How to Work as an Extra and Regret Doing It
I have a BFA in Theatre Arts and an MFA in Playwriting, or two degrees that have given me a lot of artistic integrity and zero dollars. As a result, I have lots of part-time jobs that are very peripherally related to my field of interest (if at all). One of those jobs, sometimes, is being an extra in TV shows and movies. I’ve only done this twice, for reasons which will become clear to you shortly.
Non-union extras are paid a standard rate for up to an 8-hour day: $64. Ha! I know. But it’s usually not especially taxing work and it’s an acting job that pays money, so that’s why a lot of actors do it. If it’s a choice between doing nothing for a day or being an extra and taking home some money, it’s an obvious choice. Some people are exclusively extras and don’t do other acting work.
If you do it enough, you can join the union (the Screen Actors’ Guild, or SAG—you know them, they have awards) and then they pay you more: a $148 minimum daily rate. That’s not awful for a day’s work.
Now, as a lowly non-union actor, what kind of work does being an extra entail? Well, I can’t speak for every gig, because, as I mentioned, I’ve only done it twice. But I will tell you what I went through. The two times I’ve done were on opposite ends of the spectrum: One was boring but fine, and the other was the absolute worst.
The first time I was an extra was for a movie shooting at a museum. It was an overnight shoot, so I arrived at the museum at 10 p.m. There was much hubbub getting signed in and there was minimal pushing and arguing about the line. Once I was signed in, I was led to a cafeteria. I would stay in a seat in that cafeteria for many hours. Most of the other people there were SAG and seemed to be old pros. They were all friends with one another, brought decks of cards, drank coffee and didn’t fall asleep with their heads on the cafeteria tables like me. I kind of wanted to be friends with them, but I mostly wanted them to shut up and stop having fun. It was nighttime and I didn’t want anyone to be having any fun, I wanted to be asleep.
There was another group of extras there who were not actors at all. (I think they were museum employees? Or they were friends with a museum employee? Or something?) Somebody had invited them to be extras in a movie (a movie!) and they agreed to do it for free, is what I gathered. They were just thrilled with the prospect of being in a movie.
(A small aside: being an artist in any capacity can sometimes feel like people think you are this aforementioned friend of museum employee person, who would just be thrilled to be in a movie and isn’t that cool and they’ll show up and just be so thankful and do it for free. But most of us, with a little education and talent, don’t love doing things for free. If you do it for free, it’s more like a hobby than a job. Maybe that makes me a sell-out, but acting and writing is my career. I don’t want to do anything “for the exposure” anymore. I will be paid, thank you.)
Overall, this museum shoot was pretty uneventful. Mostly, I sat at my table in the cafeteria with another non-union actor my age. I’d seen her at commercial auditions a few times and we struck up a groggy conversation. We thought they might send us home without using us at all, but then we got called up to the set.
And then they sent us home without using us at all. We stood near where they were shooting for an hour or so, then they released us and we all trudged back to our cafeteria to get our forms and get in line to get our vouchers signed so we could get paid.
SAG extras always get to go first. They eat first if there’s catering and they get to check out first. It’s in their contract. It smacks of classism to me, like how we board airplanes, and sometimes it makes me angry. Especially when it’s 4 a.m. and I have been sitting in a plastic chair for five hours for no reason. Lots of the things about being an extra make people angry, that seems to be part of the job. Eventually my paper was signed and I went home and went to bed. Sixty-four dollars honestly earned!
The second time I was an extra was much more eventful.
A TV pilot was shooting in my city and I was called in to be an extra for a two-day weekend shoot. I really needed the money and figured that spending a weekend earning money instead of spending it was in my best interest. Based on my previous experience, I figured I’d do a lot of sitting around, eating catered lunches, and chatting with new friends. This is not what happened.
The show happened to be shooting in March of this year, which, as you may recall if you live in the Northeast, was fucking cold. I was six weeks pregnant, which is the time when you have to keep it a secret because the chance of having a miscarriage is high. I was nauseous and tired and kind of wished people would give me special treatment but that wasn’t going to happen. I made my choice. The worst thing, though, was the cold. We had been told by the production team via email that there would be warming tents. There were no warming tents. We were also told that if we got too cold we could go take breaks inside. This was also not strictly true.
The first time I was sent home without being in a single shot. The second time I stood in the cold for 10 hours, two days in a row.
It hovered around 30 degrees both days of the shoot, which is not so bad if you are walking to the train or skiing or something, but standing in a city park for many hours, you get really cold. Your fingers and toes go numb in about half an hour, and stay that way until you can go inside and thaw out. Keep this in mind when you see homeless people out in the winter. That shit is not messing around.
The place they station the extras is called, logically, extras holding. Extras holding at this particular shoot was a large, open room in an old office building. The room was stuffed with tables and chairs, which made it hard for us to move quickly from one area to another, especially because everybody was wearing snow boots and parkas and sweaters and hats—lots of bulk and limited visibility. We created clans fairly early. I met a young woman who told me she had two children under the age of two at home. I had so many questions. She looked about 19, and I kind of didn’t believe her at first. Later I saw her pumping her breasts in the overcrowded ladies’ room, on the floor, and knew she wasn’t lying about the babies. At one point I overheard her tell another woman that she doesn’t believe in vaccinations and that’s when I mentally categorized her as insane and decided to keep my distance. She was out of the clan.
