What's It Actually Like Being A Film Extra?

By Jon Porter on at

What’s on your bucket list? You know, that list of things you promise yourself that you have to do before you die?

There’s probably something to do with travelling on there, along with some kind of endurance feat, like swimming across the English channel or cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats.

But before you get into the weird sex stuff on the list, I’d be willing to bet that most people would probably include an entry on being some kind of film extra.

It’s easy to see the appeal. For most the world of film work is completely inaccessible, locked behind layers of equal parts stardom and technical skill.

Being an extra (or ‘supporting artist’ if you want to be fancy with it) is the perfect way for an average Joe to find his or her way onto a film set, and better yet actually contribute to a scene or two.

If you live anywhere close to where filming takes place (London has turned into a hot-spot since a number of tasty tax-breaks have been introduced for film companies), then it’s surprisingly easy to get involved.

How It Happens

Like most people I’d idly thought that I’d like to take the opportunity if it arose, but it had never really seemed like an option until a friend of a friend passed over an open casting call for an upcoming feature film.

All we needed to do, we were told, would be to turn up at a church that had been rented out by the production company, and fill out a couple of forms.

I went along with a couple of friends, thinking that if the whole process was a nightmare, we’d at least have each other to turn to.

On the train ride there all three of us were nervous. Would we be auditioned in front of a panel of casting agents? Would we need to memorise lines? Would our feeble efforts be met with a Simon Cowell-esque dressing down?

Each of us had done bits and pieces of student acting in the past, but none of us could be described as a professional actor by any stretch, and we were all fearful that this would prove to be our undoing.

But as it turns out, the requirements for being a film extra are minimal at best. Each of us had our measurements and photos taken, and we filled out a couple of forms that swore us to secrecy about the details of the film and set out what we were and were not willing to do for our art (smoking on screen got a tentative thumbs up while full-frontal nudity was politely declined).

That was it. No assessment of our ability to act, no lines to learn, and no cameras more advanced than a basic point-and-shoot. We were simply told we’d be picked based on how much we looked the part.

This process speaks to the core of what it is to be a film extra. I’m not saying that there aren’t talented actors working as film extras, but from my experience the casting agents in charge of picking them know that a talented editor can do wonders with even the biggest trainwreck of an extra.

But regardless of how much talent it took, we were in. A couple of weeks later I was contacted by the agency and told I’d been successful, and that I’d be needed for a couple of weeks. Simple, right?

Except when it comes to the world of filmmaking nothing is ever simple. Nothing ever takes the amount of time production teams expect it to, and filming dates frequently change. In total, my first stint of extra-ing required me to change my holiday bookings three times to the annoyance of my manager.

Getting On Set

Any illusions surrounding the glamour of being a film extra disappeared the moment I arrived at the filming location in the morning.

After signing in for the day and being given a cooked breakfast (yes, the rumors about food on set being amazing are absolutely true) we were ushered into the costume and makeup departments and told to wait our turn.

Waiting is something you’ll need to get used to on set. As a film extra you’re on the lowest rung of the ladder, and you’ll spend most of your days waiting for more important people to be ready to film.

You’ll wait to put your costume on, you’ll wait to have your hair and makeup done, you’ll wait to be needed on set and once you’re there you’ll wait for what feels like hours (mostly because it actually is) for the cameras to actually start rolling.

You’ll spend a lot of time waiting, but the real kicker is that you’ll do so without access to your phone.

While more senior members of the film crew will be trusted to keep hold of their phones during filming, as a lowly extra you won’t be. Most productions will take away your phone at the beginning of the day, in part to ensure it doesn’t end up disrupting filming, but also to guard against photos or videos leaking from the set.

But far from being a source of frustration, not having access to your phone means that you’ll form some of the quickest friendships of your life with your fellow extras. With hours to kill without access to the outside world you’ll learn everything about them, and before long you’ll have more in-jokes with them than with your closest friends.

This unique need to be able to enjoy killing hours of time with idle chit-chat, especially combined with the flexibility needed for the job, means that the kinds of people that do extra-ing on a regular basis are an interesting group indeed.

I met aspiring actors, bar staff, and students. I met one guy who was the guitarist in a band that had played Reading and Leeds music festivals, and another who was a freelance trumpetist.

No two extras have the same reason for doing such an unusual job, and everyone has an interesting story to tell. It’s a complete joy finding each and every one of them out.

Action!

After all this, the act of filming itself is probably the least interesting part of the whole process.

You’ll normally be called out of your waiting area by a frazzled looking assistant director (or AD for short), who’ll place you in the scene and give you some brief instructions like ‘have a conversation’ or ‘walk along this road’.

Sometimes you’ll make noise as you do this (although in my experience you’ll normally just fake a conversation rather than say “rhubarb rhubarb” over and over again), and other times you’ll do a scene completely silently so that the guys recording sound can catch the dialogue from the actors themselves live on set.

Then there are the more unusual days.

One particularly memorable shoot had me dressed up as a German soldier to fight against the protagonist. “Great!” I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll get to be killed by the protagonist.”

Except of course it’s inevitably the stunt guys who have the fun of actually getting into a fight. The moment they die, however, it becomes the humble extra’s job to lie on the ground and play their corpse for the rest of the shots in the scene.

So that’s what I did for two weeks of my life. I lay on the ground, outside, in the middle of February, playing a corpse in a major motion picture.

It was simultaneously the least and the most glamorous thing I’ve ever done in my life.

But these moments form perhaps a fraction of your day as an extra. You’ll wait for hours for your opportunity to just get on set, and then once you’re there you’ll wait many more hours for filming to actually start. Get comfortable.

The Perfect Bucket List Addition

There’s a lot to love about film extra-ing, but it can be a frustrating thing to do. From costume fitters that talk as though you’re not even present to assistant directors that treat you like part of the furniture, there’ll be plenty of people keen to remind you that you’re on the lowest rung of the ladder.

But for every person that treats you badly, there’ll be a special effects guy who surprises you with a funny story about another film they worked on, or an extra that tells you about how cool Brad Pitt was to work with. The industry might be filled with egos, but for every ego there’s a hard-working soul with a love for film coursing through their veins.

If all this sounds like something you’d like to try then it’s a fairly simple process to get signed up to most of the major agencies in the UK. Filming tends to happen around London, but every city has its fair share of extra-ing opportunities.

Personally, I’ve had most success with the following agencies: Pop Casting, Uni-versal Extras, Casting Collective and Extra People. Though I haven’t personally worked with them, Mad Dog Casting also has a good reputation, as does Ray Knight. Each of them will need a lot of information from you, but once this is provided they’ll come to you with any relevant opportunities.

So if you’ve ever idly thought that you’d like to take some time off work to be a film extra, or if you’re in-between jobs and looking to earn some money, then it’s never been easier to get involved.

Just be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting around.