5 Weird Lessons You Learn Being A TV Show Extra
I've had a lot of weird jobs in my life, but the one that people inevitably ask the most questions about is my time as an extra. After working as a production assistant and quickly realizing that it's the worst job in the world, I decided to move exactly one rung up the ladder and live the glorious life of an extra for a few years. It was way better than being a PA! You actually get paid! You got to eat craft services every day! The second AD didn't lock you in a sunless pit after shooting wraps for the day!
Anyway, I've decided to write everything about being an extra in one convenient numerical list to refer people to when they inevitably ask me the most common question I receive: "Is Jimmi Simpson nice in person?" (The answer to that is "yes.")
A Quick Overview on How It All Works
Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be a Professional Person Who Exists, let me give you a quick rundown of how it works.
First, you sign up with a background service. They only accept new people one day a week and there's only so many people they accept per day, so you have to get there at 4:00 AM to make sure you get a place in line. Then you sit on the dirty ground for a few hours and listen to The National on your iPod and wonder if you really wasted all those years of your life going to film school because this is where your life is now and you get real sad. Then at 8:00 AM their doors open up, and if you're far enough ahead in line, you're in! At this point, you're basically an extra. You fill out a form with your information -- approximate weight (in my case, skinnyfat), height (bad), ethnicity (whiter than a business brunch discussing the exciting investment opportunities provided by incest porn), and dong length (grievous schmeat).
They don't actually ask for dong length, but it's information I provide to all of my potential employers because I AM willing to do nudity. (Sadly, Cracked has yet to properly capitalize on this incredible opportunity.) Anyway, you fill out your info, lie on the part of the form where you check the boxes that correspond to special skills ("Sure, I'm an expert in sword fighting!") and get your picture taken. Honestly it's a lot like going to the DMV, but everyone is full of hopes and dreams instead of despair and McBreakfast Burrito farts.
Once that's done, whenever you feel like working you check the company's Facebook page obsessively. When they post a job on a day you're free for a description you fit ("Looking for: short white guy. Schmeat preference: grievous"), you call over and over again until they answer. You give your name, they look at your info and the picture they took, and then you either get booked for the job or hung up on.
And that's pretty much it! Besides the part where you're actually on set, which I'll talk about later. Being on set is the easy part: it's getting booked that's hard. Because:
You Will Become Extremely Aware Of All Your Flaws
I've been in dozens of movies and TV shows, many of which you've possibly even heard of: Westworld, This Is Us, Here and Now, Brooklyn 99, The Circle, Mascots, Timeless, Animal Kingdom, Code Black, Bella and the Bulldogs, and so many more that I can't remember and/or never bothered to learn the name of the show. Getting booked on a show was always a gamble for me, because I am what the background job postings refer to as a "non-conventionally attractive character actor," or as children passing in the street might say, "Father, why ever is that sewer mutant allowed out in the daylight? Teacher told us that they were consigned to the Hell Zone, and his face is ever so upsetting!"
On top of having a face that people trying to be kind describe as "just so interesting," I am also 5'5", which my first real girlfriend in high school referred to as "not really a marriage height, you know?" The most difficult thing about being short, besides constantly having to be on the lookout for predatory birds, is that it made it difficult for me to get booked as a normie. But I've got one thing going for me, besides a terrible personality that people find funny: I have a beautiful, luscious beard. If I ever decide to quit writing I will absolutely, without question, become one of those guys for whom facial hair is their entire personality. On the bright side, my lovely man-salad is why I got work.
Because I am NOT what Hollywood thinks an average person looks like. Generally, if they're shooting a totally normal scene that takes place in a major city in the present day, they're looking for men over 6' with a "hot, clean cut look." There's lots of weird euphemisms they couch it in, but if you don't fit into their rigid categories you won't be a fit for the majority of parts. And after you've called in for parts looking for "attractive" people and, after they see your picture, get told "Oh, no. Not you," enough times, it starts to take kind of a toll. Huh -- you know, I'm probably the first person to think this, but I wonder if media's portrayal of "average" people being so unrealistic is leading to a lot people being unhappy with their appearance due to unrealistic standards? Nah, probably not.
