Hit­ting the Small Time

Why Ex­tras Wait — and Wait — for Fleet­ing Film Fame

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sunday Source - By Dan Zak

Over­come by the irony of hav­ing noth­ing to read in the world’s big­gest li­brary, I stare at the ceil­ing and take men­tal notes on the ab­sur­dity of my ex­is­tence. Throat dry. Is ly­ing here ac­tu­ally jour­nal­ism? Stupid to sac­ri­fice week­end to dumb Ni­co­las Cage movie. I am flat on my back in one of the oak-pan­eled rooms in the Li­brary of Congress, where the se­quel to 2004’s “Na­tional Trea­sure” is film­ing. The crew is set­ting up a shot in the grand read­ing room, and we ex­tras (or “back­ground ac­tors,” if you will) are con­signed to this smaller hold­ing area. Cat­tle in a pen. Twelve-thirty to 3:30 a.m., there on the floor. Heaps of tired meat. This is the “wait” part of “hurry up and wait.” The fun part of be­ing an ex­tra, though, is truly fun, es­pe­cially if you love movies. Fast for­ward to my sec­ond night of shoot­ing. Two nim­ble, at­trac­tive peo­ple sprint down the cen­ter aisle of the read­ing room. They zoom be­hind me, duck into the li­brar­ian’s con­sole and slip down a stair­well as I con­tinue, puz­zled, to­ward the stacks to reshelve a book.

That’s when the SWAT team hus­tles in. A flood of D.C. po­lice and FBI agents fol­lows. Guns are drawn. I freeze mid-walk, ready to drop my book. “Cut!” The ten­sion in the cav­ernous room evap­o­rates. The law en­force­ment of­fi­cials let their paunches back out. They wad­dle wearily out of the read­ing room for an­other go. I rewind my­self back around the con­sole to my desk.

The room’s big gold clock says 1:45 a.m. It’s hour 17 of the 20 hours I and two dozen other ex­tras spent on the li­brary set ear­lier this month. The re­sult? Maybe 30 sec­onds of film. In those 30 sec­onds, maybe you’ll see us — a torso or a profile in the back­ground, out of fo­cus, as Cage strides by, look­ing for Abra­ham Lin­coln’s pants, or what­ever. When the film is re­leased, I’ll no doubt take friends to see it, wait for the li­brary se­quence and, as a white blob passes the cam­era in the ex­treme fore­ground, whis­per “That’s me!” and not be con­vinced that it is.

One of my back­ground col­leagues, Mont­gomery Vil­lage res­i­dent K.C. Bahry, knows how to ar­tic­u­late the glo­ri­ous folly of be­ing an ex­tra.

“I used to have a busi­ness card that said: ‘K.C. Bahry, pro­fes­sional blur,’ ” she says.

The term “ex­tra” con­notes su­per­fluity, but ex­tras are not su­per­flu­ous. They pro­vide the tex­ture, the cin­e­matic re­al­ity, for a film.

Be­fore a di­rec­tor calls “ac­tion,” he calls “back­ground.” That’s when ex­tras start do­ing their thing: walk­ing down the street, hav­ing a fake drink at a bar or, in my case on “Na­tional Trea­sure: Book of Se­crets,” re­turn­ing a book to the stacks just be­fore Har­vey Kei­tel bursts in with the law.

“Back­ground is the bot­tom, and it’s a lot of work,” says Wil­liams­burg res­i­dent Ta­mara John­son, a mid-40s (peo­ple are cagey about their ex­act ages in this busi­ness) au­thor and ac­tor who’s play­ing a li­brar­ian in the se­quence. “But it re­ally le­git­imizes a movie. If you don’t have us, your scene is flat.”

Ab­so­lutely right, says Maryellen Aviano, the ex­tras cast­ing co­or­di­na­tor for the “Na­tional Trea­sure” se­quel and a vet­eran of 35 fea­ture films.

