One of the great things about being FIREd is having the ability to take time to try new things. Last week I had the opportunity to try my hand at being a background actor (aka “extra”) on a new TV show.
Going into it, I had no idea what to expect. I found out about the opportunity from a friend of mine who saw the casting call posted to Craigslist. Neither of us had any previous experience with this sort of thing. We both responded saying we were interested and available. She was called in to film on one day for a scene in a bar, and I was called in to film on three days: one day filming in a gymnasium scene and two days filming outdoors in a park.
The first day was pretty disorganized. They called a bunch of us in bright and early, got us set up with our costumes for the scene, and then we sat outside for about eight hours before we actually had to do anything. There was an assistant director who was our point of contact, and he kept telling us we would be needed in an hour or so. They must have had a bunch of things run behind schedule, as they didn’t end up needing us until the very end of the day.
When we were called in it was a pretty surreal experience. I had never been on a professional set like that before. There were lots of people involved, each with their own jobs. They would all do their thing to get set up for the next shot, perform the scene, reset everything back to the beginning for the next take, and repeat from there. I was pretty impressed by how well everyone seemed to work together.
The second day I went in was a bit more involved. At the beginning they had us consult with a wardrobe professional, handing out the costumes we were supposed to wear and having us try them on. They also had us spend a few minutes with hair and makeup artists to get us looking our best for the camera.
Once all that was done we headed to the set location in the middle of a public park. We were on camera much more that day. Not nearly so much sitting around waiting to be called in like the first day.
The filming was a bit challenging for everyone because the park we were in was underneath a flight path into the airport, so there was airplane noise interrupting things every couple of minutes. We got into a nice rhythm of setting things up during the airplane noise so that we were ready to go right away when it was over.
Another challenge was related to sunlight. It was cloudy when we started out shooting the scene, but later in the day the sun came out. This difference in light levels isn’t great for the continuity of the scene. Makes perfect sense when you think about it, but it’s something that I hadn’t considered before as just a viewer of TV shows. The crew brought out this big 20′ square shading device and set it up over our heads to make some shade and get the light levels down to about what they were when it was cloudy. Once again, I was impressed with how much everyone in the crew performed their different roles to keep things moving along.
That day was pretty tiring. We were there for about 12 hours, right until sundown. Then we had to show up again before sunrise the next day for the final day of filming. That morning they only needed us for a few shots, and we were done with our scene by lunchtime.
All in all, this was a very positive experience for me. Besides the opportunity to see how a TV show is made behind the scenes, I also met a bunch of interesting people. Most of my fellow extras were not new at it, and had even retained talent agents to try and find them as many roles as possible.
I don’t think there’s enough film work available in the Seattle area for anyone to make much of a real career out of acting here; it’s more something that people interested in it can do from time to time for a bit of extra cash if they have flexible jobs. I met a woman trained as a chef who works in sales, has been on a couple of reality shows, and aspires to have her own cooking show someday. I met a man who did web development for a few years before leaving that to become a juggler and pub trivia quizmaster, and who had made two appearances on game shows. There was a real estate agent who was also making his first appearance as an extra, and plenty of others each with their own story.
We all came together for three days working at minimum wage to fill out the background of a few scenes on a TV show. I think we did pretty well at it! It was fun to try once, and I can’t completely rule out doing it again in the future, but I’m also not going to scour the web for the next available opportunity. It started to feel a bit too much like work by the end, especially that last day with the pre-dawn start time.