Being Extra: What it's like to be cast as background for a major on camera production.
Updated: Mar 2, 2022
If you've ever been curious about what it's like to be one of those nameless blurry faces in a show, here's what it was like for me.
A coworker of my husband's suggested to him I try to be an extra on a show that was being filmed here in our local area. The Righteous Gemstones. I deliberated for a little bit. I'm a voice actor, not on camera. But that little fire in me that is fascinated with cinema was curious. I mean, wouldn't it be fun to spend a day on set and watch the magic happen? Maybe even be a small part of it? I went ahead and checked out the link given to my husband. There was a Facebook group to join and if a call came up that you fit the description for and had availability for, you simply sent an email with some detailed information and a couple of photos and waited. Well that's easy and I can say I tried right? If it doesn't work out I didn't waste any real time or money. When the first call came up I fit the description for I gave it a go. And honestly, I didn't really think on it too much. Ok, I definitely did do the "what if I do get cast?! and then they love me?! and I get a role as a regular on the show?!" for a moment, but who wouldn't?! Day dreaming is fun for a little bit!
We were actually driving to visit family when I got an email saying I had been booked. WHAT?!?! I promptly responded back with answers to all of the questions, scheduled my two pre-filming COVID tests and proceeded to try and play it cool. And this is how that day, and the subsequent days of filming went and what I learned...
I normally would have done loads of research on being an extra because I like to know all the things, but I didn't really think about it. I didn't know what to expect, but I figured they would tell me what to do and it honestly never occurred to me to research it. I honestly don't know how much info, if any, there is out there on "how to work in background" which is actually what they called it.
The address and call times were always pretty last minute, like 24 hoursish or less. On day one we were filming later in the day and told to prepare to go into the wee hours of the night. They had requested you bring some clothes fitting certain descriptions so I, being the over achiever, brought several outfits. I also brought things to entertain myself as I DID know that often times there's a lot of sitting around in between takes and such. I didn't know if I should do my own hair and makeup, so I just did subtle work with both, which turned out to be just fine, phew! They always had makeup and hair artists for everyone though and if you didn't want to do your own or had done it in a way that didn't fit the scene, they could fix you. They did cover my wedding ring tattoo. Even though it was covered by real rings. Just to be safe. This is the attention to detail they give! They also had clothes for folks who didn't bring outfits that fit the specs or if maybe the director didn't like them. Everyone had to get their picture taken and approved. Due to COVID we were only allowed to sit two to a table, each on opposite ends, and you had to be masked up, so there wasn't a ton of socializing while we waited to go on set. I was happy with all of the precautions though.
They gave us dinner which I thought was great. When they were ready for us they called us to the set. Day one was a wrestling match and I was given a beer that had been emptied of it's true beverage and replaced with water. Some folks were given signs, half eaten hot dogs, popcorn, and candy. It was fascinating watching the prop masters do their thing making it look like we had been there watching matches for a while with spilt popcorn on the floor and the occasional trash or abandoned drink. Next time you watch a show, pay attention to all the little details. They are rarely by accident! I sat near some nice folks and we had some nice chats in-between takes. The crew was great about going around giving out waters because it was hot and we had to do a lot of screaming. Another thing I hadn't thought a lick about. I'm a voice actor. Staying up all night screaming is not great for my career. And I had an early morning recording session. Needless to say I learned a lot about quick remedies and thankfully found some that worked!
We recorded that one scene for roughly five hours. Each take being maybe 10-15 minutes tops. They were constantly finding different angles to shoot from and we had to do a few takes where we tried our best to mirror our actions from the previous takes without making a sound so the leads could be heard speaking. It was crazy and it was a blast! And I definitely wanted to do it again. When the season aired (Season 2 of the Righteous Gemstones) and that scene played, it was all of maybe 2 minutes at most. And here is my "screen time". IF you look reeeeeeaaaaallll close in the circle you can see my arm! haha.
I put in for some more dates while my kids were staying with their grandparents and I was certain I could work any hours. I worked several days within a couple of weeks and I learned a lot. I was cast as a worker at the church the main family runs and for some of the scenes some of us weren't needed so we just sat on the side and watched. I met some more lovely people who do this kind of work all the time and they gave me some pointers. For example, you aren't supposed to talk unless they tell you to (like in the wrestling scene where they said "GET LOUD!"). Usually extras are lip syncing conversations to make it appear they are talking, but making no sound so the mics don't accidentally pick them up. Also, the background action starts when the director calls background, then the leads start their action when he/she calls action. It seems minor, but you want movement before the main shots, it really does make a difference. I loved watching everyone work. The actors, directors, camera crew, all of it was so amazing it was hard not to get distracted sometimes just watching. I really didn't want to miss my cues and mess a scene up somehow! At one point I even had the director call very loudly for everyone to hear for me to do a certain thing. OH THE PRESSURE! That bit never made it into the show, but I feel like I nailed it. A lot of stuff never made it into the show. That's how it goes.
Some days were short, but most were 10 or more hours. For the most part everyone was nice. Some of the other extras were a bit complainy, which I found mildly amusing when it was from someone who had done this several times already. It's a lot of sitting around before and in-between takes with no guarantee you will get any camera time and you could be there for hoooooouuuuuurrrrsssss. I found those people quickly left me alone after every response to their complaints was one of optimism or acceptance of that just being the nature of the beast. I had no complaints and I wasn't about to jump on the bandwagon!
I did my best to stay out of the way and do my job. Every crew member, hair and make up artist, wardrobe staff member, catering staff member, and lead I met were all super nice. And it truly was a pleasure just getting to watch them all work! And then to see the final product - what was kept, what was cut, and where the information I knew from the scenes I took part in fit into the story. Completely fascinating. And the hours spent on one scene that ends up being only minutes long. GIVE THE EDITORS SOME MAD PROPS TOO!
Here's another few scenes I made it into.
I know they will be filming a third season some time soon and I think I'll try and do some more. Have you ever been an extra in an on camera production? What was your favorite thing about it?