Wildside: articles

Spare parts

You’re always last in the queue for lunch, you’re underpaid and, no, you don’t get to chat up the stars. So is there anything glamorous about life as a television extra? Deborah McIntosh finds out.

It’s 11.10am on the set of the ABC’s police drama Wildside and I’m about to do my first scene as an extra. Nine of us have been called to the set to act as drinkers in a bar scene. Jo Hall, the trainee director, tells us what to do while the crew sets up the shot and the stars of the show get into place.

"Well, I expect you all know what to do in a bar," says Hall. She looks at me: "I want you to start near the camera at the bar. After one beat, walk to the far table. He’s your boyfriend," she says, pointing to another extra, who is actually a real cop earning a bit on the side. While I’m wondering how long a beat is, Hall decides the cop isn’t my boyfriend after all and that he belongs to Ruth, another extra. "You’ll have to sit on your own," she tells me, "just read something or write some notes and don’t look at the camera." Which isn’t as easy as it sounds — the camera will be 70 centimetres in front of my face. Once I’m sorted, Hall moves on to the rest of the extras, asking them to sit in a booth here, or walk to the bar, or "chat", read or sip a drink. Suddenly there is commotion among the crew and we are asked to leave. They’ve decided to rearrange the set. Ten minutes later we are back and Hall is delivering new instructions. Now I have to stand at the bar, order a drink, walk to the far end of the set, pick up a newspaper from the last table, walk back to a table near the bar and sit with two male extras, sipping coffee, reading and gesticulating. And all without making one single sound. Extras have to take off their shoes so they don’t make any noise as they walk — usually we’d be given little booties to wear, but the crew can’t find any today. Even the drinks are poured before shooting starts so there won’t be any background noise. Extra Ian Moggs has been playing the barman at Portofino, Wildside’s fictional bar, for 12 months, and has the silent routine down pat.

"First position everyone," says Hall. We take our places. "Quiet on the set." And… action. I pad off towards the bar doing my most silent, natural walk. It feels ridiculous. I pick up a May 1997 copy of Drum magazine, and slide into my booth mouthing silent greetings to extras Rob Morey and the real-life cop who was almost my boyfriend. Morey points excitedly to a fascinating story in his copy of the Sydney Morning Herald and barman Moggs brings my coffee. We sip our drinks, the waitress pops by to see if we need anything, and we pretend to discuss the best gigs in Drum. At this point we get carried away and actually start joking in low whispers. We are picked up on tape. Hall gently reprimands us afterwards. Extras must make no sound whatsoever. By the third (and thankfully the last) take, conducting an animated-but-silent conversation with two strangers is becoming strained. We have run out of nothing to say.

When my television debut airs in September — my mid-torso silently gliding past Rachel Blake and Tony Martin (the stars of the show) as they discuss a serial killer — I may well be discovered. Actually, the odds are against it. Very few extras move into real acting, says Irene Gaskell, who casts extras for Wildside and has done so for more than 100 ABC dramas, including Brides of Christ and Police Rescue. But there’s always the odd extra who does make the big time. Gaskell remembers a "jackeroo-type" called Jerry Skilton: "He did Lizard King and Male Order Bride for us (as an extra) and just swanned in and looked like he’d done it all his life. He ended up having a part in the Crocodile Dundee movies. That just came from him having rugged Aussie looks and a natural ability. But we didn’t discover him so much as he discovered himself."

Gaskell contacts agencies that specialise in providing extras and tells them what she wants.

"A few days ago I needed two guys to be police rescue, then to re-dress to be paedophiles. People often have to double up. When Wildside started, agents tried to find us cops and ex-cops. It really shows if you get someone who knows the activity — there’s no falseness in how they handle people.

