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Extra! Extra! Life As a Movie Extra in New Mexico

As I left the house, I glanced at the outdoor thermometer. It read five below. Thankfully the car started. Once on the road, as I approached my¬† 123movie destination, in the still-morning darkness, I turned off the main road and followed the line of red tail lights up the hill’s dirt track toward the well-lit tents above. Through the frozen tundra, I walk from the car to the first tent, greeted by warm smiles and friendly exchanges as I checked in, thankful that the changing room was amply heated.

After six prior workdays, the changeover from civilian to period western clothes was old hat now; long johns first, quickly adding shirt, pants, each with numerous buttons, suspenders, boots, jacket, work gloves and hat, all the while chatting with my fellow comrades. Next, stand in line to get grubby, as hair and makeup girls dirty you up. I look in the mirror, wondering who that desperado is that’s staring back at me.
Finished, I throw my civilian jacket over wardrobe, and walk back outside into the frigid air, trying not to slip on snow, ice and cables as I slowly venture toward the dining tent for some quick breakfast and necessary hot coffee. People are mostly subdued inside, something to do with the numbing cold.

A heavily jacketed girl with a headset steps into the tent and yells to us “The van is here!” Begrudgingly we step back out into the cold, slide into the vans and travel toward the western town that’s just beginning to emerge in the dawning light. Crawl out of the van. If the temperature rises above freezing, the snow we’re trekking through will become a muddy mess later. Somebody yells “I see Props” and we go and outfit ourselves with our guns and holsters. More salutations from bundled crew members as you stroll toward the holding facility hoping for one last cup of coffee which of course is not brewed yet. Too late anyway, you’re needed for the first shot of the day. It’s time to play make-believe. You find solace thinking at least Russell Crowe and Christian Bale look cold as well.

You glance around at your surroundings and say. “Hey, here I am, standing in the middle of a Hollywood movie, ready to play a gunman in an Old West town.” There’s only one person I know who would be silly enough to put up with these conditions for so little pay…I MUST BE A MOVIE EXTRA (or background artist as we in the business prefer to be called). Forget about my close-up shot, I thought. Just place me in the warmth of the sun!

And so begins another day as a movie extra on a movie production set. Usually the weather conditions aren’t so extreme as this particular New Mexico January day was on the set of “3:10 To Yuma”, but when they are…well, that just adds to the story.

Given these conditions, why would one want to be an Extra? Is it for the money…hardly, although for many it is a paying job which people are finding harder to come by these days. Is it for the chance to see your face on the silver screen, if only for a second? There’s the carrot on a stick enticement, the possibility of getting a speaking part, which immediately catapults you to a higher pay scale, and a cooler pair of shades. The rumor whisperers proclaim, “You know so-and-so big name actor started his career as an extra”.

How about the opportunity for a departure from the everyday routine, playing a character that’s quite different from your normal self?

Other reasons could be the social benefit the extended family bond offers that develops among fellow extras who have worked together on previous movie productions; the ability to observe moviemaking firsthand; and the ego boost you feel when you receive a friendly nod or salutation from a major movie star. And yes, there’s also a reasonable paycheck and complimentary food.

For me, it’s all these reasons, and most assuredly for the stories.

In recent years, Hollywood has arrived with a vengeance in New Mexico, a state with a moviemaking history as long as the industry itself. When I first moved here in ’94 several movie and TV productions were ongoing. A lady friend of mine told me about a casting call. I stood in line in the hotel lobby until someone in casting took my Polaroid and asked if I was available in two weeks. One surprise phone call later, I was trying on my new western wardrobe for the TV mini-series “Buffalo Girls”. I’ve been mostly available ever since.

Movie activity quickly lapsed into a lull during the late 90s; however, new tax incentives for the film industry (and our much cheaper labor force) created a resurgence in moviemaking within the past five years.
Today, while the tediously long casting call lines and Polaroid headshots have given way to new methods like Internet announcements, digital pictures and e-mailed resumes, life as an extra has remained relatively the same. One moment hasn’t changed; the way you feel after a long twelve-hour workday, having worked since before dawn to sunset; you’re cold and tired, standing in line in the dark waiting to return your wardrobe so you can check out and go home…all at once exhausted and gratified.

If you’re looking to pursue background extra work as a full-time profession, my advice would be best to keep your day job. A flexible work schedule (unemployed being the best) is a prerequisite for working as an extra. The nature of the business is to be ready to work at a moment’s notice which is near impossible if you work a regularly scheduled job.

It’s no wonder Hollywood enjoys working with us New Mexicans, and many production people will gladly state this fact. The majority of extras I’ve worked with are a very courteous, amiable, uncomplaining, cooperative, tolerant lot, far different we’re told from our “big city” cousins back in LA. Of course, even within this fine group of New Mexico extras there are always those exceptions, the annoying standouts: The Braggart, whose alleged credentials are easily challenged; the Movie Star Wannabee Schmoozer who is desperate for the big chance, willing to cling and cajole anyone who they think will help move them up the stardom ladder; and of course, every large group has at least one chronic complainer. Fortunately, these individuals get weeded out pretty fast.

I appreciate the eclectic, independent, iconoclastic type individuals who often gravitate to this flexible creative line of work: the creative, independent individuals (artisans, rock band roadies, jack of all trades); the worldly iconoclasts (hippies, travelers, philosophers); the hard-working, generous blue-collar souls who love the chance to act out different roles in the movies; the future film makers; the unemployed; the curious; those looking for a loving, caring family; musicians between gigs; ex-veteran pensioners; those people who come from unhappy homes and financial situations looking for escapism and happiness; the real cowboys; those pursuing film production careers; the good souls whose honesty and general kindness has hurt them in the cruel, real world of business; and those individuals stepping out of their habitual routines.

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