First Person: Film and TV Extra Sandra Miska
Like many of you, I finished school and left the East Coast with dreams of “making it big,” whatever that means, in the entertainment industry. I spent many of my final summer nights in Boston watching “Dexter,” and although I was temporarily iffy about leaving my home by myself after dark, I was inspired. I hoped to one day be a part of the team that would bring to life a high quality television show like “Dexter,” never dreaming that in less than two years, I’d be working on the set of “Dexter.”
When I first came out to Los Angeles almost two years ago to participate in the Boston University Los Angeles Program, I was more nervous than excited. I arrived in LaLa Land at the ripe old age of 27, having avoided the place for years. After a rocky start, my semester “abroad” turned out to be not so bad. I got the hang of the transit system and enjoyed both of my internships. After a few months, I decided to make L.A. my home.
I arrived back in town after the holidays ready and eager to start 2012, but when one of my internships failed to turn into a paid position, I needed to support my starving artist lifestyle while I continued to search for my dream job. Consequently, I’ve dabbled in many things this past year and a half: writing fake news for a comedy website, doing a third internship, promo modeling, and a few temp gigs. But my bread and butter has been background work, or being an extra, if you will.
I started out doing audience work a year ago, attending the tapings of various talk and game shows for pay. When sitting on my butt for eight dollars an hour got boring, I took the plunge and signed up with Extras Management, one of several booking services for background workers. (You don’t have to be with a booking service to land background work, but it sure makes it easier. The monthly fee is definitely worth it!)
As you may imagine, the goal of most extras is to one day become a principle actor. Any rising actors reading this, I highly encourage you to purse background work, as it can lead to union work; not to mention, you get to see seasoned performers like Johnny Depp and Betty White practice their craft. I personally do not have any acting aspirations. My goal is to eventually write and produce for television. However, as far as part-time jobs go, watching some of my favorite shows being filmed isn’t too bad.
As a background actor, I work closely with the assistant directors and production assistants, as well as the fine folks that make up the wardrobe, and hair and make-up departments. I also get to see just about everyone else do their thing. Just being on set allows me to learn a great deal that I plan to apply to any future jobs I may have (if I ever am so luck as to land one of those full-time jobs my mom keeps raving about), as well as to my role as producer on a short I am shooting this summer.
If you’re still reading this and thinking the life of a background artist may be for you, here are a few more pointers:
1. Don’t expect to make friends with the stars. There’s an unspoken rule that an extra can’t speak to a lead unless he or she is spoken to first. It’s not that the leads are unfriendly to the little people; the fact is they need to focus in order to prepare for scenes and don’t want their concentration broken. While I have yet to see a celebrity behave in a rude manner or mistreat anyone, I’ve seen plenty be standoffish, i.e. staying glued to their cellphones and avoiding eye contact between takes. However, I’ve seen even more be friendly and engage others. Just remember, if you are lucky enough to talk to someone important, be cool and not too pushy (leave your reel and/or screenplay at home). In case you’re wondering, the nicest people in showbiz (out of the ones I’ve encountered, at least) are: Justin Timberlake, Charlie Sheen, Jon Hamm, Cory Monteith, Nathan Fillion, Lizzy Caplan, David Zayas, Garret Dillahunt, and AnnaLynne McCord, just to name a few.
2. “Quiet on the set!” Ever notice that when you watch a scene in which the leads are having a conversation in a crowded restaurant or on a busy street, you can always hear them clearly? That’s because the background actors are often silent, pretending to carry out tasks or talk to each other, or pantomiming. Pantomiming can be awkward, especially if you’re paired with a stranger you have to have a fake conversation with – not unlike a real first date. Don’t be afraid of looking stupid. It gets easier; I promise.
3. Don’t be disappointed when that scene that you worked on for several hours finally airs and you’re only a blur, or worse, not there at all. A single scene will often be shot from several angles, with background coverage needed all around. Remember this when that big restaurant scene, the one you told you friends and family back in Michigan all about, finally airs and they decided to use close-ups of the main actors.
4. Wardrobe, wardrobe, wardrobe. The evening before you go to set, you have to call a number to listen to a recording giving you details about the next day’s shoot, including what to wear. In addition to being “camera ready,” (that is, you have to be dressed and have you hair and make-up done, as if you might be on camera as soon as you arrive, even if your call time is six a.m.), you’ll be asked to bring one or two other wardrobe options. After you check in, you’ll have to visit the kindly wardrobe lady (or gentleman). He or she has final say on what your wear, so don’t get offended if your seemingly perfect first choice outfit gets vetoed. A lead could be wearing something similar, and you simply cannot overshadow him or her with your fabulousness.
5. While things can move quickly on set, often you have to wait around. Bring a book. If you’re one who likes to play on your smart phone, bring your charger. You can also use this downtime to chat, which brings us to…
6. Make new buddies! Even though it’s unlikely you’ll become BFFs with Jennifer Love Hewitt or strike up a bromance with Michael C. Hall, you still have the opportunity to form valuable connections on set. Any of the background actors or P.A.’s you meet could be a principle actor or producer tomorrow (including yourself!), and relationships are vital in this industry. I’ve met plenty of people who’ve offered me everything from advice to a ride home, and I’ve in turn helped out others by lending an ear and connecting them with my own contacts. It’s a tough town, and we all have to look out for each other!
I’m still a long way from reaching my goals, but some day, when I’m a writer/producer on “Dexter” (“Dexter” is in its last season? Scratch that. You know what I mean!), I’ll be able to tell people I started “over there” and I’ll point to a fabulous young woman on the set silently chattering to the stranger across from her as the camera pans the room.
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