It is just over a year that I completed filming as an extra in the film Leatherheads. Although being an extra means waiting around, bringing multiple wardrobes, eating after the actors and production crew eat or watching them eat upscale food, while you are having burgers, there is a path or journey to move on to professional acting.
The journey and knowledge of being an extra and moving into different roles includes the understanding of the set, the director, the costumers, and production assistants. Here are some of the tips and tricks I learned along my short journey.
1. Be Inquisitive - On most movie sets there are people who just show up for fun and those who are interested in the "craft" of acting or producing a movie. Since on most movie shoots extras can be waiting for hours a day, there is an opportunity to engage in conversation with other actors/extras. You can also engage in conversation with the production assistants, hairstylists, makeup artists, audio engineers, grips, caterers, and even like on Leatherheads, the Animal Wrangler.
2. Listen - In the midst of all the waiting around there is then that moment when you are being called to the set. Listen to the announcements from the production assistants in extras holding. Be ready to go to the set on a moments notice.
3. Be Professional - Treat this as a professional job, not a hobby. Although you may be making minimum wage, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent daily on major film productions or on a small film the actual invested money of the local producer or director. Show up to the set at the right time, bring the right clothes, and be positive.
4. Costumes - For many films, you may need to be self dressed. This means you are responsible for bringing clothes that fit the role for the movie or scene you are doing that day. If you are going to be a lawyer, town leader businessman, then bring a very nice suit and tie.. If you are a blue collar worker, then an old pair of jeans, and an appropriate shirt works. For women, bring the appropriate dress or pants for the day. Also maybe most importantly bring a good pair of shoes, so that you can wear your own vs the ones they may give you. This also means you may have to invest in clothes. You might need to go to a Salvation army to look for old clothes if you are working on a movie set in the 1960's for example. Make sure you also have an idea of your sizes. You might be dressed by the costumers themselves. In this case, and this is the fun part, you get to wear the clothes of that era.
5. Hair and Makeup - This is possibly a challenging area for some. In many films you will need to have your hair cut to match the era that the film or period that the film covers. In Leatherheads, my hair was cut to look like 1925. In Blood Done Sign My Name, my hair was styled and cut for the small town NC 1960's look. If you have a beard or mustache you might be asked to shave it off. The more flexible you are the more roles you can get.
6. Casting Directors - On each film there is an extras casting director. Keep an eye on their website or call their extras hotline on a regular basis. Keep in contact with them and let them know you availability. If they are on the set, introduce yourself and thank them for the opportunity. You might also inquire to future dates and roles that may be appropriate for your "look". In many films you may play multiple roles.
7. Paperwork and Pay - On most movie sets, you will need a drivers license and social security card as proof that you are legal to work on the film. Upon arrival on the set, the first thing you will do is sign in. There is usually a table set up as you arrive at the extras holding area. You will be asked to fill out a "pay" form that specifies who you are and where the check should be sent and how much the daily pay rate is. In cases where you will be given costumes, you will need to give your form to the costumers during the day. This is a way for them to make sure you don't walk off with any costumes. At the end of the day, when you are "wrapped" they will sign you out and give you the paperwork copy. Keep these in your records, as there might be a chance your paperwork might get lost. Also, travel costs are not usually covered, so plan that as part of your expenses. Carpooling, crashing on someones couch, sharing a motel room or sleeping in your car are some of the ways to keep expenses to a minimum.
8. Directions to the set - Make sure you have the correct driving directions to the set and a phone # of someone working on the production in case you get lost. In many cases, the film will be in an area of town which is sparsely populated. You may also be arriving at the set at 4:30 am to 6 am when not many people are around and stores are closed. Typically there will be signs directing you to extras parking when you are within a few blocks of production.
9. Be Noticed, Not Pushy - When you are on the set or in extras holding, get to know the production assistant who leads you out to the set. As you arrive on set, try to meet the production assistant there also and build trust and let them know your are professional and serious about this film. Many of them are just like you working their way up the ladder.
10. In the scene - One you arrive on the set, an assistant director in charge of keeping track of extras will instruct you or pick you out to be in a scene. They know you may be a first time person or they know you have experience so may use you differently. In some cases you may be in the deep background where you are just filling in the background just like scenery. If you are fortunate you may have a role where your face is clearly seen or you are "Featured". You know you are featured when the cameraman takes a tape measure to your face or the camera is just a few feet away. In any case, once you are "featured" you also may be "used" so they can not show your face any more. For example, in leatherheads I was a Chicago Photographer and Reporter. When I showed up one day, they were filming a scene in Duluth MN. It would not have made sense for me to be there. Or in Blood Done Sign my name, I was a city councilman. It might not make sense, if I was in another scene as a State policeman. As a professional, be honest with the assistant director. If you are not, you may end up being cut from the film when they edit.
10.5 Enjoy yourself, enjoy the journey, make new friends and "break a leg". You may even want to pack a bag with your overnight supplies, you never know when you may be asked to stay an "extra" day!