News Column

Reporter learns firsthand the joys, doldrums of being an extra

July 6, 2014

By Chris Quintana, The Santa Fe New Mexican

July 06--As the number of film and TV productions grows in New Mexico, so does the number of casting calls for extras.

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 Robert Baxter Casting and the producers of the Santa Fe-filmed Longmire, a made-for-cable TV series.

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.

The expectation

A&E's Longmire is about the adventures of fictional rural Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire, played by Robert Taylor. It's been a successful show, now in its third season. It averages between 3 million and 4 million viewers, according to the website TV by the Numbers.

Katee Sackhoff, who plays a principal character in Longmire -- and also played Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica -- was the first to tell me that working as an extra isn't for everyone. The 34-year-old said she tried doing the work once when she was 14, but she quit halfway through the day.

I didn't quit, but a fellow extra and my guide for the day, Pablo Quintana, told me I had gotten off easy with a mere three-hour shoot at the Garson Studios on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The local studio also has been used for flicks such as Bless Me, Ultima, All the Pretty Horses and Wyatt Earp.

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 Seth MacFarlane's A Million Ways to Die in the West. But the actor said those long shoots come with overtime pay.

At Longmire, extras make the Santa Fe minimum wage, $10.66 per hour, but the pay tends to vary by production.

The shoot

My three-hour shoot at Garson Studios begins at 9 p.m. On the set is a slew of thick, black wires and giant, hanging lamps. Red lights blink on archaic-looking machines. Harried crew members dash from one studio to the next, carrying hefty equipment and props.

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.

Production assistant Michael Chochol guides the two dozen or so extras -- ranging in age from early 20s to late 50s -- to the backstage, where we are placed on set. I am paired with fellow extra Kat Compton, who graciously tolerates my attempts to strike up a conversation.

Compton, who lives in Albuquerque, is the sort you might expect to do well in films: petite, svelte, with blond, wavy hair and large, green eyes. She has worked as an extra a few times this season for Longmire, and she is hoping to leverage herself into an acting career.

My scene takes place in a bar called The Red Pony Saloon, adorned with dozens of trophy animals including deer, mountain lions and birds. There are plenty of rifles and American flags to complete the saloon's Western feel.

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.

The woes

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 Paa-Ko Ridge Resort in Albuquerque before driving an hour to Santa Fe for a night's worth of work.

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 Albuquerque. He was working as a security officer at the time and had to get to his regular job while juggling long hours in his role as a guard in the film.

"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, Costumes Ltd., where I was outfitted with a cowboy hat and an authentic pair of scuffed black boots for a paltry $15.

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."

Contact Chris Quintana at 986-3093 or cquintana@sfnewmexican.com.

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(c)2014 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)

Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com

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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)


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