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!
Suppose you were considering casting Thor and the Avengers – and Chris Hemsworth walked in the door! Would you have seen his Star Power?
Casting Director Randi Hiller says “Chris is 6ft 5in and ridiculously handsome. You look at him and think ‘Thor’,” but Randi says that at first he just didn’t have “The Strut”. Clearly Chris was clearly someone to keep an eye on. So how did he end up as Thor?
He got cast as Kirk’s father in the 2009 Star Trek reboot – and that changed things. Randi said that after that “his skin fit”. Now he was ready for Thor!
Star Trek 2009 had me hooked from the beginning with George Kirk. He WAS our Capt. Kirk’s father without doubt. Later in Thor, Chris was perfect. It never occurred to me that long before, someone had to see that potential in the actor to cast him – until I had an opportunity to learn more about casting.
2013 was my first San Diego Comic Con. I loved the costumes and characters and huge halls with panels of movie and TV celebrities. I was just as delighted to find that one of the events was a panel of casting directors. Aha! The guys and gals who see the hopeful actors and pick the ones that might be matches for the leading roles. How do they spot the magical potential in the actors?
I found that it’s more involved than I thought. It isn’t just matching Looks X to Role Y. As one panel member said, “Our job is to have ‘actor fluency’.”
The moderator of the panel was Lora Kennedy (Warner Brothers, EVP, Features Casting. CD, Man of Steel). Panelists were Roger Mussenden (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Sharon Bialy (The Walking Dead), David Rapaport (Arrow) and Randi Hiller (of Walt Disney Studios, VP Casting. CD, The Avengers). Our current superheroes started here!
So what are Casting Directors looking for?
– For a lead in a multi-million picture, they need a known actor, someone with experience. “The Studio wants someone famous – at least someone who won’t FU their project!” TV is a good place to get known because an actor doesn’t need a name to become a TV star. I thought of Zachary Quinto, cast as Spock for Star Trek 2009. He was the first role cast, even though he had no movie experience. But he did have TV experience, getting star status as Sylar in Heroes. Zachary has also said that he spent his early years in Hollywood getting to know the Casting Directors. What about smaller roles? The panel said that for those the actor can have less experience.
– Actors with representatives get looked at first. Un-repped actors get looked at, but not first. It is very rare to pull someone off the street, as was claimed to happen in the early days of Hollywood. If the actor picked drops out, will they go to the #2 choice. Almost never, alas. They are more likely to start over.
– Casting means going through tons of headshots. I knew that every actor had them. The few I’ve seen looked very glamorous. But the panel said not to send a glamor shot, but something that captures the actor’s personality. Sharen said that first they look for the given age & type range. Then for the training. If someone doesn’t fit the current project but has potential – an “It” factor – they’ll note him or her in their “black books” for later roles.
– Tapes act as a pre-audition. Tip: check the tape! Casting gets many tapes with no sound or other glitches. Not good! Casting Directors have to go through a lot of material, so they favor something where they can click a button and look at a short clip quickly. Randi said, “Long montages don’t get you anywhere. Put your best foot forward. I don’t want to see a scene from your acting class.”
– Whether headshots or tapes, they are looking for someone unique. The panel said that actors shouldn’t try to be who they think the casting director wants.
– They look for someone who acts professional and looks proud of what they do. Casting Directors prefer actors who show up and are on time. An actor in the audience said, “These days if you want a job in Hollywood, you need a British passport!” Randi replied that it wasn’t a matter of nationality, but of work ethic. She gave an example of a project with 5 Brits, 5 Australians and 10 Americans. The Brits and Aussies showed up on time and were fully prepared. Half of the Americans often didn’t show up – car trouble, sick – lots of excuses. Those that did weren’t prepared. Wow! The American work ethic has deteriorated even in this highly competitive field!
– A killer audition is what got many current stars remembered. Several on the panel said it’s important to play the character that is presented. If auditioning for someone with super powers, to play the person – not the power. Sharon said, “Your job is to make the story move forward. It is not about you!”
OK, even if an actor meets all the criteria, is that it? Who makes the real casting decision? Sure, the casting director presents his or her choice but who makes the casting decision? The director? The studio producer? The show runner (the person responsible for the day to day operation of a TV series)? Turns out that it varies.
Sharon said that for her series the show runner has the final say, but usually all are on the same page. Being cable, they don’t have a committee decision. David said that with Arrow on The CW it is similar. But for the networks and movies, it’s like forty-five (!) people have to sign-off on a co-star. They end up going back to the drawing board a lot. One panel member told of a meeting with twenty-five people, each of whom wanted to say something about each decision – agonizing!!
Sometimes there are union issues or things outside the actor’s control that means he or she can’t be cast for a role. For example, if the shooting is in another country, they may not be able to get the actor accepted in the role or get them there in time.
What a fascinating job! Not all is just looking at gorgeous actors. It sounds like Casting Directors need a lot of patience.
Are you an actor? There’s more you may find helpful on the full panel discussion here.
Do you have any experience with casting actors? Or being cast yourself? What was it like for you? I’d love to hear your comment.
The Hollywood Reporter (THR) recently held a roundtable discussion with writers of upcoming summer blockbusters that included Roberto Orci, one of the writers of Star Trek 2009 and the much anticipated sequel. While Orci was speaking for “Cowboys and Aliens”, he mentioned a tidbit about Star Trek 2009. [for more, click here]
The Klingon language wasn’t heard in The Original Series of Star Trek. There were a couple of lines of Klingon in the first motion picture that were actually created by James Doohan (Scotty)! By the second motion picture, more was needed. In this CLIP, Mark Okrand, chairman of the Washington Shakepeare Company’s board, discusses how he developed the Klingon language.
Here’s part 1 of an interesting interview with Executive Producer Rick Berman as he recounts the challenges of creating Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. In this part, he talks about the transition as the ailing Roddenbury pulled back from the helm.
Here’s an interesting article on casting for Star Trek: http://www.trektoday.com/content/2011/02/surma-casting-star-trek/
If you were casting, would you have spotted the potential Klingon in Michael Dorn?