Written for Anna Fiorentini Theatre & Film School
When you think about professional actors, the first things that come to mind are probably big names and big roles. What a lot of people don’t realise, is that you don’t have to have gone to drama school or land a role in the West End to have paid acting work. There’s always the much less glamourous route of becoming an extra.
Extras, or supporting artistes as they’re properly called, are the people you will usually not notice when you’re watching a film or TV show. They’re the people walking down the road in the background, or waiting at the self-checkout in front of the main character, or carrying a tray of drinks past. To be honest, most of the time it doesn’t involve that much acting at all. You’re don’t get a character name or description, for example. Usually you’ll be given one or a series of actions, such as ‘cross the road here, take your phone out and look at it, go around the corner’. Sometimes you’ll also get a few pointers as to how you should do this action (‘you’re annoyed at this’ or ‘you’re rushing to catch a train’), but that’s about it. And for most people who do extras work, myself included, that’s exactly how we like it.
The funny thing about this work is that, while you might think it would attract a lot of aspiring actors, they’re actually quite rare. After all, the chances of suddenly being noticed by the famous director is pretty much non-existent. You usually don’t get to interact with the ‘proper’ actors (or ‘the talent’, as they’re called on set) either, so don’t count on making your big break this way. Instead, most extras are people who have a flexible schedule, enjoy meeting new people and are able to get out of bed very early. So, you’ll find a lot of students, pensioners and freelancers doing this work. The majority of extras prefer not to be the centre of attention: as we’re not trained actors, we’re quite happy to just stand in a corner where the camera will only catch the back of our heads. And while most of us only do it once in a while, just because we like dressing up and hanging around a film set, you even get people who’ve made it into their fulltime job.
So what are the perks of being an extra? First of all, it’s quite cool to be able to look around a set and see how it all works. Especially when you’re in something like a period drama, where everyone is in full costume and you’re on a beautiful, elaborate set. Even when you’re in something contemporary and you just rock up in your own clothes, you’re basically given a sneak peek into the ‘making of’. If you’re considering going into the film or TV industry in a non-acting role, it can be a good way of getting some on set experience. Back to costumes: for those of you who like dressing up, being an extra can be really exciting. If you’re working on a project that requires everyone to wear a big outfit, you’ll usually have to come in for a fitting before the actual shoot. This can also involve a hair and makeup trial, so be prepared to come out with a completely new hairdo. It might even mean getting a hair cut, but don’t worry, you get paid extra for that! However, the best thing about being an extra is the people you meet. Being on set usually involves a lot of waiting around between takes, so you’ll get plenty of time to chat to your colleagues and to swap stories (and there will be some really good ones).
What’s the catch? The days can be very long, especially if you need to travel to one of the studios or to a lovely country house somewhere in zone 9. Sometimes, that means getting up very early: on a long day your call time (the time you need to be on set) might be 6 AM. And of course you’ll need to get back home as well, after what might be a 12-hour day of shooting. Remember what I said about costumes being a perk? Well, it can be a bit of a double-edged sword; I once spent 10 hours in a corset (seems fun at first, but very uncomfortable) and shoes that were two sizes too small. On a big shoot it can also take three or four hours for all the extras to be dressed and styled, and everyone needs to get out of their costume at the end of the day as well. That being said, when else do you get the chance to dress up as a posh Victorian or a fifties air hostess?
There are lots of agencies that specialise in casting supporting artistes, so why not sign up with one and give it a go? Who knows, a year from now, your left arm or the back of your head might be sharing the screen with some of the biggest names in acting.