On becoming a movie extra and spending a day on location with Danny Boyle’s Yesterday.
Chris Walsh (@ChrisDoubleEwe)
Extras, background artists, human wallpaper – whatever you call the job, it’s the lowest rung on the acting career ladder. But it’s the most glamorous, exciting ladder in the world, and for many of us getting on it is all that matters. So, you’re ready to trade your dreams of star billing for the reality of a bit part. But just how do you go about becoming a film extra?
Register with a dedicated extras agency
If you’re serious about looking for regular opportunities as an extra, signing up with a specialist agency is a must. Do your homework before picking an agency to check they’re reputable – what do other people think of them? You will need to pay an annual fee to the agency, but the trustworthy ones will take their fees only out of what you earn – be extremely wary if you’re asked to pay any money upfront. UK agencies with a good reputation include Casting Collective, Mad Dog Casting, and Universal Extras. Register by providing your details and a recent photo online. The agency will want extensive details about your appearance: your skin colour, body shape, hair colour, tattoos, piercings, and so on. The ‘facial tattoo and pierced lip’ look might not work for a scene set in an 18th century convent, but it could be perfect for a modern era film.
Keep an eye on the local press
If a production needs a large number of extras, they will often use local media to get word out to as many as people as possible. When Michael Fassbender filmed scenes for Macbeth in Ely Cathedral, many local residents appeared as extras after finding out about open casting calls from local newspaper Ely News and also from articles on the Cathedral’s website. This method does depend on you living close to the filming location, however. If you’re looking for more regular, frequent work, you will probably need to travel further afield.
Have a skill
Much of the time, all you are required to do as an extra is stand still. Not for nothing are extras sometimes unkindly referred to as human wallpaper. But sometimes, an additional skill may give you the edge in getting a role, or secure you a more prominent position on screen. Are you a horse rider, for example? Can you juggle? Tap dance?
Be in the right place at the right time
If all else fails, you could just trust in blind luck. When a director needs a crowd scene for their film, they have a couple of options. They can either hire a multitude of people and bring them to set. Or they can take the cameras somewhere there’s already a crowd. For example, some of the concert scenes in A Star Is Born were filmed on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury 2017 as Bradley Cooper grabbed a few minutes shooting time before introducing Kris Kristofferson. The crowd were already going wild in anticipation of the show, and Bradley just had to film what was already happening. You thought you were settling down to an afternoon of melodic country-infused rock, and all of a sudden your face is in a Hollywood blockbuster! Mission accomplished.
My day of being an extra
My ‘extra’ story begins on a hot July day in 2018 at the Latitude festival in Suffolk. Checking the festival’s Facebook page revealed an intriguing post: “Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis are filming at Latitude, come and be in the film!” Well, who could refuse the opportunity of being in the same field as the writer of Blackadder and Four Weddings And A Funeral, together with the director of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later?
The first hurdle to overcome was the early start time. 8.30am proved a bridge too far for the teenager in our group, who declared that she would rather spend the time sleeping and would catch up with us later. The rest of us dragged ourselves out of our tents and trudged off towards the Lake stage, where fame, fortune, and a glittering career in the movies surely awaited us.
Our Hollywood experience started with a cup of tea and a queue as we waited by the festival gates for the film crew to be ready for us. As time ticked by, the queue grew longer and longer, and it became apparent that lots of people were as excited as we were to be a part of this film. Finally a member of the production team announced that they were ready for us and marched us through the gates, across a bridge and towards one of the smaller stages. As we filed into the field, a woman with a clipboard approached me. “Excuse me,” she said “would you mind if I separated you from your friends and asked you to stand over there?” pointing towards a group of three of four burly blokes stood at the side of the stage. This was surely my big break! I had only been in the movie business for five minutes, and already I had been talent spotted and was boarding an express elevator to the top. It transpired that the crew were looking for a handful of people to play the role of stage security. Rather than picking us for our latent acting talents, we had been plucked purely on the basis that we were all over six feet tall and sturdily built. We were sent to ‘wardrobe’ for our costume fittings (which turned out to be a bloke with a job lot of high-vis vests), then we were left to get into character.
Danny Boyle himself appeared on stage to explain the premise of the film to us: guitarist Jack Malik falls off his bike and hits his head, only to wake up and find he is the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles. In the scene we were part of, a [spoiler redacted] moment happens on the stage. The great part of this was we were treated to a superb gig by Michael Kiwanuka, playing a much smaller stage than you would ever hope to see him on usually. And given my position at the front of the stage, I was closer than most. It was so much fun being part of the production, even in such a small way, and to get a peek behind the curtain to see how a film gets made. All that’s left is to watch out for myself in the film when it’s released in a few weeks time – hopefully I won’t end up on the cutting room floor…