Some Hollywood Extras Suffer, but Others Are Rolling in It
Photo by Star Foreman
Hurry up and wait. It's one of the biggest clichés in film and television production, the watchword on sets all over Los Angeles, as brief flurries of activity are punctuated by long stretches of idleness.
But today, for eight men in hard hats on the set of an insurance commercial, sitting around a gray folding table, wedged in between two gleaming white box trucks providing shade, the watchword is just: "Wait."
"We're doing what we do best," Harold Green explains. "Absolutely fucking nothing."
The eight men burst out laughing. They are extras, but not just any extras. They are commercial extras, and for them life is good.
"It's almost like stealing," says Green, a squat 63-year-old who looks vaguely like Ernest Borgnine. "You come to set. Half the time you don't do anything. We come in, eat breakfast, eat craft service all day and look forward to lunch. We just had yogurt parfaits. 'Cause we hadn't eaten in half an hour!"
The men laugh again. He's on a roll. In movie parlance, the men are "in holding" — the term for extras who are paid to be on set but aren't currently being used in a shot. They're "standing by" — waiting. Ron Shipp, sitting next to Green, pats his belly and says, "I didn't have this 30 years ago!"
The day will end at around 5 p.m., and each of the men will be paid $342 — not bad for less than eight hours of not working.
The small clique of commercial extras, or "background" actors, as they prefer be called, are lucky enough to be represented by the actors union, SAG-AFTRA, and are astonishingly well paid. While their nonunion counterparts might eke out $10,000 a year, Green and Shipp each make around $40,000 a year, working at the leisurely end of part-time. Matteo Sarria, 34, sitting across the table, makes around $80,000 — for working maybe 100 days a year. He auditions for speaking roles, too, but he'll turn down auditions in order to take commercial work as an extra. The money is just too good to pass up.
"It's almost like doing porn," Green says. "Once you get started, you can't stop."
On Sunday, Hollywood will hold its annual paean to itself, the 2015 Academy Awards, recognizing the supposedly best actors, directors and so on, right down to sound mixers. Unrecognized are the grips, truck drivers, production assistants and, of course, the background actors.
During the Academy Awards they'll be watching closely, awaiting a glimpse of themselves in some clip of 2015's contenders, or even standing behind a star we lost this year. Extras are legion in L.A., a population of perhaps 100,000 people whom Americans see everywhere but never notice. They appear in virtually every video, commercial, movie and TV show. Yet if we did notice or recognize background actors, they would be failing at their jobs.
Ron Shipp was an LAPD officer for 15 years. One day in the early 1980s, he and about 70 other cops were cast in The 25th Man, an unsold pilot that would be Jack Webb's last production. Later, Shipp was cast as a cop with a few speaking lines on soap opera The Young and the Restless.
Shipp was reluctant to submit his photo to become an extra, but a friend said the pay was good. His first gig was in 1991, for a Super Bowl commercial directed by Tony Scott. About 100 extras showed up Friday morning at 7. The shoot wrapped 24 hours later.
When Shipp's check arrived, he thought there'd been a typo. It said $5,000. He called the office and said, "I think there's been a mistake."
It wasn't a mistake.
Making commercials, for an extra who has made it into the union, is governed by a complicated set of bumps, overtime and upgrades. Under the contract negotiated by SAG, the day rate for an extra, $342, covers only eight hours a day (other crew members' contracts cover 10 or 12 hours).
For the ninth and 10th hour, extras get time and a half (about $64 an hour). Starting with the 10th hour, it's double time (around $85). And once production goes into its 16th hour, things really start to get good, because extras go into "golden time," where "you get a check for every hour."
That is, you get paid $342 — every single hour you work in golden time.
And that's just for weekday shoots. An extra's base pay doubles on the weekend, another unique feature of the SAG-AFTRA contract that no other union in Hollywood gets. And if the advertisers end up producing multiple versions of the commercial (say, a 15-second and a 30-second version), the extras' pay is multiplied by the number of versions. Shipp worked on a Ford commercial two years ago; they shot 18 spots in three days. His check for three days read $8,000.
There are other pay bumps for extras — for wearing more than one outfit, for bringing your car to be used in a driving shot, for standing on a platform, for being in a shot with smoke, for being in rain.
But the grand prize, without a doubt, is an "upgrade" — being given a line, or being recognizably featured in the foreground of a shot. A lucky break like that can instantly catapult an extra's pay into the $20,000 to $40,000 range for a single assignment, since "featured roles" or "on-camera principals" get residuals.
"The upgrades are random," Sarria says. "I had three [upgrades] one year, and sometimes nothing. I've parlayed myself into some upgrades, too — being a sneaky bastard."
