First off, the pay is usually terrible. On a feature film you may take home $65 or so for an 8-hour day.
Second, it's boring. Tons of standing around. On film shoots I've seen dozens of extras show up, wait all day, and never even get into a scene. (But they still get their $65!)
Third, if you like to work, it's tough watching other actors get to do great stuff while you walk in circles in the background.
But certain jobs -- commercial extra work, especially under a SAG contract -- can pay a decent amount. So today I worked as an extra, and it was the right call, but I was reminded of some of the things other extras do that annoy me.
So here is my list of the annoying things bad extras do. They:
- Denigrate the process. Background actors are essential to the production. True, just about anyone can (and does) do it -- students, retirees, bored people, the underemployed. But you are an actor filling a necessary role. Stop putting it down. Do you think the assistant gaffer bitches about having to run around taking orders and putting tape on stuff? Nope, he's there to do his job, and he shuts his mouth and does it professionally.
- Denigrate the production. Yeah, the director may not be Scorcese, but guess what? You're not DeNiro. They're earning a living wage doing this job. YOU are just a freaking extra on this production you think sucks. Do you know how silly you sound making fun of them? Calling them Cecil B. DeMille behind their back? Really silly. And pathetic.
- Refuse to listen. I learned this the hard way in just my second theater production. The director yelled at us, literally, for chatting and holding side conversations while he was talking. I thought he was an a-hole at the time, but he was right. I like to listen, even when the director's not talking to me. If I know what the principals are being instructed to do, then I'll have a better understanding of what I need do. Extras get very little direction or feedback, so every little bit, wherever you can get it, helps.
- Distract others. Again, some of us are trying to listen and pay attention. So shut up and save your stories for later. And in the meantime, work on them a bit. Take a tip from film: stories have a beginning, a middle and an END. Not to mention conflict, drama and human interest. Make it so.
- Obsess over the food. This is a big thing with non-actor extras on films. Some of them show up mainly for the meal (and they are not poor or starving). But I've seen professional actors obsess ridiculously over the food, complaining that it's not coming soon enough or that they have to line up behind the crew. We need to be fed, yes, but the craft table is not the main event.
- Bug people for stills and clips. First, you're talking to the wrong person. The photographer or the DP or the client or the agency creative director are not the people to ask for clips. They've got jobs to do. There's a production coordinator who signs your papers. Talk to him or her. But, seriously, don't bug them, either. Nobody wants to see a background, nonspeaking role on your reel. And if you'd like a photo, have another extra snap one of you.
- Complain about having to stick around. You signed up for 8 hours. You know the drill. Even if your scene was done before lunch, there's a 99% chance they are not going to release you until the end of the shift. Because you never know. You just might be needed for something. And for that 8 hours, they own your ass. So bring a book and be prepared to sit around all day.
So in addition to the pay and inactivity and the boredom, it's the people that sometimes make being an extra a really unsatisfying experience.