The Glamorous Life of a TV Extra


It's an exciting time for our little town. 20th Century Fox has come to film a new TV pilot starring Katie Holmes. Our whole town is abuzz, talking about where they're filming (word got out on that pretty quickly) and hoping to catch a glimpse of a star or two. It didn't take long for our village to realize that this whole filming-a-movie thing is, well, not what they thought it was going to be with closed streets and buses looping around at all hours. But what about on set? That has to be pretty cool, right?

Well, in the spirit of full disclosure, I feel like I should tell you that I have been in some movies and TV shows. Before I had children, I worked as an extra on films and television shows that were being shot in Chicago. When you want to get into film/television, the best way to learn about it is by experiencing it. I would recommend it to anyone for the experience. You have an entirely new appreciation for what you see on the screen. However, from experience, I can tell you: it’s not exactly glamorous. Or anything close. Here’s the reality of what it's like to be on set:

1. Shooting a movie/TV show requires you to work really, really strange hours. “We’re shooting a high school football game and we need you in the stands. Your call time is at 7:00 p.m. Bring your wardrobe for the 1960s, no bright colors.” This is the kind of message you get. Well, that doesn’t sound too bad! Seven-o’clock in the evening for a high school football game sounds pretty normal. Yes! Except that 7:00 p.m. is your start time for your (at-least) eight-hour day. That means that you are in the stadium filming until at least 3:00 a.m. if you’re lucky. Anytime you're shooting in a location that is used by the public, you usually have to wait to film until the people who use it have (mostly) gone home for the day/week. This usually goes for restaurants, public transportation, airports, etc. Yes, if you work in a building where something is filming, it is absolutely annoying to have to work around the filming. I'm not saying it isn't. I'm just saying that people who work on a movie or TV show keep those hours for days, weeks, or sometimes months at a time. I worked for a week at those hours and by the end of it, my circadian rhythm was totally off. (Kudos to you, night-shift workers!) It's not a cakewalk.

2. You will work with some really, really awesome people. The crew working on a film set are almost always some of the nicest, most down-to-earth people you will ever meet. These are the people who hold the microphones, who make sure people are where they’re supposed to be, who take care of the lighting and the technical elements, who get the directors what they need, etc. I was called to be a dancer on a particularly cool scene where I would be waltzing at a ball and was paired up with a dancer from the Joffrey Ballet, who had choreographed the scene for the lead actors. We had a great time during our eight hours together, talking about art in society and our lives outside of being there. Sometimes I would run into other actors I knew from town and that was fun to catch up with each other about projects we were working on or shows we had seen. You may never see any of those people again, but, then again, you might make a new friend/connection, and the nice people make it fun, just like in an other job.

3. You will also work with really, really strange people. Some people do extra work as a career. They try to be on set as many days as possible for minimum wage. (You can expect to earn around $85/day as an extra in Chicago. You get more if you’re part of the SAG union, but most of the people you’re working with aren’t, at least not in Chicago.) Now, to be fair, something about me seems to say, “If you’re having a personal crisis, please come talk to me and tell me every single detail of your life.” I don’t know what I do to invite this, but I can tell you that I, without exaggeration, had the following exchange while waiting to be called to set:

Guy (attractive, tall, young, waving frantically at me to get my attention): Hey! Hey!! Hey!!!

Me (wearing headphones and reading a book in the corner, turned away from the rest of the room): Are they calling us?

Guy: No, I just wanted to ask you a question. You look like you totally have your life together and I just started dating this girl and she’s a heroin addict and I don’t do any of that stuff because I used to be really overweight and I learned how to love myself and I lost, like, 200 pounds and health is really important to me. Do you think this is going to work out?

Me: No. Sorry. (Starting to replace headphones.)

Guy: But, like, she works out. I met her at the gym. Don’t you think she could be the right one for me?

Me: No. I don’t. Sorry. If I were you, I would cut your losses and move on. (Starting to replace headphones again.

Guy: But ...

And now I’m in an hour-long therapy session with someone when what I really want to do is finish re-reading the Harry Potter book I brought. This happens over and over to me. I could probably write a blog just on strange exchanges that I have with strangers who overshare. (Hmm. New book idea?) This isn’t exclusive to me, though. A friend in L.A. got called to do some extra work and got sexually harassed by a table full of men sitting next to her. She got up to walk away, and they called her names and said some pretty horrible things to her. (Yes, she reported them to the set manager and other women offered support after the fact.) Bottom line: there are some really, really weird people out there and they almost all end up on set. You're not going to be surrounded by glamour.

4. You will be in physical pain by the end of the day. In almost everything I was ever in, I was on my feet, sometimes in stilettos on a marble floor, for hours on end. By the time I crawled into bed, my feet were blistered and/or bleeding, my back was screaming, and my head was pounding. When my dad filmed "House Hunters" on HGTV last year, I told him to wear his most comfortable pair of shoes and to bring a folding chair if possible. He thought I was kidding. That night, he called me and said that he was going to wear flip-flops the next day and that the girls that he was filming with were almost in tears from their heels. Yep. If you've ever worked retail or in a restaurant, standing for hours without a break, this is a similar experience. I always think about those poor actresses in action movies who have to do their roles in crazy shoes and bare midriffs and weird gladiator costumes with heavy wigs. They make it look like the most natural thing in the world and are probably thinking, "I wonder how my feet are doing? I haven't felt them in hours." Or "I'm really, really cold. Why is this guy in a full fur suit and I'm wearing a leather bikini?"

