After four fruitless years of looking for jobs like typist, mailroom staff and working cash registers, I decided to cut my losses and go for the one occupation left to pursue: television actor.
Guess what. It worked.
Oh, you won’t see my name in the credits, nor will you hear me utter any dialogue. You probably won't even know it’s me, even in high-def.
|I would have killed to be an extra here.|
But if you’re a fan of, say, Law & Order: SVU, Homeland or Billions, look for the photographer snapping pictures outside a courthouse. Or the guy in the fedora carrying a Styrofoam tray with three cups of coffee. Or a millionaire carrying a glass of scotch at an old-school private club.
Welcome to the world of background talent, better known as extras. You’ve heard the phrase “Straight out of Central Casting”? That’s me, literally.
Despite the charges of ageism aimed at show business, it doesn't seem to exist in regard to extras. Every day, my inbox is filled with New York casting directors looking for people ages up to 55, 60, 75, 99, and, astonishingly, 199. Either the latter is a typo, or background work is the most age-friendly occupation in the world.
And while many in the field are looking to become professional actors, I'm perfectly happy being part of the crowd. Not only do I not desire to be an actor, the idea of memorizing dialogue terrifies me. I mean, I need a shopping list to pick up a quart of milk.
|"Now, children, just do as your're told, or I'll|
wring your beautiful little necks."
Background work is probably the only occupation where not being noticed means you did a good job. You're there to support the stars, not outshine them. Next time you watch a primetime network drama, notice how extras tend to wear clothes in shades of brown, tan or dark green. It's like an autumn L.L Bean catalog. If you're watching a show shot on location where someone other than the stars are dressed in bright colors, they're probably tourists.
Speaking of tourists, they actually provided me with some insight during the Law & Order shoot, where I played a newspaper photographer. I started the scene with an actress, also playing a shutterbug, on the steps of a downtown courthouse before running down to the sidewalk to take pictures of the detectives and the defendant exiting a car.
As we waited between takes, tourists were hanging around taking pictures of us, the no-names. "This isn't very interesting," the actress remarked. "Why are they doing that?"
"So they can show their friends back home they were up close to a couple of real live TV actors in New York," I replied. It sounds pompous, but she knew, to people in small-town America, we were real live TV actors. We returned the favor by taking pictures of them.
|What an extra isn't supposed to do -- plug their ears|
before a gunshot that nobody is supposed to anticipate.
Extras are usually required to bring their own clothes -- the production staff tells you what they want -- although last week I was lucky enough to book the pilot episode of an upcoming Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which takes place in the 1950s. Everyone was fitted in authentic vintage clothing provided by the show. Even cooler was walking to the set on the Lower East Side, where cars like Studebakers and Nashes were parked. Those episodes of The Twilight Zone where the lead character regrets going back in time? Not me, baby. I wanted to stay there.
As with the stars, being an extra means a lot of hanging around. Anyone with a low patience threshold need not apply. Reading material, crossword puzzles, iPads, and conversational skills are necessary to pass the time. On the other hand, most of the productions provide a great lunch -- at least four different entrees, several different salads, vegetables and other side dishes, and lots of dessert. If it's a morning shoot, they provide breakfast, too. I don't leave hungry at the end of the day, that's for sure.
Oh, I get paid, too. Not enough to live on, but enough to give me back some of my pride. But I recently met an extra who works enough -- 4-5 times a week -- so that it is her job. So I suppose it can be done, even if it means getting home at 2:00 AM from a night shoot, and getting up at 4:30 AM to take a van to Atlantic City for another shoot (which she had just done -- without being able to sleep in between).
But what of the finished product? Well, I made my TV debut this week on Law & Order. As I mentioned earlier, I was to stand on the courthouse steps, then run down to the sidewalk to photographically hunt my prey. There were countless takes, so I figured I'd be prominent for a moment.
My wife and I jumped to attention as the scene began. Less than 30 seconds later, she asked, "Where were you?" We had to rewind, slow down, and freeze frame to make sure they didn't do a retake after I wrapped.
Well, there I was in the middle of the shot alright, only way in the background, directly over the shoulder of the woman in blue. You can see my photographer colleague over the shoulder of the guy in the blue striped tie. If you didn't know it was me -- oh hell, for all you know, it really is someone else.
But what about the sidewalk shot? Another freeze frame was necessary a few seconds later.
The guy on the right with the blue press pass draped around his neck, holding the camera in front of his face? You have to take my word for it, that's me -- dressed, naturally, in brown and khaki.
Almost two hours of shooting for a scene lasting mere seconds, and nobody saw me. Another job well done! Now when's lunch?