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EXTRA! EXTRA; IT'S A DIRTY JOB, BUT BACKGROUND PLAYERS DO IT.

Byline: Dave McNary Daily News Staff Writer

Every day at 4 a.m., thousands of anonymous actors and actresses drag themselves out of bed to appear on shows like ``The New Love Boat.''

They hit the streets early looking for the cryptic, Day-Glo signs usually posted at freeway off-ramps for directions to the set. They never speak once the cameras roll, their names never appear in the credits and they get paid as little as $46 for eight hours' work.

Their Hollywood isn't the glamorous Hollywood people imagine.

They are the extras, scrambling to make ends meet by playing the file clerks, homeless people, partygoers and other faces in the crowd that have made scenes look like real life since Hollywood began cranking out movies eight decades ago. An estimated 15,000 union members pulled in $63.3 million last year from extra work. Tens of thousands of nonunion members - who supply the bulk of bodies when hundreds or thousands are required - no doubt made even more money.

Burbank's legendary Central Casting is the dominant player in the extras business, a Goliath to dozens of small, specialized agencies in the field. But serious competition emerged earlier this year when several industry veterans created General Casting in Burbank to compete head to head with Central as a full-service agency, an Avis to Central's Hertz.

General executives see a huge opportunity for themselves amid booming local production. ``Central probably always will be the largest, but the smaller ones can't handle 30 shows like we can,'' said Central executive casting director Robert Teitelbaum.

A few starry-eyed novices may remind themselves that John Wayne, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Wagner and Patty Duke all started as extras. But most are soberly realistic that they're just part of the scenery.

``I had a screen test in 1942, and I got the message that I wasn't going to be another Ann Sheridan,'' said Judy Woodbury, a veteran of hundreds of extra roles over the last five decades. ``I really can't complain about it. I'm making good, hard-earned money.''

Like many other actors, extras often work several other jobs like waitressing, data entry, phone solicitation and delivery, that can be ditched with the simple explanation of, I've got an acting job.

Extras, also known as ``background'' and ``atmosphere,'' work for the very un-starlike base rate of $90 for eight hours if they're members of the Screen Actors Guild and $46 if they're not.

On rare occasions, part of the Hollywood myth will come true. A director will give an extra a speaking part, meaning the actor has been ``upgraded'' and will receive the standard guild day-player salary of $576, plus residuals.

Not only is the upgrade artistically and financially satisfying, it also means the actor or actress is immediately eligible to apply to become one more of SAG's 90,000 members. Although the guild has a somewhat daunting initiation fee of $1,152 plus minimum annual dues of $42.50, new eligibles are often happy to pay because membership allows them to compete for a far better class of jobs.

Most of the time, though, the extras' prime desire is that the day's schedule go beyond eight hours to time and a half, double time and then into ``golden time,'' which provides the day's base rate for each hour starting with the 16th hour.

That's why extras don't necessarily mind waking up at 4 a.m. ``I prefer a call time of 6 a.m. because then you get through the eight-hour base early in the afternoon and you start getting into at least time and a half on most shoots,'' said Howard Johnson, who has done such work for the last 15 years. ``By that time, you've made a nice piece of change.''

What's Johnson's secret to surviving 14-hour days without losing his mind from boredom?

``I'm a puzzle nut,'' he said. ``I buy overstocks, usually 40 or 50 at a time.''

Must be union

Union membership is required for the first 15 extras on a prime-time television show and the first 40 on a feature. Stand-in work - which means doing little more than standing in one spot, sometimes for hours at a time, so that cameras and lighting can be adjusted - is probably the most desirable not only because the higher base rate of $115 per day but also because the work can last for months or even years.

``I love my job, and I'm very grateful,'' said Lonna Montrose, who has done stand-in work for Lacy Chabert, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Bette Midler and Dolly Parton. ``It's a lot of fun and not much responsibility, because I get to dress up and I don't have to memorize lines at night.''

Casting directors say finding the right people is tricky. And the life of an extra is far from glamorous. Most spend a lot of time on the telephone to snag work for the next day or pay a service to do it for them; they often have to bring several changes of clothes to a set; and they often spend much of the day and night cooped up in holding areas near the set.

Extras can cause major headaches on the set if they make the wrong move or start whining about not having their own hairstylist.

``I like to look people in the eye so I know that they'll show up on time and not cause any problems,'' Teitelbaum said. ``If they make problems, we hear about it right away, and we don't ever hire them again.''

That's why agencies tend to send out the same people over and over.

``With extras casting, you just want someone who's intelligent enough to show up, bring the right amount of clothes and be set-wise,'' said veteran casting director Michael Heitt.

``Production coordinators don't want a hard time because it's very hard keeping things organized, so you're looking for people who have great attitudes. If it's drudgery for them, it's going to be drudgery for everyone around them.''

Thousands seek work

With thousands of extras seeking work every day, assistant directors can afford to be picky. ``A typical call might be for six stand-ins, five police officers, three hookers, five criminals and two bailiffs, but we have to be careful because the assistant director may then complain that they don't want to use the same old faces,'' Teitelbaum said.

It's a subtle skill to blend the right ages, body types and ethnicities. ``The key to doing this is you need to make the details look real so that the background doesn't take away attention from the foreground,'' Teitelbaum added. ``We tell them that extras do the walking and actors do the talking.''

The agencies make their money, typically, by charging production companies an 8 percent cut for union members and 10 percent for nonunion. Veterans say that fly-by-night scammers will occasionally open an office for a few weeks, pocket the pay and disappear.

``In this kind of business, there are people who prey upon those who have a big desire to succeed,'' said Gavin Troster, SAG's executive administrator of production services.

