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My Life As A Movie Extra

Your elders will always tell you that in order to make it big in the world, you have to start from the ground up. Maybe they were film extras.

I was laid off from my dot-com job in Chicago early in March and decided to go freelance so I could look for that perfect niche that I know exists out there somewhere. What’s been a blessing for me is that through my old gig, I’ve created a great network of friends/acquaintances who all look out for each other in some way, shape or form.

I recently received an instant message from one of them that read:

OPEN CAST CALL!

COLUMBIA PICTURES

IS SEEKING EXTRAS FOR THE FILM

"SPIDER-MAN 2"

WANTED:

CAUCASIAN MALES AND FEMALES

AND ALL ETHNIC GROUPS

18 YEARS OLD AND UP

$$$ TALENT WILL BE PAID $$$

The casting call was on a Saturday afternoon. I already had plans I couldn’t cancel that day, so I took the other option listed and produced a quick mug shot and description of my height, weight, clothing size, etc., and dropped it in the mail the next day. It’s weird actually writing down your vital statistics. You become tempted to describe yourself as the next big A-list star. Through the magic of the English language, I shed a few pounds and mentioned a few theatrical talents that have been in the cedar chest since I graduated college back in 1993. I felt like I was on my way to stardom.

A week later, on a typical Friday night out with my friends, I called to check my voicemail and heard a message sent at 10:30 p.m. saying I should call that night if I was interested in being in the movie. Why would they call me on a Friday night at a time most people would be out on the town? I wasn’t sure if I should call back immediately since I wouldn’t get home until 2:30 a.m., so I decided to wait the night out and call in the morning, as I’d be refreshed and ready for a new day.

I called back at 10 a.m. and got a hired hand who said they were filming that day, and I was needed immediately, if possible. I jumped on the opportunity and came with my necessary props and costume. They would be filming a fight scene on the train, and I’d have to dress up like a downtown business commuter on his way to work. I came with my turtleneck sweater and brought a full suit in a garment bag, just in case.

After a quick drive to the casting office, I filled out some forms and immediately was looked up and down by the wardrobe staff to receive my "okay" from the head costume manager. I guess I didn’t have to lug the suit. I left it behind in a safe place and immediately was escorted to an EL platform in the Chicago Loop.

I reached the EL stop and here my real job began: Waiting. When you’re an extra, you spend most of your time waiting for the crew to set up for the next shot. Imagine a large crowd of people who have one assignment: Stand. That’s exactly what most extras do: Stand. There’s only one chance in a thousand that you could get that cool walk-on role during the sidewalk confrontation scene, and from those chances you would maybe, just maybe, receive a few lines to speak.

At the EL stop, I met several other extras that make this their second job. Many are acting hopefuls with business cards—complete with headshot and contact/union information. When you introduce yourself to them, they always reply in their true “acting voice.” One in particular was trying really hard to sound like Frasier Crane.

Others are retirees with nothing else better to do, and of course there are others that just make you tilt your head and say, "Where did THEY come from?" You also meet several local Union crew people doing this on a freelance basis for whatever film or television production coming through town and even some off-duty police officers who guard the set 24-7 just to make that precious time-and-a-half pay rate. Only a few are like me and just want to experience something different and make a quick dollar. Most film extra gigs pay roughly $50-75 for a 12-hour day. This one was apparently special, as we’d be paid $100 for just standing around.

So what’s the real work? Every hour or so a production assistant would make an announcement saying the train was coming by. This train supposedly had Spider-Man fighting Dr. Octopus on it, and as it passed by, we would have to react as it sped down the tracks. It sounds simple, but we had to do it in slow motion. I stood in place and saw the special EL train come down the tracks with several cameras rigged in various windows and doors in the front, back and side of the cars. For five seconds, I was in the lens. I performed my reaction and watched it go on to the next group of stops where the other extras did the same thing. Excitement ran through my blood as I saw crew people working inside the cars and camera rigs moving and working on that perfect shot. Then it was all over.

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We then had to wait for another hour and watched other trains come by and collect the usual passengers. Eventually some train operators recognized us and gave us the high sign of respect—you know, that nod that says, "What’s up," without really saying it—and headed on down the track.

We got the occasional bathroom break and time to stretch our legs and maybe even take a nap on the benches. I never thought I’d spend a Saturday afternoon taking a catnap on a Chicago EL platform bench. I almost felt like a transient.

The most anticipated perk was the free lunch. Everyone always talks about how cool the catering can be in a production like this, and with Spider-Man being the next multi-million dollar superhero film franchise, I wondered what delicacy we’d be eating. I was taken aback when the production assistants came walking up the steps with box lunch meals. Forget the hot buffet entrees you normally dream about. We got our choice of veggie, tuna, roast beef or turkey sandwiches. In each compartmentalized box, we got the sandwich, some sliced fruit, pasta salad and a brownie. I grabbed my box like I was in a food line during the Great Depression.

So after the whole day of standing with the occasional film opportunity passing by on the EL tracks, we heard the final announcement: "That’s a wrap!" We were then herded back to the main holding room to receive our next call assignments and have our forms signed for the illustrious Hollywood paycheck. As we gathered in the room, many people were saying quick hellos to other extra compatriots. Some had been on several shoots together like the TV shows "ER" and "Early Edition" and films like Hardball and The Negotiator. Many people have this process down to a science. You sign up with one of several extra casting agencies, get the call for the next shoot, wait in a hot, uncomfortable waiting room for several hours as they set up the scenes, head for the set, stand for 95 percent of the time and then get herded back to the hot and sweaty waiting room, only to wait for a call time as to when this process will happen again.

We found out we’d be needed back the next day at 6:30 a.m. How can people do this for long periods of time? Thank goodness the sun goes down around 4:30 p.m. in Chicago because I know they’d go longer if they could. Besides, most crews are so tired from working all night the day before that the real work doesn’t happen until 9 a.m.

Being a film extra can literally be a cattle call. Giving in to a low-wage paycheck, herding conditions, boring in-between waiting periods, and long hours can only be for the truly unique individual with a wild side. Now I understand why they’re always looking for a few good men, women and children of all shapes and sizes.

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