Sunday, January 4, 2015

Top Ten Rules to Being A Great Extra

Having done this a number of times, I now feel somewhat qualified to write a list of rules for beginner background artist hopefuls, but in reality many of these rules apply to any job out there.

If you read nothing else remember to be polite and respectful.

1. Be on time.  This is the first rule from every background artist and their dog (okay, maybe not their dog--but maybe their great-aunt Harriet).  It's no joke.  When late, the production assistant, PA may practically shout out "YOU'RE LATE," this may happen even when, technically you are on-the-dot-on-time (I've seen it happen).  Also, even if the place you were given to go to is 4-5 blocks from holding and where you actually check in, you must plan ahead  because late is late in any PA's language.    One time I left for a shoot two hours early only to find that the address that they had given me at check in was bogus and that the shoot was in the middle of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY.  I don't know if you have ever been to Prospect Park, but I want you to know that it is huge--beautiful, but huge.  It took me that entire two hours to find the place where the shoot was.  I was late because I couldn't find it and I still got the stink eye. . . so plan to be way early and guess what else, if you want a part or a bigger role being the first one on the set--bright eyed and bushy tailed, in a manner of speaking, showing that you are ready, prepared and willing is key.

2.  Avoid gossiping, complaining or bemoaning.  Yes, that expert SAG actor may be loudly groaning about the lack of . . . anything . . . the entire time you are on and off set, but don't join in. Even if your sentiments match theirs and then some--because a negative Nelly or Ned never add anything and often detract from the goal of the production. If you're there to learn or to actually become an actor in any league the choosers will hear your whining from a mile away (whining can be done in facial expressions/body language too).  This may be challenging when you're feeling frozen and you desperately want to hop around to get warm. Don't whine. It looks like you desperately need to visit the nearest honey wagon (bathroom).

3. Act like the production means the world to you, because it may not to you, but it does to someone watching you and you will gain their respect by showing you care and want it to succeed. Respect goes a long way in any business.

4. Go above and beyond the call of duty. This means to help out when possible.  It may not be in your job description to help pick up pieces of paper that flew off the set, or to catch a prop that is being blown away by the wind.  But, it will show you are a dedicated person and willing to go out of your way. The head haunchoes may not notice, but it is likely someone on the production staff will--and they may be the future producers/directors/people of influence in the business and they may remember you.  At another shoot I was the only one of 700 people (it was a cattle call) that got down and helped pick up fake money so we could get to the next take--think how much faster it would have been if we would have all helped.  In fact, I helped so much that one of the people on the side asked if I wanted a job (but not in the acting department).
Don't you love all the fake money?
5. Always say thank you and look into their eyes when you say it. They may not have the time to answer, but it matters.  It is always appreciated, even if it is for only a moment. This includes PAs, wardrobe people, crew, catering, other extras who move for you, etc.

6. When you want to talk to anyone on the crew, wait until you get the OK signal. They probably will not beckon you to them or come and talk directly to you, but, like the normal rules of social engagements--if they smile and make direct eye contact with you and do not turn away if you move toward them, likeliness is they won't have a problem talking for a moment. If they act busy, it is not the time to talk with them because they probably are very busy and even if they would like to talk to you another time, are striving to make the most of each moment on set--because each minute has a diamond filled dollar sign attached to it in their mindset (in other words time = money).  Also, do not take up too much of their time.

7. If you want to talk to the principle actors, observe them. If they are talking, in a friendly way, to other extras, chances are they will be happy to talk with you for a few moments.  I wish wish wish I had had the courage to walk up and talk to Tom Selleck on the set of Blue Bloods.  He was talking with other extras and I think I could have learned a lot.  But I did get to talk momentarily to Sela Ward as she was gearing up for a different take in CSI:NY

8.  If you're on set--do not plan anything else.  Seriously, some shoots can go up to 16-18 hours, especially if the directors are finishing up their last days of shooting.  You can get some great overtime.  This includes night shoots.  If you get there at 5 p.m. do not assume that you'll be leaving at 6 a.m.

At one set, I had to leave at 7 a.m. because my husband had to get to work and I had to take the kids to school and be a mom. I was worried sick that if my husband was late, his boss would get really angry at him.  I got the okay to go from one of the second assistant directors.  I walked quickly back to check out, get my stuff, and get home.  But when I got to the desk to check out there were three PAs sitting there chatting.  The tall blonde one in the middle began to yell at me and yelled at me straight for 30-40 minutes, including calling the casting company and yelling at them to never hire me again because I was totally unprofessional and had no excuse to leave early.  In most circumstances like that I probably would have broken down and cried, but I was so utterly exhausted from being awake and standing and trying to stay warm all night for the shoot that I must have had a stupid grin on my face and I could not say a word more than yes or no.  If you know me, you understand that I smile a lot.  Grinning, for me, is a coping mechanism.  He yelled at me until the shoot was done and all the other background artists were coming back to leave.  I checked out as quickly as I could, but he made it really hard for me even to get my stuff.  The whole time, in my brain, all I could think, but not actually say, was something akin to what J.K. Rowling said, "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."

I am telling you this, not to complain, but to impress upon you that being there for the whole shoot is really important (I had no idea) and professional.  Boy, have I learned my lesson. I still stay awake some nights remembering it and feeling slightly traumatized.  Never again, folks. Never again will I leave a shoot early--unless it is utterly dire.

9. Don't expect red carpet treatment.  On set, the people that are getting you where you need to be. As far as I could tell PAs are desperately trying to show the big guys that they are capable of handling monumental tasks--like getting hundreds of people here and there with little to no glitches.

10. If they ask for volunteers to do something and you're serious about becoming an actor, be the first, if not one of the first to volunteer.  You may get vouchers that could get you into the union (if you want to be in it).

You can do this.  Some people say that being an extra is the best way of earning money because you're doing nothing.  Let me tell you, folks.  Standing all day and acting a part requires endurance.   You can do it!  You'll be great! Learn all you can and then tell me about your experiences.