By Haley Twist
“Run like hell!” someone screams, inspiring pedestrians and shoppers to run for their lives outside the TCL Chinese Theater on the historic Hollywood Walk of Fame. Groups of men and women dart pell-mell down the street past a traffic jam of cars and buses. But it’s too late: some people are thrown through the sky, while others melt and vaporize into thin air.
“Cut!” yells the assistant director of Iron Man 3, putting an instant halt to the pandemonium. These busy streets of Hollywood are actually the Iron Man 3 film set, and the pedestrians are standing in a huge green room where the filmmakers can later use computer-generated imagery (CGI) to add cinematic special effects.
Among the pedestrians is Lewis Herman, movie extra by day and J. Murrey Atkins Library information desk employee at UNC-Charlotte by night, hired as an extra for the scene. His job when the cameras start rolling is to quickly run in a predetermined direction until someone calls “cut.” When he hears this, he walks back to his mark and waits for “action!” to be called, alert and ready to shoot the scene many times more.
“The scene’s not done until they say ‘checking the gate,’” Herman says, who first began taking extra calls in 80s. “Usually there’s a long break while the cameras are moved and set up again.”
Like the other extras, Herman’s given specific instructions about how to act and when. In between takes, the extras wait — and wait…and wait…and wait — while equipment moves around, gaffers gaffe, actors re-think their motivation and writers’ re-write. In the life of an extra, there’s a whole lot of ‘hurry up and wait.’
In recent years, Charlotte and surrounding areas have become increasingly popular film locales. From older films like Steve Rash’s 1996 comedy Eddie and Peter Farrelly’s 2001 romantic comedy Shallow Hal, to the more recent Gary Ross novel adaptation The Hunger Games and the Showtime Emmy award-winning series Homeland, Charlotte is being featured more frequently on the big (and little) screen. This gives local movie or television buffs the chance to see the action first-hand — and sometimes even get paid for it.
Often called “the background,” “the atmosphere” or “the non-principal performers,” film and television extras have a unique job that differs on every set. From long days consisting of minimal work to short days filled with tedious activity, an extra’s point of view is unlike that of any other position on set.
“Each set is different,” said Richard Poplin, a recent UNC-Charlotte graduate who frequently appears on locally filmed television shows. “Each time you go, it’s something different because we are always shooting different things, from raves to being a cop. You never know what you are going to get.”
Whether it’s a vaporized pedestrian, a high-class businessman, an concert-goer or an Amish countryman, extras get the chance to wear many masks.
“It was a lot of things: terrifying, ego-squelching, boring, exhausting, and, yeah, kind of fun,” MSNBC.com contributor Kim Foreman wrote about her experiences as an extra on the set of Ugly Betty. “You get to go behind the scenes, get into secret places and see and do things that are normally off-limits. And when you see yourself on TV you jump up and down shrieking ecstatically and then show your friends the tape.”
Herman has similar feelings about appearing as an extra, but says the possibility of seeing himself on-screen never gets old. His Facebook cover photo even features a still of him appearing in The Hunger Games, made-up to look like a high-class member of the fictional Panem society and experiencing his own taste of stardom.
But the process to appear on the big screen is a long one, and it all begins with finding the gigs.
“Facebook is a great resource for finding these opportunities,” said Kayla Turner, a junior film studies student at UNC-Wilmington, who appears in multiple television shows shot regionally, including the CW’s One Tree Hill and Showtime’s Homeland. Turner adds that the local newspaper also lists which productions are in need of extras or stand-ins that are filming in town. Another source is the online film commission (website) and, of course, Google. But maybe the best resource of all is Tona B. Dahlquist, a casting agent who manages Charlotte-area productions as well as others in the southeast.
“(She) basically does all the casting for everything in the Charlotte area, so once you work for her one time on any set, and are reliable, you can pretty much count on working every project she has at least once,” says Poplin, who’s used social media to find casting opportunities like the The Hunger Games, Homeland and Cinemax’s Banshee.
Once added into her Facebook groups, which are often disguised as code words for larger, more well-known projects, extras have access to casting information and opportunities for surrounding area productions, including those in Charlotte, Gastonia, Wilmington and Atlanta.
Anyone interested in available casting opportunities can apply as long as they fit the criteria the filmmakers are requesting. That can range from “looking for a set of sisters ages 4-7” to “seeking women with an exceptionally unique derriere.” After an application is submitted and approved, the extras simply wait for the call sheet, which provides the where and when.
Once on set, which could be a studio, sound stage, green room or an outside location, extras are given their instructions for the day. Depending on the scale of the production and what the extras are playing, some have to bring their own clothing. But if it’s a larger or more specialized production, hair and makeup is often provided for the extras.
“One of the weirdest things was having to wear so much make-up during The Hunger Games,” said Poplin, who sported a teal toupee during the filming of the movie.
From there, the waiting game between takes begins. While some extras use the time to socialize and eat, others bring their own activities to keep them occupied, like their books, Nooks or crossword puzzles.
“A lot of people bring books or have their iPads, or even on the last set I was on, someone was knitting,” Poplin said. “Also, it’s not a bad idea to close your eyes and rest them for a few, considering most [shoots] are at least 12 hours.”
With such a unique job also come unique rules. Extras never talk to the actors while filming as to not distract them (after all, no one wants to experience a Christian Bale-like freak out from an uber-serious actor). Another is to never look at the camera while it’s filming. Herman admits that it’s really tempting to look in the direction of the camera, but it’s something that with practice can – and should — be avoided.
“If you ignore it, you can act much more naturally,” said Herman, who once ruined a scene by accidentally looking into the camera while filming Eddie in the old Charlotte Coliseum. “They yelled out ‘cut!’ and they said ‘Somebody looked at the camera and we have to do that over again.’”
While many extras first get involved in the business because of a passion for film, production or acting, the hard work and long hours earns them at least a little more than just experience. In Charlotte-area filming, the pay rate is usually $7.50 for the first eight hours, and then time-and-a-half for every hour worked after that.
“However, they also feed you and there are times where out of eight hours you might work two, so even though the pay is almost minimum wage, you still have a good chance to make a few dollars,” said Poplin, who has been using the money earned on film sets to sustain him during post-graduation life.
According to Herman, it’s possible to make a larger amount of money for contributing something additional that the production team is looking for, including smoking, biking and even nudity, the latter often paying a couple hundred dollars per day. If you’re able to land a speaking role, you may eventually be eligible for a SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card, which could result in massive pay raises.
Many extras who prove they’re hardworking can even be called back on set for re-shoots, which occur when the director is not happy with the primary footage. That chaotic Iron Man 3 scene, shot in Wilmington, is a re-shoot of the original scene shot last June on a Wilmington sound stage.
“I like re-shoots because we’re more likely to be seen in the final picture,” said Herman, who traveled to Wilmington to appear in both the original scene and the re-shoot. Herman hopes that being an extra will eventually lead to a featured role, which would pay more, as it may or may not contain speaking and even lead to SAG card eligibility. Others are happy to continue as an extra for the mere experience, which can sometimes be more interesting than anticipated.
“I did make really good friends with this one actor (I won’t name who) and he turned out to be really inappropriate in his conversations with me and wanted to fly me out to L.A.,” said Turner. “I stopped talking to him, to say the least.”