Extra, Extra

As I look for creative ways to fill my time (and pay my rent), I finally looked into a link a coworker had sent me once, for an agency called 4Star Casting. Based here in the city, they’re an extras and background casting agency that provides warm bodies for everything from emergency scenes in Chicago Med to crowd scenes for the latest movie to film in the Windy City.

You’ve got to jump through a few hoops, but generally speaking it was fairly easy to get on their roster as another name in a long list of names willing to be in the background. Once I’d signed up, I quickly saw a post calling for chic, business-like extras needed that very same night. An overnight shoot for Widows, Steve McQueen’s newest film, they were looking for people to mill about at a hotel bar where two actors were meeting for a drink.

I’d heard of Widows, not only because Chicago gets itself in an adorable tizzy when big productions come to town, but also because of that time Steve McQueen came to the Chicago Int’l Film Festival. He came to be honored at the Festival, but also – at least according to word on the street – to location scout for this very film shoot.

What does it mean to be an extra on a major film production? I’m not sure I could really tell you, but I can share what my one night giving it a go was like. It involves a makeup triumph, comical eavesdropping and, you know, witnessing an Oscar-winning director direct a few scenes.After I saw the call for extras on Facebook, I sent an email as requested, with a few identifying details (height/weight, zip code) and three photos of myself. Within an hour, I had a response back that I was booked for the shoot. I was to be an “upscale restaurant/bar patron” on a shoot starting at 8p.m. (that’d be my call time, in the lingo of the industry) and expected to last a full 8 hours. They asked women to come in full cocktail hair and makeup (they even sent example photos), in a nice outfit that adhered to a specific color palette, with a few additional options on the side.

Having no idea what I was doing or what to expect (I’ve been on film sets, just never as an extra!), I replied to the booking email saying as much. A lovely young woman named Alicia called me in reply and graciously explained what to expect (yes, I could bring a lunch, even a book to keep me busy; no, I wouldn’t get paid that night but via check a few weeks later). My initial questions answered, I confirmed with Alicia I’d like to be included in the night’s extras.

The final email offered even more detail, including where exactly to be at call time. In this case, we’d be checking in at the conference space at the Museum of Broadcast Communications on State Street, just north of the river. This would be our holding area before being called over to set, the bar/restaurant at the Langham Hotel across the street.

I showed up a bit before 8p, hair and makeup done and looking sharp in black slacks, a beige blouse and heels. I’d brought two cocktail dresses with me just in case, as well as a bottle of water, a snack bar and a book. Already there was a line of people leading up to what I assumed was a check-in table, so I joined it. When it was my turn, I gave my name and was checked in on their roster; it was as the line continued to grow behind me that I realized just how many fellow extras they’d booked for the night. All told, there were at least sixty people of diverse shapes, sizes, ages, skin tones and styles.

Upon check-in, I was handed a packet of paperwork – the crew kept referring to it as the “voucher.” And it was voucher-like, a pre-printed employment form with fields for all the pertinent information about me and about the shoot. Start time, meal time, extra expenses like costume fittings. Everything was noted. I dutifully filled out the tax forms (while sitting at a table designated for background actors, rather that those for crew), then made my way over to the wardrobe department for approval.

This was an odd scene, a sort of disorganized yet efficient flow of the costume designer and her team vetting every single extra in the room. They’d give you the once over from head to toe, brows furrowed in contemplation, and then either approve what you’d arrived in or ask you to change into something you brought or something they had on hand. I was asked to change into a cocktail dress I’d brought, which I only minded because of course they picked the least comfortable one. Though I did look good in it.

Apparently I got off fairly easily through this process. As I sat down to finalize my paperwork and wait for further instruction, I listened in on the conversations of fellow extras around me. One couple made no bones about their long and storied experiences as extras. (“I once stood next to Bryan Cranston in a scene,” the guy was sure to tell everyone. Um, ok. Good for you.) Another older gentleman at the table was not shy at all about griping about every little thing. He was aghast that wardrobe asked him to change his tie, frustrated at the point of it and by extra half hour this would add to his check-out at the end of the night when he’d have to return the tie to the department.

I suppose this is inconvenient, but I couldn’t help but giggle under my breath. No one had required he be there for the night. No one had contractually obligated him or otherwise demanded his presence. He’d signed up just like all the rest of us, and based on his stories about other shoots he’d participated in, he wasn’t new to the scene. You’re getting paid a decent hourly rate, being fed a hearty catered meal and basically waiting to be told where to sit for a few hours. Calm. Down.

But I digress. By now it’s about 9:15p.m.; my paperwork was complete and my outfit had been approved. I sat down to wait for whatever was next when a woman made the rounds through the tables and asked if I’d checked in with hair and makeup. Nope, I sure hadn’t! She ushered me over to the other side of the room where these departments were set up and got to work freshening up my curled hair. We chatted a bit, mostly about the Empire hiatus and when they picked up filming again (early July, I learned).

