This post is a little bit different… because I’m going to tell you something that seems contrary to my business: You don’t have to have a professional headshot to be an extra.
This was the establishing shot for a press-conference scene at the airport, for the television show Boss.
They wisely didn’t let us know that they were filming when they took this shot. I didn’t even know they had.
This post is inspired by an actor’s tips, How To Survive On Set Without Looking Like An Asshole.
As I was reading it, I realized that I’m actually a “veteran” extra. I’ve been on a half dozen sets for both film and television. While I’m not an expert by any means, I know that I could save newbies a lot of grief… and hopefully make some PA’s job a little bit easier. (Don’t know what a PA is? Stay tuned.)
Why you should listen to me (or, credits I would never use under any other circumstance)
I’m about to do the most ridiculous thing ever: which is to give you my credits as an extra. (This leads me to the best advice I could ever give you: don’t “brag” to anyone in the film industry about how you’ve been an extra. This will impress them somewhat less than if you said you were the lead caterer. Except they actually care about the caterer.)
I’ve been an extra on set for Wildcats, The Untouchables (television series), Apples & Oranges, The Dark Knight, The Express, Poker House, Boss, Contagion, and Chicago Fire.
With that in mind…
1: send in a picture that looks like you, when the company that casts extras asks for one
In Chicago, there are two premiere casting companies; Joan Philo who is currently casting Chicago Fire Extras, and Atmosphere casting.
[On edit: Actors have correctly pointed out other casting companies in Chicago that are now hiring extras: Extraordinary Casting and on Facebook; 4 Star Casting and on Facebook; and Marinella Hume Casting for Chicago PD. If you want the most up-to-date list of Chicago Extra companies, go here to the Chicago Film Webpage.]
Both companies have links where you can send your picture and information in. But if you truly want to raise your chances of getting cast as an extra, subscribe to their Facebook channels. They announce who they are looking for, and what projects they are working on. If you match the description, remind them that they have your information or send it in when they request your type.
Don’t do this unless you actually match the description of what they’re looking for. Otherwise, their first impression of you is that you can’t read instructions.
People who cast extras want to know that you can follow the simplest of instructions.
On the other hand, if you are exactly who they are looking for? Take a normal snapshot of yourself that is clear, that shows your body type, hair and eye color.
There is a fairly new trend in casting extras; they don’t want professional headshots.
Know why? Because far too many people are getting completely over-glamorized for their headshot. Directors want to know that you’ll look somewhat like your photo when you show up, because you will probably go through the briefest visit with hair and makeup humanly possible. Most of the men won’t see either make-up or hair, except for a brief approval from both.
Do not hound a company that casts extras. From the moment that they are asked to find a certain type of background, they are searching through hundreds of photos to find the people that the director might want. If you didn’t make it this time, wait until the next time you fit a description of someone that they are looking for. Then remind them that they have your information, and send in a more recent image if they ask for it.
But let’s presume that you get the phone call… which can be kinda cool the first time you get it…
3: copy down the information. All of it.
When a casting company has to mass call you (and anywhere from 6 to 500 other actors) they are reading off of a list of information. They’re hoping, praying, that you’re copying it down. Because they know that several dozen of you will call them back, asking, again, where they are supposed to be.
Trust me: they told you everything they knew the first time.
They will tell you what you’ll be playing (“you’ll be one of the gang members”), and check to make sure you’re available on the shoot date. Not available? Tell them. This isn’t an actual “hey were going out on a date,” date. You can tell them that you’re not available, and they’ll call you again the next time if you send your information in when they need you.
If you tell them that you’ll show up and you don’t? They make a note of it. And by “note of it”, I mean they’ll never call you again.
They’ll also tell you what clothes to bring (often they’ll ask you for multiple outfits) and if you should do your own hair and make up. Pay close attention to what kind of clothes they ask for, particularly if they request a certain color. If they are casting a scene where everyone else is wearing black, and you’re wearing red? They will either send you to wardrobe or you will not be in the scene.
Most of the time, they’ll give you your call time (when you’re supposed to be there), where to park, and where you check-in. On some occasions, they ask you to call in the night before a shoot to confirm. Sounds goofy, right? But if you call in the night before, they know that the chances have instantly increased that you’ll actually show up… because you listened to the simplest of instructions.