Within the world of extras, the most lucrative gig is for commercials at a rate of $259.20 for eight hours, along with residuals that can go into tens of thousands of dollars.

``The catch is that there's not much commercial work available,'' said Carl Joy, senior vice president at Central Casting in Burbank.

More typically, extras pick up more money for being asked to show up with additional clothing or props. A police uniform or formal wear equals $18 more on the paycheck; showing up on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle pays another $100; bringing a pet is worth $23 more; and a tennis racket adds $5.50.

Nonunion extras usually receive slightly less, and making the move into union work is capricious. The most typical route is to fill in for a SAG member three times, then pay the SAG initiation fee within 30 days.

No rocket to stardom

Despite constant admonitions that going the extra route is no way to stardom, it's inevitable that extras will believe they're the exception to the rule.

``When I worked as an extra on `Ned & Stacey,' we were at this muffin cafe on the Sony lot all day, and I felt badly for these girls who were freezing because they were wearing low-cut dresses because they wanted to be noticed,'' said Robin Roberts, a North Hollywood screenwriter. ``Sometimes you get to eat great food, but no one's going to discover you when you're an extra.''

Much of the extra work originates at an anonymous, two-story office building on Burbank Boulevard at Central Casting headquarters, several miles east of the Walt Disney and Warner Bros. studios.

Central specializes in union members and is on the second floor; Cenex is for the nonunion people and is on the first floor. Both companies are owned by Entertainment Partners, which also operates a major payroll service company for studios and producers.

Occasionally, agencies like Central, Cenex and General Casting will have to supply thousands of extras for a single show. Observers agree that the most massive calls in recent memory - each needing about 10,000 bodies - were for 1979's ``The Rose'' for concert scenes at Long Beach Municipal Auditorium and 1996's ``The Fan'' for crowd scenes at Anaheim Stadium.

To keep up with demand, Central operates one of Hollywood's longest-running rituals. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, dozens of extras drop by for ``visiting'' - a chance to meet briefly with the 15 casting directors, to drop off photos and remind them of the looks they can do. ``Upscale business'' is the most prevalent look, while ``formal,'' ``casual,'' ``homeless'' and ``freak'' are also popular.

``We have about 15,000 performers registered, but we never know how many we actually have because when they leave, they don't tell us,'' Joy said. ``That's especially true with the nonunion people, so we really have to stock up almost as a defensive exercise. We also go through people quickly in categories like beautiful women and handsome guys.''

Now, with the explosion of cable networks and movie multiplexes, production levels are at all-time highs, and the siren call of Hollywood is louder than ever.

``The big difference nowadays is that you don't get to know extras like you used to, when they were all cataloged in my head,'' Joy said. ``The group that did the work used to be significantly smaller and more stable, and it was easier to make a living at it. We used to get perhaps 10 new people in here each month; now we get several hundred in a week.''

EXTRA DO'S AND DON'TS

Here are some key work tips given to extras on Hollywood sets:

Never use a stage name on official documents.

Never lie about your wardrobe in order to get a job.

Remember to allow the cast and crew to eat first.

If you are not working in a shot, please try to stay out of an actor's line of sight during rehearsals or shooting.

Unless directed, never look directly into a camera.

Do not take photographs or ask for autographs.

Do not bring friends or pets to the set.

Never enter a set when the red light is on.

Take your work seriously. Your job and future jobs will depend on it.

In order to be hired, you have to be easy to contact. The following can help: a pager, an answering machine, a cellular phone, spare change for pay phones.

Be sure to let casting offices know about all the random clothes and talents you may have.

Three-by-5-inch snapshots taken against a plain white background showing your various ``looks'' and given to casting directors will get you a lot further than words.

Consider hairpieces such as wigs when diversifying your look.

Eyeglasses are another tool you can use to transform yourself.

SOURCES: General Casting, ``Extra Work for Brain Surgeons'' by Hollywood Operating System

EXTRA LINGO

Like every other trade, the world of extras has its own language. Some key terms:

A.D. - Assistant director and boss of the extras. Typical sets usually have several A.D.s.

Adjustments - Additions to the base salary. Given for performances above and beyond the usual, such as running through smoke.

Atmosphere - A term for extras that was widely used in the early 1990s but has fallen out of favor.

Background - The current preferred term for extras.

Background action - The signal for extras to start their directed action.

Craft services - Food for union cast and crew.

Cut - Director's command to stop the action.

Extras holding - The room set aside for extras when they are not on the set.

First team - The actors, also known as the principals.

Golden time - The 16th hour of work and beyond for an extra. Pay per hour equals the eight-hour base rate.

Hit the mark - Go to a predetermined spot on the set during a shot.

Honest five - Five minutes, or 300 seconds. When extras are told the break will be ``an honest five,'' it means that the period will be exactly five minutes, with hell to pay for anyone who is late.

Honeywagon - The restroom and changing rooms.

Hot set - A location where shooting is under way.

Martini - The final shot of the day.

Roll camera, rolling, rolling sound - Instructions to the camera and sound crews to start their equipment.

Second team - Stand-ins, who work on the lighting and camera blocking.

Sidelining - Extra work in which performers simulate playing musical instruments.

SOURCES: General Casting, ``Extra Work for Brain Surgeons'' by Hollywood Operating System and interviews with extras

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos, 2 Boxes

Photo: (1--Color) Extras line up at Central Casting in Burbank to work and be seen by casting directors, in hopes of becoming more than a face in the crowd.

(2--Color) Head shots can help extras get noticed by casting directors.

David Sprague/Daily News

Box: (1) EXTRA DO'S AND DON'TS (See Text)

(2) EXTRA LINGO (See Text)
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 31, 1998
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