal of waiting. On a typical day, you can be paid for just hanging around shooting the breeze with your co-workers, or catching up on your reading, anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of the time.
Finally, when the time comes to "perform," a third assistant director will herd the scores (or hundreds) of background people on to the set and tell them where to sit or stand, and what to do when the director yells, "Action!"
And then you sit some more.
The biggest shock of the background experience is just how slow the movie-making process is, says Paul Persofsky, an actor who has been doing this on the side for several years.
"It's excruciatingly slow. In the movies, you see this incessant, breathless action, but the reality is that they can spend a whole day getting two or three minutes of what the moviegoer will eventually see on the screen."
Mind-numbing maybe, but the thought of scoring some spare cash while pretending to be in the movies, with its attendant fantasy of celebrity encounters, isn't the worst way to pass the time.
Although it's not for everyone. Joe, 44, has been at it for nine months, and has had enough.
"I hoped this would help me break into the movies, but it's a waste of time for anyone with ambition," he says.
Indeed, frustrated actors need not apply. As I was told more than once, background work is not a stepping stone to anything. Only rarely is an extra upgraded to a part that demands (and pays) more. And "upgraded" may mean an inconsequential line (e.g. "You can go in now"), or performing some skilled action, such as playing golf. That's the most one can hope for, and it almost never happens.
Extra work is actually embarrassing for committed actors. They do it just to scratch up a little cash, feeling it's better than waiting tables, but they do their best to stay off camera, lest anyone they know - particularly casting agents - should recognize them and no longer consider them for principal roles. Mainly this is a myth, but one I've heard many (out of work) actors voice.
Still, if background sounds like the gig for you, you'll need to sign up with a background casting agent, of which there are at least 25 in the Toronto area (see "Agents & Casting Directors" at
www.actratoronto.com). These agents are looking for no special talent or training beyond the ability to show up on time and do what one is told. Hand over an administrative fee and a current snapshot, and you're in.
I went to Toronto Casting, one of the city's biggest agencies. Agency director Anne Marie Stewart assured me that she doesn't take people on unless she can get them work, but she has no control over the whims of producers or the vagaries of new viruses. Spring should be the beginning of high season for Toronto movie shoots, but the industry has been dead since April. Blame the war, the loonie or SARS - it translates to slim pickings this season for Toronto extras.
At $100, Toronto Casting's administrative fee is higher than most, and their roster of extras is huge. That means you have to show up when called, as availability is a touchy issue for casting agents. If you say you're available and you're not, you are less likely to be called again.
Don't look for the big bucks in background work. The standard rate for extras is $8.50 an hour, with a minimum of eight hours' pay guaranteed. And all agents take 10 to 15 per cent commission off the top of their clients' earnings. But the unpredictability of the business makes it impossible to count on even this meagre income, since no one knows if they'll be called once a month or four times a week.
I waited two weeks for my first call, at 9 a.m. the next day in the middle of downtown Toronto. I was told to come dressed as a casual office worker and bring two changes of wardrobe - never black, white or red, I'd been warned. "Two changes" is the standard instruction. After you arrive, wardrobe people will select your "costume" from that.
While background work may sound like an easy few bucks, it's not always pleasant. Although unexciting, my first experience started at a comfortable time, shot only indoors, and lasted just five hours. In contrast, on my third shoot, one freezing Sunday in March, I stood in sub-zero winds on Front St. for nearly three hours, netting just $85 for that 12-hour day, after agent's commission and travel costs.
Every once in a while, though, a little stardust may blot out the monotony and the near-minimum wage. Ron Mark, 42, has been doing background work for a year. Even with the drop in locally shot productions, Mark has worked steadily since he began,
not surprising, given his handsome, thirtysomething looks that could easily fit a wide range of roles. Recently, he's been featured next to Kate Hudson in How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days and Susan Sarandon in Icebound. Yes, he allows, such proximity to celebrity does help dull the pain.
And for many, the camaraderie of this "in crowd" - other extras they run into frequently and with whom they bond over the boredom - is the saving grace, if not the main attraction, of background work. As in captive-audience air travel, there's the natural tendency to talk to strangers and hear about their lives and experiences in background work. That often includes indiscriminate dishing about the off-camera behaviour of the stars.
Well-known by background people, for example, is the strict prohibition against talking to the talent unless spoken to first. But the story goes that extras have been fired just for looking at Denzel Washington, who apparently requires a lot of space for concentration. Several who worked on Chicago last year mention that while Renee Zellweger was easygoing about chatting with the crew and extras, Catherine Zeta-Jones kept her distance.
Once you've agreed to an extra call, you need to be available any time of the day or night. Many calls are for 6 a.m. and can continue for 12 hours or more - a recent call for Mark began at 2 p.m. and didn't wrap until 7 the following morning. Nobody leaves the set until the director decides they're done. Being an extra, therefore, demands a totally flexible schedule: no unbreakable dates, no sticky childcare issues.
The sort of people who choose to do this work tend to have one thing in common: A greater than usual aversion to the regular work world. Some have no other job at all, though often extras have a part-time gig that allows them the flexibility to be available for calls.
No guarantees, no glamour, no money. Welcome to the extra lifestyle.
Sharon Agassi is a Toronto freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star. Reprinted with permission of the author.