Central Intelligence

6 Things Never To Do As A Film Extra

Welcome to part 2 of the 3 part blog posts I’ve been writing about the Week With All The Things! I’m your host, Jackie, and I have got even more fun perform-y type stories to spin you.  If you missed part 1, the entry about that time I auditioned for Wicked on Broadway, check it out here.

Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society...

I call this story…That Time I Worked on a Kevin Hart Film.

Stay tuned for part 3 after this!

_______________________________________________________________________

One of the projects I worked on recently was the upcoming Kevin Hart film, Central Intelligence. I was so grateful to be working on it, too, because I hadn’t done any film work through Boston Casting in something like 2 years. This opportunity was a couple of firsts for me:

  • My first big budget film
  • My first multi-day shoot
  • The first time I was given hair/makeup/wardrobe as an extra. In my experience, that’s highly unusual, especially with how many of us there were, which I’m told was about 400.
  • And my first time shooting in a location I was already familiar with (my old high school, which brought with it all sorts of feelings).
  • It was not actually the first shoot I had with a famous person, as I did an ESPN commercial with Macklemore a few years back, but with this shoot I was situated much closer to Kevin, and our interactions with him were somewhat different, so I’d say this one is more “official” than the other, even though they were both in a crowd setting.

Central Intelligence

I just want to take a moment to gush about the shoot before I focus on the main thesis of this entry, so bear with me. I know it’s one of those actor-y things to say, but it’s true: I feel so fortunate to have been able to work on Central Intelligence, and in my own hometown, too. When I was growing up as a poor, frustrated theatre kid with nowhere to learn or explore, all I wanted was for there to be more performance opportunities in Lynn. Now look at it. Major films are shooting there, not a mile from the house I grew up in. How unbelievably fortunate I am for that to be the case. I hope it continues on that way.

Even though we had two 14 hour days together, the production company and PA’s were so professional toward us and very well-organized. The food they gave us was delicious and there was plenty of it for everybody, which can be a problem when trying to feed 400 actors plus crew twice a day. Kevin was hilarious, and what I saw of the film is looking really great so far. We didn’t get to read the script or anything, of course, but based on context clues I assume that we were in some kind of opening sequence. And, blessings on their house, they tried their very hardest to pump in as much air conditioning as they could, which was awesome because it hit 90°F outside during one of the shoot dates.

According to the email that I got (at 1:30AM, but I’m not complaining) on the morning of the shoot, we were all to dress as though we were high school students in 1996. If I had been able to hit the store, I would have been able to come up with something much better looking, but I worked with what I had. (If you’re on the hunt for me in the film, look for the chick wearing purple leopard print leggings, red knee-high Doc Martens, blue plaid flannel, and a black lace skirt. Oh, and a bow. But we’ll get to that in a minute.)

I super loved seeing everyone else in their 90’s fashion. I personally loved that era’s style (except the part about being stick thin, naturally, as I never fit into that particular aesthetic, or the part where you were only beautiful so long as you were white and blonde), probably because that’s the decade I grew up in. I just couldn’t stop staring at all the scrunchies and overalls and plaid flannel. It made me want to go home and watch nothing but Clueless, The Craft, and Buffy until my eyes fell out.

I think my favorite parts of the shooting process all involved crew members, though. One PA insisted we knew each other and tried desperately to figure it out, but he never did. Another made a point to tell me how great I did right at the end of the second day. But probably my very favorite moment was at the top of the first day, when one of the hair stylists told me that if I came back for the second day without my hair freshly washed, he wouldn’t allow me on set. Why did I like that part, you may wonder? Because I like being held to a higher standard. It gives me a very specific set of goals at the end of which I can feel like I’m a better performer. And also? I think he was being hard on me because he liked me and wanted me to succeed. I think that because he gave me a hair bow that was kind of big and noticeable (black and white polka dots and so big and floppy that it almost covered my whole head) and he said “That’s ok, I want you to stand out a little.” It’s things like that that remind me that I really might have a solid shot at succeeding out there.

90's high school kids
Us, but with less plaid.

There were, however, some parts of the process that were less than stellar.

