Friday, December 4, 2009

Extra Life Lessons Learned

I’d like to talk about life lessons my kids and I have learned from being film industry extras.

If you aren’t familiar with the people called extras, let me present an image . . . this still is from a new movie playing in theatres now. In it, we see Quinton Aaron as Michael Oher in Alcon Entertainment's drama 'The Blind Side,' a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Ralph Nelson. It's from the book of the same name by Michael Lewis.

In the still, the camera focuses on Quinton as he walks down the street. But who are those people behind him? Those people in the background are movie extras otherwise known as ‘backgrounders’. Extras provide a living landscape. In some movies they're rarely seen, in others they’re everywhere. Sometimes it depends on the director’s vision. Sometimes on the budget. An extra's name won't appear on the credits, but they're still paid for their appearance.

For our work in the film industry, our agent will call and say they need me as an adult female for a particular day. Or the agent will say she needs a female teen, or a teenage boy, etc. Sometimes they’re very specific and want someone of a certain ethnic background. If you look at the above still, you don’t see any Caucasians. That’s not an accident. I haven’t seen the movie but I believe they’re trying to portray the neighborhood Michael Oher grew up in.

Here's a still from the 2001 movie, The Princess Diaries. You can see Anne Hathaway as Mia Thermopolis with her hands raised. She stands out because everyone else (all the extras) are in dowdy black. Their job is to fill the space but be invisible. And most of them are older adults.

The first life lesson I want to mention then is that my kids have learned to accept rejection because of this picking and choosing. They’ve applied for auditions and not been picked. Sure it hurts, but it’s taught them everyone is unique and sometimes it’s the other person’s turn to shine. If they don’t get a part, it could be because their hair is too short or not curly, or they’re too tall or too short, or too fat or too skinny, etc. It makes me feel good when they leave an audition and wish the rest of the kids good luck knowing they mean it. I believe being able to handle rejection gracefully is something they’ll need as they grow into adults.

The second life lesson being an extra has taught my kids is confidence. You’d think after the rejections of the previous para it wouldn’t be like that but you’ve never seen them when it has been their turn to be picked. Paid at the same rate as an adult, their confidence is further built up when they receive their paycheck. But I think the best confidence builder is the esteem their classmates hold them because of their extra job. At least that’s what the teachers told me when my son started working in this industry.

The third life lesson I wanted to mention was that my kids learn they aren’t special. Yes, I know this goes against 2 paragraphs ago when I said they were unique but let me explain. A movie set is very regulated where everyone has a specific job. We are the extras. We are expendable. We are taken onto the set and left in a corner, usually in a metal folding chair to await our turn. While we’re sitting there, we see a table filled with plates of goodies, like donuts, muffins and cookies. Lots of fresh fruit. And there’s a selection of drinks from water and juice to coffee, tea and hot chocolate. That is the Craft Table. But it’s not ours. The Craft Table for the extras is much smaller. Ours holds a canister of pretzels, another of wrapped candy, and we can chose water or coffee to drink. Period.

Mealtimes on the set are strictly controlled. Many times we’ve finished our scene and are sitting back in the holding room where everyone will eat lunch or supper. We can see the caterer setting up. We can smell the food. Our tummies are growling as we’ve been on set for 6 hrs and all we’ve had to eat are pretzels and candy. But we can’t eat. The extras have to wait for the cast and crew to eat first. Once they’ve all gone through and are seated, then our wrangler will let us go and get ours. Seconds are up for grabs. Despite the wait for our food, we are usually well fed.

So here’s where the life lesson comes in… the kids have learned to wait even though the food is available and they’re hungry. They accept the fact others are more important and get to eat first. And they accept the mini Craft Table too. I have yet to see one kid sneak food from the wrong table. It’s just not acceptable and the kids know if they did try it, they probably wouldn’t be called back to work again. Even at their ages, they know it’s not worth the risk.

In this photo taken at the making of Jason Blaine's 2007 music video, Rock in My Boot, you see the extras standing around in skimpy clothing. Well, I tell you, it was freezing that day as can be attested by the men in the foreground wearing coats and a hat. But the video simulated a hot summer day. My daughter was one of these extras and although it was a difficult day to get through, she loved the experience. So the final life lesson is about work and comfort. The kids have worked in below freezing temps and ridiculously hot days. They've worn winter clothes in summer and vice versa. And they've learned to put aside personal comfort and wear whatever it takes to get the job done. (Yes, I'm always on the set with them.)

