In my childhood and adult years I was fortunate enough to work as a film extra in many different productions, whether they’re television, feature films, or commercials. Unfortunately I never worked on a music video or corporate production, which I heard were a lot of fun, primarily the former. Many of my previous articles focus on bigger productions such as national TV shows and feature films. However, working as an extra in Los Angeles in a smaller film capacity, like a student film, was fascinating. Chicago is a very unique city to do any kind of filming, unlike anything I had experienced before. Sit back and read my tale of yore.
Los Angeles – Plenty of Opportunities in Being a Film Extra
There are indeed plenty of ways to become an extra in a movie in LA. One could even make a living doing that full-time, provided you like sitting around a lot of the time. Some productions are better than others. It isn’t always glamorous, because you’ll be wearing your own clothes most of the time. Of course there are the national television shows, series, and other televised productions utilizing extras all the time during the fall and winter seasons. I have no idea what it’s like now with an influx of the reality TV genre, but my guess there’s plentiful work too.
Many people are drawn to feature films, the ones shown at your local Cineplex at the mall. The problem working on films is many go straight to video/DVD, instead of movie theaters. If you really want more of a challenge as a movie extra, you can try your hand with student films. Los Angeles is home to UCLA and USC film school departments. They’re always on the lookout for actors. When I lived in the Valley (San Fernando Valley or “over the hill” as the Angelenos call it) I’d grab the latest issue of Drama-Logue. Now it is called Backstage and it’s an online trade magazine. This was at a time before the internet, but it basically works the same way. A film student places an ad where they need actors for their film project. I sent in my headshot with my resume, basically waited for the phone to ring.
I got a call from someone at the University of Southern California (USC) who interviewed me over the phone, went to meet her in person on campus, and got the part as a registered nurse. In the ad it stated all actors would get a copy of the finished work. It was no pay, but the experience was worth its weight in gold, since I would be very visible in my film role. One Saturday morning I went to USC for filming some scenes. I dressed up in a nurse’s uniform I bought myself, along with the cap. It basically took most of the day for a few scenes. That was it. Unfortunately I never got a copy of the film as promised.
Chicago – Where Movie Extras are Stars
Unlike Los Angeles having an abundance of filming opportunities, Chicago is the complete opposite. That’s because of the obvious weather during its winter, and parts of the fall and spring. It leaves a small window of opportunity during the summer months for movie productions to come to the Windy City. Of course I tried to get on as an extra when there was a film in town, but not much luck. During my time in Chicago there was a weekly phone number you’d call in for film, TV, commercial or other acting gigs.
Somehow I got a call to come down to the North Side to be an extra. It was during a weekday night around the early fall. I thought I’d be there for a few hours, get some shut eye, and go to work the next day. Not a chance. It ended up taking the whole entire night, plus the temperature dropped rather significantly. This was by far the most challenging movie extra experience I had ever encountered. It was so cold standing outside pretending to be in queue to go inside a theatre for a concert or something. The film was about a homeless couple and their adventures. To this day I have no idea what the title was, if it ever got released (doubtful), or who were the principal actors.
Something else stood out from this movie-making experience I will never forget. During the course of filming or standing around (mostly the latter), people walking by us or in the area came up to ask if we were in a movie. The response was “yes.” Afterwards, their eyes lit up like they had talked to future movie stars. They were so excited about the prospect of extras in a film in their own backyard, so to speak. Los Angeles is ultra- jaded when it comes to film crews in their neighborhoods or businesses. Chicago seemed to welcome you with open arms. As a matter of fact while living there, they had the first annual Sparky Awards for extras in films made in Chicago. I never was nominated, but it was nice to be recognized as an extra in the cold and wind of Chi-town.