Film extras need to have a certain agenda i.e. not a lot of pride. If you begin the day with pride in your stride, you will walk away gasping in despair. Ricky Gervais really did hit the nail on the head with his comical representation of extras in his TV hit of the same name. The reason I say this is because last week I had the pleasure of being an extra. I received a call to work on BBC’s period drama Johnathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
There are a few reasons why it was a worthwhile opportunity. To be a good film director, you need to gather a degree of experience in every role on set. There is surely no better way to project a feeling of unity as a director if you know exactly what everyone is going through. So it was nice to sit back and watch everyone work – the tension of the 1st AD as he kept looking down at his watch, the sparks as they all ran around close to tripping up over the obstacle course in front of them and the costume dailies as they darted back and forth between takes pulling up collars and sleeves etc. There was also the fact that BBC pays their extras rather well!
However, the behind-the-scenes experience wasn’t quite as fruitful, at least for the extra, as I had expected. Mingling with anyone other than extras is like staring at the horns of a dragon. Instead, when not needed, we would be locked up in what they called “the green room” – a room where extras sat falling asleep, playing cards or talking about past experiences of similar anguish. I decided to be slightly more pro-active, at lunchtime I headed over to the 3rd AD for a chat about the production and his work… he gaped at me, gave a hesitant non-existent answer and turned around to chat to someone else. Fair enough.
Lunch was surprisingly plentiful and tasty. Roast dinners were followed by sponge cake and custard. The only problem was actually getting to the food. The queue seemed to move backwards as grips and electricians continued to flood in. Though you can’t blame crew for pushing in, they are actually doing a job and working hard rather than walking aimlessly backwards and forwards, and out of focus I might add.
(Unfortunately, the snapchat bogus above is the only image I managed to capture, but it seems to sum up the few days pretty well. Left: myself – Right: a good fellow stranger called Lee).
“The green room” did host some ingenious fun and games. A fellow extra started a round tournament for throwing plastic cups (previously containing hot tea) into a distant paper bin. Accuracy was greatly impeded by the fact that arm and shoulder movement was vastly limited in tight 19th century waistcoats and jackets. If you tried to loosen your jacket (and breathe), costume would be through the door screaming at your back. They are like a team of hawks and you do not want to get on the wrong side of their leader, the costume designer! Make-up and hair provide a similar shot of sharp-sighted glares.
Other games included movie trivia with a an extra who rather fancied himself as a Marty Scorsese, a movie buff who I could pass the next five hours with. This was turning out to be a fun day and a great way to bring in the cash. We played another game – I don’t know how better to describe it: name the film, name an actor from that film, name another film with that actor, name another actor from that film etc. until you get stuck. However, some extras were incredibly tame individuals and others remarkably self-possessed. To be frank, the whole clout could make rather a good theatrical component itself!
The show is airing in 2015 next January. See you then!