I don’t know how long my kids and I will work in this industry. So far, I’ve turned the agent down a couple times for unsuitable projects. But even if they never get called up again, I’ll be thankful for the life lessons they’ve already learned.

So my question for you today is about working in the movie industry. Have you ever worked on a TV or movie set? Have you ever wanted to? Which movie or TV show would you want to work on if you had a choice out of everything?


  1. Anita, this is one of the most fascinating blog posts I've ever read.

    So how does one go about signing up to be an extra? Not that I anticipate much filming in Virginia.

  2. I haven't worked in either, but would be open to both.

    Another life lesson I am sure your kids have learned is that it takes lots of people sometimes in the background (those people all working hard), yet only a few get the credit. All are important, b/c without them it would not happen. Sometimes those in the background are most important. We should all be willing to be in the background and not have to always have the glory.
    Blessings, andrea

  3. That is really cool, Anita. I'm guessing another lesson learned is excellence... do it over until you get it right, no matter how many times it takes, no matter how bored you get with a scene.
    I think if I had the chance to be an extra I'd want to do something where I got to wear a fun costume and the set was interesting. That might make up for the other discomforts!

  4. My kids and I have actually been used as actors in several episodes of "Living the Life," which is the Christian Broadcast Network's women's show. We've never been paid, but a few times we've had actual lines. They've used our house as a set several times too. It's fun, but it only worked out when the kids were homeschooled.

    Anita, I think the lessons you mentioned are very true lessons that all performance artists need to learn. I also direct plays at church, and I struggle terribly with casting. Being a writer, a lot of time I just end up writing scripts so that everyone can have a part that fits them well, but in the real world of acting, that's totally cheating.

    My daughter is a fairly serious actress and dancer. She is attending a school for the arts. Everytime there is an audition we have the same talk about wanting God's will for her life and the production. That's the most important thing. Sometimes, the timing or opportunity won't be right for her. Sometimes, someone else may need the encouragement of being chosen more than she does.

    Sounds kind of like the writing world.

    Also, I was thinking, it's terribly politically incorrect these days to tell kids that they aren't special. But in many ways so true. While we are each special in God's eyes, none of us are more special than anyone else.

  5. Fascinating, Anita. I really enjoyed reading this. I've never worked on a tv or movie set. But it's something I always thought would be fun. I have been in plays at our local theater, and I really enjoyed it, but it was many years ago.

  6. I would love to be an extra in a period piece. Charwoman, princess, shoot me down with a musket. Who cares? Sounds like a blast.(no pun intended) Not many of those filming around my area, either.

    Maybe it also gives the lessons that those 'stars' are not all they seem to be. Ya ThinK?

  7. Hey Gina, thank you.

    There are a number of ways to become an extra:

    - if you know someone in the industry and let them know you'd like to be one. (Yup, it's who you know.)

    - sometimes the 'city section' of local newspapers will talk about a movie's 'needs'. As we were on our way to one shoot, an ad came on the radio saying they needed 1000 people that day for an arena scene. Our agent had sent us but even after the radio broadcast, only about 300 people showed up. The shoot went ahead, but it took all day as they had to re-shoot and move us 4 times to simulate a full arena.

    - we became involved in the industry by picking an agent out of the yellow pages and sending our resumes (almost blank at that time). She kept us on file and then when work came up, she'd give us a call.

  8. Anita, I second Gina's emotions. Wow! Fascinating!

    Oh, I LoVED LOVED "Blind Side!" How thrilling that you were a part of it!!!

    Does playing Ethel on the set of MGM in Orlando, yeah the candy assembly line shot, count? That's as close as I will probably ever get! I did watch a shoot in Central Park years ago.

    Hmmm, but if I did have a chance? Would love to view the Closer episodes, up closer and personal!!!!


  9. Anita, this was so much fun to read. (And a shout out to Lisa, too, for making another awesome header.) The experiences you and your kids have had are fascinating, and I learned so much!

    Like Deb, I'd love to be in a period piece. Ooh, a dancing scene. A Regency dancing scene. My imagination's running wild now. Pride and Prejudice, during Darcy and Elizabeth's dance. That would be a blast for me. I'd get to be in the room when they're filming an iconic scene, I'd wear something awesome, and I'd learn how to do something cool! (cool to me, at least.)

  10. You're right, Andrea.

    An extra won't be given credit unless he has a specific 'part' to play in which case, he's probably auditioned for it.

    My son has credit for one Corner Gas show and that's because he had 6 speaking lines over the course of that episode.

    The rest of the time, not only are our names not mentioned, but they usually try not to show our faces. I've appeared 4 times in some episodes but you'll only see my arm one time, the back of my head the next, etc. That way they use us over and over throughout the day and nobody notices us.

