I’ve avoided doing extra work for a long time after doing a ton of it in my early 20s. As a non-union actor it can be a lot of standing/sitting around for very little, if any, pay.
When you enter the union world, you are treated slightly better. Your hours are monitored and you get paid a decent amount (depending on what it is your working on – more soon..). Still. It can be pretty thankless work.
One thing that is interesting to me, watching background actors in general, is that most of the time they are literally actors who, if anything, are obsessed with being noticed by the director, the crew or the other actors. Or they will simply stand about, or walk from point A to point B as instructed but without any consideration of a character or the film/project overall. Now, its not necessarily a requirement that you be thinking on this level at all as an extra because let’s face it, no one is really going to be looking at you, right?
An extra can help add to the overall vibe of a movie, TV show, commercial etc by literally thinking/pretending they are REAL people in this era, place, space, etc (clear?)
One thing that made me remember this was sitting at a hotel bar last night with my friend Shannon. We were happily sitting there, chatting away. There was a small group of people overall in the bar. The bartender, a hostess, some ladies at one end and a very pulled-together, smart older man sitting at the other end of the bar next to Shannon. I didn’t really notice him all that much, but he was there, enjoying his whiskey on the rocks the whole time. Once, when the bartender made a joke for us, this gentleman made a small, funny comment in response. And that was it. As we were getting ready to leave and paying our bill at the end of our evening another guest showed up and met the gentleman. This guest was a transexual/transvestite prostitute. This was, of course, quite a surprise to us as neither one of us had pegged him for that kind of lifestyle.
And that’s when it hit me.
Imagine this had been a scene in a movie. My friend and I being the lead characters. The bartender the featured day-player and everyone else extras. And imagine that the scene ended JUST before the prostitute entered. Who would have EVER endowed the character of the gentleman, sitting quietly and dignified at the end of the bar with that kind of inner world. He must have been thinking about his friend showing up. He would have been excited, nervous, bored, irritated, who knows. But all the while, unbeknownst to us, he had a full life laid out behind and ahead of him.
Now imagine getting cast as an extra in that role in this little movie. At first, you might be disappointed that you haven’t been given a bigger role, blablahblah. But if you think of your role in as much depth as the character of the gentleman… imagine all the fun you could have!
Its important to remember that at no point were we aware of the inner life of this man. But he had one all the same. So as an extra you will want to be careful not to phone it in or try and alert everyone on set of all the amazing work you’re doing. As with the real life gentleman, it’s a very private affair. But I guarantee that when the audience watches that scene, they’ll FEEL the difference. Nobody will necessarily know that you’re adding to the world by having a the life of your character mapped out but it will imbue the scene with some reality and therefore we’ll buy into the whole shebang even more easily than we would have before.
Here are some things you could think about if you’re playing an extra:
Where did your character just come from?
Where are they going after this?
Are they married/single/engaged?
Did they just break up with their partner?
Did they just lose all their money?
How long have they been here?
Do they like their life?
Do they like people?
Do they have an illness/cold/allergies?
Are they on medication?
The list goes on and on.
Asking a series of simple, immediate questions like this can give you all kinds of information to fill your mind with when the camera roles. Even just thinking about these questions whilst the cameras are rolling is going to make you look more “real” than just sitting there watching the whole thing play out from the corner of your eye. AND, whilst you’re doing all this amazing, secret acting work, remember to keep one ear open to the technical aspect of the film/project so that you can do what is required of you.
*Please remember, one of the most important things about being an extra is the ability to listen and do exactly what is asked of you without question or difficulty. NEVER answer the director/1st AD/2nd AD back. Just do what you’re told – it’ll help the whole project along and make you look professional and courteous and like someone worth working with.
**Here’s a video honoring the kind of work I’m talking about: