Life in the Background: My Day as TV Extra

Title: Life in the Background: My Day as TV Extra
Date: June 5, 2013
Original Source: Low Culture, High Concept
Synopsis: My friend Trev Smith launched his own sports-and-culture fusion site, and I provided a guest post detailing my day as an extra on the set of Psych.

I am a student right now, and as such I have no money. I need money, because I like fancy things like bread and chocolate milk. As a “journalist,” I make next to no money blogging and freelancing.

With only a six-week window before returning to Ontario for a several week visit home, rendering myself a “real” part-time job would be silly. I’m therefore stuck trying to find temp work. Searching Craig’s List (for jobs, not weird sexual encounters), I came across a posting for extras for a TV show shoot.

It didn’t pay well (minimum wage) and it promised to be a long and boring day, but at the very least it could make for a fun story. So I filled out the profile.

Tuesday night around 10 p.m., I got a call. Could I commit to a full day tomorrow? Did I have these particular wardrobe items? Could I be clean-shaven and could I make a 7 a.m. call time? Yes, yes, begrudgingly yes, and yes.

Read Blake’s journal of his day spent in Extras-ville after the jump…

7 a.m. – Abandoned Lot

I showed up to a fairground (read: empty parking lot) downtown and wandered around until I found an “Extras Hold” tent. A few people were there already and seemed to know each other, which would be a common theme throughout the day. It seems the same group of extras appear in just about everything together, which lends credence to the Ricky Gervais show Extras, if nothing else. I am the lone outcast, and the stank of an outside is on me.

As people filtered in, they began to approve people for hair and wardrobe. My hair was fine, my wardrobe wasn’t (hey, it was short notice and a pretty vague description), so I was sent to a wardrobe trailer. After I changed, they gave me some make-up because giant bags under the eyes are not in right now.

There was a breakfast truck, which had some excellent bacon and decent coffee. Before I could finish, shuttle vans came to take us to our shoot location.

9 a.m. – “London”

Extras Hold is at Empire Nightclub in Gastown, right where we’ll be filming (for those unfamiliar, Gastown is a gentrified area of downtown Vancouver that has a lot of brick buildings and cobblestone-ish streets). The Lamplighter Public House has been converted to “The Bloody Bucket” for the day, an English pub where some scenes will take place.

Oh yeah, I’ve since found out that this is for an early-Season Eight episode (spring 2014, probably) of the show Psych, which I actually watch, so that’s cool. This particular episode takes place in London, England, by way of downtown Vancouver.

9:30 a.m. – My Debut

I should say that I do have acting experience from some plays in high school. This makes me the least qualified person here, as all I’ve heard is talk of agencies and auditions and screenplays and other projects people have been extras for (or modeled for, in the case of one guy).

By the way, for these first three scenes and the last scene, I’m in a dark grey suit with a black trenchcoat. For the first scene, one of the A.D.s (Assistant Director) handles all of us extras and places us around the street, giving us some minor action to do during the scene. In this particular scene, a famous person walks by and “Asian Model Bro” and I stop our conversation to look at him walk by. It only takes two takes, which I’m told is extremely rare and we got lucky.

From there, I’m “marked” again, walking away from the camera and past Dule Hill (the show’s co-star) as he walks towards the camera. That’s it, walk by him. Two takes, done.

We’re sent back to holding for a bit and are re-marked for a third street scene after about half an hour. Now I have a briefcase and am again walking away from the camera, this time past James Roday, the show’s other co-star. This one takes about 15 takes because they’re using multiple cameras and zooms.

11 a.m. – The People You Will Meet

As we wait in the holding area and I load up on coffee and two-bite brownies, I kind of wander around listening to people. There is the “Model Bro” (“Does this suit look expensive to you? Everyone keeps saying how much they like it.”), there’s a plastic/’Real Housewives’ girl moving to L.A., a couple of screenplay writers just making cash, an old retired guy giving people notes, a lady who has been an extra in every single thing that has ever been filmed apparently, and my favorite, the extra who thinks he’s been “typecast” as a police officer, as if the people who handle the extras somehow watch reels of the extras and determine this guy is only and best suited as a cop. In the words of the show’s co-stars and their constant homage to Ed Lover, #CmonSon.

12 p.m. – Unions

So, a lot of these people are unionized, which means they make more money, make overtime past eight hours and get better craft services. They also don’t have to change wardrobe much, because they get an extra $15 for every wardrobe change. This will benefit me later, getting me an extra scene after the union extras have been jettisoned at eight hours. I also later get fish tacos from a food truck for free, which I’m not sure if I scammed or was actually allowed to have.

1 p.m. – Back to Work

Hey, the wait is over! It actually wasn’t that bad at all. Now I’m in blue jeans, a grey shirt and a blue zip-up sweater, because I’m a working class man. We file into the Lamplighter/Bloody Bucket and get marked for a short scene where Roday walks into the pub. I am originally at the bar but get moved right near where Roday walks so that my giant head can block some staging stuff that’s in the shot. That should mean I’m guaranteed to be in this scene. Bless this giant head.

1:30 p.m. – Coming Around the Screen

Now I’m in a brown work shirt and jeans for the “next day” at the pub (I like that my “character” is an alcoholic; it is right in my wheelhouse). We shoot a few takes where I walk into the background of the scene and sit down with a girl at a table. However, on later takes, there is a giant black screen right in front of us, so…probably not making the final cut.

2:30 p.m. – Waiting

Okay, I’m leaving a part of the story out at the end of that last scene but I don’t want to burn any bridges on the odd chance anyone sees this and I need to be an extra again. Holler at me in private for a funny story.

Anyway, now there’s a lot of waiting. They do a roll call and there’s a guy named Marco missing, leading to a bunch of Marco Polo jokes. Not hilarious. They let a bunch of people (union folks hitting their eight hours) go, and then we break for the aforementioned food truck lunch.

4 p.m. – Wrap It Up, B

Back in my original wardrobe, we film five takes of an alley scene (we extras just walk by in the background…like fifty times – if this makes the cut, look for me walking back and forth a bunch of times in one scene, like a lost idiot). A homeless lady (there are a lot of homeless in this particular area of Vancouver…and by “this particular area of Vancouver” I mean “Vancouver”) wandered into one scene, juking the security people and ruining a shot. Hilarious.

From here, they let us go.

Final Thoughts

It wasn’t too bad a day, though I’m assured this was the easiest day ever and usually there’s a lot more waiting, standing and repetition. I’ll probably clear like $70 or something after taxes, which is like winning the lottery for me at this point.

It was also really interesting to be around the set and see how things are done (I was specifically surprised at how short each shot is, that a lot of scenes are probably heavily edited from small piece scenes – it’s way less organic than I expected, at least for these scenes).

The other extras were the most interesting part, with so many of them working to get noticed. I don’t blame them, and good for them for trying, but as an outsider it was kind of funny to see people over-emoting when not rolling, angling to be placed in prime spots in a scene, and being incredibly social with the crew members, probably hoping to get favorable assignments next time. It really seems like a tough road, trying to build a resume in the film and television industry.

I just can’t wait to go back and talk all about the other times I’ve been on set and blah blah blah.

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