What’s it like to work as a movie extra?
Most people will say: “There’s a lot of waiting around.”
More than a decade ago when the made- in- Philadelphia TV series “Hack” was in full swing, hundreds of local residents signed up to be cast as minor, peripheral (non-speaking) characters. Generally, movie extras are usually given non-speaking roles (and they are always non-union) besides being people from professions other than acting.
Your typical movie extra often has no illusions about wanting to be a “movie star.”
On the “Hack” set I played an ambulance attendant who helped carry out the body of a murdered girl from behind a wooded area near the Museum of Art. I spent one full day on the set, pacing, eating catered food, and talking with other extras until the ambulance scene. Two weeks later, I received a check for $79.00, and that was that.
When I agreed to be a featured extra in [Fishtown resident] Andrew Rapasky McElhinney’s Christmas Dreams several years ago, I knew there’d be a lot of waiting around involved.
McElhinney, a professional acquaintance from way back, has a solid director’s reputation. He directed “A Chronicle of Corpses (2000), called a “highbrow period film,” Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye (2003), and Animal Husbandry (2008). Advance PR for Christmas Dreams indicated that it wouldput “a modern twist on a few holiday favorites.”
While being a movie extra can be great fun, it’s also a lesson in humility. The cast of Christmas Dreams was extensive; the number of people involved being way over seventy.
The so-called movie extra green room --- that’s where you sit in makeup and costume while waiting to be called—was packed to the gills: Think of 30th Street Station (pre-pandemic) at rush hour with its elbow-to-elbow seating. The extras in Christmas Dreams covered every age bracket, from one year (possibly even younger) to eighty.
Some of the extras were from Philadelphia’s theater community, actors and actresses of considerable talent.
The number of child extras on the set was daunting. My two days on the set reminded me of that old Philadelphia-based TV show, Al Alberts Showcase: where armies of little boys and girls in greased up pompadours and blue chiffon dresses sang and preformed in front of an audience of mostly parents.
Now, a good extra leaves his/her ego at home and doesn’t mind an anonymous role in the back of the bus and being just another anonymous face in a sea of anonymous faces.
When I was finally called on the set of Christmas Dreams, it was to hobnob at a faux Christmas party where, in evening dress, the movie extras held champagne flutes filled with ginger ale (disappointing) while pretending to be having a great time. We shook hands, kissed one another on the cheek, rubbed shoulders, all the while obeying the director’s orders to shimmy to the right or to the left.
A director’s job, however, is never easy. Some directors have been known to fly off the handle in a big way, reducing some in the cast to tears. That certainly was not McElhinney’s style although at one point, when the extra waiting room was beginning to sound like the unruly Greyhound bus terminal at 13th and Filbert Street, he took out his bullhorn and asked for quiet.
McElhinney got what he wanted.
The grand party scene was shot in two takes, not bad especially when you have children in small tuxedos and flowing dresses dancing around like the Whirling Dervishes of Afghanistan.
I never made it to the set on the second day, but that’s another story.
The truth is, being an extra is addictive. I would have been happy staying in the waiting room all night, reading or just waiting in trance mode until McElhinney, bullhorn in hand, announced that he needed more bodies on the set. The angst of waiting five hours or more goes up in smoke the second you’re called on stage.
I recently touched base with Andrew Repasky McElhinneyand asked him what he’s been up to since Christmas Dreams.
He told me that his new film, Casual Encounters: Philadelphia True Crime Confessions, is in post-production (with a release date of 2023). The five-part epic is also multi-format with thirty some characters. “The drama explores the intersection of crime, economics, addiction, and professionalism in the ‘City of Brotherly Love,’ McElhinney told me by email.
He began work on Casual Encounters while in the post production phase of Christmas Dreams. After the snowfall ambience of Christmas Dreams, he says that Confessions was a nice contrast, shooting on real locations and not in a series of warehouses, as was Christmas Dreams during the steamy summer months of 2013.
During much of the pandemic, McElhinney has been working on the sound design for Casual Encounters: Philadelphia True Crime Confessions, as wellas the script of the eight-part screen adaptation of the mystery bestseller, The Darkest Secret, co-written with author Alex Marwood.
The director is also involved with The Friends of Harrowgate Park and works to bring live, free theater and activities to the park. The summer of 2019, for instance, saw the institution of free yoga in the park as well as the Commonwealth Classic production of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Post-pandemic plans include Shakespeare and Company's touring production of A Midsummer’s Night's Dream and a clown workshop.
The summer of 2021 will set the stage for The Park Plays, or “two original plays, co-created and co-starring the people of their surrounding neighborhoods.”
Mc McElhinney says The Park Plays will be inspired by Shakespeare In Clark Park’s July production, “but it will be completely original… new works, co-created by community members and professional theater artists.” A grant from the William Penn Foundation will enable each new Park Play to be produced at zero cost to their respective communities and offered to the public free of charge.
“Shakespeare in Clark Park is proud of their commitment to Radical Community Engagement: making theater by, for, and with the people of Philadelphia,” McElhinney says.