Post originally appeared as A little Extra support by Edwin Flay
Part One covered the good reasons to be a Background, or Scenic Artist…
However, there are also several good reasons never to be an extra:
- A lot of other industry professionals will assume you’re not a trained actor at all;
- You will be treated like the thickest person in the room;
- You’ll get no respect;
- If you do it long enough, you may get so comfortable that you never to try and progress further;
- You may end up having to miss auditions because you’re committed to an SA job;
- You may come to despise extras yourself;
- You may have all the confidence ground out of you.
Basically, a lot of SAs who’ve been at it for a long time like to say they’re actors, or that what they do is just as skilled a job as what the featured actors are doing, and so on. And some of them will assert this to casting directors, to other actors, to directors. This has terrible implications for you, the legitimate actor jobbing as an SA, because it encourages the idea that every SA who calls himself an actor is just some jumped-up pillock who wouldn’t know Sanford Meisner if he punched them in the snoot. You’ll find yourself and your burgeoning career lumped in with these idiots, who you will learn to hate in your turn, as you hear them pontificate about their supposed abilities.
Just being an SA, uncomplainingly doing an SA’s job, will get you branded a cretin, too. Assistant Directors will assume you’re the thickest person there. The more skilled ADs will hide this fact; the more stressed/less socially skilled ones will not. They don’t do it because you are a thick; they do it because they can’t afford to take the chance that you aren’t. They’ve just grabbed you out of a milling tide of humanity to do something in front of the camera. You will not have been grabbed for your winning smile, your quicksilver reflexes or your keen intellect; you’ll have been grabbed because your costume fits, or they want someone with a hat, or they just need to make the background look busy. Remember all those idiots you’re struggling not to slap? The AD has no quick way of establishing that you’re not one of them – indeed, the odds are good that you might be – and she will treat you accordingly.
The main reason not to do it stems directly from all of the above: it crushes your confidence after a while. It becomes wretched to hear the same bloody conversations over and over again (“You been busy?”; “I could do that, yeah…”; “Are we on overtime yet?”; “Where’d you get those biscuits?”, etc). It becomes profoundly depressing to be treated like an idiot, and to be patronised or actively insulted to your face by some gaffer who’s having a bad day (seen that happen). Getting up at 5am to put on an itchy costume and sit around until 2pm, when you’re fed the cheapest food the studio can buy, and then finally sent home at 9pm to do it all over again the next day is exhausting and demoralising. You may start to ask yourself if actually you’re not talented after all, and that this giant tent full of care-in-the-community weirdos, slack-jaws, reactionary Daily Mail types and grown-old classroom jokers is where you belong. That sort of thinking is poisonous and hard to shake, and will stop you from ever achieving your dream.
Finally, there is one last reason not to be an SA: you may get noticed. If you get noticed, it will almost certainly be because you look like a berk, and you end up being roundly scorned on idiot websites like this: an alleged compilation of background actors being stupid. Ignoring for a moment that half the instances on this aren’t about extras at all, this list features some SAs looking pretty dumb, and they’re easily mocked by a general public that knows nothing about how the circumstances arose.
Consider the first one, some guy waving a broom about 5″ above the ground behind Daniel Craig, who broods in the foreground. OMG how stupid, duh, what a thicko, doesn’t he know how a broom works?
Well, yes. Of course he does. He’s doing this, because he’s been told to by the AD, who in turn has been told by the sound guy that the bloke with the broom is all over the audio, and can we make him as quiet as possible, please? The sound guy and the AD may not necessarily know the framing of the shot, so they tell the SA (who definitely won’t know about the framing, and will be fobbed off if he asks about it) to lift the broom off the ground. It’s also possible that this was done with a tight frame in mind, and then they pulled out for a take with a wider frame and neglected to tell the poor sod with the broom that his fake sweeping was now clearly visible. And now the internet hates him for looking like a klutz on a James Bond movie. That’s pretty rough treatment for doing exactly what you’re told, with no opportunity to query your instructions, eh?
So, in short: if you’re going to be an SA, do it with your eyes open, and expectations levelled accordingly. And for god’s sake, stick to the deep background, and when you’ve got everything you can from it, get out. EF