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The glamour of Hollywood still light-years away

By Peter Weinberger

When my son Matthew first asked if I wanted to go to Hollywood and sign up as a television extra (background actor), I was all ears. Even though acting has never been in my blood, my grandfather Henry Weinberger made a living as an assistant director for MGM decades ago. But this was not about a career change, just a fun thing to do with my grownup son.

Central Casting of Burbank has been discovering actors since 1925. Mug shots of famous people were posted all over the walls in the large office where we waited for an information session. Since Hollywood is always looking for fresh faces, I thought just maybe I could get a gig.

The 75 people waiting definitely skewed on the young side, with most applicants ranging under 35. Some had been there before, others were dressed up for a character role. You could tell there were a few starving actors, including some who just wanted the paycheck of roughly $13 per hour.

It immediately became clear that extras are clearly the low people on the movie-making totem pole. Most jobs involve being in an audience or group, walking in the background, playing friends or co-workers, sometimes you barely will be seen…if at all. There are no lines. You may be seen, but not heard.

 

How it all works

After Matt and I filled out a bunch of forms and had a photo taken, we were told by the casting person someone would contact us if we could fill a role. There are no phone calls, only a text with a day or two notice, asking if you are available. You could only reply “Yes” or “No” to get your reply to be sent back. Anything else and the text bounces. No fuss, no phone calls.

Since I had to sign a bunch of confidentially agreements, I cannot tell give out every detail. I can say ABC and CBS were quite active searching for background actors. The first time I responded “Yes” I was ready to get on that movie set. Only problem was the first text was to check on availability only. The first five texts I agreed to either got no reply, or a nice response saying your services are not needed. Try to text a question and it’s blocked. Remember, only two words go through.

My first opportunity for stardom turned out to be more of a tryout than a confirmed job. It was for a new ABC sitcom that was filming the pilot episode. They wanted me to play a co-worker of the star. When I arrived at the former headquarters of Sunkist, the building was mostly empty until I arrived at the fourth floor. Once that elevator opened, I heard sounds of 40 actors waiting for their tryouts in a variety of roles. I can safely say these are some funny, outgoing people.

Other groups included TSA employees, boyfriends, wedding guests and more. Each group had a variety of actors with different looks and styles, most had been in the industry for a number of years. It seems even busy actors will do background acting for the paycheck.

When I was finally summoned into a small room with cameras and the casting director, there were six gentlemen of different ages and ethnicities ready to act. The casting director asked us to pretend your boss was explaining something you do not understand, but you have to listen. When I got my big chance, I made funny faces while nodding with a forced smile. I absolutely nailed it!

After a week passed with no text, I figured I struck out again. At least there was a paycheck for the two-hour audition. It was $26. At this point I was ready to pack it in, thinking all this rejection is not good for my fragile ego.

As luck would have it, central casting finally did text me back and confirmed the co-worker job. I had to be on the set the next day.

 

Lights, camera, action!

When I arrived at a huge warehouse in Glendale, everything looked like a movie set. There were rooms that could be changed into anything, with numerous portable trailers as dressing rooms. My first stop was wardrobe.

They asked us to bring clothes for our role, which in my case was workplace casual. Trouble was the wardrobe lady did not like anything I brought (I was told Patagonia pants are not for the workplace).

So I squeezed into a loose shirt and tight sweater, with pants too wide at the waist and too short for my legs. Then a production assistant (PA) said they were ready to shoot. This all seemed really fast paced.

Trouble was the sweater was really hot, and waiting in a small hot room did not help. There were camera and lighting people everywhere running around. Thirty minutes later someone comes up to me and says I’m going outside. Turns out my role changed a bit. I was to walk back and forth outside the office window while the actors talked inside the office. Yes, they do yell “Ready action!” I walked back and forth at least a dozen times. Then the shot was done.

After that experience I was ready for more! The PA then took us to a makeshift courtroom to wait for the next scene. As we walked through the building, I noticed there was food everywhere. Now I know why the lighting and camera guys have those enormous love handles. It felt a lot like a 24-hour truck stop.

What started as a fast-paced work environment, turned out to be a waiting marathon. For the next six hours, 20 or so background actors came and went, but the co-worker group sat and waited. And waited. You could not talk a lot because they were filming all around us. People were falling asleep, reading, eating and more. It was incredibly boring. But as someone reminded me, we were getting paid for all this. Easy money! Hmmm.

By 8 p.m. our group started to pressure the PA to let us go home. We seemed to be done for the day, even though several people in the group had not even been on camera. After a wonderful catered prime rib and fish dinner, we were packing up when another PA burst into the courtroom yelling “Co-workers to the airport set!”

All this time, right next door was a hallway converted to an airport terminal. They were filming the end of the show and the director wanted more people in the background during the big goodbye scene. Before you could blink, we were given suitcases to carry as eight of us walked back and forth during the four-minute scene. Trouble was, the main actor was having trouble with his lines, so what could have taken 10 minutes, took an hour.

Then as fast as it started, we were done. I never even saw the main actors.

I’m really glad I had this experience. I have a newfound respect for what professional actors go through in search of fame and fortune. We always hear of huge salaries for actors, but the majority of background workers are paid much less, sometimes only minimum wage, with very long hours. It’s hard work, from a dedicated group who want a career in Hollywood.

For me, I’m officially retiring from acting. Staying behind the camera is fine with me.