Francis Decary, Contributor
Alexander Wagner is a part-time extra, erstwhile bartender and sometimes promoter, who is trying to transition to full-time acting. I sat down on Saturday with him to talk about the business of being an extra.
He’s been working as an extra since spring of 2015. Since then, he’s appeared as an extra in some notable projects (Quantico and X-Men: Apocalypse, among others) and starred in some commercials and a few short films.
He got his start by signing with some casting agencies that specialize in finding work for extras, such as Julie Breton, who got him his first few gigs.
“What I wanted to do was be a full-time actor”, he tells me, “so I thought I’d start at the bottom and work my way up.” Things seem to have worked out well for him: he recently signed with an agent for professional actors. His path, he stresses, has been an unconventional one. When he signed, he had no professional headshots and no formal training. He got his interview by meeting his agent’s daughter on a film set. He was signed mainly because his agent had a good feeling about him and he had proven his good work ethic as an extra.
This work ethic is supremely important in a business where so much rides on reputation and word of mouth. Rules for extras are strict: be on time, be professional, don’t talk to the actors, do what you’re told, no cellphones on set. There exists a database, Casting Quarters, with a record of almost all extras who have worked in Montreal, both union and non-union. This record includes an extra’s work history and the extra can be black listed if the rules are broken. The blacklist is serious business: not only can a blacklisted extra never get work again, they are forbidden from even interacting with a unionized production. Last year, when Alex was working on Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival, he heard of an extra who ambushed Amy Adams outside of her trailer to take a picture. Needless to say, he was blacklisted and will never work as an extra in Montreal again.
While no two shoots are exactly the same, Alex tells me, there is a certain procedure to follow on a typical day. Arrive at the shoot location at the call time (generally around 7 or 8AM) and sign in, get your voucher. This voucher includes all of an actor’s personal information as well as their pay rate for the day, not something you’d want to misplace. After that it’s costuming and make-up, before heading to the holding area and waiting to be called on set. This can take up to an hour or two, depending on how far behind schedule the production is.
Every project, Alex tells me, is behind schedule. Film shoots are a messy, complicated affair, there’s always a certain amount of chaos going on.
Eventually, it’s show time. Extras are called up by the production assistant (PA) and brought to the set, where the magic happens. Here, the PA or assistant director (AD) gives directions for how the extras are to act, known creatively as extra directions. This can include where they are supposed to be or not to be, what they should mime, whether or not they say anything, and so on. These directions too can fall prey to a set’s natural chaos: Alex has bumped into actors and been in the wrong place before. This is usually the point where the Director, Screenwriter, or AD—who already suffer mid-term levels of stress—starts getting angry. This makes the general work atmosphere more stressful, Alex tells me, understandably. Impressively, shooting can continue mid-outburst from an angry Director; the tirade can be edited out or the boom mic can simply be moved far enough away so as not to pick up any verbal abuse, movie magic.
Working on a set comes with its own special language. Back to first tells extras to get back to their original positions, pre-action tells them to start their routine before the cameras are rolling (to make the action seem more natural), and the iconic cut! Is yelled after the final take, each take having been marked by the mythical clapboard.
Once the shot is over, extras are herded back to the holding area where they might be dismissed for the day or wait for their next round of shooting. Working on a project can involve multiple days of shooting, especially for television shows. A single extra may wear many hats on the same project; Alex has been a businessman, a casual businessman, a dead businessman, a junkie and a thug while working on Quantico.
Extras are naturally typecast, he tells me, living in the background of a scene means that audiences need to be able to immediately identify what an extra is supposed to be. They can’t turn their focus to them and exclude star performers. This means that the look of an extra is incredibly important. Alex is young, tall and slim, has sharp, symmetrical features, and rocks a trendy, but not flashy, undercut. This typically gets him typecast generally as a thug or gang member, but he can (and has!) fit into a number of other roles.
Another key asset to getting consistent work, he tells me, is being bilingual. Even though extras rarely get speaking roles (he hasn’t had one as an extra), being fluent in both English and French allows him to better follow directions on productions of either language, giving him a better range of options for work.
Getting consistent work, he tells me, is his main reason for not pursuing extra work as a full time job. He can pull in $1200-$1300 in a month, roughly the equivalent of a full-time job at minimum wage, but there can be times where work is hard to come by, between two weeks and a month, which can make it hard to make ends meet without a second job.
Ultimately, Alex says, he prefers starring in short films by far. The pay is better, but mostly he prefers the work. Getting to take on different roles is both rewarding and engaging, he compares it to playing astronaut as a kid, wistfully.