The work is simple, the pay decent, and the job comes with the allure of a chance to be seen on screen. But being an extra comes with its own challenges, as I discovered during an opportunity offered by
The hours on set can be lengthy, and the work can be dull and enervating. And there's always the possibility that your scenes will fail to make the cut.
Still, people always seem to chase the opportunity for screen time, cash and connections.
A&E's Longmire is about the adventures of fictional rural
I didn't quit, but a fellow extra and my guide for the day,
Quintana said he has been in many shoots that have lasted 12 hours or more, sometimes through scorching heat, as was the case when he had a role in
At Longmire, extras make the
My three-hour shoot at
The thought of breaking expensive equipment or running into someone fills me with dread.
The set falls quiet while the camera rolls, then bursts back to life when it stops. In between shots, there is a lot of standing around, flipping through phones and chatting in hushed whispers with fellow extras.
Waiting is common. Most extras advise bringing a book.
Compton, who lives in
My scene takes place in a bar called
The scene is set during the day, though we are shooting after dark. Bright lights create artificial daylight.
The transition from faux day to real night, Compton says, can be jarring. (Later, it startled me, too, when I left the brightness of the studio for the dark night outside.)
Producers requested that I avoid divulging plot details -- most people have to sign nondisclosure agreements -- but I can reveal the details of my role: During my limited time on screen, I engage in conversation with Compton, leave the bar to smoke a cigarette just as Taylor and Sackhoff enter; I return when Taylor exits, choose a song on the jukebox, then sit back down and mime more conversation with Compton.
In the first take, I tremble. I keep thinking about the eyes of the director on me, and about the camera lens. My arms and mouth move as if they're made of wood. The distance to the door seems like miles. My mind is running laps around itself as I wait for my cues.
But when the take finishes, I breathe. Compton gives me a high five. I settle into my seat, ready to do it again.
In the second take, I add little flourishes -- I pull my index and middle fingers to my mouth, gesturing to Compton that I'm heading out for a smoke.
By the sixth and seventh take, my adrenaline rush is gone. My mind is numb from performing the same actions repeatedly.
I start stewing about acts that might be distracting -- am I holding the swinging doors too long for my date? Am I selecting the wrong track on the jukebox? Am doing a decent job of faking conversation?
I have no sense of how much time has gone by.
I have no idea if the camera is even on me.
Compton says that sense of displacement comes with the territory. She often doesn't know if her presence will make the final cut.
All throughout the night, I pestered other extras for advice. Compton said the best practice is to relax, and she recommended mouthing "pea and carrots" to mimic the appearance of conversation. She warned against drinking the liquid in the prop beer bottles.
Quintana said to follow any and all directions.
Another challenge of being an extra is adapting to the production schedule, which can change without warning. In my case, the producers changed the date I would be allowed to visit the set with less than a day's notice. Details of the shoot, on a Friday night, weren't hammered out until late Thursday.
Thankfully, my day job allowed me some time off for the experience, but other extras, like Compton, weren't so lucky. She had worked a full day at the
Casting calls often are issued with little notice, so serious extras need to be ready to adjust their schedules -- or potentially miss an opportunity.
That was the case for Quintana when the blockbuster The Avengers came to
"I had to do it. I did whatever I could," he said. That involved swapping shifts and giving up a regular sleep schedule. He once worked 36 hours straight between the two jobs. It was exhausting, Quintana said, but he would do it again.
My greatest challenge was finding the right clothes. I was told to dress Western, but I don't own cowboy boots, a hat or other Western attire. I tried to draw on the wardrobes of friends and family, but the clothes they had to offer either cut off the circulation to my extremities or made me look like a kid playing dress-up.
I eventually turned to a costume rental shop,
My worry was for naught: The wardrobe manager gave me a pass after looking at my getup for less than a minute.
At the end of the day
I went into this project with the expectation of encountering mostly people with only a cursory interest of working in film, or those with the hope of making a quick buck. Some of those people were around, but more were like Compton and Quintana, people hoping to find a foothold in the film world, no matter what the cost.
"Anytime I can get on set," Quintana said, "it's worth it."
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