Background Art

Life as a Hollywood extra means long hours and no fame—but finding a silver lining nonetheless.

BONNIE TIMMONS

I’m sitting on the last stool at the bar. My drink sits in front of me. I’m waiting for a man who isn’t my husband to fill the next seat over. It’s 10:30 a.m. I’ve been here for an hour. The bar, like any good dive, has a pool table. There are 12 or so other patrons. We are here for the same reason. We aren’t here to make small talk.

We are neither alcoholics nor adulterers. We’re not down-and-out. We are extras. The drink before me is water dressed up to look like something stronger. I take a sip and check out the set “family” I’m working with today. The stars and costars laugh with one another as they mill around eating breakfast. The crew is having coffee after setting up the day’s first shot. We’re all waiting for the first assistant director to call “Places!”

By the end of the day, I will know all of these “patrons” by face, if not by name, after having spent eight hours with them, sipping coffee, pecking at laptops, and killing time in the bleachers where a studio audience of a couple of hundred people will later sit to look at us, giddy to be here for the taping of this hot new sitcom.

 

BONNIE TIMMONS

This gig, like all my extra work, came at the last minute. Monday I was cleaning my house when my phone pinged. “Please respond YES if you are available and I will put you down for Tuesday. Thank you.” I was sent my call time and a code to check the website of Central Casting—or just Central, as we call it (yes, there is such a place). That’s where I’d find parking, wardrobe, and soundstage information when it was released, after 8:30 p.m. Sometimes, if production goes late, it may take till 10. There’s nothing to do but wait. Extra work is a lot like substitute teaching; you find out you’ll be working right before you’re needed.

Since my call time wasn’t at the crack of dawn, I was able to get my wardrobe together in the morning. Background actors, unlike above-the-line performers, are required to bring their own clothes. At home, I have wardrobe ready for office, bar, and party scenes. Because we’d be in a bar, I brought a couple of pairs of jeans, three shirts and two sweaters, some sneakers and combat boots. I was in two scenes, so I’d need a costume change. The costumers liked the clothes I’d brought and took a photo to send to the director for input. I also had my knee-length hoodie and my down jacket. These were not for wardrobe. They were survival tools. I know the routine.

Usually, I work one hour for every eight I spend sitting around. Sometimes I wait beneath a blazing sun, and other times in vast rooms as cold as a meat locker. I cram a backpack with pens, the New York Times, a book (today, I’m reading The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead), and my laptop. I am prepared.

One thing I don’t do is worry about character motivation, or remembering my lines, marks, or blocking. I’m not an actor. An extra is more of a piece of human furniture, and I’m good with that.

BONNIE TIMMONS

A DREAM DEFERRED

I wasn’t always an extra. When I first came to Los Angeles, I would never have imagined that one day I would be doing background. I wanted to be first on the call sheet. I envisioned what I would say in the acceptance speech for my Academy Award. I always had an amusing anecdote or two prepped for my appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

That dream didn’t pan out. I did a week on General Hospital and a few reality-television reenactments. I did some student films and a low-budget indie. This helped me become a member of the Screen Actors Guild. I performed in sketch comedy and theater, but the work was inconsistent. Then I was cast in a play about vampires. I was to play the lead. After reading the script, I had an epiphany. I wanted to play Ophelia, not the queen of the undead. I saw before me jobs with five lines or less, tons of bad theater, and more rejection than I could handle. I was never going to make that speech or tell those stories. I needed to move on.

The dream would give way to the demands of motherhood. I would go on to teach acting and start my own business using my performance skills. I help others communicate more effectively and comfortably, enabling them to live their dreams.

BONNIE TIMMONS

But then, a few years ago, a friend who is an assistant director asked if I would be interested in doing some background work on her sitcom. I would be guaranteed one day a week, possibly two. The hours were flexible, and the pay, if not lucrative, was steady. Besides, I’ve always liked spending time on set. Wardrobe, lighting, action—why wouldn’t you want to be behind the scenes? Being an extra offers the best of both worlds: acting without the pressure, or the attitude.

I registered for background work at Central. The office was packed with every type you’d expect: millennials and people north of 80, of every ethnicity and orientation. They had tattoos and shaved heads, they were tall and short, they were heavyset and thin. I wanted everyone in that line to get work. I wanted to get work. But I was different from most, I thought. I knew I wasn’t going to be a star. I was happy to go unnoticed.

Some had arrived as early as 5 a.m. Only half of us would make it inside (there were too many of us), but the wait took on a party feel. People handed out their headshots and flyers for acting classes. One guy told me which acting profile websites (where you can submit yourself for jobs) were worth the money and then proceeded to dish on every acting teacher in town.

We went through orientation in a small room. Posters along the wall offered warnings about dehydration and sexual harassment. We watched a video featuring famous faces, such as Brad Pitt and Rami Malek, who started out as extras. The aspiring actors thrilled at the possibility that they, too, might one day be counted among Central’s celebrity alumni.

BONNIE TIMMONS

THE PECKING ORDER

It wasn’t long before I was called in to provide atmosphere to a scene. I was grateful for the work and the chance to be back on a set. At heart, I am a five-year-old. I love playing dress up and pretending. I never outgrew make-believe.

What I wasn’t expecting was the pecking order—not just with the frontline talent but among the extras as well. The first day I worked background, I met some people who seemed nice. One woman and I bonded over a favorite movie. I thought I had made a set friend, until we broke for lunch. She was sitting with a few crew members she had met on other shoots, but when I tried to join them, I felt a distinct Mean Girls vibe. No attempt was made to accommodate me or my lunch. They could have made room, but they didn’t. I had to sit somewhere else.

What I learned is that, on a set, even food is hierarchical. Directors and cast are fed first. Then comes, in no particular order, crew, wardrobe, makeup, hair, and craft services. Next, there are the background players: stand-ins, union extras, and nonunion extras. Union background (like me) get hearty fare, and we can eat where the cast and crew do. Nonunion extras have their own table in the bleachers, with Fritos, Oreos, chips, seaweed, protein bars, water, soft drinks, and coffee. One actor told me that on her last job, the holding area had a sliding wall to keep the union and the nonunion players apart.

All of this is antithetical to how I think about acting, which requires the mindset of a team. I have met the most generous people on sets. One extra taught me a lesson in kindness when he offered to bring dinner from craft services for the security guard, who could not leave his post. I have subsequently done this on every set I’ve worked.

BONNIE TIMMONS

THE WAIT IS OVER

Today, lunch is chicken, rice, vegetables, rolls, chocolate cookies, and strawberry tarts. I’m not in the mood for any of it, so I opt to bum a cigarette from another background actor. It’s been three hours since the first setup and I still haven’t been called. What I have done is read half of my book, phone three friends, finish my crossword puzzle, and check my email.

After lunch, I’m stuck in the holding area. Finally, eight hours after my arrival, we are called back to set. Overtime is in my future.

It’s 10 p.m. before we shoot the cold open, which is the whole reason I am here. As the cameras roll, I sip my drink and fake-converse with the man who isn’t my husband. We run the sequence three times. The audience laughs. This is a hopeful sign. The first five minutes take close to an hour to shoot. I’m hungry and start to pick through the Chex Mix on the bar.

At last, the director calls “Cut.” It’s a wrap. I hand in my papers to the background wrangler to make sure I’ll get paid. I’ll be home in a little while. I will sip real wine and slide into a hot bath. Today, though, I was on a set, a working actor.

Living the dream.

Rae Dubow is the director of Talking Out Loud, which offers communications coaching.

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