  • We were basically sitting on hard surfaces for 14 hours straight both days, whether it be in the gym where filming was, or in extras holding which was the cafeteria. I was, and am still a bit, in an unfathomable amount of pain. My ass was literally calloused and bruised from the experience for about a week. To top that part off, I also have a bad back, so when I tried to ease my butt a little by changing my position, my lower back would smart and seize up, and then I’d try to overcompensate for that and the rest of my back muscles would get tired and we wouldn’t have even gone to lunch yet. I never thought I would complain so hard about sitting down too much.
  • It was a closed set, so we weren’t allowed to have our phones. Makes sense. Kevin Hart is super famous and probably hates people snapping pictures of him all the time. There’s probably copyright issues with behind-the-scenes filming. Not to mention there was a naked man on set (guess you’d better see the film to figure that one out!) Knowing how much downtime we’d have, I brought my Kindle, so I wasn’t terribly bored (and I finished Witches Abroad! If you know me, you know how slow I read). But I did have a show, a film meeting, and an editing session to prepare for, not to mention I had a boatload of emails to send, so two 14 hour days without my phone was a bit of a set back for me. Also also, I had to miss a work study session at the Dance Complex and I couldn’t even call them because I never had my phone for any of the hours they were open after I booked the gig. Super frustrating.
  • I had also brought my new juggling balls with me, because hours of downtime would be the perfect time to grind away at my new skills. The only problem with that is that there were people everywhere, all the time. And these were social actor-y people. I knew that if I started practicing in extra’s holding that people would come over and try to talk to me, or ask if they could play with them, or just stare at me. I did eventually find a quiet place to go, the auditorium (also known as “the place I spent my entire high school career because of course I was a drama club addict”), but I only managed to sneak out there for like 15 minutes and when I tried to go back later on in the day, they kicked me out. It was only for people to make emergency calls on one of the crew’s cell phones, so I can understand the need for privacy. But still. That place used to be my home. If anyone shouldn’t have to ask to go in there, it would be me. Not that anyone was in a position to care about that sort of thing.
  • And once again. I love my work and I hope to get more work than I can handle, but…14 hours. That’s a long fucking day. I really can’t emphasize what that’s like.
High School Gym with Audience
Not actually us, but pretty darn close.

And with that, I wrap up the gushing over the experience and we get to the meat of the matter: being an extra.

Let’s begin with what an extra does. According to Wikipedia, an “extra” or a “background actor” is:

A performer in a film, television show, stage, musical, opera or ballet production, who appears in a nonspeaking or nonsinging (silent) capacity, usually in the background (for example, in an audience or busy street scene). War films and epic films often employ background actors in large numbers: some films have featured hundreds or even thousands of paid background actors as cast members (hence the term ‘cast of thousands’). Likewise, grand opera can involve many background actors appearing in spectacular productions.

On a film or TV set, background actors are usually referred to as “background talent”, “background performers”, “background artists”, “background cast members” or simply “background” while the term “extra” is rarely used. In a stage production, background actors are commonly referred to as “supernumeraries“. In opera and ballet, they are called either “extras” or “supers”.

Indeed. Not that difficult. As an extra or background actor, you are literally paid to stand there and do nothing, or next to nothing. We were hired to play high school students during a pep rally where we would cheer, laugh, and go “aww” at appropriate moments. It doesn’t sound particularly difficult or like it requires spending $12,000 on it (we did the math and it would have cost them at least that for all of use for two days, not counting union labor or any other consideration), but our presence was necessary in order for the movie to seem believable. It’s an important job, is what I’m saying. One worth taking seriously.

Naturally, basically no one took it seriously.

I don’t want to name names or anything (which would be difficult anyway because I didn’t really learn any), but I observed a lot of unprofessional, and at some points downright offensive, behavior on the set and I decided to put together as comprehensive a list as I could of everything I think you shouldn’t do on a film set. I’m sure I’ll leave something out.

Let’s begin.