There are shoots where they don’t even know the check-in time yet. For the movie Dark Knight I was called 2 months before the shoot date. Obviously, they didn’t have a check-in time for me yet.
Film shoots are very fluid, and things can get moved around for weather or because the entire schedule has been thrown off. Just keep that entire day free.
They will always tell you to bring two pieces of ID, and they’ll tell you what’s acceptable. This isn’t a formality. They need those pieces of ID to fill out your tax information and to verify that you are legally eligible to work on their film. I normally bring a passport & social security card along with my photo ID.
4: Check in the night before, if they ask
Checking in is usually an automated process where you leave a phone message on an answering machine. You’ll be asked to leave your name and some other piece of information: something like “John Abbott… I’m playing a gang member”
Get sleep. You will almost always have to arrive very. Very. Very. Early.
Things to bring
Outside of the things that they tell me to bring, I try to bring water, a couple of snacks, a toothbrush, floss, lip balm, and a book. Please, please, please don’t bring a camera! Unless they asked you to. (Stick with me. Its happened.)
What happens when you’re on location?
You check in. Not sure where?
Most sets have signs telling the background (you) where you should park. If not, ask the security guard (who almost always has “Security” written on the back of a black t-shirt) or the people who have earpieces attached to walkie talkies. Those people are PAs. More about them in a moment.
I can’t state enough, film sets are very fluid. If its not completely apparent at first where you’re supposed to be? Don’t panic. Just ask around.
You will most likely be pointed towards a line of people who have wardrobe bags. That’s a good sign. You’re in the right place.
Have your IDs ready for when you get to the front of the line. The person behind the folding table is almost always a PA.
Let’s talk about PAs.
PA stands for Production Assistant. In the film-crew-hierarchy, they are one of the lowest positions on the totem poll. They are also your newest, bestest friend… and every film would completely fall apart without them.
If they seem sleepy, its because your 5am check-in time meant that they had to be there before 4am.
Make it easier for them. Listen for their instructions, starting now.
The PA that you check in with will most likely give you a voucher. A voucher is a combination tax form/ invoice for your work on that day. Keep it with you as much as possible… but not on set. You hold onto the voucher until the end of the day, and then turn it in, filled out, to the PA.
Vouchers are almost always multi-paged documents. Because PAs have to repeat the same thing over and over, they usually highlight where you are supposed to fill in information. Remember how I asked you to bring your two pieces of ID? Remember how the extra company told you what to bring? That’s why. Because you need those things to show the PA, so that they know that you can legally work on their film.
The first thing that the PAs will want to do is check you off on their list to make sure they have the right extras for the scene. If wardrobe has gotten there and is ready to see you, they’ll have you show the clothes you bought with you to wardrobe. Or, if its a real elaborate production, they’ll send you to hair and make-up, If wardrobe doesn’t like what you’re wearing, they’ll find something else and usually hang onto your voucher to make sure that they get their clothes back.
But more often then not, you’ll be asked to take a seat on a very long table, and wait.
If you haven’t been given specific instructions of where to wait in a group of hundreds of extras, be aware of what you’re playing and find other people in your group. On one set, I was supposed to play a football coach. The “coaches” all sat together, so that the PAs would know where to find us.
On rare occasions, they’ll want one person out of your group to do something. You’ll have a much better chance of them picking you if you are with the other people who play the same part… because the PAs will walk over to the group and try to choose a few people for the assistant director to look at.
Remember when I said that PAs are your newest-bestest-friend?
Yeah… that’s right. They can actually put you in a position where you have a chance in hell of being seen on camera. Or they can make sure that you’re buried behind another group of extras… where you won’t cause them trouble.
You don’t have to suck up to them. I think most of them hate when you do.
You just have to listen, be present, and do what they want you to do. If you do, you are already falling on their good side. Again, they were there at least an hour before you. All they are hoping for is sleep. -And that you won’t fuck up a scene and make a director yell.
I wrote earlier that PAs are frequently tasked with “picking someone out”.
