Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Feet Are Famous! Or, The Glamorous Life of a TV Extra

By Barry Dutter

I never understood why they have extras in movies until I actually did the job myself. I used to think, “If they’re filming a scene on a city street, and there are already people on that city street, why not just use those people as background extras?”
Once I actually did the job, I realized why: because the actual people on a real city street are not your employees, you can’t expect them to follow orders. Extras may not be paid much, but they are paid enough to do as they are told.
Real people on the street might stare at the camera, bother the actors, talk on their cell phones, etc. You can’t realistically expect to be able to control people who are not on your payroll.
Hence, the need for paid extras -- people who are given strict instructions to not take pictures, not bother the actors, and not talk on their cell phones while the cameras are rolling.
I’ve logged many hours as an extra, and I’ve seen first-hand the importance of hiring background talent. I mean, you can’t reasonably expect a family that is out for a day in the city to be willing to stay in one spot for 14 hours as the same scene is shot over and over again.
But extras? They do that for a living.
The first time I ever worked as an extra on TV was in the mid 1980s on a show called THE EQUALIZER. I was living in New Jersey at the time, sending out my head shots every week to all the casting agents in New York.
I had been trying for several years to get even the simplest extra job when finally the call came. I was to play a guest at a wedding in a scene for the popular CBS drama, THE EQUALIZER.
I was instructed to show up in a suit and tie on a Saturday morning at the Penta hotel in New York, located right near Penn Station. I arrived to find about 50 other extras of all ages, each one dressed for a wedding reception.
When you work as an extra, you are always told to show up very early in the morning. Shortly after you arrive, a wardrobe lady will look you over, to see if you need to switch your shoes or change your tie or whatever.
Then you usually sit for a few hours until you are needed. Smart extras always bring a book to read. You will typically have several hours of downtime on every film or TV show that you work on. The craft services crew usually put out a table full of snacks, which tends to consist mostly of bagels and junk food. (It’s a miracle that all actors are not fat!)
You always hope the person in charge of the extras pairs you off with a hot chick for your scene, because that means the two of you will be spending the whole day together.
For THE EQUALIZER, I got paired up with an old lady. Apparently she was playing my grandmother, or my date, both.
The plot to the episode involved the wedding of the Equalizer’s daughter. A gang of gunmen bursts into the reception hall and starts shooting up the place. All the wedding guests manage to escape, except for the Equalizer and his daughter, who are trapped in the banquet room with the crazed gunmen.
Our day started off with all the extras seated at the banquet tables, about to enjoy a nice meal. Once the shooting started, we all bolted for the doors.
The lady playing my grandmother suggested that I should stay behind and help her character out the door. But I wasn’t having any of that. As soon as the shooting started, I bolted for the exits. Sorry, Grandma, but you’re on your own!
We shot for about ten hours, with the same scenes repeated over and over. All day long, the gunmen started shooting and the extras ran past the cameras and out the doors. I wasn’t sure if I had any good close-ups, but I figured that after a full day of shooting, I must have had some decent screen time.
The day ended and I took the train back home to New Jersey to await my TV debut. I was working as a bartender at a NJ steakhouse at the time. I usually worked on Monday nights when THE EQUALIZER was on.
I made sure to talk up the show real good to my cowrkers before it aired. I wanted to make sure everyone knew that I was making my historic first appearance on the boob tube.
Luckily for me there were no major sporting events on that night, so when 10:00 p.m. came, I put THE EQUALIZER on at the bar and nobody complained. I had told everyone to watch for the scene where the shooting started and the wedding guests all ran for the exits.
It was within the first fifteen minutes that my big scene came. First, the camera panned around the banquet room for an establishing shot that showed dozens of wedding guests, but you couldn’t really pick me (or anyone else, for that matter) out of the crowd.
Then the shooting started. The camera cut to a close-up of the feet of all the extras as they ran out the door. Nobody‘s face was shown -- only their feet. The only extra who had any screen time at all was my elderly grandmother -- the last one out the door. Turns out, if I had stayed behind and helped poor grandma, I would’ve gotten some of that precious screen time! That’s what I get for being such a heel!
In seconds, it was all over. Nobody saw me on TV that night. Heck, I couldn’t even find myself in that scene, and I was there when they shot it! I was crestfallen. For weeks I had talked up my TV debut, only to have it pass by in a blur.
Needless to say, the gang at the bar was less than impressed. There was a woman I worked with at the bar named Claudia. She was a big husky woman who was like a mother hen to the rest of the staff. She helped me put the whole thing in perspective.
She walked up to me with a big grin and said, “Those were your feet on TV! Your feet are famous!”
I had to laugh. I had thought that being an extra on THE EQUALIZER was going to be a big moment for my career. The reality is that in most films and TV shows, the extras are filmed in such a way as to blur them into the background, so as not to take attention away from the big stars in the foreground.