  • Don’t talk. Pretty much ever. Socializing is a tricky subject on the set, as we are all actors and we could all use the contacts. You meet all sorts of new and interesting people during a shoot, and you may not want to pass up the opportunity to make a new friend or gain a few Twitter followers. But do keep in mind that there are 400 of us. We are basically a Hydra. If we all start talking (hell, even whispering) at the same time, we are already louder and more disruptive than anything else going on on set. Not to mention we waste precious shoot time. How, you ask? I’ll tell you.
    • The 2nd AD has to use a bullhorn to shout directions over everyone, and it usually takes several minutes to get us all paying attention and quiet.
    • The PA’s have to constantly be reminding us to shut up, and they’ve already got plenty to do without babysitting us.
    • In one particularly egregious example of this, one of the AD’s had to give us the exact same direction 5 times because half of us would do it wrong. In our case, he asked us to pantomime pantomime pantomime then laugh, yet every time they called action, half of us just started laughing right away. It’s not funny, it’s not cute, and I don’t care if you’re sorry.
  • Which feeds really well into my next point: pay attention. While paying attention and being quiet have a lot to do with each other, they are not the same thing. Know what is going on around you. Know what group you are in. Listen when they tell someone else how to fill out their paperwork so that they won’t have to repeat themselves. Don’t ask over and over and over again which group they just called. Don’t be the guy who’s group left 20 minutes ago. Don’t ask to go to the bathroom when you know we’re about to set up a take. Just…don’t.
  • Absolutely don’t do this next thing. During one of our long breaks when they kept us in extras holding, I was sitting at a table with a handful of people I didn’t know and they were chatting about where they had been sitting during the shoot. I didn’t tell them this, but I had actually been sorted into the wrong group by accident (their accident, not mine), so I got placed front and center near the teachers, the lettermen, and other specific-looking extras. Because of that, you may actually see me in the film. Hooray! But these people weren’t quite so lucky. They were sorted into the blue or the green group, which were on the other side of the gym, and more than likely on the outskirts of the crowd. They were apparently not content with their placement. “You know what I do?” said one young man in a blue shirt. “I just go and sit where the cameras are pointing. They film over there, I sit over there. I don’t care, I just want to be in the movie.” At this point, I looked up from my book in horror. He concluded with “No one has stopped me yet.” The young man next to him, who appeared to be of Asian descent, nodded, then said “Pretty much. I mean, they won’t even notice until they’re editing anyway.”
    • I hope I don’t have to explain to you why I find that kind of behavior disgusting. I will just assume that you know why I, someone who have worked behind the scenes on films before, am outraged at such a thing. Don’t do it, ever. Sit where you’re told to sit, do what you’re told to do, and never say anything you aren’t given express permission to say. There’s a special place in hell for people who make editing harder than it already is.
    • And by the way, I saw one of them trying that later that same day. They put the camera up really close to my group (so close that I was actually not going to be in the shot) and the young man in the blue shirt tried to work his way into some else’s seat. She had gone to the bathroom (another reason not to go to the bathroom if you can help it!) and he sat down in her spot. When someone else turned to look at him, he said “I don’t know where I’m supposed to sit…” At which point I was prepared to go off on him something fierce. Luckily I didn’t have to, because the girl next to him simply said “Not here.” And he was forced to get up and go somewhere else. I consider it a moral victory.

[A lot of this advice, you’ll find, stems from the same place: an actor’s desire for fame. Not because he worked hard or because he takes his craft seriously, or even because of his networking acumen. No, a lot of obnoxious things actors do on set is done because they wants their face to be seen clearly in the film. Which I understand. Hell, I want my face seen in the film, too. That is not an excuse to behave unprofessionally, nor is it an excuse to tamper with a film that has a net worth greater than your life.

Not to mention that your actions have far reaching consequences. Do you want to work ever again? Do you want Boston Casting to lose their contracts because of one too many incidents with unprofessional extras? Do you want the film industry to stop coming to Boston because we’re hard to work with? No, of course you don’t. So get your shit together.

Moving on.]