On the bright side, when I did get a part, I often had a recurring role since I fit into the category of "visually distinctive outsider," which was also what they put under my picture in my high school yearbook.
People In The Past Were Suffering All The Time
This is all to say that of the roles I got, many of them could be broadly defined as Historie Personne. My beard makes me look like the Alderman of the Opium-Providers Guild, or at least the Foreman of Ye Olde Racism Factorie. Not all extras have had the same experience as I have, of course, but one thing I learned in my time as an extra is that the clothing of the past fucking sucks ass.
If you have a passing familiarity with history, you might have, at one point or another, asked yourself why everyone in the past didn't just calm the fuck down. I mean, come on, Sea People? Chill out, guys. Straw Hat Riots? Are you kidding me? I have come to the conclusion that people in the past were so tense because their clothes were made fashioned by Big Untreated Wool and designed by a council of Puritans who believed that accidentally touching your own skin was technically onanism. I was a 1920s reporter on the show Timeless, and let me tell you, the period-accurate clothing looks fantastic but it's godawful to wear. It's incredible that when people in the 20s stopped flipping and then catching coins to pick up stray dames lookin' for trouble long enough to make shoes they decided the soles should be made of, apparently, fucking wood. When your job mostly consists of standing around, you want footwear that's slightly more pleasant to stand on than a plate of fire. Maybe fewer lives would have been claimed by Infected Foot Sores if you could walk more than ten steps before the soles of your feet started looking like the guys that died from radiation exposure in Chernobyl.
And that's just the feet! The material claims to be wool, but I'm pretty sure it's spun coyote fur. It itches insanely badly, it's hot, and it's heavy. And, for reasons unknown, there are always like nine layers of clothes. For example, when I was a Confederate soldier on Westworld, I had to wear socks, longjohns, an undershirt, a button-up shirt, pants held up with suspenders, a gun belt, a bandolier, a jacket, a hat, boots, and spurs. People go into fucking space with fewer pounds of clothing. And we were shooting in the desert! So of course you start sweating immediately, and the cloth is specially designed to catch the sweat and never, ever let it go. So you start to stink a few hours in. Here's a Hollywood Secret: to imitate trail dust or the general layer of Time Filth that coated every single person before 1950, the costumers dust you with Hershey's chocolate dust. Every time you watch a heartbreaking period piece about a courtship interrupted by the Jacobite Uprising or a hard-nosed Western about a drunk sheriff and his drunk deputy protecting Blind Buffalo Billy's Brothel from the League of Women Voters, keep in mind that every single person you're seeing smells like a forgotten bar of baking chocolate slowly melting in the changing room of a truck stop shower.
It's The Easiest Job On Set, Even When It's Hard
That last entry was pretty much just me bitching, but let me avoid any ambiguity: being an extra is by far the easiest job on set. I've been a PA, an editor, a camera op, a gaffer, a producer, a director, and even a stop-motion animator because I hate myself. Being an extra is far, far easier than any of these jobs. The people on set doing actual jobs treat you like you're a mindless animal that needs to be herded from place to place and occasionally distracted with a piece of boiled chicken held off-camera, and you know what? Fair. Being an extra is unique in the film industry in that the bar for entry is so low that anyone can do it, even if you don't have a blood relative that's been doing it for years and can directly get you hired.
Which is a blessing and a curse, because I've definitely seen people wave at the camera and ruin a shot that cost approximately nine Dodge Neons per second to shoot. Once on set I saw someone take a picture of a scene that was filming, which is like the absolute number one thing you're not supposed to do, and then post it on Facebook. But it was somebody's job to monitor social media for anything related to that show, so that extra was fired about twenty minutes after posting that.
So extras have a reputation as being human cattle, which means we're either treated like pre-schoolers gently being asked not to eat the wood chips on the playground or like dumbass privates in boot camp. Here's a fun story about the second day I was an extra, ever. I was pulled out of holding to be in a scene. I had to cross from one side of street to the other. I did it, and between shots the AD came up to me and said/screamed "TINSEL TOWN!" I didn't know what was happening so I just kind of stared, assuming more information was coming my way. Instead she made a disgusted sound and said "UGH! TINSEL TOWN TURNAROUND!" I still didn't know what this meant, but apparently it meant we were now filming the same shot from the opposite angle.
