Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 15, 2009

A Day at the Beach With Kate and Leo

A film extra reflects on his time in the sun.

Benjamin Samuel

"Yeah, I've worked with Sam Mendes before," said the man lazily pretending to be my father, taking a break from his dirty Irish jokes that made my "mother" blush beneath her deepening sunburn. His jokes weren't terrible ("…so Seamus says, 'how do you think I feel? I lost the sausage in the third pub!'"), but his overenthusiastic interpretation of his uncredited turn as "Father at the beach" suggested a mild case of Munchausen's syndrome.

The two of us, along with a middle-aged man playing my ostensibly restless uncle, were among the dozens of extras on the set of Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes's new film based on the novel by Richard Yates. The scene was shot on a beach in Fairfield, Connecticut, and our only responsibility as extras—our "job"—was to do what we were told, keep out of the way, and stay quiet.

Can you spot the extras behind all that star power?
"I was among a select few bestowed with the natural talent of looking out of date."

Can you spot the extras behind all that star power?

My father's delusional interpretation of his role was not unique. In fact, the beach was filled with actors, all satisfied and excited to spend a day at the beach with their new colleagues, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet—although it was clear we were not to talk to them.

I'm not an actor; acting, though, didn't seem to be required for the task. From my single experience, background actors are required only to look busy—which is something I can do.

In June 2007, I'd just graduated from college and was supposed to be hunting busily for jobs. Instead, I was using Craigslist to confirm the limited prospects conferred on me by a B.A. in Liberal Arts.

In a moment of desperation and curiosity, I replied to a post for an open casting call with the required photo, my vital stats, and my assurance that I wouldn't be bothered by cigarette smoke. And like that, the ambitious son of my proud parents got his first job out of college.

I was living in the Connecticut suburbs at the time, and made the short trip into the city for my costume fitting. Wearing a miniscule pair of vintage bathing trunks from the 1950s, I emerged from the changing room to find the other extras strutting in front of the mirrors, proudly examining their angles and contours. Standing there dumbly, my pasty white thighs exposed and constricted by the tight costume, a designer approached and asked if it was a comfortable fit. No, I was not comfortable, and no I did not fit.

But shortly after my first taste of cold, uncaring Hollywood (or, the chilly air of the costume department), I arrived at the Scandinavian Club in Fairfield, which was being used as a holding area for the extras. It was there, while milling around the breakfast buffet with other extras, that I first heard the politically correct euphemism "background actor." As in: "Yes, I did some background work for this or that film," or "Didn't I work in background with you on Law & Order?"

Eventually, a production assistant with a megaphone quickly snapped us to order, commanding us to finish our eggs, fill out our release forms, change into our costumes, and line up for make-up.

I squeezed into my swim trunks and emerged onto a surreal scene. Among these adults there was a palpable excitement: näive, expectant, and clucking, much like the dressing room for a play in junior-high. For the men, make-up consisted of a makeshift style barbershop that issued crew-cuts with militaristic efficiency. Waiting my turn, I watched a young lady in a '50s-era bathing costume sit patiently while a professional stylist applied thick coats of make-up to conceal the large dragon tattoo that dominated her back.

To my colleagues, it seemed to be business as usual.

"Extra work isn't glamorous, but you could do worse than getting paid $85 for doing nothing for 10 hours."
I had always assumed that extras weren't really working, that in fact they were out-of-work actors, or passersby on the street that got picked up on the spot. This misconception was corrected by Melissa Braun, senior casting associate at Grant Wilfley Casting, the agency responsible for the extras in Revolutionary Road.

According to Braun, there are a few types of people who seek out background work. "Actors in the Screen Actors Guild will take background roles to fill in their days and maintain their union membership," she says. "And some will do it for extra cash."

As a freelancing extra, I was in the minority. But Braun says it is common to hold open casting calls for larger shoots. For bothRevolutionary Road and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, which Braun also helped cast, Grant Wilfley held an open casting call to find new faces that fit the film's setting. The agency has a database of over 10,000 actors, and preparation for a large film can start months in advance.

Braun maintained that extras aren't as superfluous as their title suggests. If a scene is set in Chinatown, a lot of Asian actors are needed to make it seem authentic, she explained. Like wardrobe or set design, extras help to set the time and place. For Revolutionary Road, Grant Wilfley looked for extras that looked they could fit in the 1950s.

As an amateur actor, I was among a select few bestowed with the natural talent of looking out of date—with some help from professionals to eliminate anachronistic elements of style. After we'd gotten our crew-cuts and our tattoos covered up, the man with the megaphone herded us onto the bus that would deliver us to the set. Although I don't follow Hollywood very closely, only occasionally thumbing through the glossy magazines in the checkout line, the excitement of the gossiping actors was contagious, and by the time we arrived at the set, I was star-struck and expectant, impatient for my first sighting of "Leo and Kate."

