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The Secret Life of the Film Extra

I’ve seen the not-so-glamorous side of the film industry. I’ve worked as an extra: the steerage of the film world.

An extra is basically an extra warm body to bulk up a shot. You work long hours for little pay. Well, work is a strong word. You’re paid about $8 an hour to be present and listen to directions.

As an extra you’re basically glorified cattle. You’re filtered from the “holding area” to set and hopefully to craft services for some free food. Craft service is sometimes the only happiness an extra can have in a day’s work. There’s something about getting free peanut butter crackers and coffee at any time that makes 12 hours of sitting around worth it.

To be an extra you don’t have to have film or acting experience. What you have to have is an open schedule and literally nothing to do. When you say you’re available to work it could be anywhere from 5 a.m. to 3 a.m. the next day.

For the few unemployed months I’ve had in my life, I worked as an extra in New York City and New Orleans. In NYC it was hard to get consistent work on a TV show, but once you got one gig the casting agency would call you all the time.

On most shoots you just show up looking like yourself and not wearing white. When you’re lucky enough to get on a period piece you get paid a half day for doing your costume fitting. Plus, you get to play dress up.

I finally got a spot on Boardwalk Empire. At my fitting the costume assistant told me I would be wearing a camisole only under my dress. I warned him that my chest could not handle a 12-hour day without a bra and neither could the HBO viewing audience. After having me try on four different gowns I was given the bra pass and a note was made in my paperwork.

The day before you’re supposed to work as an extra you have to call a hotline to figure out your call-time and location. My first time working on Boardwalk Empire we didn’t get our call-time until after midnight. We were to arrive no later than 5 a.m., a mere four and a half hours later.

The train only came twice an hour and then a 45-minute ride. That meant I had to leave my apartment by 3:30 AM, on about two hours of sleep when I thought I’d be working an afternoon shoot.

Knowing that I can’t function without breakfast, I stopped by my local deli to get an everything bagel to soak up any extra alcohol still lingering in my tummy. Walking up to the pitch-black deli I noticed the empty display cases where my precious scallion cream cheese should have been. Of course, I was so used to waking up at noon I forgot what time normal people actually got breakfast.

I got off the train into a not so nice neighborhood in Brooklyn before the sun was up. By the time I found the holding tent it was already 5 a.m. and most extras were finished with paperwork and were lining up for hair, makeup and wardrobe.

I could see the breakfast buffet waiting but the extras’ wranglers were already hurrying me. That’s right, the people who herd the extras are called wranglers. Apparently, my blood sugar would have to wait until after I got beautified, and then hopefully I’d be rewarded with a sugar cube.

Halfway thru my five-minute catnap in the makeup chair, a PA, or production assistant, told me I needed to get into wardrobe and could come back. As I waited in another line with my wardrobe ticket, the spins started to set in. My hunger pangs turned into nausea. I had felt the feeling before: T-minus five minutes until puke time.

Every PA I saw I flagged down to ask where the bathroom was. Each time I got the same response: “I don’t know.” At that point, I was just hoping to find a trashcan I could get to quickly.

I tried to get out of line to go to the breakfast buffet but was roped in by one of the wranglers. As I stood in line with people packed in front and behind me I started to see spots. There was nothing left to do. I quietly bent over and threw up by my feet.

When I got to the head of the line I handed in my paperwork and said, “Hey, I threw up over there.” I was finally allowed to get out of line and was sent out to pasture. I threw up on myself my first day working on Boardwalk Empire, blew my opportunity with the casting agency and I never even got to see Steve Buscemi. And that is all in a day’s work for the lowly extra.


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