If I had any notion of what being an extra in Hollywood involved, it began to dissipate
as soon as I arrived at the offices of Central Casting in Burbank one oppressively hot morning to register as one, and was introduced to the reality.
The place was jam-packed with people who like me had come to register as extras (officially referred to within the industry as ‘background artists’). They occupied every available inch of space - some sitting at long tables filling out registration forms picked up from the tray on the way in; others chatting excitedly in various groups; still more standing in a long queue that ran the entire length of the room, made up of those who’d already completed their forms and were now waiting to have them processed. We consisted of all types in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and physical appearance. The younger guys were all trying to appear cool, while the girls were dressed to look their best. Meanwhile the more mature stood or sat quietly, as if contemplating a future that was no longer theirs to control.
On the registration form, apart from the obligatory personal details - address, phone number, email, age, measurements etc - you were asked about any special talents you might have; about any costumes or uniforms owned; the style and make of your automobile; whether you’d be willing to appear on camera semi- naked or nude; and about whether you would have any problems working on set with smoke, animals, and so forth.
Quickly filling mine out with fabrication after fabrication (yes, I can ride a horse; yes, I have had firearms training), I took my place at the back of the queue of people waiting to hand over their twenty-five dollar registration fee, have their picture taken, and be added to the agency’s vast database.
Half an hour later, duly signed up and processed, I emerged from the office a non-union extra. In my hand I had a list of numbers to call when checking in for work, the names and addresses of studio lots located all the way from Burbank to Santa Monica, along with a list of do’s and don’ts.
Do be on time. Do take something to read. Do pay attention and listen to instructions while on set. Do take wardrobe choices (always pressed and neat in a garment bag and never rolled up in a duffel bag). Do arrive on set hair and makeup ready unless otherwise instructed.
As for the don’ts: Do not cancel a booking without good reason and without leaving the casting director enough time to replace you. Do not under any circumstances approach any of the principal actors for an autograph or for any other reason on set.
Do not attempt to bring a camera or recording equipment of any kind with you to the set. Do not leave the set without informing someone. Do not talk on set unless otherwise instructed. Do not look directly into the camera unless otherwise instructed.
Now that you’ve signed up, paid your money and had your picture taken, it’s time to book a job. You did this by calling the special work-line phone number you’d just been given, making sure it was the one that corresponded to your category - which in my case was non-union men - and trying to grab something.
What you got when calling was a long recorded message made up of a series of personal messages from the many different casting directors at Central, looking for people to work the particular show for which they were responsible for booking the extras.
Hey guys, this is Chad. I need military-types, late twenties/ early thirties, in good shape for a SWAT team. Firearms experience is an advantage but not necessary. It’s for NYPD Blue and it works tomorrow and possibly Thursday. If you fit this category call me on ...’
‘Hi fellas, Tony here. Today I’m looking for young, hip New
York types for the new episode of Law and Order. It works two days, possibly three. If that’s you give me a call on ...’
When you called looking for work, if you were lucky you might get straight through to the casting director concerned. Usually you were greeted with the busy tone and would have to try countless times before you were successful. When you got through you were immediately asked for your social security number (the US equivalent to a National Insurance number). Punching this into a computer brought up your file and picture. If the casting director thought you looked and/or were what they were looking for, they’d book you. They might then – but not always - give you a call time (the time you’re required to be on set for work), along with another number to call for wardrobe details, location and travel directions, in addition to any other relevant information. At this point you were also given an extension number to access the ‘call-time change box.’ This you called before going to bed the night before the day of the job and again first thing in the morning in case the call time had changed. If it had changed you received the new call time in a recorded message.
After you’d gone through all of the above - had managed to get through on the work line and found yourself a show, then got through to the relevant casting director and got booked, then called the information line to get your call time, wardrobe instructions and location, then checked the call-time change box to find out if there’d been any change to your original call time - then and only then were you ready to work.
My first ever booking was on an Aaron Spelling soap. I don’t remember the name of the show now, which I believe was cancelled after only two or three episodes, but I do recall the scene I was in. It was shot on location somewhere in Pasadena and it was a night shoot. I got there ten or fifteen minutes late, having taken the wrong freeway exit, and as timekeeping is drummed into you by the casting directors like the catechism is drummed into a Catholic, I arrived dripping with sweat and out of breath, half expecting to be summarily put to death.
Luckily, the production assistant whose job it was to organize and sign in the extras when they arrived hardly took notice of the time. Instead she just handed me my voucher and without so much as a glance in my direction pointed the way to the wardrobe trailer and the line of people already waiting there.
Voucher in hand (a voucher is your timesheet. At the end of each day it is signed by both yourself and the production assistant to verify that you worked the hours stated. You are given a copy for your records, the production company keeps a copy for theirs, with the third copy sent by the production company to the payroll company, from where your cheque is sent out a week or so later), I did as directed and trooped off much relieved.
Along with my fellow extras, I waited my turn to be checked over by the wardrobe department. I was conscious of this being my first-ever time on a set and these people my first exposure to working extras. I have to say we were a strange-looking bunch, mostly down-at-heel desperate-looking characters dressed in ill- fitting clothes. The wardrobe lady - almost always in a foul mood I was to learn through long experience - was checking the clothes that each extra had brought with them, instructing them what to wear. If she didn’t like the choices brought, she went into the trailer and brought out alternatives from the production’s own stock.