Okay. So we did that, and after the shot the same AD came up to me and said "BANANA! BANANA!" At this point I felt like maybe I was being fucked with, so I pulled on all of my razor wit and on-the-spot- thinking and sputtered out "Wh-what?", to which the AD replied "What are you, a fucking retard? BANANA!" That's clearly a horrific thing to say to someone. Anyway, it turns out she wanted me to slightly curve the path I walked, so that if you saw it from above it would roughly follow the curve of a banana. Stupid me, right?
I shared this story of humorous workplace harassment and vitriolic ableism to show the hard part of being an extra. The occasional bigoted outburst isn't great, but the rest of the job is honestly 98% standing around off set, 1% surreptitiously scoping out craft services, and 1% standing around on camera. (Oh, one time on Brooklyn 99 we had to swim in the ocean for hours at night in November. That was also pretty bad.)
It's All One Big Stanford Prison Experiment
The main lesson here about being an extra, besides the fact that you should definitely bring a book, is that people cloistered in small spaces together form their own little society. The absolute weirdest thing I learned while working as an extra might actually reveal something about human nature. Maybe? Or maybe I just noticed a weird thing and am extrapolating it way too far? We'll let the philosophers of the future debate it, along with whether or not it's cool to get your dick sucked by a robot (answer: extremely cool, but only if that's what that robot is designed for).
I noticed that the way people treated me was directly related to the costume I was wearing. It's like a miniature Stanford Prison Experiment. If you're unfamiliar with that, a quick refresher: the Prison Experiment was where a bunch of normal dudes agreed to go to prison for a few days. They were divided up into prisoners and guards at random. As time went on, the guards started to behave aggressively towards the prisoners, as though they really believed they were guards. It's a really famous and influential experiment, even though maybe the guy behind it had his thumb on the scale on the side of "everyone becomes a monster if given authority." But come on, look at this face! Would this guy lie to you?
I can't vouch for whether or not giving someone a uniform and a modicum of authority inevitably makes them a monster without strict oversight, although every single interaction both I and every single person I've ever known has had with the police seems to confirm that theory, but I do have anecdotal evidence that people will judge you by your appearance even they know it's fake. That's how deeply ingrained our prejudices are.
So how does this relate to being an extra? I'm glad you asked! No, really, it was really convenient. Otherwise this entry wouldn't have made any sense. When I was, say, a 1920s reporter on the show Timeless, I was wearing a (hellishly burdensome and uncomfortable) suit, glasses, and smoking a pipe. People treated me respectfully, gave me preferential treatment, the whole nine yards. It's what I imagine life is like all the time for the hot -- everyone is just so nice! Conversely, when I was a homeless man on Code Black, people treated me like shit. Once, in holding, there were so many extras that seating was at a premium. I saw another extra dressed as a nurse who had her purse on the chair next to her. I politely asked her if she could move her purse so I could sit down and she laughed in my face and put her hand defensively on her purse. I reminded her that I wasn't really a homeless person -- I drove here in my car, that I own. It didn't work. I had to sit on the floor, like a common uggo. This was not the life of Hot Privilege to which I had become accustomed.
And it wasn't just that. I was asked multiple times by people working on set if I was allowed to be at craft services -- no, man, I snuck on to this guarded studio lot and broke into this set so I could steal three stale unflavored nacho chips and a hotdog floating in tepid meatwater (network always has the worst crafty). And when I was a stinking Confederate soldier, people seemed to be somewhat intimidated by me. Maybe it was the prominently-displayed guns on my hips? Man, the feeling of being intimidating is kind of intoxicating. To my fellow Short Dudes who buy guns: I assure you, taking Krav Maga and fixing up a '68 Charger are both much better ways to feel powerful than open carry. Over and over I recognized this -- people treated me based on how I looked, even though every single one of them knew that this was all pretend.
If every single person on the planet could experience this, it would go a long way towards helping people who struggle to understand that prejudice exists. Did -- did I just solve racism? You're welcome, The World.
Top image: Alexander Kirch/Shutterstock