"Once upon a time, extras were mainly pretty people. But for this show you want the real-life look. If we were doing a scene in the home of a well-off person, we would try to make the extras good-looking and prosperous-looking to highlight the comparison with people in the crisis centre." Almost anyone can be an extra, but Gaskell admits she occasionally hires duds. "Sometimes you get ones who are away with the fairies. They’ve never done it before and just can’t take direction." Before any extra is let loose on the set, it’s off to the make-up van, where make-up artist Tina Cowper-Hill assesses everyone’s make-up and clothing. She has just seen actor Richard Carter, whom she barely touched. "This show is very natural," she says. A few experienced extras do their own make-up but Cowper-Hill still checks for continuity (if they have been in a previous scene) and appropriateness for the role.

"One girl recently came with her make-up all done for a crisis centre scene. I had to ask her to take it off. Without it she looked tired, like she had been crying. It helped show her character was probably on drugs. But she wasn’t happy about it. Everyone wants to look nice." As in real life, actors playing policewomen and nurses can’t have their hair down or wear nail polish or heavy make-up and policewomen can’t have long nails or hair clips that could catch on something. "Sometimes I think real life is less strict than films," says Cowper-Hill. "I saw an extra dressed as a policewoman once on another show. She had make-up on and her nails done. I whispered to her, ‘As a policewoman, you really have to cut those nails,’ and she said, ‘No, no, I’m a real policewoman.’ "

Then there are hairstyles. Extras must be prepared for a snip. Extra Tim Moroney says: "For Dark City, people had their heads and eyebrows shaved. They were aliens. But they got paid well — several thousand dollars. But then, they couldn’t get a whole lot of work for a few months." Today, my work clothes are fine for the bar scene (although I have to get changed later when I reappear as a policewoman). Cowper-Hill brushes my hair, lightly sprays it and applies a darkish rusty lipstick but no lip liner. She doesn’t want a sharp, made-up look. It doesn’t even matter if my hair sticks out a bit.

"If extras are playing models, they have to look fantastic, but otherwise, it’s just not necessary."

After the first round of shooting, most of the extras head off to the ABC canteen to wait until they are needed again. Ruth Sudek, 45, is knitting, while Rob Morey, also 45, reads quietly. Extras must be ready to perform but also happy to fill in time.

Linda Cappa, 27, a fitness trainer, signed with an agent three weeks ago and this is her third job. Today she’ll earn around $60 for a four-hour call. "I’ve always wanted to be an extra," she says. "I know that sounds strange when it’s the bottom rung. But you’re meeting new people, learning what goes on. I’d like to get into acting, so I thought this was a way to get the feel of it. I know people say it can’t, but I believe it can help you get into acting through networking."

Ian Moggs, 36, an antique shop owner, has been an extra for two years and got his first job the week he found an agent. He leaves the shop whenever a job comes up. "I’m not in it for the money, just the enjoyment of the industry. I work once or twice a fortnight, on anything from films to Home and Away. I’ve done bar work (on Wildside) for 12 months. I know what to do. I make up most of my actions so there’s a bit of creativity. And this is a good crew." So, what’s a bad crew? Morey answers, "They just treat you like ..."

Ruth Sudek looks up from her knitting and butts in: "... an extra." Morey: "You’re the bottom of the heap."

Sudek: "In the film industry there’s a real pecking order. At meal times, for instance, we have to wait until everyone else has got their food." Moggs: "I’ve heard extras called ‘props that eat’ and ‘walking props’." Morey: "I prefer the term VLPA: a very low-paid actor." Do they ever get to say a line?Sudek: "Very occasionally." Morey: "Then you get catapulted to the exalted status of being a featured extra. The pay skyrockets from there. I did one the other day for All Saints for an eight-hour day and got $350."

Have they witnessed many dramatic scenes?

Sudek: "Recently we had a fight (on Wildside) between police and the detectives. People were flying about. You get to yell and scream. That was fun." Morey: "On my first day on Wildside they trashed three cars. That was really good. My first job was on the movie Dark City. I spent 12 hours driving a 1939 Dodge. It was a fabulous job."

Morey became an extra a year ago, after being retrenched as circulation manager for Reed Business Publishing. "I’ve been pretty much stereotyped as a doctor or a detective. I’ve had a couple of jobs as a grandfather." He has no desire to be an actor, he just enjoys being part of the business. But he and the others all say there are plenty of extras who will go to any lengths to be noticed.

