Written by Natalie Zisa
When I was in third grade, I remember getting a letter in our mailbox from some film production company saying that they wanted to use our house for a movie. Lisa Kudrow was supposed to star in it and our dining room was going to turn into a funeral home. If I remember correctly, they also tossed around the idea of my family and I getting to be extras in the movie. Unfortunately, that never happened because our neighbors ultimately didn’t allow it. So, my dream of being an extra never came true. But, I did speak to three women who have successfully lived out that dream and thus, have stood no more than six feet away from stars like Sarah Jessica Parker, Rachel Brosnahan, and George Clooney.
Jessica Dorcey, BB Stone, and Lauren Weiss have all been on the set of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Jessica’s credits also include Hunters, The Ninja Turtle Movie, and Money Monster, while Lauren has been featured in HBO’s Love Life, and BB was most recently on set for And Just Like That. Whether they’ve been doing this for one year or eight, their passion for acting and storytelling is what brought them to this type of work. Below, they share their thoughts on how to be the perfect extra—from what they find most fulfilling to the do’s and don’ts of being on set.
What’s something people don’t expect about being an extra?
BB Stone: People are always surprised about how much detail goes into the background actor’s looks. Nothing is an accident. Even if an actor doesn’t make a shot, the team ensures they’re ready to be captured by the camera and match the world of the show to a T. On Maisel, I was in hair for over an hour to have my hair transformed into a glamorous 1960’s hairstyle, which took a lot of rollers and hairspray.
Lauren Weiss: How long the days are. You’re generally waiting around in holding for much longer than you’re actively on set. It’s a great atmosphere for being productive, though. People finish books, edit their website or write full papers sometimes. I still have videos from playing “Heads Up” in holding rooms with strangers turned friends. After seeing each other for six days in a row at 5am and talking for hours while getting styled, I would even get emotional saying goodbye to my hairdresser.
What are some do’s and don’ts of being an extra? Any pet peeves of yours that you’ve seen others do?
BB: Background work is a lot of hurry up and wait, so when people talk while we’re getting instructions that are only given once, that can be very frustrating because then it’s like a game of telephone.
JD: I was on set for Hunters and there was someone who stayed on the bus all day. Meanwhile, it was set in 1978 in Coney Island in the summertime and we had to be in bikinis, but we shot it in December. So, we were freezing and got paid the same amount as them. Do the work that you’re getting paid for. They say they don’t have favorites, but if you’re showing up on time, not being a disturbance to the set crew, and doing what you’re told, you’ll get on their rotation and you’ll work consistently. A bonus tip is to always bring a snack.
LW: On set, it’s listening, following directions and NOT HAVING YOUR PHONE. I’ve watched people get in serious trouble with PAs and directors for ruining a shot with their phone going off or leaving it out on a table in the 1950s. Don’t be that person! More often than not, your level of engagement and ability to follow direction will be noticed and get you moved closer to the action or given a more central role that sometimes makes the final cut.
Are there any skills that you think are particularly important in this kind of work?
BB: Patience and adaptability. Patience is for the long days and the ability to sit for six hours, then be active on set for four or vice versa. Adaptability because you might get your blocking, but after one run of the scene, the director might want something else so an assistant director will run over and tell you new timing and blocking for the next take. This could be as easy as walking in a straight line or zigzagging through people, dodging props and looking natural. For And Just Like That, it took eight hours to film two scenes that were both less than two minutes.
JD: Mentally it can be hard being an extra because when a scene restarts you constantly have to go back to the beginning and have the same energy, even if you’re just walking across the scene. But you need to know that the director and the editor are looking at the actor making their choice, so if you’re doing something stupid in the background and that’s the shot that gets picked, that is encapsulated for all time.
LW: To be quite honest, no. It’s really about your interest, availability, and matching the part of what they’re casting for. If you have a desire to, I think anyone who wants to can background act.
What about being an extra is fulfilling?
BB: My favorite thing is seeing the director work with the actors to find the perfect shot, then filming that shot from multiple different angles. Even if I wasn’t in frame, I got to enter a new world and meet incredible people.
JD: I would much rather be on set learning about television than working in a store like I was. You meet a lot of different people: the ADs, the PAs, the sound guys. And you have a lot of time to observe. So, I learned a ton about working in film before I started speaking on film.
LW: When I was actively auditioning, extra work was a nice way to make some easy money and feel like I was participating in something that would come to fruition. Though my career path has changed, the memories I have from getting to interact with and watch some amazing actors work and see all that goes into it have stayed with me. To this day, someone from high school will DM me a picture asking if they hallucinated or just spotted me in Mrs. Maisel.
For more information on how to become a background actor, visit centralcasting.com.