Over the years we have been involved in a number of film and television projects, both in front and behind the camera, and often people will approach us saying something like: “Gee, that looks cool, how do I get in?”
The short answer is: “Very easily”. The long answer is: “Harder if you expect to be paid something approaching a living wage.” Most of the time the interest is working in front of the camera, typically as an extra, or “background talent” as it’s often referred to in the entertainment industry. People view a finished production and decide that it would be be fun to be paid to wear period clothing and be seen by their friends. Of course, there’s also the elements of magic and glamour (“Wow look at me!”) that go hand-in-hand with the entertainment industry (or “The Industry” as its referred to here in Los Angeles).
The reality? “Hurry up and wait” summarizes it pretty much. Extras will often spend long periods of time waiting for shots to be set up and then when they’re finally utilized, it’s for very short periods of time, sometimes mere seconds. It requires a lot of patience and it can be be very boring. As far as meeting famous actors and such, forget it- unless an actor is in an exceptionally good mood and is one of those unique people who can check their ego, the rule is STAY AWAY. That may sound obvious but in many instances star-struck people sign on to be extras in the hope of being “discovered” or otherwise getting close to their favorite actor; usually that’s a sure way of getting fired from the production in short order and it’s just plain bad manners.
And then there’s the matter of pay…on a legitimate (i.e. “Hollywood” production), the pay can be pretty decent, especially if you bring your own wardrobe and props and often this means reenactors. For a period piece (i.e. a production set in some non-contemporary time period), this is usually the case and this is where the bulk of our experience has been. It makes perfect sense in that the production company is spared the expense of having to hire extras, rent separate wardrobe, props, and sometimes weapons and horses. The production company is getting a package deal with someone who is familiar with their clothes and accessories and knows all about who they’re portraying- the best example here are those playing American Civil War soldiers. This can significantly reduce costs for the production company.
On the flip side, production companies working on a low budget making a period piece will attempt to cut corners by attempting to hire reenactors a fixed day rates with the “day” sometimes stretching up to 14 hours or more. Also, in many instances the production company takes advantage of star-struck reenactors who will work for almost any rate just for the cachet of having worked on “X” production.
Needless to say, this is horribly exploitative and just plain wrong on a number of levels. Besides simply working people long hours for little pay, there’s sometimes the issue of being put into dangerous situations. More importantly, it sends the message that a production company really doesn’t have to treat the reenactor extras with much respect. We have witnessed this ourselves in many instances, even to the point where the extras were not even provided water on a production being shot in a remote desert location (fortunately that was resolved rather quickly when the extras threatened to walk off the production).
OK, now that we have painted a pretty negative picture of the entertainment business, at least as it pertains to extras and reenactors working as extras. we also need to note that with the right kind of director and production staff, working as an extra can be an interesting and even creative experience. Often times, reenactors are able to provide an element of authentic detail that would be otherwise overlooked which in turn can enhance a production and add to its ultimate value. These productions can be few and far between but when they happen, it more than makes up for all the aggravation found on lesser productions.
Now, here’s some practical advice if you’re planning on working as an extra on a period piece:
- Make sure you understand exactly what you are being paid for and what you are expected to bring with you in the way of costumes, props, et al. Surprises are not fun.
- Know your call time (when you are supposed to report for work) and where you are supposed to be. DO NOT BE LATE!
- Bring a portable chair of some type- you are going to be doing a lot of waiting so you might as well be comfortable.
- If you have made an arrangement with the wardrobe department et al. to appear in a specific costume with specific props, SHOW UP WITH WHAT YOU AGREED TO BRING! Do not do a switch because you think it might “look better” or that you know more than the costume designer- you don’t or you would be working as the costume designer.
- Be cooperative and have a good attitude even if the production is having problems or you have an issue with something. A good attitude is infectious, a bad attitude brings things down and in some cases can make bad situations much worse.
- On the flip side, if something is unsafe or something is seriously wrong (like someone having a medical issue), bring it to the attention of the production staff. You shouldn’t have to suffer in silence.
That’s it in a nutshell. We look forward to seeing you on set! 🙂