Instead, as soon we got off the bus a production assistant corralled a small group of young men, handed us a deflated beach ball and said, "Here. This is your prop." Dejected, we headed to our assigned location, a vacant strip of sand, far from the cameras and far from the action.

We did what we were told, and when the cameras started rolling, we pretended to play a game with our beach ball, tossing it back and forth in silence—we weren't allowed to speak. In between takes, when the camera wasn't rolling, we would toss the beach ball back and forth in near-silence—we had nothing to say to each other, except, "Do you think we're in the shot?"

During a break, when everyone began hounding the production assistants for sunscreen and a new location closer to the camera, I stood around listening to everyone again discussing the other background work they'd done in the past. One of my co-stars had recently worked on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, starring as one of Dr. Jones's students at Yale.

Again I was reminded that I am not an actor, and that I have no place on a movie set. I resolved to try and blend in with the crowd—precisely the opposite of what every background actor wants to do—and sneak a peek at the celebrities—which is what everyone wants to do.

"Winslet waited for an assistant to right her overturned flip-flop."
While I did manage to resist the temptation of approaching the "talent" (there wasn't enough room in my costume for an autograph book), according to Braun, amateur extras can be a nuisance on set.

"Some people who have never done it before don't take it seriously, which can be a problem," she says. "It isn't a time to chit-chat. It's a work environment." Some stars, though, are receptive to the cast and crew. Reportedly, Matt Damon is extra-friendly, possibly because he himself was once an extra on the set of Field of Dreams.

From what I remember, Kate Winslet looks about the same in person as she does on screen. DiCaprio was taller than I expected. Other than that, they looked, well, bored.

Just before shooting resumed, a PA approached me and asked if I wanted any zinc. My first thought was that I'd just been offered some new Hollywood amphetamine, but, alas, it was just nostalgic sunscreen he wanted to paint on my nose.

But that shmear made me stand out and became the ticket that brought me closer to the spotlight. A rising star, I was promoted from beach-baller to the coveted role of anonymous son. I was placed on a beach towel, slightly behind DiCaprio, and introduced myself to a middle-aged woman and two middle-aged men (my "mother," "father," and "uncle"). A PA came around and offered us cigarettes and beer, and, for a moment, I thought I'd made it to the big time. But the beer, which Dad commandeered, turned out to be fake: warm, non-alcoholic, with a label printed off the Internet.

For the next several hours, we lay around basking in the glory of the Connecticut sunshine and the glare from the A-List actors, who obediently repeated their lines as Sam Mendes ran through take after take.

Revolutionary Road Premiere
In the scene, Frank and April Wheeler (played by DiCaprio and Winslet, respectively) are engaged in a fight. After a while, Frank has had enough and decides to cool off with a swim in the chilly Long Island Sound. Meanwhile, on the set, extras had been swimming idly in the background while the scene was shot and re-shot. To save time with the stylists, the take always ended just before DiCaprio actually entered the water, until the final take when he dove in and emerged sputtering and humbly remarking to the blue-lipped extras how cold the water is.

Shooting had run over schedule, and my father, a professional extra and member of SAG, seemed content to wait it out. SAG members, I learned, enjoy special benefits from overtime, such as late meals.

The rest of us—my mother, my uncle, and I—distracted ourselves from hunger and our sunburns with Dad's jokes ("What is this, Titanic 2?"), making critical judgments of the celebrities (Winslet waited for an assistant to right her overturned flip-flop), and making small talk. My uncle—whose role required him to bravely go for a swim during each take—said he had just retired from the FDNY and was in the process of pursuing an acting career. If all went well, he'd get a role on Rescue Me.

Extra work isn't glamorous, but you could do worse than getting paid $85 for doing nothing for 10 hours. Or if you're a union member, $130 for 8 hours. It's also pretty easy to find—especially around major cities. Right now—if anyone happens to be interested — Grant Wilfley is casting a film referred to as the "untitled Nancy Meyers project" starring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin. They're also casting for Law & Order S.V.U.

For some extras, simply being on set means they've made it. For others, working background is a means to an end—think of Andy Millman in the HBO series Extras. According to Braun, people outside SAG will take a role in the background as a way of breaking into the industry. "A lot of people believe it can be their gateway," she said. "But it's very rare to [make the transition]."

However, there are actors who've emerged from the background to take up the spotlight, including Ben Affleck (somewhere in the crowd alongside Matt Damon in Field of Dreams) and Cuba Gooding, Jr., who got a haircut from Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. Months later, I did proudly spot my uncle in an episode of Rescue Me. He even had a line.

As for me, my brief moment just outside the spotlight ended that day. But I went to the theater one recent weekend and discovered that my tiny swim trunks and I had made the cut. There are plenty of blurry figures in the background, but my girlfriend, Winnie, swears she saw me. She recognized my out-of-date, pasty white legs gracing the sliver screen.

Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.

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Article by Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.

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