I spent a day last week as an extra in a film. due to the fact that I signed a confidentiality agreement, I am contractually obligated not to discuss the particulars of the film and its actors, even if one of them has prior experience as a smuggler/archeologist. But I wanted to bring Pulse readers a small-scale look at the behind-the-scenes action of a major motion picture. This unfortunately required that I let go of something very close to me—my beard.
The film is set in the past, a time when men’s beards were distinctly out of fashion, and all extras had to be clean shaven. I have had a beard for the better part of five years. Not just any beard—I can grow a spectacular beard, gold-and-red flecked, descending to jet black, full and gloriously majestic. But for the sake of journalistic investigation, and to satisfy my own personal curiosity, I hacked it off and headed down to the set. You’re welcome.
I arrived via shuttle to the set at around 8 a.m., starry-eyed and hoping for the superstar treatment promised on the casting company’s website. Rather than paparazzi, I was greeted by a table full of forms and instructions. After signing away any rights I had to my own likeness, I was instructed to stand on a dirty red carpet so I could have a glamour shot, minus the ’80s bangs and silk gloves. I then filed into a line to receive a brown paper bag full of various breakfast foods. Never has the life of elegance and sophistication felt so much like a soup kitchen.
After sitting down with a group of people to the right of the breakfast line, I was immediately informed that I was in the wrong spot. The movie folks moved me to another group of people, which seemed identical to the first group, only slightly less dapper. These fresh-faced film stars were evidently waiting to have their costumes approved or tweaked by a charming lady with a foreign accent. She gave me a new tie and hat, told me I was a banana, and sent me to see a nice young lady with a headset. Not one to argue, I went and stood with some people who were also bananas. The bunch was then led on set and told to be quiet. My second-grade teacher would have approved. Luckily, I excel at being quiet—it’s even listed as one of my special skills on my resume. So I sat down and started reading a book.
My overall impression of the experience is that Hollywood production companies are very clever. Being an extra isn’t exactly hard work, but it takes an enormous amount of time. Extras are expected to be on-set for eight to 12 hours a day. One extra I spoke to mentioned that the first day he was on set from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
The clever part? By telling people they are going to “be in the movie,” the production company can convince the general public to spend an extraordinary of time doing something for which they aren’t being paid. Most people show up to these things for a chance to see a movie star or experience the magic of Hollywood. For them, that’s worth a lot of time. Throw in a chance to win some Apple products or a free vacation, and the masses will turn out in droves, saving the company lots of money.
Of course, not all extras are working for free. The paid extras get their wardrobe and makeup provided by the costume department and prime placement in key scenes. The volunteers provide their own costumes or are given the costume leftovers and are essentially seat-fillers. This distinction between the two created an amusing hierarchy.
I loved listening to the volunteer extras mutter under their breath about the paid extras, rolling their eyes at their “special treatment.” “I’m just unlucky,” one extra complained, apparently upset at her placement. I overheard another volunteer explaining that she had been to every day of shooting, including the days in another city. She even planned on following the production to the next city. I never knew film extras were like Phish fans. Maybe if they spent less time talking and more time being quiet, they’d get on camera.
As the day dragged on, I was moved around 10 times, did a lot of clapping, and pretended to buy popcorn or Cracker Jacks. I tried to strategically place myself next to someone who had an umbrella so I could be shielded from the sun without looking ridiculous. While being an extra is pretty boring, there are worse ways to spend a day than reading a book outside in the fresh air while friendly folks with makeup bags offer you sunscreen or water. Later on, I was given a lunch with a barbecue sandwich, chips and a package of cookies, which I ate while sitting next to a mannequin that was much better at being quiet than I was. He didn’t even want any of my lunch.
By 2 p.m. I had finished my book and decided that I’d seen about all of the filmmaking I needed for that day. It seemed unlikely that I was going to meet any stars or win any prizes, and the “actress” sitting next to me seemed intent on challenging the quiet rule by talking to me about her “career.”
As the filmmakers began to set the next shot, I discreetly made my way towards the exit, dropping my borrowed tie and hat off at the door. I didn’t see the shuttle; maybe it didn’t run until the shooting was over. Maybe I just missed it. I never found out because I was still practicing my quiet skills. Instead of asking, I just donned my porkpie hat, the one that the wardrobe lady had rejected as “too modern,” and made my way, Willie Loman-style, down the sidewalk and back into obscurity.