When I was in high school, Steven Spielberg came to the town where I lived to make a movie. For weeks the newspaper was full of stories about movie stars, casting calls, set building, and filming locations. Some people I knew signed up to be extras in the film, and I decided I wanted to be a movie extra someday.
Well, “someday” has arrived … almost. I’m not going to be in a movie. Instead, I’m going to be an extra on ABC’s new 1960s period drama “Pan Am.” The show, which stars Christina Ricci, is a big budget production about the lives of stewardesses aboard the pioneering airline. The pilot episode reportedly cost $10 million dollars to make.
According to the New York Times:
“Pan Am” takes place in New York, Paris and London, and practically every scene is shot in lush, golden light. The series is a paean to a more prosperous and confident era; even an airline terminal looks like a movie dream sequence about 1960s heaven.
I’m not exactly sure why I decided that now was the time to become a movie extra. I remember seeing a few casting calls posted online over the summer, and I started researching opportunities. As typically happens, once I decided to pursue the idea, I became somewhat obsessed. I started out looking for gigs in Philadelphia, but quickly realized that my chances would be better in New York City. Eventually, I created a profile on www.castingnetworks.com. I checked the site daily and started responding to listings.
Steiner Studios in BrooklynOn Monday, I received an email from Grant Wilfley Casting, a New York City-based casting company, offering me the opportunity to be an extra on “Pan Am.” I quickly accepted and rearranged my teaching schedule so that I could travel to NYC for a fitting the next day. The show is primarily filmed at Steiner Studios, located at the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. The studio’s website describes it as “the largest and most sophisticated studio complex outside of Hollywood.”
I had never been to a movie studio before and was surprised by how huge it was. Driving into the parking lot felt like arriving at an airport. A guard at the gate directed me to Stage 3 (pictured), where I signed in and took an elevator to the third floor. After filling out some paperwork, I had my measurements taken. A woman pulled two outfits for me and looked over some items I had brought along. (I had been instructed to bring - among other things - vintage-looking jewelry, shoes, skirts, and sweaters.) Both outfits - skirt suits reminiscent of Mad Men’s Trudy Campbell - fit beautifully.
The two scenes for which I’ve been hired shoot this Monday and Tuesday. Both take place in a London hotel. I am excited for the opportunity. Until I started teaching voice two years ago, I worked in public relations for an opera school and a major symphony orchestra. I loved getting to see the inner workings of creative endeavors that most people only experience passively. Teaching private singing lessons is a somewhat lonely job, and I am thrilled to explore the worlds of TV and film. The process has hardly started, but I’ve already learned so much. Here are a few discoveries that surprised me.
At Steiner Studios, November 20111. It’s not hard to become an extra. I assumed that before becoming an extra, I would need to mail my resume and headshot to casting agencies and attend several open call auditions. Since Philadelphia is not a major movie center, I figured it could be a few years before my efforts paid off. But the process is actually so much simpler - if you’re willing to travel. Apparently, experience isn’t necessary and opportunities are plentiful. Since booking the Pan Am gig earlier this week, I have been contacted by casting companies about extra work on Law and Order: Special Victim’s Unit, The Dark Knight Rises (the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) and The Silver Linings Playbook (a feature film starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro).
2. Extras aren’t volunteers. I’m actually going to get paid to hang out on the set of a TV show! Of course, I am not a union member and the pay isn’t great. (I’ll make $100 per 11 hours worked, not including the six-hour commute from my home to Brooklyn.) Still … I’m going to get paid to hang out on the set of a TV show.
3. Extras are booked at the last minute. I guess there’s a reason that extra work is easy to get. It requires two things most people don’t have: large blocks of free time and a flexible schedule. Official call times are available only after the previous day’s filming has finished. Opportunities are generally posted online a day or so before the shoot takes place. I have even seen afternoon gigs posted the morning of a shoot!
4. Not all extra parts are created equal. Extras are meant to be seen and not heard. However, not all extra work is the same. Background extras aren’t much more than scenery. They may sit in a restaurant where the lead characters dine, or walk by stars on the street. But their faces may not even be visible and they are not listed in the credits. Featured extras are given more prominent positions and are actually recognizable on camera, but they do not speak. If an extra is given a line, he or she is immediately upgraded to the position (and pay grade) of actor.
5. Extra work doesn’t necessarily lead to acting roles. From what I’ve read, it’s easy to become an extra but difficult to make the leap from extra to actor. Extra work is often looked down upon by actors, even though many actors work as extras. In general, extra work doesn’t involve acting and isn’t listed on an acting resume. However, beginning actors may be encouraged to do some extra work to learn about the business and observe the workings of a set.
6. Finally, I want to share this hilarious music video about life as an extra. It is a parody of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Enjoy!