On one film, out of a hundred or so extras, I came in with the best attitude ever and somehow stuck out. I put on what wardrobe asked me to put on. I stood and waited where the PAs asked me to, on a set of particularly grumpy extras. And before I knew it, I was one of three people that a PA had put aside for a scene.
Then I was the one guy that the AD (assistant director) picked out for the scene.
I was told that the scene was going to be epic…. and that a helicopter was going to fly right over me while I waved a giant American flag…. and that I would be camera-center. They actually asked if I was cool with that, and if I could wave a giant flag?
Yes. Fuck yes!
Sounds crazy good. Right?
In a room of more then a hundred extras, I was told to sit “here”, so that they could find me when they were ready for the helicopter scene. I had a few hours to contemplate how I might look like on a giant screen in an epic scene.
Guess what? By midday, the shot was canceled because of weather problems and because they were running behind.
The PA broke the news to me and asked me to sit with another group, and I dutifully did so. Because that’s what you do when you’re an extra. You sit and wait. And you take disappointment gracefully.
Most casting companies will let extras know which meals are provided. If you need to know, ask.
Its extremely important to not grab food off of any table unless you know for sure that its for the extras. Don’t presume that just because you saw another extra take food off of a table, its meant for you. If 15 other extras take food off of the craft services table, but you’re the first one that the PA sees doing it? You’ll take the heat.
Food on sets varies tremendously, but I feel like there are two over-arching rules:
The more desperate that a film is for extras, the better the food gets.
The bigger the budget, or smaller the group of extras, the better the food is.
On the best sets, you get there in the morning and there is a long set of tables with every breakfast food you could imagine. On one set, I would actually make a point to get there early so that I could hit the breakfast table first.
On one particular film – one that I didn’t list – we had cold pizza waiting for us.
And there wasn’t enough.
Earlier, I suggested that you bring a snack or two. You never know.
I think I just made up that term.
There are basic rules for extras when you’re on set. You’ll be told this over and over, but let’s get it out of the way now.
- Turn your fucking phone off. Even if James Cameron didn’t actually nail gun someone’s cell phone to a wall, why take chances?
- Don’t talk to the actors. I know, he/she was your favorite in that film you liked. Guess what? They’re working right now. They’re trying to remember the script re-writes that they were just handed, and reach some kind of emotional realism despite the fact that they have a camera in their face. You’re going to foul that up no matter how quietly you whisper how great they are.
- If you are told to pantomime, don’t talk quietly during the scene or whisper to your new friend thinking that you won’t be heard. You see that giant microphone that someone spent thousands of dollars on? It costs so much because it can even pick up the sound of you whispering all the way in the back. That’s why the guy with the headphones on is glaring in your direction.
- If you’re told to perform some kind of action, do not overact unless you are specifically told to. You are background. Your entire mission statement is to fade into yourself. (SEE: Bootleg Edition of Almost Famous, the commentary track, and listen to what Cameron Crowe says about the extra in back of the lead actress in the graduation scene.)
- Don’t look into the camera… unless you are specifically told “look into the camera.” This is a thousand times harder then you would think it would be. Particularly if you’re the kinda person who finds really expensive cameras to be sexy, and lenses turn you on. Give me a break. I’m a photographer.
- Even when they aren’t shooting, stay quiet on a set. The director is trying to balance a hundred things, and doesn’t want to have to shout over the sound of 50 extras all talking.
Remember where you were at the beginning of the scene, and what you did. You’ll most likely be asked to do the same thing over again. When someone yells “background,” you do whatever you were asked to do… not on “action.” Don’t stop until you hear someone say “cut.” When they say “reset” or “go back to one”, return to where you were at the beginning of the scene. If no one asked you to do something differently, you did it right. Try to do it again, the same way.
If you have a question or need to use the washroom between takes, get the attention of a PA. They are your link to the AD.
PA’s are basically responsible for getting you on and off of the set.
The AD will frequently be the person giving you specific direction on what to do. If two different people give you two different directions, just keep tract of who said what, and point out to the second person what the first person told you to do. Yes, this happens… a lot.
