A little Extra support

February 24, 2014 | Filed Under Uncategorized 

Right, listen up! Gandhi’s dead and you’re all fucking sad!” – David Tomblin, 1st AD on Gandhi (according to John Sessions).

This industry has an awful lot of disdain for extras, or background artistes, or SAs (supporting artistes). Everyone’s got a story about some moron ruining a shot, or going up to a famous director and asking them to sign a prop because he’s not planning on coming back and wants a souvenir, or what-have-you. They pretty much equal the number of awed stories about how George Clooney, David Niven, Matt Damon, et al all got their first taste of the film world through being extras. David Niven, in his book Bring On The Empty Horses, recounts several great stories about his own time amongst the masses, so we know at least that he definitely did; I’m not prepared to assert that anyone else has.

It’s a pretty daft dichotomy really, isn’t it? On the one hand, actors seem to scorn SAs at every turn; on my first ever student film, an actor (who shall remain nameless) said “God, darling, if my agent heard I’d been on-set as an extra, he’d drop me in an instant…”. On the other hand, everyone loves to marvel at how close to eternal anonymity the brightest and best in cinema have come – it’s beguiling to think that Clooney and his ilk were one lucky break away from forever being that clueless gump crashing into the scenery in the background.

It speaks volumes about our insecurity, our jealousy: it’s comforting to think that if such titans could have started in such lowly circumstances, then surely we’ve all got equally good chances? Yet at the same time, it begs the crippling, agonising counter: how did they rise so high from such humble beginnings, while I’m stuck going hand-to-mouth from crappy corporate to minimum wage-paying music video? And underneath this schizophrenic ambivalence lies the question: “Maybe I should give it a go myself? After all, what have I got to lose?”

There are several good reasons to be an extra:

  • It pays bloody good money for a job with zero responsibility;
  • It’s a taste of the atmosphere on a large-scale film set, and good preparation for the day you actually get booked on one as an actor;
  • It teaches you good make-up/costume discipline;
  • If you’re disciplined and keep your eyes open, you can learn an awful lot about how large sets function;
  • You may get picked out for a close-up, or given a line to deliver;
  • You’ll meet a lot of other actors at about the same career-stage to you, and you can make lifelong friends through it;
  • You will learn some fucking humility.

The money is historically pretty good*, for all that SAs bitch about it: current FAA rates mean that, with travel and holiday pay, you’ll get £109 for a standard nine-hour day, with almost guaranteed overtime and other supplements. This is pretty sweet, for several hours being sat in holding reading and chatting, followed by a few more hours being on a film set, which is where you want to be, right? Being part of crowd means learning to treat the crew with respect, especially the poor buggers who have to dress and paint you; and being on a giant film set can be quite daunting at first, so it’s is a good way to get that shock out of your system when there’s nothing important resting on you. You’ll also learn about how glacially slowly things can move on set; you can learn a lot about behind-the-camera stuff if you keep your eyes open; you’ll meet some amazing, talented and lovely people; and being picked for a close-up, a feature or a line when someone like Spielberg or Scorsese is behind the camera is a thrilling moment.

However, there are also several good reasons never to be an extra:

  • A lot of other industry professionals will assume you’re not a trained actor at all;
  • You will be treated like the thickest person in the room;
  • You’ll get no respect;
  • If you do it long enough, you may get so comfortable that you never to try and progress further;
  • You may end up having to miss auditions because you’re committed to an SA job;
  • You may come to despise extras yourself;
  • You may have all the confidence ground out of you.

Basically, a lot of SAs who’ve been at it for a long time like to say they’re actors, or that what they do is just as skilled a job as what the featured actors are doing, and so on. And some of them will assert this to casting directors, to other actors, to directors. This has terrible implications for you, the legitimate actor jobbing as an SA, because it encourages the idea that every SA who calls himself an actor is just some jumped-up pillock who wouldn’t know Sanford Meisner if he punched them in the snoot. You’ll find yourself and your burgeoning career lumped in with these idiots, who you will learn to hate in your turn, as you hear them pontificate about their supposed abilities.

Just being an SA, uncomplainingly doing an SA’s job, will get you branded a cretin, too. Assistant Directors will assume you’re the thickest person there. The more skilled ADs will hide this fact; the more stressed/less socially skilled ones will not. They don’t do it because you are a thick; they do it because they can’t afford to take the chance that you aren’t. They’ve just grabbed you out of a milling tide of humanity to do something in front of the camera. You will not have been grabbed for your winning smile, your quicksilver reflexes or your keen intellect; you’ll have been grabbed because your costume fits, or they want someone with a hat, or they just need to make the background look busy. Remember all those idiots you’re struggling not to slap? The AD has no quick way of establishing that you’re not one of them – indeed, the odds are good that you might be – and she will treat you accordingly.

The main reason not to do it stems directly from all of the above: it crushes your confidence after a while. It becomes wretched to hear the same bloody conversations over and over again (“You been busy?”; “I could do that, yeah…”; “Are we on overtime yet?”; “Where’d you get those biscuits?”, etc). It becomes profoundly depressing to be treated like an idiot, and to be patronised or actively insulted to your face by some gaffer who’s having a bad day (seen that happen). Getting up at 5am to put on an itchy costume and sit around until 2pm, when you’re fed the cheapest food the studio can buy, and then finally sent home at 9pm to do it all over again the next day is exhausting and demoralising. You may start to ask yourself if actually you’re not talented after all, and that this giant tent full of care-in-the-community weirdos, slack-jaws, reactionary Daily Mail types and grown-old classroom jokers is where you belong. That sort of thinking is poisonous and hard to shake, and will stop you from ever achieving your dream.

Finally, there is one last reason not to be an SA: you may get noticed. If you get noticed, it will almost certainly be because you look like a berk, and you end up being roundly scorned on idiot websites like this: an alleged compilation of background actors being stupid. Ignoring for a moment that half the instances on this aren’t about extras at all, this list features some SAs looking pretty dumb, and they’re easily mocked by a general public that knows nothing about how the circumstances arose.

Consider the first one, some guy waving a broom about 5″ above the ground behind Daniel Craig, who broods in the foreground. OMG how stupid, duh, what a thicko, doesn’t he know how a broom works?

Well, yes. Of course he does. He’s doing this, because he’s been told to by the AD, who in turn has been told by the sound guy that the bloke with the broom is all over the audio, and can we make him as quiet as possible, please? The sound guy and the AD may not necessarily know the framing of the shot, so they tell the SA (who definitely won’t know about the framing, and will be fobbed off if he asks about it) to lift the broom off the ground. It’s also possible that this was done with a tight frame in mind, and then they pulled out for a take with a wider frame and neglected to tell the poor sod with the broom that his fake sweeping was now clearly visible. And now the internet hates him for looking like a klutz on a James Bond movie. That’s pretty rough treatment for doing exactly what you’re told, with no opportunity to query your instructions, eh?

So, in short: if you’re going to be an SA, do it with your eyes open, and expectations levelled accordingly. And for god’s sake, stick to the deep background, and when you’ve got everything you can from it, get out.

*Though like many things, this is getting worse as production companies broker deals with extras agencies to opt out of FAA rates and pay a set daily rate instead – which can range from as little as £60/day to £150/day, and will always favour the production company over the SAs.

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