I literally never cared about unions until I started acting. The way that I saw it, if you were good at your job, your boss would keep you around. Meritocracy makes sense to me. After working a week as a non-union extra, I vowed to never cross a picket line.
Being an extra is the shittiest job on the shittiest tier of any production, but I can tell you, being a non-union extra as opposed to a SAG extra is a whole other level of degradation.
[Note: SAG-AFTRA is the union for actors on film and television, or the occasional big web series]
As a non-union extra, you do the exact same job as a union extra, except you get paid about half of what SAG makes, and the longer the day goes on the bigger difference that becomes. The advertised rate of a NU extra is 143/10, as opposed to the SAG 170/8 in 2018. After taxes, your take home for a day of work on set is about $100.
But Terence, SAG only makes $30 more!
Sure, at the base rate, but it’s over eight hours, and they get union penalties. I can count the number of times I’ve been on set where the day has been less than eight hours on one hand, so you’re getting overtime as well. At the end of the day, your take home after taxes is easily double that of the NU scrub because SAG overtime escalates. To put it in perspective, at a much later point than where we are in the story, I worked a 15 hour day as a SAG extra and I made quadruple the amount my friend who was working NU did.
In addition to the pay, there is the fact that they have to treat you nominally as a person. A SAG rep will usually drop by the set and check-in to see if the SAG people have been maimed or otherwise inconvenienced. It’s only a slight exaggeration when I say the only reason why they don’t want the NU extras to die is because they’d have to fill out mountains of paperwork.
Of course I knew none of this going in, but I realized that I was particularly well-suited for this sort of humiliation simply because I had been pre-med in college. Research positions are coveted and required for your resume, everyone knows this. As such, there is a surplus of bright, driven, and probably overqualified undergrads willing to do the scut work necessary to run a research facility. Because we’re idiots and we don’t know any better, we basically trip over ourselves to offer our services as indentured servants to a lab. Some of the labs are great and impart a lot of knowledge, but most of them recognize us for what we are; well-meaning idiots with no skills but believe we have a lot to offer.
That last phrase encapsulates the majority of the extra population, myself included. To be honest the fact that I was getting paid, even at all, for this familiar type of degradation was a novel concept.
The first extra gig that I worked was for “The Sinner”. There’s this casting agency that still fucking uses VOICEMAIL to get your wardrobe and call times for the day. It’s 2018 for chrissakes. It doesn’t help that the person recording the aforementioned voicemail is over caffeinated, over worked, and as such can’t enunciate into a telephone that is probably a holdover from the Reagan administration. You end up having to listen to the fifteen minute message at least twice and translate static-y garble into English. It wasn’t till I got to set that I realized the show I was working on wasn’t “The Circle” but “The Sinner”. It was a USA miniseries that starred Jessica Biel (who I knew best from being the wife of Justin Timberlake) and Bill Pullman (who I knew best from the Independence Day speech).
That first day would basically be instructive and indicative of all the days to come. You get an ungodly call time early in the morning at some godforsaken location. You show up, get herded like cattle, and get shuttled off to hair, makeup, and wardrobe, then sit around and wait till they feed you, and as non-union, you are by rule the last one go through, get food, and get signed out. This is not an unspoken rule, it is the letter of the law.
I’m sure you’re reading this and you think that I was miserable. On the contrary, that first day was eye-opening. Going on to set having zero clue of what was going on, from the second I arrived in holding (the pen where they keep the extras) I started learning. I will fully admit that I was the biggest dumbass and almost ruined multiple shots that first day. I thought that everyone moved when the director yelled “Action!”, but there’s cue for extras prior to that. I had no idea and ended up standing in place when I should have been moving, and ended up delaying three camera crosses. I got chewed out by the PA, but I learned. That first day was full of moments like that, screwing the pooch royally, but learning at an exponential rate.
The key I learned to being an effective extra was basically two things: One, do EXACTLY as you’re told. Two, shut the fuck up.
The second thing is probably more important than the first. The reason is, if you have a spoken line, even a word, even just a single “Ugh” and it’s audible in the final cut, they must pay you the SAG principal rate of 899/8. Yup, that’s a cool grand in your bank account for a single syllable. There are tons of stories about down on their luck extras trying to insert themselves into shots and utter a quick word or phrase trying to cash in. There is no quicker way to get yourself booted from set and blacklisted from ever working again.
The biggest impression that I took to heart was that “it’s not about you”. Every single person that’s below the line knows that, and if you want to last in the industry, you have to understand that it’s about getting the job done. You might get a job or an opportunity in this industry because you know someone, but the only way that you last is if you can do your job. Your continued employment is contingent on your product being good enough so people want to watch it. A meritocracy, and you see that camaraderie in every department, no matter the bad blood or other workplace nonsense that comes up, you do your job and you go home. You can be profane, have your cliques, and be pretty off-color, but don’t fuck with anyone and be good at your job, and you’ll be employed.
Once I figured that out I felt like I could hack it on set, at least for a few more days.
[Note: ‘Below the line’ refers to anyone that’s not a name talent, i.e. directors, actors]
That first day on ‘The Sinner’ was revelatory. It was a 14 hour day, from which I made all of $120. But it was my first paycheck from the industry. It was a little milestone, and I still vividly remember everything from that day. I probably learned half of what I needed to learn about how a set operates on that first day.
Like I said, I don’t mind being the biggest idiot when I walk into a place, it just means I have the most to learn. When I left, I was most likely still the biggest idiot, but the gap had closed significantly. I worked as much as I could from there on to grasp set culture, which leads us into pilot season…