Helen Mirren is a remarkable lady. A down to earth legend. What other 74 year do you know who goes to a Bradford pantomime wearing a lit-up tiara, has a curry and gets involved in an 80’s disco – whilst making a movie during the day. Not many I’d venture. She’s been recently shooting scenes for her new film in the city with her co-star Jim Broadbent and they are a joy to watch. I know as I’m a film extra on it. So how did I get the gig?
Now has never been a better time to have your fifteen minutes of fame.
Streaming services are competing with broadcasters, film companies and Uncle Tom Cobley to feed the unending and unquenchable thirst for product and they all need one thing.
We’re talking film/TV extra work or as the industry prefers SA’s or Supporting Artists. They’re in demand in the UK because being a bit of a show-off is not deemed an English thing. We prefer to watch others stick their head over the parapet.
A couple of cathartic experiences as a youngster changed my mind about this. The first was at Butlins in Skegness.
In 1936 200 acres of prime Lincolnshire countryside became Billy Butlin’s first Holiday Park. In the early sixties families on a budget couldn’t get enough – and 84 years later they still do. I suspect you don’t. As a 6 year old I was asked to go on a stage and sing in front of a large audience, brought the house down and don’t apologise for telling you.
As a 14 year old Head Chorister in 1970 I sang “Once In Royal David’s City” alone to a dark and packed Christmas Eve church in my home village whilst the rest of the choir waited behind. The reaction left me stunned and buzzing with an adrenalin rush I’ve never forgotten.
So I got the stage bug. I also got a bad back as a result of being a mobile DJ for 33 years humping gear at 2 in the morning. But I also remember throwing hundreds of pounds on a bed in my free hotel room after a Scottish New Year’s Eve party.
All this led to radio, journalism and some bit part acting. In my time I’ve been a TV extra on Emmerdale, DCI Banks, Victoria, Gentleman Jack, Spooks, The Feed, Eternal Law, The Stranger, Boys and several new projects that are yet to be shown as they’re usually planned and filmed a long time before they reach the screen.
I’m still working part-time so fitting in film work isn’t easy although I recently played the station master in “Lies We Tell” with Gabriel Byrne and Harvey Keitel.
So how does a nobody get to work with a somebody? Think of being a film extra as a hobby.
Yes you get paid, but its sporadic nature and rates of pay when balanced with the time and travel commitments filter out all but the most dedicated. Here’s how it works.
Actors have individual agents. SA’s sign up to an agency which gets them work for a commission. I’ve one for local stuff in my area and a London based one who sends me regional jobs when they come up. Ask Google.
Where you live is a big one. I’m lucky to be in Yorkshire, England’s biggest county. It has everything a location scout needs from period houses to rundown council estates, rolling dales to seaside splendour. We have it all.
Secondly you need time. This is the killer blow for most and why many film extras are retired, self-employed or students. You have to be available. Be prepared to be booked at short notice, then have the dates/times changed or un-booked. Are you available for all night-shoots?
Next you need to be mobile, healthy and have a clean criminal record. For the latter a Disclosure and Barring Service Certificate is necessary. A basic DBS costs £23.
Then you need recent head and full length photos along with accurate and up to date body measurements. Women must have nothing faked so no dyed hair, fake nails, eyelashes or tan. They will check and are very particular.
If you get on the agency roster your details will be forwarded. If the client agrees, you’ll be asked to go for a costume fitting. This may require changes to your hairstyle and colour. They don’t like visible tattoos or piercings. Have I put you off yet?
If you tick all their boxes, you’ll be emailed the time and date for your call to set. Expect a long drive and a long day.
Once you’ve found where they are, you find an AD (assistant director) to register and sign the paperwork. Then you look for the inevitable double-decker bus they use to house extras in, which can be cold and basic.
You’re fed. Catering on film sets is always good, but you’re on the bottom rung so the cast and crew eat first and you must wait until told to by a teenager born 30 years after you were. On some productions I’ve known them run out of food by the time it comes to your turn.
We recently got a massive lecture about taking pictures on set after someone did. You are NOT allowed to take your phone on set, post on social media or take pictures. You must not talk to the stars who are trying to remember their lines. You will do retake after retake in all weathers, be bored to distraction and have to wait many hours until the AD says you’re released.
Oh and your scene could be cut and may end up on the digital version of the cutting room floor.
But you might also become a very small part of screen history.
Years from now when you and I are gone, Emila-Rose will have her feet up watching TV one Sunday afternoon and suddenly jump up going “Oh my God that’s my Grandad!”
Immortality. Right there.
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