What does the world of television look like from the background? Who are all these extra people wordlessly inhabiting these fictitious streets? How much room to breath is there in the “atmosphere?”
I am an extra. I am an extra person. By definition it implies I am expendable. Anybody can be me. It takes no skill and I certainly don’t put much effort forth. Don’t need to. If you’ve never seen me or heard of me it’s because I’m doing my job right.
In TV Land there are several castes. Production and crew personnel, gaffers, makeup, costumes, the talent, the caterers, etcetera, but beneath all of these tiers is the extra…and beneath that seemingly final rung lurks the non-union extra (beneath that there is only the non-union spec who gets turned away). The entertainment world and its hierarchy of calculated arbitrariness is a twisted, haunted safari and being an extra can sometimes feel like swimming with man-eating sharks.
I am writing this because I cannot sleep. I have a call time that requires me to be up at 5 am tomorrow morning and so in preparation for my necessarily near-nocturnal departure I attempted to go to bed early. Mistake. When the body clock is so in tuned with going to bed at a certain hour, it takes more than simple logic to shut it down prematurely, hence my nightly restlessness. If I could even now forcibly bring about a state of dreamless unconsciousness I might be able to squeeze in 3 hours of stressless bliss. Doubtful.
Being an extra can give one much stress. One has to be on set early and ready and one must be able to locate the set and not get lost. One must be prepared to wait for hours on end in seedy, uncomfortable rooms or sometimes one gets put outside in plastic chairs beneath feverishly rigged awnings. One must deal with being yelled at by production and bossed about by malcontented wranglers and one must be prepared to “act.” And one must be prepared to suck fumes from LA’s gloriously carcinogenic atmosphere for hours in congested traffic to and from set.
I have observed legendary cinematographers at work from only inches away. I have been manhandled by Hollywood celebrity waxworks. I have been scorned by Oscar winning costumers. I am an extra. I am faceless, disposable, and insignificant. You haven’t lived until you’ve “crowd tiled” in the Coliseum, friend.
The plus side? The food is good. Strike that. It’s downright great sometimes.
I realized something when I said a surprising thing on the last commercial shoot I was on. I was asked to walk into frame and sit down (in the background of course), but I had to squat so I could not be seen by the camera at first. I squatted uncomfortably (I also had to remove my shoes so I would not make footsteps) and then one of the crew graciously offered me an apple box to sit on. I was deeply moved and thanked him and one lady—who had been rather grouchy to me the whole day—gazed over her Versace shades to express surprise that I might presume I would be forced to squat, barefoot on some tangled wires. I looked at her and half-jokingly muttered, “I’m used to being mistreated.”
That was a shocker to myself as much as anyone who heard it and gave a crap. Maybe more. “I’m used to being mistreated.” Was I? Had I just been conditioned to know that I am bottom rung fish filth on set? I thought back. I had gotten used to scorching in the sun for hours at a time, sitting in concrete holding rooms for hours, eating last, and being yelled at for bizarre things no natural person would presuppose. Being an extra and being in show business is not natural. It is all artifice and frequently unpleasant. Sure, there had been some good shoots where I wasn’t treated like a parrot turd with a number on it, but on the whole being an extra had not been worth it.
I gazed into the eyes and face of the lead actor for this last particular ad. I was sitting right next to him and was asked to stare stone-faced at him while he ad-libbed some lines. He was a talented fellow. A nice man and a funny man, but I could not help but shake one persistent feeling: this is what I am striving for? As an extra you come to meet thousands of folks with similar hopes and aspirations. They come from all over the globe to this hub. Here at entertainment’s central nerve a lowly extra can dream of one day being randomly selected to give a line in a TV show or a movie. For many this is the equivalent of drinking ambrosia from the skull of a manatee. Many times, that is the highlight of their on-camera career too. The coveted two seconds of face-time can be a high water mark for many an extra. They work to be one day seen or heard, even if only briefly and vast numbers never even get that fleeting moment, that moment where they feel somewhat important and more than an extra.
I watched the man perform next to me. He had achieved what most extras will only ever wish for. He was the lead actor in a commercial that will be seen by a few people as they flip through the stations for a few months and then it will most likely be burned and forgotten forever. How fleeting even this was. I was also struck by how unappealing it all looked up close. He was saying some condensed gibberish to entice people to purchase another dumb product and he had to do it over and over and over again for 8 hours. All this with a camera 6 inches from his face. Poor guy.
It didn’t strike me as fun like the freebie acting I have enjoyed for independent and student shorts and stage. But I know what most people would say: “You’ve got to be willing to lower yourself and your standards in the beginning.” But why? And to what end? After a long week I went to the movies and I saw a film that featured the big name actors; the household name actors. What acting were they doing in this “more reputable” venue? They were selling a movie. They were not telling a story by crafting great characters, they were simply involved in another, much longer ad. And I bought it…at first.
St. Augustine said, “the Church is a whore, but she is also my mother.” I say, “Hollywood is a whore…also it’s an abusive step-dad with a drinking problem.” There does not seem to be much reason to bend over and take it from mainstream entertainment. I see no fulfillment in it. I see only greed and headache.
Perhaps I am being unfairly cynical. The food is really good.
Maybe extras deserve to be pushed around and looked down upon. Most of them are terrible people. But it goes without saying that most people are terrible people. I’m not sure, however, if there is a more whiny, discontented person with panache for cheap fibbery and braggadocio than the TV extra. Everyone’s got a story about how they only do it sometimes when things get slow because they really all have a script being considered by Fox or some obscure Australian production company or they used to have the number one hit single in Fiji. Heck, even I have similar stories, but who are we really trying to fool? Other bottom-rung non-union extras? Even our peers we must make lower than us?
I’ve come to understand that almost everyone in the entertainment industry has the spiritual gift of unconditional falsehood weaving, but it surprises even me who we all want to impress. We all want to be important and so we lie. We all believe that somehow the dead-end tedium of extra-ing will one day lead to better things. We all desperately hope that the next call will be the last one we have to do and that maybe we’ll get some oh-so-coveted face-time and maybe there will be chairs in the holding room and maybe the wranglers will be nice to us.
Everyone in Hollywood is sick. Everyone down the ladder from the pigs at the top to the refuse at the bottom. Everyone except the caterers, God bless ‘em.
I say this world is a haunted safari. You go there expecting to see elegant and exotic mega-fauna; the wild beasts of myth. But what you discover is a land of ghosts. The animals are transparent and they’re giving off bad vibrations. The lions and tigers are fake, but they still think they can fool you up close. The wild elephants are skeletons here and we are all blood-sucking mosquitoes searching for an artery on a dry scapula. To what end? To be a bony behemoth like them? Maybe so…because we know we might look like something from a safe distance to strange anonymous folk. Then we can fool them too and imagine we truly are something.