As of late November, I have been an extra on both a movie and television show with contrasting experiences. The first was a volunteer gig on an indie film called ‘The Solstice’ directed by Patrick Naples which follows the story of Giovanni, a young man, who moves to a big city in search of himself to the unknown delight of someone else. With no context of the film’s plot beyond that, I arrived on location one evening in late September, ready to be bloodied and be part of a rave scene. Contrarily, the second — and my first official acting job — was for Chicago Med where I worked as an extra in the role of a college student.
It would be a lie to say that I couldn’t feel the strings of nervousness knot together in the pit of my stomach as I rode the train into the city. The thought of being on an actual set surrounded by professionals overwhelmed me as someone with no knowledge of the industry. I just wanted to experience being in the middle of it all and maybe catch a glimpse of an actor or two. I had been watching countless behind the scenes videos of my favorite actors, and somewhere in the back of my head I thought it would be more glamorous.
Having done theater all throughout my primary schooling, I knew the ins and outs of how it works but it was my fascination with film and television that led me to this point. From getting ready for the show, to stepping onto the stage in front of an audience and taking the shoes of someone else, the illusionary nature of performing arts captivated me. But this affinity didn’t take physical hold until I came across a YouTube video of someone describing their experience as an extra on a movie set and how enlightening it was to them. So, I took it into my own hands and scoured the internet looking for jobs, which led me to those opportunities.
However, it was a sobering experience to momentarily be in both scenarios only to realize that neither were as extraordinary as my mind had played them out to be. Sure, I was able to see a filming lot for the first time, and watch a scene being filmed in real time as a background actor — which was an amazing opportunity in its own right, but the frills I had envionsed from my consumption of behind the scenes footage from my favorite actors did not exist. In such a minute role, your job is to do a very simplistic task repetitively until the director on set is sastisfied with the take and anytime not on set is very regulated as you are under the supervision of a production assistant (PA) or assistant director (AD). Mine was waving my hands around and dancing as if at a club with aids to set the mood in ‘The Solstice’ while some actors pursued a dialogue, and just walking across the street in Chicago Med.
But what surprised me the most, was how mundane the entertainment industry must be for the people who pursue technical careers full-time. It is industry knowledge that employees typically do not end their workday until the objectives for the day are met which can equate to 12 or more hour days, and to constantly do the same general set of actions over and over again is demanding since one needs to do it correctly every time even if it becomes perfunctory. Even as a background actor for one scene, I could already feel the excitement dissipate as time continued on with every take. We were told that a single scene can take up to three hours depending on how many camera angles and retakes are needed, which to me was completely shocking. I hadn’t realized until I was in it, exactly how much effort goes into making a single episode of television, let alone a film.
But beyond my critical reflection, I can honestly understand now why people choose to be background actors. The people I have met in the entertainment industry so far have been extremely kind and welcoming to newcomers such as myself. I will always remember the woman’s strained voice as she checked me in to Chicago Med and said, “Welcome to the industry”, and the relatively young PA who was in charge of supervising us. His spiel regarding what to expect was a reminder to me that ultimately, behind the popularity and fun aspects consumers are apt to lust after, everything we see is a job. To do it right means having the best available for that particular situation, and the grueling work that often goes unnoticed can be steady money if hired often or signed to a company.
So after it’s all said and done, I probably won’t be an extra anytime soon, but the experiences are truly memorable and good to reflect on. My top three favorite moments from being an extra on these two projects have been:
- The feeling of satisfaction when the director called wrap for ‘The Solstice’ and I could feel the excitement of having been in something shared amongst all the extras in the room.
- Being able to see various parts of the entertainment industry’s technical side in action.
- Hearing and learning new industry terms such as production assistant, assistant director, wardrobe, holding, pictures up, rolling, cut and reset, craft service, and it’s a wrap.