    Thanks for your insight, Andrea.

  11. Anita,
    That is so cool! What an amzazing experience you all have had. I've never wanted to be on tv but I wouldn't mind hiding out behind the scenes somewhere in a tropical location with lots of white sandy beaches. :)

    I haven't seen Blindside yet, but hope too soon. Loved the Princess Diaries.

    Like Deb and Susanne I'd love to be in a Regency movie. Leave out the dancing and put me on a horse in a gorgeous riding habit. That would be so neat.

    This was great fun! Tell us more. Like most embarassing experience, etc.

  12. Yes Niki, excellence is another lesson learned in this trade.

    For the auditions, the kids have to have their lines memorized perfectly. I have to admit, this is about the only type of 'homework' they don't complain about and even read each other their cues and lines.

    Then once on set, the same scene will be re-shot over an over until the director believes he's captured every nuance. Once he says that's it and sends everyone offset, it's not a wrap's only so they can change camera angles and do the whole thing again with another actor. And then the same thing again for a tighter (closer) shot.

    This brings to mind the only time the kids convinced their dad to work with them. The agent said they needed families. Daddy was off work that day and couldn't say no to his kids although he did try. It was a harvest fair scene and they put our 2 boys up on an old John Deere tractor eating popcorn. Hubby was standing at the front supposedly taking photos of the kids. I was standing beside him directing the shots. The director yelled 'background' and we started to act. The director yelled 'Action' and within seconds yelled, 'Cut'. Uh oh. When it's done that fast, someone is not cooperating. Would you believe the director walked up to hubby and told him how to take pictures? Sheesh. So we started again and again the director yelled 'Cut!' and again it was hubby. By the 3rd time, hubby was grumbling how much he hated acting. Meanwhile the boys were up top having the time of their lives telling Daddy how he was supposed to act. Quite the turnaround. Um - Daddy never worked with us again and even threatened us if we volunteered him. :)

    Yes, wearing costumes is fun. The only time we've worn costumes was for the 1930's portion of The Tommy Douglas Story. And then for the movie 45 RPM the kids were dressed in 1940's outfits. They looked so cute!

  13. Hey Dina, handing your house over to a film crew would be a very unique experience.

    Although we normally get paid for our extra work, we have worked on projects for the experience, like in the Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story. We aren't listed on the credits, but we can still add it to our resume.

    I find it fascinating that you write church plays. Reading the scripts/sides has given me a new appreciation for script writers.

    Like your daughter, my son with the 'speaking' experience also wants to go into the performance arts when he graduates high school. That's still 3 yrs away so he may change his mind. But I like that he has a definite goal. He's withstood the taunts of other boys for the past 3 yrs at school because he's been the only male in the drama dept, notwithstanding that he's rec'd an award for 'character interpretation'. This is the first year my little guy is old enough to join drama and I really like that he signed up and then came home and told me it was something he really wanted to do.

    I hear you on the politically incorrectness. I think sometimes we just have to teach our children what we think is correct in ours and God's eyes and pray we've helped the kids become good citizens of heaven and earth.

  14. I learned a lot about 'extras' in movies and tv. Thank you for sharing your experiences. What a wonderful (and humbling) lesson a child (or an adult) can learn from this calling.

    Blessings to you and yours Anita.


  15. Suzie and Deb, yes it usually is fun.

    Here's the actual process:

    - we're phoned asking if we'll be available a certain day which could be the next day or the next week.

    - if we say yes, we're given a phone number and asked to call the evening before the shoot day

    - around 8 pm night the before, we call the number and listen for instructions. We are given our call time and told to bring 3 or 4 changes of clothes for a certain season. Once it was late summer and we needed parkas, touques, mitts and scarves for the next morning. Sheesh!
    So, we've learned to be prepared at a moment's notice. Every one of us (except Daddy) has a duffle bag with 'work' clothes which consist of several:
    - solid colored tops (no red, yellow, black or white)
    - jeans and dress pants
    - sweater/hoodie
    - accessories
    No logos or writing on any clothing item.

    - Many times our call time is for 7 am the next morning. We need to give ourselves 2 hrs to get from home to the shoot location in the city. More if it's farther away. So the morning of the shoot, we get up early, drive to the location, find the circus (cast and crew trailers) and report in

    - we're sent to 'holding' and must lay out all our clothing articles on a table and wait for the costume director to pick out what she wants us to wear from what we've brought. If she doesn't think anything is suitable, she finds us something from the racks

    - once we're told what to wear, we change, pack the rest, and wait for the wrangler to herd us onto the set.

