Life as a Movie Extra
by William E. Shek
An example of a typical day of work as a TV or movie extra.
The following is a typical day of extra work. This was for a TV episode of "Nash Bridges," but is pretty standard for all extra work. The only difference between a TV production and a feature film is the amount of "sitting around" you do. TV shows/films generally get shot much quicker than feature films, due to smaller budgets and time constraints.
Wednesday afternoon around 3 pm: My pager goes off. I recognize the number as a Casting Agency I have worked with extensively. I call the agency and get an assistant casting director that I know. She asks if I would be available for some extra work on Nash Bridges tomorrow. She needs me to play a uniformed police officer again. Of course, I say, "Of course!" Since this is a SAG position, she asks if I am current on my SAG dues and asks for my Social Security #. She doesn't yet know the "call time" for the next morning (she won't get that info until later in the evening from the production company), but asks me to call a special hotline number around 10 pm for specific times and directions to the set.
Wed. evening, 10 pm: I call the number. A recorded message from the casting director with information about the following day tells me the time (Call Time) that I have to report in the next morning and directions where to go. Different groups of extras are given different call times, according to when the scenes they are in will be shot. Wardrobe instructions are also given -- most times the extra has to bring 2 or 3 different changes of clothing with him/her, which the wardrobe person on set will look at and choose for the extra to wear. Since I am to be a Police Officer, I don't have to bring anything, as I will be given a uniform from wardrobe to wear. My call-time is 6 am the following morning.
5:45 pm: We arrive at Base Camp. Base Camp is the location where all the trailers, trucks, wardrobe truck, and equipment is located. It may or may not be where the actual shooting location is. I find the person who is checking in the Extras. It may be a person from the Casting Agency, or it may be a Production Assistant assigned to supervise the extras for the day. Today it's a PA that I know. He checks my name off and gives me a pay "voucher", which I have to fill out and give back to him to sign at the end of the day. He says it will be a while before I'm needed, so I can go get breakfast. The food on a set is usually great! I find the Catering Truck, and order breakfast (usually whatever I want). I see a lot of familiar faces and start socializing (the best thing to do while waiting around). The PA shows up and tells us (myself and 3 other "cops") that we need to report to wardrobe. We find the wardrobe truck and get fitted for Police uniforms and gunbelts. No weapons are issued (fake ones) until we are actually on the set. Duct tape is put over the shoulder patches on the shirts and jackets, as they don't want passersby to think we are real cops. The tape will be removed before the actual scenes are shot. The extras are shown to a "holding area", where we wait until we're needed. It is usually a room or area where the PA can keep everyone together. After a scene we come back. It will be our "home" for the day. Bringing a good book to read is highly recommended. There are coffee, soft drinks, water, and snacks there. You tend to eat a lot on a movie set (hey, it's all free--can't let any go to waste!).
8:00 am: They need the cops on set. We get into a van and are taken to the actual shooting location. It may be a block away, or it may be several miles. Here is where the actual filming is taking place. The crew is setting up the scene. This one is being shot in someone's actual house (which the owner got paid for). An Assistant Director comes over and explains the scene to us. There has been a crime (as usual) and we are investigating the scene (as usual). There are several other "Plain Clothes Detectives" extras in the scene with us. We are placed on the set and told what action we are to take and when. We now get our guns from the Props person. Don Johnson, who plays Nash Bridges, and Cheech Marin, his partner, come onto the set, along with several other Principal Actors. If any of the Actors speak to an extra first, we can reply to them, otherwise you don't initiate conversations with, or ask for autographs from, the Stars or other Principals. Doing so can possibly get you "fired". Don discusses the scene with the Director and some changes are made. We run through a few rehearsals, some more changes are made, and they're ready to shoot the scene. I am to interact closely with one of the Principal Actors. I don't speak, but I do get some good "camera time" and will be prominent in the scene. The scene is shot several times. The Director and Don are satisfied with it. Time to move on to the next scene. This next one will be at another location, so we (the extras) are moved back to the holding area. Now we wait around (again).
12:00 Noon: The Director has called the lunch break. The actors and crew go to the Catering Truck and order. The Extras wait until they have gone through the line, then we are allowed to eat. That is the pecking order on any set. Cast and Crew first, as they have less time to eat and are needed back on set before the extras. The lunch is superb--a choice of roast beef, chicken, fish, assorted veggies, a salad bar, and dessert bar. YUM!!
12:30 pm: The crew is called back to work. We still have time to finish eating and sit around some more. More socializing is definitely in order.
1:30 pm: Some of the extras from the morning are released, as they were "street pedestrians and onlookers" and are not needed any more. They still need us Cops for another scene later in the day. More waiting in the holding area.
3:00 pm: While we have been sitting around, other scenes have been shot.
4:00 pm: They need the cops again. Another location. This time a warehouse scene. A woman has been kidnapped and tied to a chair with explosives attached. Nash has to rescue her. The scene is set up. Now they decide they only need 2 cops. I and another extra are asked to stay, the others are released. I am to drive a cop car up to the back door of the warehouse, jump out with another cop, join Don and Cheech at the back door. Cut. Now the scene moves inside. Don and Cheech enter the building with me and another cop following (with guns drawn). More "quality" camera time. By the time the scene is finished (with a few problems causing delays), it is 8:00pm, and I am now earning "Doubletime" pay. Finally, they get the scene filmed, Don is happy with it, the director is happy with it. Cut, print, that's a wrap!
The Props person collects our guns, belts, badges and accessories. They've brought a dozen or so pizzas onto the set, so we all dig in. We extras are released. I go back to the changing trailer, change back into my clothes, turn in the cop uniform, go to the PA, get my voucher signed and turned in (I'll get a check in the mail), find the van taking us back to the parking area, and drive home. It's after 11 pm by the time I get home. This has been a very long day.
However, they're not all that way--sometimes, as an extra, you may get released after only a couple of hours. Other times you may sit around all day and not be used at all. We get paid for a full 8 hours, though . Although this time I was fortunate to be prominent in the scenes, another day on this, or another production, I may just be part of a crowd and not be seen at all. That's the way of extra work. This time the scenes were shot and finished the same day. Many times, especially in feature films, you may be requested for work again the following day, or more, depending on how long it takes to shoot a scene. You may work 1 hour, or several days, on one scene.
So, if you get called for extra work, be flexible. Always plan on spending the entire day there. One final thought: Although Extra work is not considered serious acting (or even acting), I know many working actors who do all the Extra work they can get between auditioning for principal roles. I once had an acting teacher who told me, "Whenever a Director gives you direction, you are acting, even if you don't speak a word". I've always remembered that.