Last year, one extra worked about 140 days and took home about $170,000, before taxes. He used to write for television — some of the others have dubbed him "Harvard" for being more erudite than they are. But once the TV writer started doing background work, he found the stress-free lifestyle intoxicating.
"It's a pretty effortless way to make a bunch of money — legally," he says. He doesn't want to be named because he's afraid that, if people realize how well he's doing, they won't give him work.
Another extra, who works 150 to 200 days a year, which puts his salary well above six figures, agrees that secrecy is the best policy: "That's my biggest fear, having my name out — 'So-and-so makes this much, he doesn't need to work.'"
For commercial extras in a union, landing a job is largely a factor of who you know, not your talents.
Yes, extras must meet a threshold level of professionalism; they must show up on time and do what they're told; they must own a variety of clothing items (most bring their own wardrobe). But there are thousands of them, capable of showing up on time and walking when they're supposed to walk.
It's unskilled labor for skilled people.
The extras who work more than 100 days a year and make six figures pull it off by knowing, and being liked by, a number of directors and assistant directors who themselves work a lot. Who you know is nearly everything in Hollywood: Directors and screenwriters often get hired because of friendships. But nowhere is Hollywood cronyism more prevalent than in the lucrative world of commercial extras, where the minimum bar — the ability to look like a human being — is so low.
"It wasn't that long ago where everybody made fun of extras," says the writer-turned-extra. "Now everyone wants to be one."
Photo by Star Foreman
Every Monday and Wednesday morning, upward of 100 men and women of all ethnicities and backgrounds line up outside a two-story glass office building in Burbank. It could be a data systems lab or a call center but for the bright blue sign reading, in a font befitting a Fuddruckers, "CENTRAL CASTING."
To a certain segment of newly arrived L.A. transplants, the very real, bustling Central Casting is Ellis Island, the first point of entry for Hollywood hopefuls. Scotty Tovar, a handsome 27-year-old from Washington Heights in Manhattan, moved to L.A. just a couple weeks ago.
"This weather out here is amazing," he says. "It was snowing when I left." He's working on a screenplay, and took a cinematography course back in New York, and hopes to get a bartending job. In the meantime, he heard this was a good way to earn a little extra cash in L.A.
Just ahead of him is Robert, from Houston, an overweight black guy in a salmon-colored sweater vest, holding a paperback copy of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Robert and his wife are planning to move here soon — "Just to change," he says. He wants to do voice-over.
Not everyone in line aspires to "make it." Anna Drabicki is a marriage and family therapist who lives in San Diego, but she's registering with Central Casting in case "I'm up in L.A. and need something to do."
The phrase "straight out of Central Casting" is something of a misnomer. Central Casting is the top extras agency in the world, with more than 96,000 people registered in the United States. That includes 60,000 just in L.A., or about double the population of Beverly Hills. "I think everybody hopes that somebody is gonna pull them out of the crowd," says Kayla Delehant, a 27-year-old model and background actor from Stuart, Florida.
The Burbank firm casts around 2,000 background roles every single day. And its type is everyone.
If the American Dream is to work hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, the California Dream has always been about instant success. Striking it rich during the Gold Rush of the 1800s would, in the 1900s, give way to the idea of getting "discovered" in Hollywood.
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Bruce Willis was an extra in a courtroom scene of The Verdict. then–young guys Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were extras in the Fenway Park scene in Field of Dreams. Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Brad Pitt, Clark Gable — all were extras, in the beginning. Before she was a famous novelist and the leading mind behind the philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand was an extra on Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 silent epic, The King of Kings.
Megan Fox worked as an extra, when she was all of 15, on Bad Boys 2, directed by Michael Bay. You can spot her dancing at a steamy nightclub, wearing a stars-and-stripes bikini and a red cowboy hat.
Yet while the trope of getting discovered remains a pervasive one, nearly every successful actor, in truth, gradually worked his or her way up, getting progressively larger and more prominent roles. A successful audition often is the result of countless unsuccessful ones.
Most extras have an instinctive understanding that it won't happen fast. They know it takes hard work, they know there will be failures. But they carry with them a steely determination, as if optimism is the secret ingredient so many others were missing.
"I don't think it's up to the universe," Delehant says. "I think it's up to me. It depends how bad I want it. You really have to believe in yourself wholeheartedly."
The biggest challenge she faces is how many others are out there, just like her.
"It's a struggle," she admits. "There's gonna be the handful of blondes with big boobs that all look the same. And then there's gonna be the brunettes that are, like, short with glasses. It's really hard to stand out. I think sometimes you can get lost in the crowd, or feel like you're lost in the crowd, and it can just become overwhelming."
And therein lies the tension: wanting to be an actor, to grab the spotlight. But working as an extra — being paid to blend.
