When you walk through New York, especially once you get past the tourist traps, you occasionally see these pieces of paper taped and posted on to lamp posts saying that this street will be closed for a certain amount of time on a given day. 10% of the time it’s for a parade, the other 90% of the time it’s for filming. New York City is perhaps the most iconic city in American cinematic history. So much so that a lot of the studios in LA have an NYC set so they don’t actually have to come here to shoot. Over the summer, after being fascinated with these signs and notices for years, I decided to actually act on my interest. I’m in New York, I had the time, so if I wasn’t going to do it then, I’d never do it. So I went to an agency, got all my information in, put in my headshot, and looked for work. I got a call less than 4 days later to be an extra on a miniseries. Cool, let’s go.
There’s always a bit of nervousness when you’re doing something new. I was definitely feeling some butterflies as I got on the bus to go to location. They were shooting at some courthouse in upstate New York so there was a bus to take us to set. I immediately learned that if you’re non-union (which I obviously was since I just started) you don’t get paid when you’re traveling. This is why from that point on I only took on jobs in the city proper. However, once I got to set, it was immediately apparent that I had absolutely zero clue about what actually entailed a real shoot.
The first thing was the the enormity and scale of production. This was a USA miniseries, so it was by no means the most well-funded production of all time, but even with that, the production shut down an entire municipal court complex and the adjoining fields were completely covered with trailers and transportation for every single conceivable need.
The characters that you meet on set are absolutely hilarious. The majority of the people there are completely normal, willing to put in a day’s work and get paid for it. There were of course the outliers who thought that this was their shot to make it to the big time. Compounding that was their outsized ego and demand to be the most well-treated person in the room. The only people that they showed deference to were the stars themselves. They of course got their asses planted in the dimly lit and far background of every shot they were needed.
What really amazed me was the enormity of the people working on every single aspect of the show. I was wearing dress shoes for the scene and when I was walking past the cameras, the clicking of the heels made too much noise. Immediately, there was a guy who was there to put foam on the soles of shoes, and that was this guys only job. I’m not sure where you can sign up for “foamer of noisy shoes” but that was a job. There was also someone that just held the camera when the cameraman needed a break, someone just to wrangle the extras, and even someone just to keep people from tripping on the video cables amongst other jobs.
Hitchcock once said that extras are basically “furniture that eats.” I can totally see where he was coming from, but damn, is it entertaining being furniture. We were supposed to have the whole day blocked off for the shoot, but I didn’t realize that we were shooting a 10 hour day for one 5 minute scene. I am by no means exaggerating. We spent 10 hours on set, with an additional 2 hours traveling, to shoot and provide background for a 5 minute scene. And by we, I mean more than 100 extras. We had to get hair and makeup done, made sure our wardrobe was up to par, sit in holding to make sure that our paperwork was cleared and we were eligible to work, and then we could go to the shoot. We had to rehearse the scene, and then shoot it from every conceivable angle so that the editors had enough film to choose from for a cohesive edit. Then we had to factor in union breaks, the catered lunch (which was fantastic, but varies from production to production) and that was the day.
It was a whirlwind experience, and since then I’ve been “furniture that eats” for a number of other shows and movies. I’m not sure if it’s possible to make a living as an extra, but it’s incredible to take a look behind the scenes and realize that entertainment really is an industry unto itself. There is a particular aura of mystery around film and television and somehow seeing how the magic is made didn’t demystify it at all, it made me more appreciative of the craft. Even “bad” shows employ hundreds of people and the employees on those productions do not work any less hard than those on good shows. Put in a good day’s work and everyone appreciates you, whether you’re the director or just blending into the background.
I will say though, it was a complete shift from what I’m used to. You are judged entirely on your appearance and your ability to supplant the artificial reality that the show is trying to create. There is an impetus in entertainment to populate the screen with attractive people, and it is incredibly flattering when you’re chosen to fit that specific need. That being said, I’m usually the only Asian male in the room, so there’s something to be said about representation. As ego-boosting as being the generic “attractive Asian male”is, it’s really disheartening to be the only Asian male on set most days. There’s something to be said about the arts when Asian participation is so low, because I really do believe that representation is one of the key ways to affect change. I wonder though, is it a cultural aversion to investing in art and culture that goes beyond looking good on a college resume, or is it a lack of confidence that you would get work as an Asian male, like some self-induced cycle?
And then there’s the other weirdness involved, like how you talk to your other extras when you’ve just been swapped with them because “you look better on camera”. How to pantomime having a great time at a club and dancing when there’s no music (and more importantly, no beat to dance to). The quick changes between walking across a street so you seem like a mob of different people populating a closed set. I guess at the end of the day, it’s just like any other job, and the experiences and minor glamour just blend into the background. Now, of course I have ridiculous stories, but that’s for another time…