Moggs: "In crowd scenes you particularly notice it. I was doing Home and Away and this woman did a big, fancy walk when it was meant to be a crowd walking past. She didn’t come out (on TV) at all. They (the editors) see it and realise it looks wrong and it gets cut." Moroney: "Good-looking females come on with blouses undone to here and short skirts up to wherever, and you know they’re going to be featured. I did (the movie) Matrix and a girl dressed like that ended up with her picture in the paper the next day because she pushed her way next to Keanu Reeves. I’d like to become an actor, too, but I’m not going to push people out of the way and stand on people’s feet." At most these extras have greeted a star in passing or had a brief chat in a group. Usually, there’s no fraternising at all. Moggs also worked on Matrix and says the extras received instructions: "Do not speak to him. Do not approach him. No photos. No autographs." Two girls who tried to photograph him were thrown off the set.

Moroney is also working as an extra on the sequel to Babe, where the entire crew have had to sign a secrecy clause. "There are many stunts and they think if we give them away, no one will watch the movie." Sudek markets health products from home and finds that work as an extra breaks the routine. She has no acting ambitions but she appreciates the skill involved in doing nothing. "You have to be aware of not looking at the camera. You have to mime. It’s an art to an extent. Some people think they can mess around and it doesn’t look good." After lunch, it’s time to change into a police uniform. It’s just like the real thing with dark pants and a thick leather belt and holster, complete with wooden gun. I feel like a horse that has been saddled up. A name tag (Constable Jenny Miles) is pinned to my shirt and the others tell me I’m lucky it’s the right sex. It’s a relaxed lunchtime scene so no one pins up my hair.

I sit at a table with two detectives: Morey and another extra, Paul Farrant. Hall tells us we should chat, then Farrant has to go to a counter, pick up three sandwiches, but forget our teas. Morey should shake his head, return for the teas and place them on the table where we eat, drink and talk.

I’m terrified I’ve let the team down on the first take when I make a racket removing plastic wrap from my sandwich, but Hall tells us we’re doing fine. The real action has something to do with a woman telling Blake she’s pregnant, but their conversation is too low for us to hear. We’re lucky — the director gets what he wants in four takes.

By then, Farrant has bitten, rewrapped and returned the sandwich three times between takes. Morey says we should be thankful it’s just cheese and beef sandwiches. He once did an airline advertisement where he had to sit in first class, eating an eggplant dish. He despises eggplant, but take after take, he ate it and rolled his eyes with delight. Who says extras can’t act?Life as an extra: is it for you?What qualities do I need? David Cushen, a manager of Extras Agency, says confidence and patience are vital. "Most people we see are confident, or they wouldn’t consider it. But patience is very important. You could be booked on a 10-hour call and not even be used. You have to be able to accept that." Punctuality and reliability are also essential. What about age? Cushen’s agency takes 16- to 80-year-olds but the most in-demand age group is late 20s to late 40s, and people who look as if they could be business people and parents. With looks, almost anything goes but "if you’re an average Joe Blow aged 25 and we’ve already got a lot like you on the books, we won’t take you on". People with "unusual looks" have as good a chance as the very attractive. What else? Availability is essential. If you have a job, it must be flexible. Ideally, extras should have their own transport. You often have to get to out-of-the-way places at 5.30am or 6am. Will I get rich? Extras don’t need acting experience or training; speaking parts are rare (they pay well: $238 a day for a 50-worder). But having other work is important. Extras work is erratic and pay is low: $18.30 an hour for commercials and around $13 an hour for TV and film, both with four-hour minimum calls. Penalty rates such as overtime are good, but agents take a minimum 10 per cent. Any perks? Some free meals. It’s a good spread on the Wildside shoot: roast meat, vegetable dishes and dessert. The extras say food on other shows isn’t always this good. "I’ve done jobs where we had bread rolls for lunch," says Ian Moggs.

By Deborah McIntosh
June 28, 1998
The Age, Sunday Life Magazine