5. You don't get to hang out with or get to know the stars. When you get to the set, you're given very specific instructions not to talk to the actors and you're not allowed to have your phone with you (so definitely no pictures/videos). This means that large parts of your day are spent being totally awkward. Now, I'm kind of an awkward person anyway, so I guess I'm kind of used to it, but I once had to stand next to Will Ferrell on the set of "Stranger than Fiction" for probably two hours and it was super-weird. It is really strange to stand next to someone and not be allowed to talk to them and to have them not talk to anyone either. Now, I totally broke that rule when John Stamos pulled out his brand-new first-generation iPhone (in between takes while the tech crew was adjusting the lighting) on the set of "ER" and I completely tech-geeked out. I think he was relieved that I seemed to be a normal person who was not hitting on him (see Number 3 above). (And yes, for those of you who are wondering, he is super dreamy.)

6. It will take two hours to get two minutes of material. I think this one was the most surprising thing to me and what I appreciate the most when I watch movies now. When you're filming a scene, you have to have camera angles on the actor speaking and on the actor listening and sometimes on the background and sometimes on something else totally random. And each of those camera angles requires that the actors do the same scene over and over again exactly the same in order to get those shots. So, let's say that you're watching Jennifer Hudson sing her guts out in "Dreamgirls". As a watch her, you think, "Ugh. My heart is breaking! She is so incredible! That was so raw!" The reality is that Jennifer Hudson had to be that raw and break your heart for probably two hours straight while the lighting was adjusted and cameras moved around. All hail, Jennifer Hudson.

7. It can be really, really boring. There is a lot of sitting/standing around while waiting for a scene to be set. When you're waiting to go to the set, you're in a room full of other people all waiting. The actors may be waiting in their trailers, but they're not exactly partying it up in there either. Usually, they're preparing for the scene they're shooting or someone is getting their hair/makeup/wardrobe just right. This sounds better than it is. Sometimes you're in a place with no wifi (hence, the book) and when you're waiting on set, there's no option but to stand there, sometimes in the path of the rain machine in 37 degree weather, wearing a summer dress. Well, that one wasn't boring. It was like an experiment in human determination and also hypothermia. Still, would have been better if I had been provided with a soundtrack of some sort. This leads me to No. 8.

8. You will be asked to do really, really weird things. Sometimes you'll arrive to set and be told what the scene is generally about. Then you'll be told what your role is. Sometimes it's just walking like you'd be walking in your everyday life. Sometimes, as part of a crowd scene, you'll have to do what a crowd would do at a football game, for example. And you will get a cue from a director to "Okay, now your team got a touchdown!" And everyone cheers. If you're filming in a stadium, you can probably expect that. There have been other times when the direction is that the crowd has turned angry and they're asking all of the extras to jeer or, in one film I was in, call the characters names. Sometimes a crew member will come into the holding room and ask if anyone there has any experience with such-and-such. I've heard them ask for cheerleaders, gymnasts, dancers, CPR training. You may also be asked to drive your car (for which you get an extra boost in pay). My old little 1994 Toyota Camry has been in many parking garage and city block scenes.

9. You may not make the final cut. I once filmed a nightclub scene with Vince Vaughan where all of the extras had to move like we were all dancing to a great song. Of course, in order to hear the dialogue of the actors, they played us about two eight-counts of music and then cut the sound, but we had a to keep moving. Oh, and dancing without moving our feet so they would make sound. The actors walked right by me in the scene and, when I went to see the movie on the big screen, I knew exactly in which scene to look for myself. But, alas, as the actors moved to where I was, the camera jumped to a close-up of the D.J. working (what I knew was) a silent turntable. No screen time for me. Just the great memories of standing stuck in heels moving to some kind of beat in my mind.

10. You will have some good stories to tell. There's something really cool about seeing yourself on the big screen. There's something even cooler when someone spots you and calls you before you've seen it. The best is when you have an experience that is so fun and unexpected and makes your day. I will leave you with this: I was standing next to Larry the Cable Guy and he struck up a conversation with me about the scene we were filming in "Witless Protection" in which Peter Stormare's character gets thrown off a horse in a polo match into a pile of manure. To be completely truthful, while I own it, I've never seen the movie all the way through. It's just not my kind of humor (although, thinking about it now, my kids might love it). And, in my youth and folly, I regretfully had made assumptions about Larry the Cable Guy being crass and ignorant. I was wrong. So wrong. Y'all, he was the nicest guy in the world. So genuinely funny, witty, and down to earth, definitely more than his character would lead you to believe. I've been a fan ever since. That's the best part of the job, being able to write this post about the stories I've had through the years. So, as I said in my opening paragraph, if you get the chance to do it, do it. You'll have your own stories to tell.

Note: The pictures I have with the talent were, in both cases, after we had finished filming. Also, in both cases, I didn't ask for the picture. The talent came over to the extras and offered to take pictures with us, which was awesome. These scenes were both scenes with only a few extras, not a big crowd. One of the crew members took the pictures and texted/emailed them to us.

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Allison Harvey