Ciera Jo Thompson and Harry Green
Photo by Star Foreman
Ciera Jo Thompson is 24, with pale skin and red curly hair so bright it practically glows. More than once, if she is standing near the lead actor, she's heard the assistant director call out, "You, in the red hair! Move to the right! Further... Further... Further..."
In 1923, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "It seems that the Chamber of Commerce statistics show that some 10,000 young men and women, less than legal age, come to this city every month to seek jobs in pictures, and of course only a small part of them have any talents or, if so, have the good fortune in the struggle to find places, for the directors are deluged with applications."
Silent film superstar Mary Pickford once admonished 15,000 fans at Pershing Square, "I wouldn't exactly tell the boys and girls not to come, for the screen might lose much talent. But I would ask the boys and girls who go to the studios to be prepared to work for five years, if necessary, before reaching stardom, and that if they should fail, be prepared to take up some other career."
"The girls," she added, "should be accompanied by their mothers."
In 1925, as many as 40,000 people, according to the now-defunct Los Angeles Record, were background actors, populating massive crowd scenes in biblical epics, riding horses in Westerns and so on.
Each morning, men, women and children would crowd around the gates of the five major studios — Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and RKO Pictures. Assistant directors would come out and point to those they wanted. "A few indulge in selling real estate," the Hollywood Citizen News wrote, "some peddle silverware, some wash dishes in restaurants while awaiting the great opportunity they hope will come sometime."
Pay was about $2 a day in the mid-1920s — about $30 in today's money. And productions might give vouchers to the extras, to be cashed at casting agencies — which often took a cut.
In 1914, the International Workers of the World, the most radical union in the United States, tried and failed to organize the extras. The creation of Central Casting led to better treatment and marginally better pay, but it wasn't until 1941 that the Screen Extras Guild was created. In 1992, the extras convinced the far more influential Screen Actors Guild to absorb them.
Most actors can join SAG after their first major speaking role. But extras are eligible if they manage to get three "vouchers" — that is, if they manage to convince three union productions to hire them.
"Everyone knows there's favoritism and cronyism," says Harold Green, the union extra. "It's kind of a joke."
On the other side of the fence, nonunion extras in TV or films earn minimum wage, $72 for eight hours, with overtime if shoots run longer.
"We are the best-dressed, best-looking, most educated, most talented minimum-wage employees in the entire world," says Alan Wald, a nonunion extra.
Photo by Star Foreman
Most get by working a number of other jobs. Ashley (who asked that we not use her last name) from West Virginia, 25, babysits and is a "character escort" at Universal Studios; she shadows the costumed characters and takes pictures as they pose with tourists.
"I'd rather be a character, but I don't fit any of the costumes," she says. "Right now, I'm reading up on agents and stuff so I can get my act together, start my career so I don't get stuck in background."
Ciera Jo Thompson must represent the leanest of the nonunion extras, having no other job at hand. Last year, she worked a bit more than 100 days and made only $8,000 — just about enough to pay her bills, she says.
Some crew members joke that extras are "props that eat," or "props that bleed." Although every production and set is different, being an extra can be dehumanizing in a multitude of ways. "A lot of times we're treated like dogs," Thompson says. "Like, you can see us, and we make noises and we require things, but we're generally talked over."
Film sets can be brutally hierarchical. It's not uncommon for background actors, the lowest caste, to be served separate food from the cast and crew. Whereas the latter feast on catered buffets and have access to a large table of snacks, the nonunion background actors, if there are a lot of them, may make do with scraps.
Says one producer: "If it's a nonunion shoot, and I'm paying 150 people 150 bucks to sit around all day, they're getting pizza. And they've got their own table with popcorn and bottled water."
Kayla Delehant recalls a time when she and other extras arrived on set at 5:30 a.m. and realized, "The crew had coffee. But not us. We were like, 'Are you kidding me?' There was nothing. We had a couple bottles of water."
Ron Shipp worked on nonunion shoots before joining SAG, and says the difference in treatment is, "You're not a person. You're really an extra — they'll call you, 'Extra!' It's demeaning."
Even on the most egalitarian of productions, extras are warned not to speak to the other actors, especially not celebrities. Delehant saw a background actor walk up to Mark Wahlberg's personal assistant and say, "Here's my headshot, can you give this to Mark Wahlberg?" The extra was instantly removed from the set.
"You don't talk to crew, you just mind your own business," says Nadine Wendell-Mojica, a background actor. "Unless they say 'excuse me,' you don't talk to the crew, and they don't talk to you — unless you're some gorgeous-looking girl."
Some crew members hit on extras or sleep with extras, and producers even cast beautiful female extras to make the shoot more fun.
"On certain shows, the directors and writers and creators sort of prey on the young extras," explains Frankie Shaw, a working actress and director whose SMILF won the Short Film Jury Award at Sundance 2015. "They're really excited about casting the best-looking extras, then they ask the extras out." She heard a cinematographer say, "I love these extras. They're like salmon in a trap. Salmon in a trap."
Photo by Star Foreman
Jozelle Smith pushes her toast to the edge of her quinoa scramble — "I never eat bread," she says. She sounds just like every other aspiring actor, except that Smith is 75, one of the many retirees who do regular background work.
Smith was born in Culver City. Practically everyone in town worked for MGM (now Sony Pictures) back then, and in the morning, Smith would see the men walking to the studio carrying lunch pails. Her grandfather was an MGM electrician, her grandmother was in wardrobe. Her mother worked as an extra in the 1930s.
"She got paid $5 a day and a sack lunch, and she was thrilled to death," Smith says.
Smith married, raised kids and worked part-time as a secretary. In 1986, she was elected to the Culver City Council, where she served for eight years, including a one-year stint as Culver City mayor, a rotating position. By 2007 she had retired, and after remodeling her house, she needed something to do.
She was working out at the gym Curves when one of the trainers told her, "You love the movies, you should be an extra."
"I said, 'I'm not doing anything now, that sounds like fun.' I've always been a movie nut. So I went to Central Casting and signed up, and that was it."
So-called "amateur extras" see it as a lark, or maybe just want to soak up some movie magic. Anthony Slide, in his book Hollywood Unknowns, notes that many extras in the early days were "members of the social set, perhaps wintering in Los Angeles, a change of scene from their East Coast mansions."
Others were the children of newly destitute stockbrokers, or ravaged remnants of European royalty who fled to the United States after World War I. "It was reported," Slide writes, "that financially strapped members of the British nobility — among them individuals identified as Sir and Lady Poppem Young and Lady Sackville-West — would pretend to be appearing on screen as a novelty or a 'lark,' but in reality such work provided their only source of income."
A survey by Central Casting shows that today, about half are aspiring actors, but many are retirees looking for a little extra money and fun. Smith, for one, works about 85 days a year. Hollywood directors and screenwriters rarely depict seniors in their true numbers in life, so casting openings are few. But there's less competition, and TV shows invariably need older background actors for weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs.
The indignities of background don't stick to Smith as they would others. She earns about as much as a struggling young actress. But her situation couldn't be more different: She gets Social Security and Medicare, so her extra earnings allow her to travel and spend time with her grandkids.
Recently, she overheard a background actress talking about a three-day shoot. On the first day, the actress spent 12 hours "in holding" — the waiting area. The second day, it was another 12 hours in holding. On the third day, she went up to a production assistant (one small rung above extras in the production pecking order) and said, "OK, look at me, what's wrong with me? I was hired for this job. I wasn't hired to sit in holding for two 12-hour day. Is there something wrong, that you're not putting me out?"
Watching that bitter actress, "I thought, 'Get a life,'" Smith says. "You're a commodity. You're like a piece of furniture that's gonna work or not work in a room."
Smith takes it as an adventure. She worked on The Social Network, which she hated because director David Fincher ordered take after take. Clint Eastwood, under whom she also has worked, never ordered more than three takes, a sure-handed approach for which he is admired by more than just the extras. For a film buff, that kind of experience can be priceless.
And then there was the porn shoot.
The ad Smith found said, "must be comfortable with male nudity," and it paid $150 for six hours of work. Smith and a retiree friend decided they felt pretty comfortable with male nudity. They submitted for it, and both were selected.
They went to downtown L.A. to an big, empty, glassed-in office where about 15 people of varying ages and ethnicities milled around. The director announced: "OK, you all said you were comfortable with male nudity. If you're not, we don't want to pressure you. Feel free to leave now if you don't think it's gonna work.
"If you want to grab his dick or give him a blow job, you'll be compensated for it."
After a beat, one gray-haired woman raised her hand and asked, "Sir, how much will that be?"
The storyline for what turned out to be a porn sketch for an online production went something like this: A female worker wins an employee-of-the-month contest. When her name is announced, out comes the Champagne and a buff dude wearing a "banana hammock" who proceeds to strip off that small bit of fabric and have sex with the perplexed employee of the month.
"Well, they do it on top of the desk, on the floor," Smith gleefully recalls. "I was dying laughing."
As for the gray-haired lady, in the midst of the striptease and without warning, she reached out and grabbed the stripper's penis. She was rewarded with an extra $100.
As they were leaving the set, Smith asked her, "What are you gonna say when your husband says, 'How was work today?'"
The woman replied: "Just another boring background day."
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