My feet may have been semi-famous in my small town of Scotch Plains, NJ, but I was destined for bigger parts, ones where I would even be filmed above the knees.
It turns out that the boob tube as too small to contain my talents. My shining moment as an extra came on the Big Screen. It was many years later when I landed my first job as a movie extra that I would really have the chance to shine.
In 1996, I left the suburban sprawl of New Jersey moved to South Florida, where there lots of opportunities to work in film and TV.
Shortly after I arrived, I signed up with a model/talent agency that was two blocks away on trendy Las Olas Blvd. Just a few days later, I received a phone call asking if I wanted to be an extra in a new movie starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp.
The movie was DONNIE BRASCOE, a crime drama set in the 1970s. The first thing I had to do was to go get fitted for some period clothes. As the Brady Bunch can attest, any time you get to wear 1970s clothes, it’s groovy fun.
The location for my shoot was the Ft. Lauderdale Convention Center, just five minutes from my apartment. We were supposed to be in an airport, and I had to give credit to the props department. With the placement of a newsstand, some snack bars, and a departure/arrival board, they did a great job of transforming a section of the convention center into an airport terminal.
I arrived at the “airport” at 7:00 a.m., and headed right to wardrobe. They gave me my snazzy Brady clothes, and even combed my hair to make me look like one of the Beatles.
I was totally rockin’ my 70s threads!
I sat in a large room along with 100 other extras, waiting for the moment when we could do our part as blurs in the background.
And then some of that Hollywood magic happened. An Assistant Director was told to go to the holding area and pick one extra out of the crowd. They were shooting a scene where Johnny Depp and Al Pacino were walking through the airport when Johnny is spotted by a guy he knows and punches the guy out. The director felt the scene was missing something. It was decided that the guy who gets punched by Johnny should have a friend.
The A.D. was dispatched to find that friend. The A.D. did a quick scan of the 100 people in the room and picked me. I was rushed back to wardrobe where I was fitted with a pair of goofy 1970s glasses -- the type that Ryan O’Neal used to always wear in 1970s movies.
Then I was brought out on to the set.
The scene would start with me and my friend, the District Attorney, walking down a corridor of the “airport.” I say goodbye to my friend and he walks over to say hi to Jonny, who is undercover. Not wanting to blow his cover, Johnny punches out the D.A. and walks off. Then I run back and make sure my friend is okay.
We filmed the scene several times. I even ruined a couple of takes by coming in too early to see if my friend was okay. (Hey, it was my first movie and I was still learning!)
I got to spend some time talking to the guy who got punched out. He was a New York actor who admitted (after some prying by me) that he had been flown to Florida from New York and paid $3,000 for the role. That was way more than I was getting as an extra, so I was very impressed!
A year later, the movie came out and I had my big moment. When you watch the movie DONNIE BRASCO, you can see me and the other actor in a two-shot before he gets punched out. To this day, it was my best exposure I’ve ever had in a movie.
I did probably 50 other movies after that as an extra, but none of them compared to that experience of my first time. I mean, I did 12 days on the movie WILD THINGS and if you squint real hard, you can see me as blue blur behind Matt Dillon in the courtroom scene, but don’t knock yourself out.
Ultimately I decided that extra work was a dead end. It usually involves long hours and low pay, and you often get treated like cattle.
My proudest moments as an extra are the jobs I didn’t take: a graduation scene in WILD THINGS that involved wearing caps and robes out in the brutal Florida humidity all day. A funeral scene in WILD THINGS that again involved wearing a suit and tie in that intense summer humidity. (Both of those scenes were cut from the finished film anyway!)
I also passed on several crowd scenes for the movie ANY GIVEN SUNDAY where I would have been seated in a stadium of 30,000 people. And then there was the offer I turned down to spend the day filming in an actual prison.
After I had done extra work for a while in Florida, I developed some strict criteria for which jobs I would take. Basically, I would only take jobs that filmed at the beach or a hotel pool, or a nightclub. I knew there were no women on the call sheet for the prison scene, so that was an easy one to p[ass on.
Now that I'm out in L.A., I still do the occasional extra work if the hours are short enough and the money is right. I avoid big crowd scenes, and look for gigs involving a small handful of extras where the food tends to be better and you get treated more like a star! (In those stadium scenes, the extras are usually fed hot dogs.)
Back in my Florida days, I did have one gig that beat all the others. I was picked to be in an infomercial for a new tanning product. My job involved spending the day poolside at a luxury hotel in Miami. I was surrounded by dozens of sexy babes who were flaunting their bods in bikinis.
We had a lot of downtime, so most of my day involved sunning myself, swimming in the pool, and flirting with the girls. In other words, I got to do what I would have been doing anyway, and got paid for it! Even got a free lunch.
Extra work is not the most satisfying or rewarding work an actor can do, but sometimes it sure beats working!

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