I wrote this last year for another website and it never went anywhere, so enjoy!
It’s a smoke-filled dive bar in downtown Jackson Georgia. My long brown hair is perfectly feathered. I am shooting pool. I have a draft, my partner has PBR in a can. The Pacers are on the small black and white TV hanging over the bar. Sitting behind me is David Harbour. He is about to pick a fight.
In 2014 was working from home consulting for a tech company. I spent my free time browsing for car parts on Craigslist, but I looked under “gigs.” I found an ad for extras in a student film called “Deadwind, The Sharting Dead.” My wife and I met the crew in a town square in north Georgia. The writer/director, his girlfriend/makeup artist, and their buddy the camera man. (If you are going click that link, and you should, we show up at 21:50 to 22:05).
Their goal was to make the film for less than $500. They knew the ins and outs of Georgia film scene. I knew movies were being filmed in Georgia, but I had no idea how many. 18 months later, I found myself on two separate days of filming a new Netflix series called “Stranger Things.” Between those points, I have been in a dozen shows and films, including the Negan-introducing season finale of “The Walking Dead.”
middle, Bronco hood. 2nd Roadblock.
When the tech firm shuttered the doors in January, I suddenly had a lot of free time. I googled “Movie Extra Atlanta.” From the links there, I got an extra role on “Halt and Catch Fire.” My first real set ever, I met some folks who did this in their spare time and others who did this as a primary source of income. In the end, I wasn’t on film because my role blocked a camera shot. But they let me watch the scene and paid me anyway.
Which does bring up the topic of pay, it’s minimum wage. Art films and non-union sets may not pay extras at all. Most productions offer $8 an hour, with a guarantee of at least 8 hours, $64 as a minimum. It is commonly abbreviated as 8/64. The pittance can be augmented by “bumps;” $10 to$25 for having a car used on set, or traveling for a fitting.
You will most likely be on set for at least 8 hours. Once you break 12 hours, overtime is time and ½, or $12 an hour. Still not much, because you are taxed as a contractor. So you pay 100% of the FICA taxes when you file. You also must pay the taxes that weren’t withheld. Added up, its 50% of that $64 in taxes at the end of the year but you can deduct mileage and expenses.
So if you are not doing this for the money, why do it? Well, it can be fun. I have been crowded into tiny rooms with no airflow and commanded to keep quiet for hours. But most of the time, you are meeting some very interesting people from multiple walks of life. Several do this as entertainment, and few highly organized folks can do this as a living and many more are trying to pay their dues on the way to stardom.
The other reason is the food. Extra’s or “BGs” (background) often discuss which productions have the best food, which have the best ADs (Assistant Directors) and nicest PAs (Production Assistants). The most common topic always comes back to “craft services,” the caterers. Many agree “The Walking Dead” does an amazing job of feeding the background extras.
There is a caste system. Major talent eats first and in a separate area. This isn’t as elitist as you might think. Many big name stars are “method” actors and stay in character for the duration. Even a single, starry-eyed extra begging for a selfie and complementing their work can break their focus. It’s also the quickest way to be escorted off the set. There are other ways, we’ll cover some later.
After Halt and Catch Fire, I found a background role for “Keeping Up With The Joneses.” In the craft tent, I met Trish, a professional extra. She had no illusions about making it big, but was established and worked very steady. She happily showed me a list of sites, Facebook groups and even found a role I fit that day. We met again on that set. Just like a normal job, organizations that want you to pay for them to find work is a scam. You don’t need an agent; you also don’t need fancy headshots. In fact, most of the productions adamantly want a selfie of what you look like right now. What you do need is reliable transportation and a cellphone.
For most of my work, my biggest source is The Southern Casting Call. There is also Rose Locke Casting, Extras Casting Atlanta, and 100s of Facebook groups specific to your city or region. But prepare for rejection. Like looking for traditional work, only 10% of your correspondence gets a response. The key is volume and accuracy. Don’t apply for roles you don’t match; your email address ends up in auto delete. I am 6ft, middle aged, brown hair and brown eyes. I work out but I am not an underwear model. I am easily forgotten, making several roles available. When my hair was long, that made me specific to roles, like a post zombie tough guy, or midwestern small town pool player in the 80’s.
One such role was a diner patron on Tyler Perry’s “Love Thy Neighbor.” Tyler Perry Studios is just outside of Atlanta. Our PA told us a story about a BG stepping right up to Perry, presenting him with a resume. Full points for bravery, zero points for respecting Tyler Perry’s time. As a result, when extras are on set, Tyler now moves to a booth.
In the scene, Patrice Lovely was uncharacteristically struggling with delivering a line. They kept rolling until she nailed the performance, then came Tyler’s voice over the PA.
“Hattie, that was perfect, but the guy behind you in the grey shirt nodded his approval.” I dropped my head as everyone had a good chuckle at my expense. In perfect character, she turned and said “Thank you for your support.” I wasn’t escorted off. A good attitude is will usually get you forgiven. Crew days push over 14 hours. They appreciate working with pleasant folks, but break a big rule and you can quickly be blacklisted.
Among the ways to get removed, pestering the talent. Don’t bother the main actors, they’re trying really hard to focus. That can give an air of arrogance, but understanding their place is crucial. Many will still talk, for example, Kevin James was quite pleasant, but let them initiate. Even after that, give them space.
The fastest means to get asked off a shoot? Spilling secrets and on set pics. Those will end your day. “The Walking Dead” staff was perfectly honest. “We work really hard. Just down the road people with cameras posting who comes and goes, with info about plots. It ruins our work.” Almost every film has a confidentiality agreement, most keep your phone quarantined. For “Captain America Civil War,” groups were given short access to their phones. One BG posted a picture of her movie access badge on Instagram. Within 20 minutes she was removed.
My friend CJ has been doing this for years after separating from the Army and has three pieces of advice. #1 You are not too good for anything. If there is a role you fit, take it. You never know where it will lead. #2 Apply for what fits. #3 Be the kind of person people want to work with. Be nice to on set. Respect the crew, you will see them again. The same AD worked “The Accountant” and “The True Memoirs of An International Assassin.” He remembered me, putting me much closer to the cameras because he knew I would behave.
Finally, have a pen. You and 50 to 100 others fill out work eligibility, tax documents and confidentiality agreements. The PA’s and ADs cannot provide 700 pens and get annoyed when people show up without them. I went through my collection of cheap pens and often brought several with me. Also be early, the crew is trying to get a heard of cats from one place to another. Your parking is away from set. If you are even a few minutes late, that delay ripples through every station and delays your screen time.
It’s is not always fun, but it usually is. My Facebook friends have taken to snapping frames of things I have appeared in and sending them to me. It’s kind of fun watching previews with my wife and saying “I’m in that!” But it was a not a way for me to make a living.
But I have my summer off and I know a few productions are starting…