There is not shame in being an extra. It’s a job. The only thing about extra work that is embarrassing is when everyone around you is feeling desperate. For example, I was an extra on a commerical that took place on a plane. The actors to my left were talking to each other in accents. And the only thing more annoying than actors speaking in English accents (in regular life, I mean) is actors who speak in Irish accents, and I wanted be like DUDES, WE’RE NOT EVEN IN THE FRAME, we’re part of the atmosphere, part of the dust, we’re like dust bunnies.
On the set of “Music of My Heart,” a P.A. had to make an announcement that “no extra should approach Ms. Streep.”
But not all extra gigs are such lowest-on-the-food-chain experiences. For example, “The 25th Hour” gave me some of the best laughs of my life. I was in a diner in a Chinese restaurant full of Chinese people (they snuck me in, heh heh) and Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was a tiny place so we were all close together. I was paired with this former child star who was bitter about being an extra, whatevs, and next to our table, was a pair of tiny senior citizens who had no idea what the hell was going on and couldn’t understand why it was so late. When they first called action, the old man and woman ate the prop food in five seconds flat and started talking loudly. They yelled cut and Spike Lee came over. (And dude, when I saw Spike Lee, my heart dropped. I cannot HANDLE seeing celebrities). And he, very patiently, said, “you don’t have to eat the food and you don’t have to really talk. Pantomime.” And he demonstrated the lip-synching thing with his mouth and his hands open and shut, now sound. The two senior citizens stared at him blankly.
They started filming again. The place is small enough that you could hear the whisper-level dialogue of the two stars, and this time, the old people couldn’t eat anything (b/c they had eaten all their prop food) and the old man stood up and left to go to the bathroom, which was kind of this ancient stall. As Pepper and Hoffman continued, you can hear him open/shut a door, and after some silence, came the clunky, loud, interminable flush of a toilet. And then the old dude came back to his table and sat down, and thought this all, they kept filming.
Over at my table, me and the former-child star were in severe pain. We were clutching our sides, totally silent, shaking furiously, not looking at each other so we wouldn’t bust a gut laughing. That was awesome. I still think about that now and make myself laugh.