I was once told to “just stay” where I was after a shot was finished. Before I knew it… Ron Howard, the director, was walking in the personal space of myself and the extra I was paired with to set up the next shot. Ron was physically being forced to walk around us several times while eying the shot. A miffed AD told us to move “over there”. Was it anyone’s fault that he was miffed? No. That’s a film set.
“Can you stand anywhere but here?”
Get used to it.
If I had one frustration over being an extra, its that more often then not, you aren’t told how to react to something happening. Whether it should be shock, surprise, awe, anger, whatever. I’m sure that there is a reason for this, but I’m just letting you know so that you aren’t as disappointed if that happens.
You’ll sometimes be told what just happened. “There was an explosion” or “you’re trying to get food” without a lot of back story.
Roll with the punches. And if you feel like you need more direction, get the attention of the nearest PA between takes. Will the PA know? Probably not. But they’ll check in with the AD if it sounds like something that needs their attention.
Now for the worst part of being an extra. Its quite frequently boring. The production company might have a hundred thousand dollars worth of stuff planned for today, and you’re probably making less then $120. They purposefully asked you to be there early. They will more then willingly pay you overtime if it means that you’ll be there when they need you.
As a result; you’ll sometimes get a 6am call time, and they won’t want you to be on set before 11am. A good portion of your job is to wait until you’re needed.
The end of the day
Turn your wardrobe in. Sometimes wardrobe holds onto your voucher. Get it back.
Turn your filled out voucher into the PA. There is usually a very long line at the end of the day, when all of the extras are cut at the same time. Be patient. Trust me, the PAs want to leave more then you do.
And all of that… for….
Do you think that you were on camera for that last scene? You probably weren’t.
I mentioned the films that I was an extra in, above.
In the Untouchables, I was put up front, near the ring.
(They originally handed me a camera, and told me to be a photographer, which made me giddy. But then the director came up to the AD and whispered, “he doesn’t look like a photographer”. They took the camera away from me.)
I appear in a wide shot in one take… for roughly 2 seconds. I didn’t even recognize myself the first time I saw it.
Apples and Oranges was a small film. I appeared in the audience, in a scene that apparently lingers on me as I react. I’ve yet to see it, but I was told that I was good for the 3-5 seconds that I was on camera.
I was extremely excited when I found out that I was going to be a “Maroni Gang Member” in The Dark Knight. I was supposed to be there for four days of shooting. That turned into three. In the restaurant scene, I was seated right next to a lead actor. I stand up as I’m arrested, and I was in the background for at least 2 of the 4 angles that they used to shoot the scene. I walked past another lead actor when we were outside, walking into the bus. I had a camera on me in the courtroom scene.
In all of those scenes, you can barely see me, briefly, for less then a second in the courtroom scene along with a hundred other people.
The Poker House is a dark film, and I was in a flashback scene in a church. After filming several scenes, the director Lori Petty told her AD what she wanted to shoot next. She wanted to film this one woman reading a book of hymns, but she couldn’t find a hymnal. As the PAs scrambled around to find one, I held up the one next to me and got Lori’s attention.
Another insert involved me, holding a church pamphlet in my hand. The camera was just on me… mostly in silhouette. If you’ve never had a full-sized motion picture camera a couple of feet away from you, its quite an experience. My heart was beating full throttle. But Lori had the DP pull focus from the pamphlet to me, back to the pamphlet, several times, and seemed pleased. I swear she actually said “that’s hot” at the composition of the shot.
The film is amazing.
I do not appear for one frame in it.
You can see me in Contagion for probably a full 4 seconds. I’m in the middle of the screen throwing lye over dead corpses wrapped in plastic. Only… you’ll never know it was me… because I’m wearing a big white “clean” suit and a white mask.
The most I’ve ever appeared as an extra in any film is the shot that you saw a the beginning of this post, for Boss.
They wanted real photographers. Both Boss and Chicago Fire asked for real photographers to play photographers. (For Chicago Fire, they asked us to bring our real cameras.) If it seems blurry, that’s because the camera is panning past me. I’m there, and then I’m gone.
So. Do you still want to be an extra?
Good. Then you’ll probably be very good at listening to the simple instructions that you were given, and doing what’s been asked of you.