Warmth and snacks and rest were scarce, so each clan staked its claim on a table or huddled in a corner or against a wall. We watched each others’ stuff and shared our granola bars. In the beginning, at around 7 a.m. on Saturday, when we were all hoping we’d be told to stand somewhere prominent in the shot, or that maybe something magical would happen and the director would see us and say, “boy oh boy, she’s really something special, let’s do a close up of her face” we all pulled for each other. After they called us out to the set—the freezing cold nightmare set—our goals changed. We all hoped they would send us home. Screw the money.
If you work over eight hours as a non-union extra, you get $112 for up to 12 hours, so it was in our interest to stick around. But nobody cared, because everybody wanted to leave this godforsaken place. There were 400 extras there and we all started going slowly insane.
Extras holding started to feel like a really nice refugee camp. When we were released for lunch, we all kept our coats and hats on because it took a while for us to feel warm again. We looked like we had been driven from our homes wearing everything we owned. Some people used those hand and feet warmers they sell to skiers, which stained their mittens and socks a weird orange color. Pretty much everyone had on long underwear.
After a while, rather than hoping to get placed in a prominent position for being “discovered,” we all found ourselves hiding from the production assistant in charge of sending extras out to set. People started lying. We were told that the non-union extras who had arrived earliest (5:30 a.m. that morning) would get lunch first. I had been called for 7 a.m., so I had to wait. It started to feel like other people who were called at 7 a.m. were not waiting. When the PA called the 6:30 a.m. group, I went up and got in line for food. I didn’t care. He had no proof. What was he going to do, send me home? (PLEASE SEND ME HOME!)
The PA’s started treating the extras like unruly kindergarteners, which made us want to behave that way. It’s kind of like if you treat a teenager like he’s going to steal something in a convenience store, he’s more likely to actually do it. If you’re going to get in trouble for something, might as well have done the thing you’re in trouble for.
On the second day we had all pretty much had it—all 400 of us. I started squirreling away snacks in my pocket to eat surreptitiously on set. During a break I got a Dixie cup full of baby carrots and ranch dressing to eat. Two girls were sitting at my clan’s table. I didn’t love it, but whatever. I sat down to eat my carrot snack and play with my phone. One of the unknown girls knocked a prop into my carrots and sent the carrots and ranch dressing tumbling into my purse. I swore loudly at her and threw my bag on the ground, where I proceeded to frantically clean the ranch dressing out of my bag with a packet of travel tissues. I have never been so filled with rage as I was in that moment.
On the second day of shooting I think this guy made me his prison wife. Or more accurately, we both decided to get prison married. I was told to stand on a hillock of dirt and ice next to this normal-seeming guy. We started talking about improv and other extra jobs we’d done and told jokes. We sought each other out for the rest of the day, sitting together for lunch and trying to be placed near each other on set. It passed the time, so I forgot to mention that I was married for a few hours. I very much did not mention that I was also pregnant. It was a harmless and mutually beneficial situation: We protected each other from abject boredom.
At lunch on the second day, a bunch of people got food poisoning and got to go home. Honestly, I was a tiny bit jealous. My prison husband and I witnessed a girl barfing into a trashcan during the last shot of the day, after it had gotten dark. Her friend held her hair back and called for a PA to help. The barfing girl got to go home. They never stopped shooting.
My prison husband was trying to catch a bus back to New York, so as soon as they announced over a bullhorn that the extras were released, he ran away. It was fine; we had already followed each other on Twitter.
Before going home, I had to get in line with everyone else to return my hat to wardrobe and then to get my voucher signed. By this point, the PAs were ready to kill everyone. It didn’t matter how nice we were to them, there were 400 of us and they hated us each with the strength of a thousand suns. They rolled their eyes, they told us we had done the form wrong, and they did not participate in friendly banter, let me tell you. But eventually they signed my form and sent me on my way. I drove home, fell into bed, and slept for a million years.
At first, I had a hard time watching movies because I would spend all my time noticing the extras and imagining how boring it must have been to have to make fake, silent conversation for six hours. I had an especially hard time with outdoor winter scenes. But now, I can appreciate their hard work. It’s weird, but it is hard work to be a nobody, in the fake movie world and in reality, being scolded by eye-rolling 24-year-old PAs. But it’s sort of noble, if you think about it. They’re out there, standing around, pretending to talk to each other, creating an imaginary world for us. If they do their job right, they’re completely forgettable.
I think, in the end, if I’m only ever an extra twice, it’ll be because I’m too much of a megalomaniac to deal with being ignored.
Emily Kaye Lazzaro is a playwright, actor, and blogger from Somerville, Massachusetts.
Previously from Emily: “Our Attempt at a $20-a-Day Budget”