Picking through each extra’s clothes, she had an expression of unalloyed contempt on her face, as if picking through radioactive waste. By the time it came my turn I’d built myself up to be abused as the poor woman in front of me just had:
‘Is this all you have? Weren’t you told to bring two changes? Look at these pants. They’re full of creases. Jesus Christ!’
I was lucky. She passed me without asking to see any of the choices I’d brought. Yes, I remember thinking. The gods are with me.
Once you’d checked in, been through the trauma of wardrobe inspection and changed (if instructed to do so), you were then directed to extras-holding, the specially designated area on every production where the extras sit around and wait until they are called to the set to work in a scene. Here people typically read, listen to music, play cards and/or engage in hushed conversations. Many extras, obviously old hands at the game, bring their own fold-up chairs, while others don’t bother and instead endure the uncomfortable plastic ones provided by the production company. Production companies were only obliged to provide chairs for union extras, not non-union, which for those like me who were non-union only served to emphasise our lowly status by comparison.
Thankfully, on this my first experience of extra work the production company made no distinction between both categories of extras, as most didn’t when it came to this particular rule, and I found myself sat in extras-holding beside a guy who was originally from Jordan on one side and an older lady who was Orange County-white on the other. With the lady engrossed in knitting to pass the time, I struck up a conversation with Ahmed, who was soon telling me his story.
He had left Jordan in search of a better future when he was in his early twenties. He spent a few years in Europe before heading Stateside, his home now for the past two decades. Stamped on his face was the evidence of a man well acquainted with life’s ups and downs. He drove a cab in New York for five years and was robbed countless times. His luck changed when his father, whom he hadn’t seen or spoken to in years, died leaving him a chunk of money. It was enough to set up a sandwich shop.
Business was good at first - so good that after a couple of years he acquired a business partner and together they opened another five shops, dotted around Manhattan. However things began to go wrong when Ahmed caught his partner stealing from the business. Though he succeeded in forcing him out, his former partner was determined not to go quietly. He planted vermin in a couple of the shops before making an anonymous phone call to the health inspector. They arrived unannounced one day and promptly shut Ahmed down. The ensuing publicity killed off any hopes of the business continuing, prompting him to move out to southern California to make a fresh start.
I soon became disconcerted as Ahmed bemoaned life as an extra. He’d been working full-time non-union for just over a year by now, having gambled away the last of his savings in Vegas, and he had no hesitation in informing me that he hated every second. When I attempted to cheer him up by pointing out there was always the chance of things changing for the better, of the opportunities for success that exist in Hollywood, he offered a derisory laugh in response.
‘Forget about such illusions, my friend. It will never happen. Never. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either insane or doesn’t know what they’re talking about.’
Thankfully, before the conversation could continue, the production assistant arrived to take us to the set.
Within a production crew there are only a few people entrusted with the thankless task of placing and directing the extras in a scene. In order of importance they are the second assistant director (also know as the key-second), the second- second assistant director (second-second), and the production assistant (PA). The scene we were in was set outside a theater, with the extras playing theater-goers emerging at the end of a performance. The second-second quickly went round pairing us up into couples. To my disappointment I found myself paired with a woman who looked old enough to be my mother.
The principal actors were a couple of Ken and Barbie look-a- likes, no doubt destined for rehab, and they strutted around the set with not a hair out of place, glow-in-the-dark teeth, and an entourage of make-up and hair ladies fawning all over them.
My pretend-partner and I were placed so far away from the action we needed the production assistant to relay the directions to us specifically from a position off to the side behind a pillar. The woman I’d been paired with seemed very shy and withdrawn, but as we had been directed to walk arm-in-arm I decided to pursue a conversation regardless, if only to break the ice. Her reaction to my accent was one I would get used to in Hollywood - a combination of deep surprise and curiosity, as if the person concerned had just happened upon a near-distinct species in the wild.
‘Wow, you’re from Scaht-land?’
‘How long you been out here?’ I told her.
‘How do you like it so far?’
‘It’s good. Not bad. You know…different.’ ‘You come here for acting?’
‘You in the union yet?’
‘No, not yet. You?’
‘No. My tits aren’t big enough. That’s who gets the vouchers. Young chicks with big tits.’
John Wight writes fiction and non fiction. You'll find his fiction at Amazon, where he has two novels published as Kindle eBooks. Most of his non fiction can be found at the
Huffington Post and Socialist Unity, where he blogs on everything from domestic and international politics to culture and sport. He also writes regularly for the Morning Star.
Dreams that Die - Misadventures In Hollywood, Published by Zero Books January 2013
ISBN: 978-1-84694-712-4, $22.95 / £12.99, paperback, 209pp
EISBN: 978-1-78099-521-2, $9.99 / £6.99, eBook
A young man arrives in Hollywood from Scotland looking to scale the heights as a screenwriter. He embarks on a series of adventures and misadventures as he encounters a succession of the weird, wonderful and downright wacky. To get by he works as an extra on sitcoms like Friends and Frasier, dramas such as ER and CSI, and some big budget movies. He then finds himself being selected to work as Ben Affleck’s double. In between times he attends celebrity parties, functions and works in some of Hollywood’s most exclusive bars and nightclubs.
Our narrator joins the antiwar movement after 9/11 and commits himself with his new found comrades to halting Bush’s drive to war in Iraq. He throws himself into organising demos, meetings and campaigning to stop the war. Soon he’s leading a double life - by day working on a big budget movie as a double for one of Hollywood’s biggest stars; by night engrossed in radical politics.
John Wight is a freelance writer and journalist.
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