Listen to Austin 360 Radio

How to be a star among extras

Dale Roe, Go-To Guy

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Did you catch that episode of ABC Family's teen-angst series "The Lying Game" about a month ago the one about the television news reporter, first seen on the steps of the Maricopa County Courthouse, thrusting his microphone out from a throng of other, less-important media types as a handcuffed, teenage suspect was led inside? In a later scene, that same dashingly handsome newsman could be spotted sitting in the courtroom, the camera (loving him, of course) catching his stunned reaction to the verdict.

He had no speaking lines but, clearly, the entire production — dozens of actors; crates full of props; rack after rack of costumes; hair and makeup personnel; camera, sound and other crew people — were there solely to support me. I mean, uh, him.

OK, it was me.

I celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day by working as an extra on "The Lying Game," which might as well be called "The Waiting Game." Because in order to get my face on camera for 7 or 8 seconds, I had to wait. A lot. And it became clear just minutes into the 12-hour day (which began at 5 a.m.) that it wasn't about me at all. I was more like human stucco.

"We really are trying to add texture to whatever project we're working on for film or television," says Beth Sepko, the head of Third Coast Casting, an Austin talent agency responsible for providing performers to film and television projects, including "The Lying Game," filming in Central Texas.

It's easy, sitting in the holding areas of a TV or film set, to scan the extras in the room and classify the bodies of all shapes and sizes as old hands or first-timers. The newbies, like me, were scanning the room, while the experienced extras were prepared to entertain themselves.

"There were times during the football games when it would get tedious, because we were sitting out there for hours," says Lorianne Zello, a "Friday Night Lights" extra who, during the series' Austin filming, would often be on set three or four days a week. She would bring library books and bags of snacks for her three kids (also extras) to help weather the downtime. Some extras on "The Lying Game" had iPads and knitting or other craft projects.

"There have been times, like with any job, where you look around and say, ‘Gosh, I can't believe I'm being paid for this' and some days you look around and it's like, ‘They need to be paying me more. They're not paying me enough,' " Zello says.

I walked away from my extras experience with about $90 after taxes. But there are other reasons folks do this.

"Well, I'll tell you what, it's no money," says Dennis L. Walker, an associate minister at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church. Some extras like to see themselves on screen. Others make friends with other extras. Walker has been appearing as an extra since 1996, years before Sepko merged her casting company into Third Coast. Walker talks about taking a photo with Angelina Jolie and meeting her father, Jon Voight. He laughs about shooting the breeze with Jack Black. "I just meet people, and it's fun."

If you're interested in extras work, be aware of one occupational hazard. Preston Kirk, a publicist who has been doing extras work along with his wife since Disney's "The Alamo" filmed in Texas in 2003, says it's no longer possible for him to watch movies or TV shows now without focusing on the background players. He often has to rewind shows because he's been so engrossed in what the bit players are doing that he discovers he's missed the dialogue.

The Internet and social media have made things easier for would-be extras. Third Coast puts out calls on Craigslist and the company's Facebook page (search Beth Sepko Casting & Third Coast Extras). Getting hired as an extra isn't the hard part; often all you have to do is send in a photo to prove you match the age/gender/type the production is looking for, and have appropriate clothing.

But there are definitely things you can do to increase your chances of getting asked back. Here's a short list of dos and don'ts:

Do

¦ Show up on time. "We've heard every excuse under the sun" for late arrivals, Lacey Gordon, who works with Sepko and casts extras for "The Lying Game" says. "There have been three labors of either girlfriends or sisters or wives where I've said, ‘Oh really? She went into labor last night, hmm? Can we see a photo of the baby?'" Sepko says being an extra doesn't seem like a real job because it's supposed to be fun. "I tell people it's a temp job — hopefully more fun than others — but it is a job," she says.

¦ Do as you're told. During my day on "The Lying Game," there was one guy who was arguing with the wardrobe people and another who insisted on talking during the courtroom scenes (extras aren't supposed to speak unless specifically directed to do so). If the crew has difficulty with you, you might not be asked to return.

¦ Show up prepared. That means you need to have your hair and makeup done and that you're wearing the appropriate clothing — productions typically don't have much money budgeted to dress extras. "I've known extras to purposely not bring clothes because they wanted to be dressed by wardrobe; they thought that would be cool," Sepko says. It's not.

¦ Be alert and willing. If you overhear that the crew wishes they had a left-handed golfer and you fit the bill, speak up.

¦ Be quiet. But don't speak up while the crew is filming. "Too much talking on set really drives the crew crazy," says Kirk.

¦ Be available. A lot of filming takes place during the day. Those with flexible schedules have a leg up on the competition. "We often tap into the home-school world, because you need people every day and you don't want the kids to miss school," Sepko says.

¦ Be enthusiastic, have a professional attitude, and be easy to work with. These are the qualities that can take you from being a name and headshot in a filing cabinet to a member of a casting agency's family.

Don't

¦ Leak storylines and other confidential information. Some directors, such as Robert Rodriguez, are notorious for demanding secrecy. But even on a young adult show such as "The Lying Game" where the producers welcome social media buzz, nobody wants spoilers that will ruin things for the audience. "We're doing (the new) ‘Dallas' in Dallas," Sepko says. "Imagine if we'd have known who shot J.R. (in the original). That would have been terrible."

¦ Pester actors. If you're approached or engaged in conversation by principal actors, join right in. But approaching them for conversation, autographs or photos is frowned upon.

¦ Ham it up. "You can always tell when someone is pushing themselves in front of the camera," Sepko says. "There are people trying to make sure that they get camera time, so they're standing behind the actors." (Guilty as charged). She says that the action is usually well choreographed and that those who step out of line usually fall back in when their missteps are pointed out. But that's not the best way to get someone's attention. "When an extra is supposed to walk through a scene and he turns his head directly toward the camera, that's called spiking the lens," Kirk says. "We're never supposed to spike the lens."

¦ Expect to be discovered. Your chances of being upgraded to a speaking role on set are slim. Sepko says that if you're on a small set watching seasoned actors work, it can be like a paid workshop, but adds that if you're serious about acting, you should take classes and get an agent. "We do tap into our extras file for some of our commercials casting," she says. Walker was recently called in for a speaking role in a commercial for ESPN.

Contact Dale Roe at 912-5923 or droe@statesman.com