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Making Movies in the Hinterland: Extras

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The Next Three Days, the Russell Crowe film that has been filming in Pittsburgh and environs for the past few weeks, has just gotten a section of the newly built Route 43 closed to traffic for about 24 hours while they shoot at one of the toll plazas. The $25,000 fee reportedly negotiated by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission for the use of the road will no doubt be a boon to the depressed Western Pennsylvania economy and in truth not all that much of an inconvenience to locals who tend to avoid the little used toll road. The shoot will also be a boon to an assortment of other locals with aspirations for either a career in Hollywood or simply a close-up glimpse of Crowe or his co-stars, Elizabeth Banks and Liam Neeson.

The call for extras went out the other day from the local casting agent. They're looking for police types, highway patrol and such: big men, imposing, authoritative. Me? Even if I were the police type, which I am definitely not: too old, too skinny, too small, l no longer care to do extra work. The hours are long; the pay is minimal. The work is boring, and the film crew tends to treat you like dirt.

My one experience as an extra was several years ago in a commercial for a local chain of supermarkets. There were about a half a dozen of us, an assortment of ages and sexes. We were told to report to the shoot site, the Washington, PA location of the supermarket at eight o'clock in the evening with ten or so changes of casual clothing and prepare to be there until eight in the morning. Something of an exaggeration, I thought, since what we were shooting was a 30-second commercial.

We met at an employee break room in the back of the store. A production assistant barely out of her teens went through the clothing we brought, and told us what to wear. A little make up and we were out into the market, where we were placed strategically around the produce section. I was told to fondle the grapefruit. Two others were paired and told to walk down the aisle backs to the camera. Another gazed longingly at the eggplants. Then we stood in place as the crew made sure that the lighting worked. Then we waited while the principle in the shot, a young mother type, was given her directions. Then we waited while her makeup was freshened. Then we waited while they fine-tuned some of the lighting. Then we waited while they struck some offending debris in the back ground. Finally, after almost an hour, they shot the scene. It took perhaps a minute, perhaps not that long. Then they shot it again, just to be safe, and another two times, just to be safer. They moved the camera position, and then the whole process began all over again.

When we finished, we were sent back to the break room where the production assistant, with a judicious eye, prescribed new costumes. Presumably we were now different customers — after all, what super market doesn't want to look busy with a crowd of shoppers? Then we were moved out to the meat counter, where, like the steaks, pork chops, and chickens, we waited. We, like the steaks, pork chops, and chickens, were the scenery. Extra work doesn't often call for creativity.

At one in the morning everyone stopped to eat. First the principles were sent to what passed for craft services, then the crew, then when everyone else had passed through, the extras. At eight in the morning, we were handed envelopes and sent on our way. Walking to my car in the parking lot was when I decided extra work wasn't ever going to further my acting career, and it is a decision I've been very happy with since.

Every once in awhile when an opportunity to stand as a piece of scenery in the vicinity of a Russell Crowe seems to be available, I think that maybe I made a mistake, maybe I ought to reconsider. But then I hear the story from one of the actors in the show I am currently rehearsing who did manage to get one of those highway patrolman extra jobs. After he was chosen by the assistant director, he was sent to one of the trailers to get his hair cleaned up. He sat down in the chair and the hair stylist proceeded to shear off the whole left side of his head.

"Wait a minute," he yells, as he tells it, "What are you doing?" I suspect that those were not quite the exact words he used.

"They want something military. You know, like a marine," says the stylist.

"Never again," the actor tells us at rehearsal that night.

"But at least you got to meet Russell Crowe," one of the little actresses in our cast gushes.

"Russell who?" he says.

The only good thing I know that ever came out of extra work was the Ricky Gervais series.

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About Jack Goodstein