If you’ve missed appearing in front of the camera, hopefully this year will provide more opportunities to get on set. After all, if there’s one thing you learn working as a supporting artist (SA) or extra, it’s to be prepared for some strange and varied working conditions – whether you’re drenched in fake blood and latex scars playing a zombie in a zom-com or a wand-waving fairy in a fantasy short.
Some shoots are quite normal, such as corporate shoots which require you to wear your real life office clothing, when you wear suits, walk around looking official with a laptop and mime answering your non-ringing phone. Other shoots are lovably crazy, and you’ll find yourself in your fanciest outfit portraying art gallery guests, or playing wedding guests standing in castles for Bollywoods.
You may be asked to dress up in 1970s bellbottoms and Cuban heels in school gyms standing in for American classrooms (hopefully your parents don’t mind you raiding their mothballed wardrobes). If you have any outfits, that helps playing a scary cop in a silent comedy, a mad scientist in a med lab, or a horror nurse in a deserted hospital.
I’ve vamped it up playing a vampire’s girlfriend in white feather boa and silver glittery shoes, playing a good time girl propping up the bar at the bloodsuckers’ fancydress ball, while exotic dancers and gangsters plotted evil around me. I’ve been a rioter in a mocked up version of 10 Downing St in a thriller and a protester in a dystopian future in central London in a thriller.
Or you could play members of a masked, glamorous glitterati who like to get together illegally in an underground club to “drink”, pretend to do a few lines, and bet on bareknuckle cagefight death matches…. If only real life was this interesting!
There are many advantages to working as an SA. It’s always interesting hearing some great horror stories, networking, swap details for someone who’s looking for one of your other jobs, and of course there’s always great food in Bollywoods.
There are of course downsides to being an SA. You’ll work in some tough physical conditions, both hot and cold. You may find yourself shivering in January in an unheated church in front of an empty casket, crying artistic “tears” of rose water over a fictitious gangster’s untimely death. During summer, you might be picked to sit in London’s Oval cricket ground in blazing hot sunshine, cheering on an imaginary cricket match in midday, until your fellow extras start passing out from heatstroke.
SAs are expected to put up cheerfully with early starts and late finishes in the day’s work. Your day’s work may include getting a bus at 0630 to be driven to a castle in Kent, get changed behind a tent or in a portaloo, having your hair dyed grey by the MUA to make yourself look older, and standing in the blazing hot sun drinking warm lemonade (standing in for champagne). Twelve hours later, you’ll get driven back to London, to jump on a night bus and grab a few hours’ sleep before starting your day job – before realising your hair is still steel grey and your co-workers are trying not to stare! It’s all part of the fun.
Another drawback is that you may find delays in pay which you’ll have to chase, the role is often for love rather than money, and you are quite likely to end up in cutting room floor.
One of my favourites sets is being a party extra. You’ll find yourself in finery, dancing to non-existent music, and enthusiastically toasting other extras with more warm lemonade. And there is always the possibility that in haste to provide more prop drinks, someone will accidentally open one of the prop bottles to provide this…and inadvertently open a genuine bottle of champagne. Then you’ll be required to drink soup-warm Bollinger without blinking an eye. Not that any of us were complaining!
So keep those outfits ready for when filming conditions are made easier, and stand by for the director’s “action”.