"Lights...Camera...Background!"

A day in the life of a movie extra

“They’re gonna put me in the movies ...
and all I gotta do is act naturally.”

Buck Owens

It wasn’t a major movie role, by any means. My job was to walk through the Santa Fe Plaza when the film’s director, Stephen Sommers, gave the “Background!” command to the “extra” cast members as the cameras shot a scene on San Francisco Street last summer.

Through the magic of Hollywood, downtown was transformed into the fictional desert town of Pico Mundo, California. My fellow extras and I were brought in to be background sidewalk strollers for the thriller Odd Thomas, based on a Dean Koontz best-seller about a young short-order cook with supernatural powers. The movie is slated for release later this year.

I was surprised at how easy it was to get into the motion-picture business. (OK, I admit, it was a very, very small movie role). I found a notice in the local paper, called up the casting company, and got a phone call from them the next day.

There’s an ongoing demand in New Mexico for movie and TV extras to play nonspeaking roles, says Tina Kerr, an Albuquerque casting agent who handled extras for Odd Thomas and several other recent productions.

“We used 300 extras in Fright Night as Las Vegas nightclub types—gogo dancers, patrons, and bartenders,” Kerr says. “In Crazy Heart, we had 200 extras as concertgoers, and 700 extras played mall shoppers and bowlers in Odd Thomas.”

Another busy Albuquerque casting director, Elizabeth Gabel, says she provided some 500 extras for the Academy Award–winning film No Country for Old Men, and another 400 “scruffy, bearded gunslinger types” for the Western 3:10 to Yuma.

The biggest extras undertaking in her career so far was Swing Vote, which starred Kevin Costner. “We had 2,700 extras,” she says. “That was a hard one.”

Gabel spent much of last winter looking for Old West characters, particularly men “with lots of facial hair,” for the movie Silver Bullet, currently being filmed in New Mexico. Produced by Walt Disney Pictures, the moviestars Johnny Depp as the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, Tonto.

Gabel’s company, EG Productions, conducted an open casting call in December for Silver Bulletand urged potential extras to “come with your best Western look.” “More than 1,400 people showed up,” she says. The film is expected to feature more than 1,200 extras.

Last summer in Santa Fe, on that day’s second Odd Thomas setup, the 100 or so extras portraying townsfolk were instructed to welcome the film’s eponymous lead character as he stepped out of a limousine with the local police chief, played by Willem Dafoe.

“Odd has saved everyone in town from dark and evil forces. He’s your hero. So make lots of noise,” the director urged us, as many held signs declaring “We Love Odd,” “In Odd We Trust,” and the like.
As the young actor playing Odd, Anton Yelchin, stepped out of the limo, the grateful citizens, on cue, erupted in cheers and whistles.

“That was pretty good. But let’s do it again,” Sommers shouted. “This time I want to hear you!”
After a half-dozen takes and retakes we were wrangled back to the extras holding area, where we waited to be again summoned to the set.

Moviemaking involves a lot of waiting around; extras need to have patience, but not necessarily Tom Cruise’s or Angelina Jolie’s good looks. Virtually anyone can be an extra, since there’s a need for all types of characters—all ages, sizes, and ethnicities, men, women, and children—even babies. Early this year, casting calls went out for people to play restaurant diners, female motorcyclists, karaoke singers, customers, and even a murder victim.

Pay for these small roles is not much more  than minimum hourly wage plus overtime, but most of the bit players say they value the experience for other reasons.

“It’s fun to be on a film set and rub shoulders with celebrities,” says Gabel. “There’s a subculture with movie extras. People know each other, and there’s a strong camaraderie.”

“Extras meet a lot of interesting people,” adds Kerr. They’re fed well, and there’s the thrill of seeing yourself in a motion picture, she says, if only for a moment.

And yes, there’s always a chance of being “discovered” on set by the director, or at least being upgraded to a bigger role, perhaps even a speaking part. “It happens all the time,” says Kerr.

“During the filming of Cowboys & Aliens, about 25 extras were bumped up to better roles,” says Gabel. Such upgrades are especially possible in Westerns, she says, if the extras can ride horses.

“Almost every film has an extra or two that are bumped up to speaking roles,” says Gabel.
Albuquerque real estate broker Philippe Jacquot supplements his income with movie and TV extra roles whenever he has a chance. He’s currently playing a recurring role in the USA Network’s series In Plain Sight: a U.S. Marshal, “with a gun and badge—the whole thing,” he says. In the movie Jackie, starring Oscar-winner actress Holly Hunter, Jacquot is a priest in a scene filmed inside an historic adobe church in San Ysidro.

Making movies is not always glamorous, Jacquot says. “Trust me, it’s work. Sometimes you work 12 to 14 hours, and in the middle of the night.”

When extras are selected for a film, they’re instructed to report to the basecamp for the day’s shooting, often before dawn, fill out tax forms, eat breakfast, and get dressed for their role. From the basecamp they’re shuttled to the filming locations.

Extras are usually told to bring two to three different changes of clothes to show the wardrobe director. The production company provides any specialized clothing—police uniforms, nun habits, disco leisure suits. One recent exception was for “drag queens,” who were told they had to provide their own wardrobes, makeup, and wigs for an episode of In Plain Sight.

Most extra roles require little more than standing, sitting, walking, or just driving by in a car (extras are paid more if they use their own cars in the film). But films also have nonspeaking featured roles, such as Secret Service agents, acrobats, cowboys, and dancers. Since these parts require specific skills, clothing, and/or physical characteristics, people who get these parts stand a much better chance of not ending up on the cutting-room floor.

Following my acting debut in Odd Thomas last summer, I got one of the coveted featured roles in the movie Game Change, based on the best-selling book of that title which chronicles the 2008 presidential campaign.

Most of the extras for this made-for-TV movie were faces in a crowd at a GOP rally in Santa Fe. But I played a news photographer covering the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain (played by Ed Harris). If you saw the movie when it aired on HBO in March, you may have caught a fleeting glimpse of an overacting photographer madly flashing his camera and jostling with the TV and newspaper reporters. Since it was a featured role, I got the full hair and makeup treatment in front of a mirror ringed with glowing light bulbs.

Santa Fe art-gallery owner Mary Bonney says she was treated like a star, too, for her small role in The Resident, a thriller starring Hilary Swank. Bonney played the part of an art-gallery patron for a scene that took 16 hours to shoot, she says. “It was fun. And the food was great. But it was hard for me to sit still that long.”

Erik Beacham, of Rio Rancho, says he welcomes the long hours, since he’s between jobs and appreciates the overtime paychecks. Beacham has been an FBI agent, mall shopper, doctor, and bar customer in several films, including Last Stand, which will mark Arnold Scharwzenegger’s movie comeback when it’s released early next year.

During the filming of Jackie, Beacham started out as a bar patron but was elevated to the role of bartender. He admits it’s not likely he’ll ever get a leading role in a movie. “But,” he says, “ I’d love to get a couple of lines someday.”

HOW TO BE A MOVIE EXTRA
Most New Mexico casting for movie and TV extras is handled by two Albuquerque companies: EGProductions (www.egcasting.com) and On Location Casting (www.onlocationcasting.us). Speaking roles are generally cast by agents in New York and Los Angeles and go to professional actors who are members of the Screen Actors Guild. But the small, background parts are filled locally and do not require SAG membership. Persons interested in being considered for extra jobs should visit the casting companies’ websites, complete the personal information forms, and upload a photo of themselves. There is no charge. Once entered in the online databases, hopeful extras watch for casting calls and apply for any appropriate roles.

Bob Alexander lives in Santa Fe.