So, I started off as an extra, as I previously detailed, the shittiest job on the shittiest tier of any production.
Personally, I don’t mind being the biggest dumbass when I walk into a room, it only means I have the most to learn. If I remain the biggest dumbass in the room, then that’s on me and it’s my problem. More often than not it’s the people who claim to know the most who know nothing at all. For example, the people that argue that vaccinations cause autism or that climate change isn’t real. I spent the last decade studying the former and with strong understanding of physics and chemistry it still takes me an hour or two to read the papers on the latter. Don’t tell me your two hours of reading listicles has educated you, you fucking asshat.
Anyways, back to the story at hand. I was a dumbass when it came to TV and film production, which was what I wanted to get into. I love theatre, but I’m sorry, you’re not cutting it in New York making $500 a week doing eight shows (which can be the going rate of a lead in a well-reviewed off-Broadway show). Even if somehow Spielberg descended from on high and hand-plucked my ass to be the star of his next movie I would’ve been the biggest fuck up in the history of fuck ups, for the simple reason that I had never been on a working set.
Like any workplace a set has its own culture, its own unspoken rules, and jargon that will take you months, if not years to pin down. It’s a small army with a producers and directors at the top, a loyal and hardworking officer corps in the middle, and a very mercenary bunch of PAs at the lower levels. Each production and set has a different vibe, and that always comes from the top. You can tell which ones are organized, which ones have no idea what they’re doing, which ones are always over budget, and which ones the studios love. But at the end of the day, they’re a unit, and no matter how shitty it can get, they all depend on each other to stay employed, so there’s a camaraderie and they get the job done.
And then there’s us, the extras. They say that Hitchcock once called extras “props that eat”. That’s a grand exaggeration, props are treated way better than us. For any set, there’s a sort of esprit de corps, extras are not a part of that. Somewhere along the line someone decided that calling us “extras” was too demeaning and instead we were now to be designated as “background”.
What a load of crap. If you call a turd a diamond, at the end of the day it’s still shit. Plus, who thought ‘background’ is any less demeaning than ‘extra’.
Now, no one is saying that you don’t need extras, in fact if you don’t have them, a scene just seems antiseptic and dead. So by and large, it’s accepted that we’re necessary, but as a necessary evil.
Now I will preface the next section by saying this: I have met and worked with truly amazing crew members whom I adore and I will heap continual praise upon them and if I’m ever in a position to help them, I will in any way that I can. In addition, I have met incredible friends doing background, people that I hopefully will remain close with for the rest of my life.
Okay, disclaimer over.
Working as an extra is a twelve-hour clusterfuck with some of the most obscene, ignorant, and classless shitheads you’ll ever meet, and that’s on both sides.
If you are an extra, you fall into one of four categories:
The Starfucker: This person shows up on set to catch a glimpse of any semblance of a star. They think that being within 50 feet of a celebrity and not getting a restraining order slapped to their forehead is an achievement. They go out of their way to fawn over the principals and be a pain in everyone’s ass. They’re the fucking reason there are rules not to talk to principals. I once saw a guy get kicked off set for delaying production for chewing the ear off of Donnie Wahlberg. That’s got to be the most embarrassing point of that man’s life, getting booted off set for fanboying over Donnie fuckin’ Wahlberg.
[Note: Principal, in case you’re wondering, is the term for the real actors, you know the ones with lines]
The Hustler: This person does not give a single damn about what show they’re on, what scene they’re shooting, or really even what they’re supposed to be doing. They’ve figured out the system, and they know that it’s an easy paycheck for essentially sitting around. They know every trick in the book to do the least amount of work, for the most profit. They know every rule, every break, and every penalty that they’re entitled to. I’m not afraid to say that I learned a ton from them. Exacting and Machiavellian, they know the in’s and out’s of background work and how to get blood from the stone.
The Journeyman: Being an extra is some waypoint in their career. Usually this type of extra isn’t interested in becoming an actor, they’re just unemployed at the moment and being on set is a novel, if not amusing way to earn some money. They usually have the best stories, and are the most fun to hang around with. I’d say there are some actors in this group, but under advisement and thoughts of self-preservation they quickly get out of doing BG.
The Artiste: The worst possible fucktard out of the four. This obviously talented wunderkind deigns to slum it with us for the day. They never cease to talk about themselves, saying that they’re “too good” for background work. They rattle off their (inflated) resume, their Broadway credits, and flaunt their IMDB page. Of course when you actually Google them, that’s when the hilarity begins. Their IMDB page is basically a rolling list of extra roles with names they obviously made up, and the Broadway show they starred in was somehow staged in New Mexico. But still, they want to let you know that they’re a big fucking deal, and they need to be treated as such.
I’ll be honest, in my time as an extra I probably was a bit of all four of these, but that’s how you learn.
Now that you have the appropriate knowledge of the cast of characters the stories can begin…