When I took a voice class last summer, I found that one of my classmates was a trekkie – a dedicated trekkie, with a huge collection of trekkie memorabilia! As we chatted I found that Joe has been an extra on a lot of movies & TV shows – and was a double for Bryan Cranston, the star of the acclaimed “Breaking Bad”. Wow! I know folks who dream of getting on a set in any capacity! How’d he get there? So I asked him.
When the original Star Trek aired, young Joseph Griffenberg stayed up late to watch. He’d stage Star Trek scenes using a local cemetery as exotic set locations, with him playing Capt. Kirk (of course). He’d use lines he remembered from the series, already showing a love for acting.
After a tour in the Navy, he returned to his family in Las Vegas, New Mexico. American Playhouse’s “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” was shooting nearby and Joe got work as an extra. That led to work on the original Red Dawn, with then unknowns Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen. Meanwhile Joe had gotten a camera and went around filming everything – even a praying mantis eating its mate! Yuck! He found he wanted more control of a film than he’d have as an actor. Actors play out the role of the writer/director’s story. Joe wanted to be telling his own stories, so he enrolled in the University of New Mexico, focusing his Fine Arts degree on television production.
Joe was still a trekkie, starting in the ’80’s a notable collection of action figures and Star Trek ornaments. Star Trek Next Generation came along. Like me, Joe resisted but got hooked. He’s also followed each of the Trek shows since – Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise. And included them in his collection, filling a whole room! Thankfully, his wife colludes in this “hobby”.
How To Get Picked as an Extra
I asked Joe what advice he’d give to someone who wants to get picked as an extra.
“Persistence! I put in a picture for every call.” Joe said he follows social media, joining facebook groups that pass the word about calls coming up. He reminded me that in New Mexico the film industry has a website where casting calls are posted: http://www.nmfilm.com/Casting_Calls.aspx. Joe points out that extras don’t need any special qualifications. The casting director is simply looking for “a look”. When Joe hears of a production coming up, he finds who the casting director is and checks out their website. Most will say what look they need.
Joe also recommends building your own network of contacts and your own experience by volunteering to work with school groups and with small indie efforts. “You meet more people that way – and they remember you.” Joe says that half the things he’s done have been through word of mouth.
Joe also maintains a page on IMDb, a site where people in the movie and tv business post their resumes and contact information. Joe includes on his page pictures showing that he can adapt to several different looks. With all his experience and training, Joe’s page is very impressive! http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2445713/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1 “I’ve been on set 50 times. Every time I learn something new.” For example, he watches the actors and how they adapt to different directors. “Some directors let actors do what they want, allow them to improvise. Others control everything, like Alfred Hitchcock did. Like James Cameron does.” Joe also continues to take classes, on the different aspects of film making. “Even if you know you want to direct, it will help you to know how to act.”
Do you need to have professional headshots? No! Joe points out that local film oriented organizations usually have a yearly general casting call. Also there will be open casting calls for each show or film, advertised on the local news or local film website. At a casting call, you stand in line, an hour or more. When you get to the front, they have you fill in a card with your name, contact number, type of vehicle (if you’re willing to have it used), your sizes. They’ll take a picture that will go into a file. They keep it forever! When a shoot comes up that needs extras, the casting director will scan the file for people who match the need. Aha! I did this once – and got called a couple of years later! Unfortunately at a time when I couldn’t go.
During our chat, Joe has mentioned several terms: background, stand-ins, doubles. I ask him what each means.
“Background is another word for extras. They are part of the background of shots – people walking by on the street, people in shops or restaurants, the crowd. They don’t speak and don’t need any qualifications other than fitting in with the scene. Let’s say you’re shooting a scene set in Manhattan. You need people who have the typical clean-cut look to be in the background, just as there are always people around on the street there. If you’re shooting a scene set in Eqypt, your background people need the darker skin tone you’d see there. If the people have particular clothing, casting will look for extras who can fit the costumes they have.”
So what is a “stand-in“? “A stand-in substitutes for a leading actor for setting up lights and camera angles. A stand-in doesn’t have to look like the actor, but needs to have the same height and build. The director or actor may first demonstrate the action needed – ‘walk from there to here”. Then the stand-in mimics that action over and over while the crew arranges the lights and angles.”
“A double has to look like the actor – same height, weight, hair style, general face type. A double is used in place of the actor for distance shots for shots from behind.” Joe ran in a Walter White look-alike contest Bryan Cranston held in Albuquerque, adapting his appearance even to shaving his head. He looked enough like Cranston’s Walter White that he was hired as his photo double. Having a double is a great relief to an actor since a 20 second scene may take 4 hours to shoot! Makeup and costume tried their effects on Joe first to get them finalized before replicating them on Cranston. So Joe got to hang out with Cranston a lot more than an extra or stand-in would.
Can you be an extra and still hold down a regular job? How much notice do you get? “The amount of notice depends on the situation. One casting agent called me for the next day. I couldn’t work it out that quickly with my day job. For ‘Night Shift’ I got several days notice. When they contact you, they’ll tell you when to be there and how many days they’ll need you. Maybe if you turn them down a few times, they’ll stop calling – I just make sure to send in my picture again.”
What’s It like as an Extra On Set?
Let’s say someone has done what you suggested and has gotten a call to be an extra on a picture. What’s it like on location? Joe laughed, “It’s a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’. You might arrive at 5am and sit for 13 hours without ever being called. At least you still get paid. Bring a book and your cell phone – just don’t take them on the set!” The tone of the location varies. Joe’s experience was that on Night Shift they were pleasant, knew his name. Others may treat extras like cattle. I ask about makeup. Joe says that usually background people need to come “hair and make-up ready” – looking acceptably generic. If it’s a western, someone from make-up may make you look dirtier.
Joe emphasizes that observing good location etiquette is key to getting more work. “How well you get along is more important that how good an actor you are. Make sure never to burn your bridges.” The rules of set etiquette include:
- Whenever you hear “Camera rolling!”, shut up. Don’t wait for the “Action call”.
- Never go up to the star and talk to them. Never ask for an autograph or photo. Some stars will chat with the crew, but let them initiate it. Not you!
- Listen and follow directions. For example, when you arrive you have to fill out paper work – W2 info, proof of residency. They’ll write on the form when you arrived. At the end of the day, you have to return the form or you won’t get paid. If you get props or a costume, they will take the form until you bring them back.
- Never look at the camera when on set! If the scene shows someone making eye contact with the camera, they’ll have to cut the whole scene. Be careful you don’t introduce any unplanned elements into the set – no whispering, even when you’re to look like you’re chatting in the background; no smoking; no ringtones!
- Don’t touch anything on set unless directed to. Don’t move anything. It’s probably a carefully placed prop.
So are you ready to go out and fulfill your dream of being an extra, just as Joe did? If you are, let me know how it goes – and where to look for a glimpse of you in the background! And if you hear of any Star Trek shoots in New Mexico, let Joseph Griffenberg know. He’s ready!