    Although the wrangler will usually read us the sides for the scene, we really have no idea what we're getting into until we walk on set and are given further instructions.

    It's like one big game of secrecy where we're only given info on a need-to-know basis. Like a present where we have to unwrap it a layer at a time.

    For myself, I've joined in riots, sat in diners and pretended to eat day old fries, walked through the airport, played a drunk (a couple times actually), and walked the streets - in a good way!

    My kids have rode school buses, played football, pretended to be students, jumped in a bounce house/air castle, tackled Santa, gone for a mini-paddleboat ride, and pretended to be someone eles's kid (sob).

    The thing is, when we're phoned, we say yes or no and never know what we've agreed to. We trust our agent to know what skills we can do. ie - she would never book me for as a participant in a marathon although she may book me as a marathon watcher and then when I arrive on set find out I'm riding in the lead car or something. :)

  16. Oh Patti, I wasn't part of The Blind Side. I just used it as an example. Extras aren't allowed to take photos of the set or the actors. The music video was an exception.

    Actually, we aren't allowed to talk to the actors, either, unless they address us. Some stars come over and greet us and make our day. I don't mind when they ignore us because I know they're in their 'zone'.

    Another exception was when Dakota Fanning was here filming Ferris Wheel (pre-production title) and her mother brought her over to visit her fans. She was surrounded by little girl extras. My boys stared but wouldn't go over and join the circle. :)

    I would say your MGM role should count. I would love for the kids and I to go down there and work for a season. Such an experience. But they won't take us as we're not US citizens. Yes, we checked when we got back from DisneyWorld. Heh.

    I just did a google search because I'm not familiar with Closure but it sounds like an exciting show!

  17. Hey Susanne, you paint a beautiful image. The extras who work in period pieces have a bit more detail work because of the costumes. It calls for costume fittings as well as time in the hair and makeup chairs which is fun because usually, the extras are responsible for their own hair and makeup.

    The one hard part of being an extra is having to do the exact same thing over and over. So let's say you're dancing in Darcy and Elizabeth's ballroom scene and during the first take, you flick an errant hair off your face. Well, every single time after that, you have to remember to make that exact same gesture at the exact same place whether the hair is still there or not. It has to be that way for continuity. And a scene like that would take days to shoot.

    But I agree, being a part of that setting if even for just a few hours would be something to remember for a lifetime.

    Thanks Susanne for mentioning Lisa's header. As usual she did a fantastic job.

  18. A tropical beach, Jill? Actually, I did get an email where they were looking for 'beautiful people' to be in a beach scene in the Just Friends movie starring Ryan Reynolds. Since it was being filmed here in Jan I didn't really understand the beach scene. I never did see it in the final cut. And with my weight, I didn't fit bikini-clad body they wanted as a beautiful person.

    Being able to ride is an excellent asset for an actor's resume. If you notice back in the 70's and '80's, Kathryn Ross headed a lot of movies where she rode in each one. I've wondered if she got the parts on her own merit or because she was an accomplished rider. Regardless, I really enjoy her riding skills and her movies.

    You want my most embarrasing experience? You're so lucky I told you Inkies I'd always tell the truth...okay, here goes...

    You've all seen what I look like, right? Well in the aforementioned Just Friends movie, the character Ryan Reynolds places is very overweight as a teenager. Well, for one scene, the director wanted to do a party scene from his teenage years. There would be flashing lights, music and lots of dancing. For the overweight years, Ryan used a 'fat suit' but it didn't allow much movement so they needed a replacement. Guess who? Yup, they called me up to see if I could handle shaking my booty and having my butt filmed as a replacement for Ryan's in that scene. I said, 'Sure!' But a couple days later, my agent called back and said the director cancelled the scene due to budget constraints and the fact it wasn't in the script to start with.
    Missed it by that much!

  19. Hey Karen, humbling is right. I know this industry can be harmful if care isn't taken but I really like what it's taught my kids these past few years.

    Thanks for the visit Karen, and blessings to you and yours as well.

  20. Anita Mae Draper! You are hysterical! I mean talk about gutsy and fun. Oh, girl. You rock! I have a whole new and different respect for you. :) I will never foget this moment.
    Love ya, Inkie Girl.

  21. Jill, just don't tell my hubby I told y'all. lol

    When I told him about the agent's phone call, he said, "You know, I'm proud of everything you do but I don't think I'll tell the guys at work about this one."

    Awh, the poor guy. :D


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