“We can’t make the movie with­out you,” says Aviano, whose job it is to ac­cu­rately pop­u­late scenes and se­quences. “Na­tional Trea­sure: Book of Se­crets” shot in Wash­ing­ton for two weeks, us­ing lo­cals and out-oftown­ers to play dig­ni­taries, pedes­tri­ans and, of course, read­ers at the Li­brary of Congress.

“The plan was to come out to beau­ti­ful D.C. at cherry blos­som time and have lovely spring weather,” Aviano says rue­fully.

That didn’t hap­pen, as you know. The Li­brary of Congress se­quence was fine. It was in­doors. The scene at Mount Ver­non was writ­ten as a balmy out­door re­cep­tion for the pres­i­dent’s birth­day, but the cold and per­sis­tent rain the sec­ond week of April made its own ed­its to the script.

Ashburn res­i­dent Brian Reynolds, 40, played a Mount Ver­non po­lice of­fi­cer dur­ing that shoot. Reynolds, a private sales con­sul­tant with no pre­vi­ous act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, put his head shot and ré­sumé on Ex­trasNow.com about six months ago and found him­self es­cort­ing Cage dur­ing one scene.

“There were lots of peo­ple in evening gowns and tuxe­dos, and we had to work out in the pour­ing rain, so the glam­orous part went right out the win­dow,” says Reynolds, who put in 26 hours of work over two days. “But I ab­so­lutely loved it. The at­mos­phere is very con­ta­gious.”

If you’re go­ing to be an ex­tra on a ma­jor mo­tion pic­ture, ex­pect a long, hard work­day. As far as man­ag­ing the te­dium, the trick is to bring some­thing to do (or read, for Pete’s sake) and be open to meet­ing your fel­low ac­tors, who of­ten have fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries to tell.

The next night, I wised up. Dur­ing down­time, I found ex­tra Karen Beriss, a late-20s New York ac­tor and ma­gi­cian, and made her do sleight-of-hand card tricks for a good hour or two.

Many peo­ple make their liv­ing do­ing back­ground work, but this bit of ex­tra work is a bonus for movie fans like me. And if I and some of my fel­low ex­tras don’t make the fi­nal cut of “Na­tional Trea­sure 2,” maybe it’s for the best, rep­u­ta­tion-wise. I mean, did you see the first one?

How to Get on a Set

If you’re an ex­tra on a D.C. film shoot, chances are you’ll be play­ing a busi­nessper­son, a tourist or an FBI agent.

“They need the mon­u­ments, they want it to look like D.C. and they need to match the peo­ple,” says Betsy Roy­all, a cast­ing di­rec­tor for Tay­lor Roy­all, a Bal­ti­more-based agency. “That means pretty con­ser­va­tive busi­ness types — vary­ing ages and eth­nic­i­ties, but a con­ser­va­tive look.

