Performing as an extra in a TV show is very much like taking a flight to anywhere: there is much emphasis on “hurry up”, “get there on time”, “stand in this line” and “stand in that line”, but the overall order one has to comply with is “wait.”
I’ve done a couple of TV shows in a little under a week, and it’s been a cautiously exhilarating experience: it is exhilarating because it’s just fun to be on a closed set and watch the director, talent and crew scurry around; it is cautiously so because such an experience could easily not be so exhilarating if one was an extra more than a couple of times in a little under a week. The pay encourages such thinking; I figured I could earn a living as an extra if only there were sixty to seventy days in a month.
To be candid, I confess I know nothing about these TV shows, so when my extra manager urged me not to approach or engage with the talent, I was very confident in my response of “no problem.” I couldn’t recognize these folks for anything. I only knew talent was on set because they were the ones who tended to be doing things, but without headsets or untidy hair.
I could give you an itinerary of the day, but that wouldn’t really demonstrate what the experience of being an extra is all about. So what is it like?
Being an extra is like being flung back through time to the fourth grade. There we are, all restless and anxious, with various teachers (associate producers, mainly) coming in at random and saying, “listen up, people…”, “quiet please!” and “quiet please!!” The class, shushed into silence, immediately breaks into the well-worn factions we all knew and loved back in the day.
The troublemaker: “This is BULLshit. Treating artists this way. Total waste of time.”
The suck-up: this person mainly talks about every show they’ve been in since “Dragnet” and how they talked to Vince Vaughan once on Michigan Avenue. This person also calls all of the crew by name and, when the associate producer begins a “listen up, people” speech, they snap at all the others to pay attention and then turns to the associate producer. “Go ahead, Jeremy.” (insert big smile here)
The nerd: the moment this person is seated after checking in, they’re deep into reading “Life The Universe and Everything” by Douglas Adams.
The mentor: this person can spot a newbie and advises on things to avoid (on the first day on set, I was advised to avoid “pink chicken” and “anything with mayonnaise”).
The rebel: this person, despite all warnings, walks right up to the talent and requests an autograph or selfie. Moments later, they are escorted off-set and “blacklisted” from the production.
The fearful: this person darts his/her head around frantically for the duration of the day looking for a friendly face.
The boring twat: this person recounts how much he/she would be earning if he/she wasn’t stuck here all day, even though he/she is there by choice.
However, like any group of fourth-graders stuck in detention for an especially long time, the categories above begin to blur around Hour Five and the majority of people can be seen staring into space with dulled eyes and expressions, like color representations of family portraits taken in the mid-19th century.
On set, things are a bit more lively, if a bit silly. In my two shows, I’ve (a) stood, (b) stood, (c) walked, (d) stood, (e) pretended to drink campaign and (f) stood. Still, it is pretty exciting to watch everything come together, and it makes me think, “oh, I could do any of these jobs.” Hopefully, that bit will come to some fruition.
At the end of the day, it feels like a fairly uninteresting LSD trip. You feel like you’ve been someplace forever, and you can’t remember the beginning of it. But it was still cool.