Cute kitten
Here’s an adorable kitten to soften the blow of that rant.
  • I hinted at this earlier, but this is an even bigger issue than it seems. Do not change anything. By which I mean:
    • Clothes that wardrobe has ok’d you to wear.
    • Lines you’ve been authorized to say.
    • Your physical location.
    • Even down to the smallest facial feature and gesture, if you can help it.
  • The reason I bring this one up is because it came up at a different shoot I was a part of years ago for a film called Crooked Arrows. We were playing a crowd at a lacrosse game, and they put me on Team White Kid (the crowd cheering for the white prep school, which were the bad team in this film). We were authorized to wear Reebok clothing (they were a sponsor), clap, cheer, go “wooo!” and even chant at one point. One young man, however, kept shouting “Go, blue and white! Yeah blue and white!” Which I would have thought wouldn’t have caused any harm, but I was proven wrong when a PA pulled him aside and explained why he needed to cut it out. Apparently, if they caught that line during a take, it would render the take unusable. Why? Because that would technically make him a featured extra with a line, and they would have had to pay him more. A lot more. Not to mention the legal repercussions of if they got the take, couldn’t find him, and weren’t able to pay him more. Or if the precedent was set that you pay more to extras who don’t follow the rules. Imagine the Bedlam that would cause.
    • And if you’re reading this thinking that that’s just more reason to do it, then I frankly don’t know what to say to you.

[Prepare yourselves, folks. If you thought I was ranting before, wait until you see what’s coming up.]

Bunny kiss
Here’s a preemptive bunny kiss.

Now I’m going to talk about the famous people.

  • Please don’t applaud at every little thing they do. I find it obnoxious, and I’m not even a little famous. The extras on set had this nasty habit where they would try to endear themselves to Kevin by applauding when he entered the room, when he left the room, and when he hung up his phone (I don’t know why, but someone kept trying to video call with him between takes, which is a really bad time to do that). He and a friend of his (I didn’t know him, but I suspect he was famous, too) would play basketball between takes during slower parts of the day, and the extras would try to act like a sports crowd, cheering or booing where appropriate. (Please see my very first point if you want to know what I thought of that.) It’s fine to do it once, maybe twice, maybe even three times. But their celebrity does not mean that you need to wipe their ass for them. In fact, when Kevin finally hung up with whoever was trying to video chat with him, the crowd clapped (of course) and he smiled and said “Man, y’all will clap for anything, huh?” And a few people laughed. I didn’t laugh. He was smiling, but he didn’t seem to be joking.
  • And here it is, the part that offended me the most: please, please, please don’t ever, ever touch the talent. This one requires a little bit of a backstory, so bear with me. When Kevin picture wrapped (when they had shot the last scene they needed him for), we applauded for him (that time it was appropriate!) and he chose to make a little speech. He wanted to thank a bunch of people (specifically the 2nd AD for “taking the most shit,” which I thought was very cool of him) and then he insisted that “[he] wouldn’t be [him]” if he didn’t do what he was going to do next. He pulled out his phone and said he was going to make a video of himself for social media. He was going to start facing us (so we couldn’t be seen) and then at a certain point, he would turn around and reveal all of us in the stands, and then we would cheer real loud and that would be it. I repeat, that would be it. So he went about making the video, he said things like “I just wrapped on Central Intelligence, come see it next summer, etc etc etc.” (and some people started shouting early! Because who gives a fuck about direction, intent, and creating a moment, when you have “easily pointing your own voice out to your friends later” to think about?!) and then he turned around. And there was absolute fucking Bedlam. We stood up, we cheered, there was stomping, and then all of a sudden before I quite knew what was happening, half the crow rushed Kevin. They rushed him. They ran up behind him when he wasn’t looking, put their hands on his body, and stuck their head into his video without his permission.
    • I’m still kind of horrified that they did that. Is your desire to meet a famous person/have your 15 minutes of fame/be seen in something viral more important than this man’s bodily integrity? How dare you violate his space and his body like that? Are we animals? To be clear, I’m sure that he didn’t think of it that way. I don’t know what he was thinking at all. All I know is that I saw a crowd of people run at full speed at a black man and put their hands on him, and I was absolutely sickened. I don’t care that they didn’t do anything to him, or that no one was harmed. That’s not the point.

_________________________________________________________________________

Thanks for sticking around until the end! Stay tuned for the third installment in the 3 part series on the Week With All The Things, hopefully coming at you pretty soon.

A presto,

JW

__________________________________________________________________________

Part 1: The Wizard and 14 Year-Old I

Part 3: A-co-lyte: n. One Who Assists A Celebrant In a Religious Service

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *