They say anyone can do it, but it takes a certain kind of person to do background work for film and television. First of all, you have to accept that you and all the other schmucks are going to be treated like cattle. You have to accept that you’ll spend hours online looking for work, calling in to a busy signal over and over and over, only to get through on the 30th call to an answering machine saying the project is all booked up. And most of all, you have to accept the fact that, to “them,” you are disposable. If you don’t fit the role perfectly, if you’re late, if you are uncooperative in any way, there are 100 other schmucks who look just like you who will gladly take your job. Oh, and it’s minimum wage of course. But you might be on set for 12 hours. Or more. I had a friend once tell me, “When you’re doing background work, you’re always working but you’re always broke.”
Despite these discouraging conditions, the job of an extra isn’t without its benefits. You get a free catered meal, sometimes two. You have a lot of down time to read, check emails, knit, whatever floats your boat. And sometimes, you get a chance to watch an actor you admire at work, doing what they do best.
Within a couple months of moving to Los Angeles, working as an extra drew me in. Mostly I looked at it as a learning experience; it would be an easy way to get onto the sets of major productions and observe how they operate. I wanted to absorb everything, from the vocabulary to on-set protocol to acting techniques. So I lined up in front of Central Casting at 8 am and… got turned away. So I came back a week later, arrived at 5:30 am, sat on the sidewalk for 4 hours, and registered myself into the Grand Background Database.
My first experience as a background actor was awful. I got hired to be a “Beautiful Woman Swimming,” or as I liked to call it, a Pool Bitch. The scene was supposed to be an outdoor party, complete with DJs and dancers, so this was a pretty large call. They herded all of the extras to set, and the first thing they did when we arrived was say, okay Pool Bitches, get in the water! Now this shoot was outside, at night, in late November. Although Los Angeles never gets Cold with a capital C, the temperature was still in the low 50s all night. So 50 gorgeous models plus me (I don’t know how I got grouped in with them) were all asked to strip down to our bikinis and get in the water and wait.
It was at least an hour before we even started shooting. And then the transitions in between shots were long and plentiful. I kept getting asked to get out of the water and switch between the four pools at the hotel. They picked us one by one to go sit at the top of the waterslide, soaking wet and half naked, and then wait for another half hour while they set up the next shot, until we get the word go to slide down.
The pools were heated, but when you’re sitting still for hours on end in 85° water when your body is trying to maintain a temperature of 98.6°, you end up freezing. We were all miserable. The crew members were all wearing parkas, boots, gloves, and beanies. Yet when we’d complain about the conditions, they’d shrug it off and tell us it was a heated pool. At one point, someone who was higher-up in the chain of command walked over and took off one of her winter gloves, dipped her fingers in the water and said, “The water’s pretty warm isn’t it?” We all responded quickly with “No, it’s not. When your whole body is in it, it’s way too cold. We’re miserable.” She gave us a look that said, well that’s too bad, then put her glove back on and walked away.
I was in the water for 5 hours before we were dismissed. And during those five hours, not once did the production team tell us, “take five,” “take ten,” or even, “we’re resetting the cameras now so if you need to go to the bathroom now is a good time.” After we arrived on set, we weren’t offered a single break, not even a moment to dry off.
All the other extras I talked to insisted that working background is not normally like this, that it’s usually not this bad, that it’s usually quite easy actually, and that I shouldn’t give up. Although this first experience left a bad taste in my mouth, I decided to keep at it and try again.
My second background experience was vastly better. I put myself on the emergency availability list the night before, and woke up to a phone call at 4:50 am asking me to come to set. The casting associate said, “Your call time is 7:00, so you might was well get up.” So I got up.
After a frantic stuffing of 10 outfits into a tiny backpack, I set out for Studio City. You know it’s too damn early when you’re leaving your apartment and Starbucks isn’t even open yet. After stepping in dog poop on the star-spangled sidewalk, I begrudgingly made my way underground to catch the train to the studio.
Despite the rough start, the day that followed was fascinating. I started the morning by jogging outside in the temperate California dawn. In the afternoon, I was a forensic specialist. I walked onto a set full of huge television screens, flickering with graphs, codes, maps, and mugshots. The set was glowing green and blue. It was alive. This was my first time ever being on a high-budget studio set, and I felt like I was living a dream.