For ev­ery “Na­tional Trea­sure” that comes through, there are many in­de­pen­dent and stu­dent films that need to fill a variety of back­ground or small roles with nonunion folks. Here’s a guide to fig­ur­ing out what’s com­ing, how you can get your­self on a set and what to do once you’re there. Hunt for up­com­ing shoots through your lo­cal film of­fice. Film of­fices of­ten don’t have def­i­nite dates un­til a month be­fore a shoot, so check their Web sites reg­u­larly for up­dates. Shoot­ing in Wash­ing­ton next month: the Steve Carrell ve­hi­cle “Get Smart.” Mary­land Film Of­fice, 410-767-6340, www. mary­land­film.org (click on “Hot­line”). Vir­ginia Film Of­fice, 804-545-5530, www.film. vir­ginia.org (click on “Hot­line”). D.C. Of­fice of Mo­tion Pic­ture and TV De­vel­op­ment, 202-727-6608, www.film.dc.gov. Car­lyn Davis Cast­ing & Pro­duc­tion Ser­vices Inc., 207 Park Ave., Suite B6, Falls Church, 703-532-1900, www.car­lyn­davis.com. Cen­tral Cast­ing. Two lo­ca­tions: 623 Penn­syl­va­nia Ave. SE, 202-547-6300; 2229 N. Charles St., Bal­ti­more, 410-889-3200. www. cen­tral­castin­gusa.com. Pat Mo­ran and As­so­ciates, Attn: Ex­tras Cast­ing, 3500 Bos­ton St., Suite 425, Bal­ti­more, www. pat­moranan­das­so­ci­ates.com. Tay­lor Roy­all, 6247 Falls Rd., Bal­ti­more, 410-828-6900, www.tay­lor­roy­all.com. Never pay to be cast. Cast­ing com­pa­nies are com­pen­sated by the film or TV pro­duc­tion en­tity and will in­ter­view, con­sider and cast you with­out charge. “Peo­ple claim to be agents and man­agers or charge peo­ple to be on a Web site,” says Shamos Fisher, an as­so­ci­ate at Pat Mo­ran and As­so­ciates. “That’s to­tally ridicu­lous. This isn’t New York or L.A.” If you’re se­ri­ous about act­ing, take a class. Ac­tor and pro­ducer Gale Ne­mec teaches a lo­cal class called “Back­ground Act­ing” to ed­u­cate peo­ple of all ages and skill lev­els about the vo­cab­u­lary and the process of a shoot. Her ad­vice? “The big­gest mis­take I’ve seen peo­ple do is they try to tell the crew what to do, like ‘Put me there. Put me here,’ ” says Ne­mec, an artist-in-res­i­dence at Wolf Trap. “They don’t treat it as a real job. And it is a real job.” “Back­ground Act­ing,” May 8 from 7 to 9:30 p.m., 2315 S. Grant St., Ar­ling­ton. $45. For more in­for­ma­tion or to reg­is­ter, e-mail back­groundact­ing@gmail.com. Pay close at­ten­tion to your cast­ing team, which will in­form you of the wardrobe and ma­te­ri­als you’ll need for a shoot. “When we did the Mount Ver­non scene, it was rain­ing and freez­ing,” says Car­lyn Davis, pres­i­dent of her epony­mous cast­ing com­pany. “We told ev­ery­one to bring blan­kets and slip­pers.” Davis also op­er­ates www.ex­trasnow.com, a data­base for union and nonunion ac­tors. A 30-day trial mem­ber­ship is free; it’s $39.95 per year to join. You have to be flexible, re­gard­less of whether you’re in it to have fun or to start a ca­reer. “If you want to earn a liv­ing in this busi­ness, you have to go where the work is,” says Ran­dall­stown, Md., res­i­dent Brian Dragonuk, 54, who left his job at a bank­rupt greet­ing card com­pany eight years ago and now earns a liv­ing as a nonunion ac­tor, trav­el­ing to Wash­ing­ton, Bal­ti­more, Philadel­phia and Wil­liams­burg, de­pend­ing on the work. To re­ceive Dragonuk’s reg­u­lar elec­tronic news­let­ter about act­ing jobs, send a blank e-mail to bdrag­onuk-sub­scribe@ ya­hoogroups.com. Con­tact lo­cal cast­ing com­pa­nies. “If you just want to have a day on set, just throw in your hat,” cast­ing di­rec­tor Roy­all says. “Write a cover let­ter, short and sweet, that says some­thing like, ‘I’m a work­ing pro­fes­sional, and I’d love to be an ex­tra. Please call or e-mail.’ ” Though a pro­fes­sional head shot isn’t nec­es­sary, the cleaner and crisper your photo looks, the bet­ter. On your ré­sumé, in­clude your eye and hair color, mea­sure­ments (height and weight, neck size for men and dress size for women) and any spe­cial skills.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY JOHN UE­LAND FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MGM

Blink and you’ll miss K.C. Bahry (blond hair, blue sweater) walk­ing past Ralph Fi­ennes in a mu­seum in 2002’s “Red Dragon” dur­ing shoot­ing in Bal­ti­more.

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