When she was done, she pointed me a few chairs down to the makeup team. I again presented myself and this time the woman scrutinized my face. And yes, that’s as unsettling as it sounds. A credit to my days working for a very successful Mary Kay saleswoman, she was pleased with my makeup and just added a shade of blush to my cheeks. Success!

Now entirely approved, I hadn’t been sitting down again long when one of the crew announced we were welcome to take part in the catering buffet along the wall, now that the crew had enjoyed their meal break. A credit to the caliber of film shoot I’d stumbled into, the buffet was wonderful. Southern BBQ with all the fixins, an impressive salad bar and a whole table of desserts! I filled a plate; if they’re gonna offer it, who am I to be shy about enjoying it?

After eating, things started to pick up. It was about 10:30p.m. when the crew started corralling us towards the elevators, making our way towards the set. Before we were transferred over, they had us line up around the room for one last look at the group as a whole, and one of the costume assistants snapped group photos to document our looks. That bit of housekeeping done, I piled onto the next elevator and followed my fellow extras across the street to the hotel.

The sixty of us milled about in the lobby as the crew did their work, evaluating us and vetting their options. They had a set to fill, and seemed to have the authority to fill it as best they saw fit. About a dozen of us were selected and walked over to the restaurant portion of the space; I was seated with a nice older man (not the tie-complaining-guy) at a booth along one aisle of the room.

From where we were, I couldn’t see any cameras, just some lighting rigs in the bar at the other end of the space. But I heard the crew mention that the portion of the restaurant where we’d been seated would appear in the shot, so one of the PAs took to orchestrating some innocuous action for us to take…in the background. My cohort and I just needed to sip our drinks and read the menus, but others had jobs like getting up to leave, walking in on their cell phone and hailing the waiter to place an order. Important stuff, obvs.

I sat at that booth until midnight or so, slowly sipping water and folding/unfolding my napkin for take after take. We couldn’t tell what was going on exactly, but everyone on a set knows when the director calls action. They changed set-ups at some point, because for a few takes I could actually see the camera from where I sat. On the next scene change, the team released those of us in the restaurant; we returned to the lobby to await further instruction. As we returned to the lobby, I was startled to see that the other half of our ranks were still sitting there waiting for an assignment (including tie-guy. Bet he was pissed.). Instantly, I was grateful to at least have had water to sip for those long two hours.

I had a quick moment to dash to the ladies room, so I took advantage. On the way there, I passed an absolute amazon of a woman, well over six feet tall and maybe 100lbs soaking wet, walking back towards the set. A platinum blonde, she was in a shimmering gold bandage dress and heels, and she was accompanied by someone asking her if she’d like some tea. Clearly, this was someone important, but having not seen the actual action of the scene, it wasn’t until later that I realized it was Elizabeth Debicki.

Back in the lobby, I was next selected to switch locations and sit at a low table at the back of the bar, opposite where the actual scene was taking place. My scene-mate and I were given glasses of red grape juice and made silent conversation while Debicki entered the shot to meet Lukas Haas for a drink (at one point, he orders her a vodka on the rocks). Widows is the story of the wives of criminals who take over a heist when their husbands die trying; I have no idea about the plot beyond that, so I can’t really say where this scene fits. But they shot it at least half a dozen times.

Next, I was moved to another bar table with two different extras as Debicki and Haas exchanged lines facing one of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the bar. As they discussed the city (I heard a bit about the Jeweler’s Building), we fake-toasted and chitchatted, ready for this last set-up of the night to be done. By now it was well after 2a.m., and McQueen had every intention of getting in one more shot before he’d have to start paying us all time-and-a-half. Sure enough, he called a wrap on the day at just about 2:45a.m.

I’d been on the set for about five hours, and spent it both chatting with my fellow background actors and observing every little detail I could. I noticed a bit of choreography in the parking deck across the street from the hotel; on every call for action, a car across the way pulled out of its spot and started to make its way down. Clearly not an accident. I watched the cinematographer and his team reload the camera with actual film (swoon!)And I was all ears as I watched McQueen emerge from behind his monitor to guide Debicki and Haas through their scene. Don’t sell that line quite so much. Take a half step toward him at this point. (Double swoon!)

Once we were wrapped, it was a simple exit process for me, considering I hadn’t borrowed any wardrobe pieces or anything. I signed out with the crew, took my copy of my work voucher and hailed an Uber; I was exhilarated but also exhausted, so I opted not to take the train home at that time of night. Or morning, as it were.

Overall, the experience was a blast. It was boring and long and exhausting (sitting around is hard work!), but it was also entirely captivating for a film nerd like me. I’ve stayed on the agency’s roster, and keep an eye out for their posts. If a call for extras comes around that I fit the bill for, I’d sign up again. It’s a decent hourly rate and an interesting way to spend a workday. And it makes for a great story on my walking tours!