I sat behind a computer desk that I soon came to call my own, busily clicking away on the keyboard and answering super important phone calls. The production kept me busy all day working at my desk, walking around headquarters, conferring with colleagues, and handing off files of evidence. I was on my feet all day and I couldn’t be happier.
At one point I was hanging out by the elevator waiting for the next scene to start when they called for “first team rehearsal.” As the principal actors approached the set, I grew wide-eyed and speechless as I saw that year’s Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress.
I leaned to the actor next to me and stage-whispered, “Is that Patricia Arquette?!”
“Yeah,” he whispered back.
“OH MY GOD,” I whispered more loudly than I should have.
She walked over and took her place directly beside me. I could have touched her but I didn’t because that would be weird. Then I tried to be cool about it but at that point I think the cool ship had already sailed.
When we broke for lunch, I was surprised and overwhelmed once again. It was mid-December, the last day before “The Hiatus,” when all the major studios shut down for literally an entire month for the holidays because they all make enough bank to do that. Since the studio was shutting down, Craft Services was cooking up all the food that they had left in storage.
They gave all the extras lobster.
I’ve loved lobster ever since I was a kid, but since moving away from my parents and moving to an expensive city where I was struggling just to pay the rent, I didn’t think lobster would be on the menu for me any time in the foreseeable future. I sat down grinning from ear to ear, just so happy to have a food that I loved but couldn’t afford.
I was kept on set well into the evening, pushing into overtime and then double time. Towards the end of the night, I was selected to do a series of foreground crosses. Because of this, I was able to watch Patricia Arquette (whom I admire deeply in case you hadn’t already noticed) and the other lead actor develop the scene, work on it, run it over and over until it came into its own. I watched with glittering eyes, knowing that moments like these are what I came for.
Several months later I was booked again, this time on a Showtime series. I was cast as a Strip Club Customer. So I wasn’t a stripper, but a person at the club appreciating the strippers. And, because it’s Showtime and they can do whatever they want, there were actual strippers there, actually stripping. Throughout my entire mimed conversation, my eyes kept flicking to the stage and I kept thinking, “There are boobs there. Oh look, boobs. Those are a stranger’s boobs.” It’s just not a thing I see on a daily basis, so it was quite distracting. This was another one of those moments where I found myself appreciating how weird my life is.
I then made my first foray into audience work, the awkward cousin of background work. I was booked on a show hosted by Craig Ferguson, so when I found out I was ecstatic; I used to watch The Late Late Show with my parents when I was in middle school, so his brand of humor had a special place in my heart. It was spring, and we were instructed to dress more upscale, so I wore a skirt and a nice blouse. When I was sitting outside, one of the veteran audience members told me I was going to freeze inside. When I asked why, he said that Craig Ferguson demands that the studio be kept at 56°. I thought he was joking or exaggerating, but to my horror he wasn’t. As soon as I stepped into the studio, I was blasted with cold wind.
One of the main reasons I moved to Los Angeles in the first place is because I HATE being cold. I spent the next 4 hours slowly crumpling into myself and desperately wishing I were somewhere else.
One rare occasion, I had a casting assistant actually call me, and asked if I was available to do background work for Transparent. This was a show that I had binge-watched all in one 10-hour sitting on the day that Amazon Prime offered its services for free. Excited to be part of a show I was genuinely interested in, I agreed and cleared my schedule for that day.
I was cast as a “Feminist Undergrad,” and I later found out that all the women in this shoot had been hand-picked by the casting director by look, which made me feel special. I joined a diverse group of edgy, alternative-looking young women in what turned out to be a short 4-hour shoot. I watched the director talk through scenes with the lead actress, and eavesdropped as they bounced ideas off one another.
Because of the progressive nature of the show, I felt like I was a small part of something larger and important, a sort of landmark in television history. Months later as I watched Jill Soloway accept the 2016 Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, I felt connected to the achievement, in a weird way. Even though I was only there to fill the background, I still had a small sense of ownership over the final product. And that small victory made me smile.