I’m waiting. It’s 7am. Two and a half hours in and counting. It’s cold. I taste sunblock. Costume is itchy. Instant coffee burned my tongue. My underwear is being stapled to my shorts by a stranger. Tom Cruise just smiled at me.
“I was in Gatsby and Wolverine, and of course Home & Away like 1000 times. My mum was an actress and that’s how I got to be so good at accents. We, like, pretend around the house all the time to be from different countries and stuff. What else have you been in?”
You’re an extra. I don’t give a shit about your mum or your accents. It’s far too early for you to be this enthusiastic. You don’t have any lines. Can you do accents with your unfocussed left elbow? ‘Cause that’s all they’re gonna see of any of us.
God extras are freaks. And now I’m one of them.
Fashback: Two weeks previous, our hero excitedly googling “How to become an actor”.
Flash slightly forward: to me signing up with a legit talent agency, after very nearly being swindled out of $300 by a dodgy “you-have-such-an-amazing-look” street-scouting hard-sell agency earlier that day.
Cut to: Next afternoon, phone rings.
“Hey! You know how you’re a skinny white guy? Well, you don’t happen to be a skinny white guy who can do an American accent can you? If you can we have an audition for you…”
Rule One of being an actor/extra/human: If the question involves the words “Can you…” your answer is always, always “Yes”.
Best-case scenario; you nail whatever it is and are on track to superstardom. Worst-case scenario; you get a priceless story about the time you bullshat that you could juggle flaming chainsaws and fucked it up epically and expensively in front of some very important people. Win-win.
“Yerr of coRse! I like, totally cAin do an AmeRican accent diude!” Shit. Why didn’t my good-for-nothing mother spend less time working two jobs and more time prancing around the house with me pretending to be from Kentucky?
No matter; I hung up and began frantically watching Saving Private Ryan on repeat until the audition. To no avail. I didn’t get the speaking part. But I was skinny enough to be a convincing POW. Not really a compliment…
And here I am. Two and a half excruciatingly dull hours into my “acting career”, surrounded by 100 other skinny white guys scratching at their costumes, scalding their tastebuds and talking shit about movies like they’re Steven Speilberg’s personal mentor.
We’re conditioned to think of life working in movies and television as a glamorous exciting adventure; rubbing shoulders with the stars and working for creative artistic geniuses. And some of it is totally like that. On average about 2.7 minutes of every hour is like that, if you’re lucky.
Mostly you just get paid to wait around. We’re maneuverable meat props to hang costumes on.
“I prefer to be called a ‘Background Actor’, says my new friend, who’s name I forgot the minute he told me. It’s probably Gabriel.
In fact, in the pecking order, we’re significantly below props in terms of value, importance, and often, talent. But it turns out sitting on plastic chairs with Gabriel and other extras for 12-15 hours a day is surprisingly hard work. Even after spotting a few celebrities, and getting some of that most sought-after of treasures; a shiny nugget of precious ‘screen time’, I was initially wondering if I could endure 3-4 weeks of this and maintain some level of sanity.
But then something awesome happens. I’ve heard if you run for long enough, like in a marathon or something, you start out super-knackered, then a phenomena called a ‘Runner’s High’ kicks in and you suddenly feel euphoric and can run heaps more. Or if you, say, chop your arm off, you don’t even feel it ‘cause your brain mercifully disconnects from your body and you just go into this numb shock thing. That totally happens when you become an extra.
‘My strange colleagues suddenly transformed into Brothers in Arms, enduring the ordeal of extreme boredom by your side.’
Not-particularly-funny things start to become hilarious. Games are invented. Assistant directors are impersonated and satirized. You flirt with the motherly makeup ladies. The motherly makeup ladies then ask you in a decidedly unmotherly way if you can score some cocaine for them while they’re in town. Your friend makes a fool of himself in front of Kirsten Dunst when he didn’t realize he was talking to Kirsten Dunst. And you realize all the ‘freaks’ from the first day are actually just sweet kids and interesting misfits, thrown together out of our collective comfort zones.
The pay isn’t bad and the work isn’t hard. You get to see things and meet people that you never would otherwise.
You learn to blow on your instant coffee.
Perhaps best of all, being an extra offers something very few other jobs can: hope.
‘Under the surface of the tedious hours of thumb-twiddling bubbles a vein of molten hopefulness.’
Maybe, just maybe, the director will walk by and realize she’s needed your exact face all along. That one of the Primary Cast will realize you’re an absolute legend and invite you into their entourage. That’s the coolest thing about being an extra. Anything could happen at any time and sometimes does…
Feature image courtesy of www.photopin.com