Kim Nelson: My Brief Career as a Movie Extra

One great aspect about living in a city like Chicago is that there’s always exciting things happening here, and that includes the filming of major motion pictures. This opens up opportunities for locals to work as as movie extras, or as they say on the tax forms, ‘background artists.’

My sporadic work experience as as a professional piece of scenery began in college when I spotted an open call for extras for a movie being shot locally called High Fidelity. I was studying theater and film, so the ad grabbed my attention. Extra work sounded like the perfect way to get a sneak peek behind the scenes on a film set. I sent in a photo along with a list of requested stats (age, height, weight, hair color, eye color, ethnicity), and was pleasantly surprised when I received a phone call from a production assistant letting me know that I was hired for a scene being filmed in Rogers Park.

It was a night shoot, so I arrived at the address given to me over the phone by a production assistant at 7 p.m. with a duffel bag full of clothing options, not knowing what to expect. I was shuffled through wardrobe where a P.A. picked out an outfit in muted colors for blending into the background. I spent the entire night on the outdoor set, huddling in cold drizzling rain in between takes where I’d walk down a sidewalk with another college-aged girl, soundlessly mouthing a fake conversation so as not to distract from John Cusack delivering a monologue into the camera. The production crew hammered into us the cardinal rule of extra work: be quiet and don’t talk to the actors, director, or pretty much anyone unless spoken to first. While I made myself some hot cocoa at a craft services truck, the director Stephen Frears walked by and gave me a grandfatherly smile and my inner film geek freaked out. We worked until the first rays of the sun began to lighten the sky. It was a long, wet, exhausting, and often tedious evening, devoid of glamour. I was fascinated to see what the actual filming process, and how unfinished everything looks in person before things are edited, framed, and set with a musical score.

When the movie eventually came out, I went to see it in the theater, anxiously searching for myself. My scene came and went; what took 8 hours of filming resulted in about 30 seconds of actual screen time, zero with me in it. I learned the stinging phrase “left on the cutting room floor.” On the upside, I had a fun experience, made some (minimum wage) money, and better set my expectations for my next shot at background work, which would come a few years later.

I saw another ad in the Chicago Tribune, this time seeking extras for Ocean’s Eleven. After applying, I was selected for a day of filming in the dead of January; my call time was 3 a.m. I spent 9 hours on a Saturday riding a Brown Line train. This was entirely fine with me because I was sharing the train car with roughly 20 other extras, George Clooney, and Matt Damon. The train would circle the Loop, then stop at a platform where George Clooney would board for the shot, then get off again for the next take. It was about 12 degrees outside, and at one point he jokingly begged the director, Steven Soderbergh, if he could stay onboard the warm train car with us, which made everyone cheer. His request was denied and he shuffled back outside in his black peacoat. When the movie came out, I looked for myself in the train scene but no dice; my cinematic career was 0-2.

Years went by before my next extra stint, but the wait was worth it. The movie was The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins highly anticipated by nerds like me everywhere. People often compare extra work to jury duty because both involve sitting around in a big room for hours on end and not knowing if you’ll ever be called up. On The Dark Knight, this metaphor rang especially true as I played a juror in the film. 12 of us extras were seated in the jury box in a courtroom at Daly Plaza, the Illinois state seals and Chicago flags swapped out with the seal of Gotham City. Again, I most excited to see a director who I admired; Christopher Nolan seemed very nice and serious and English and proper and wore a tweed vest on set. It took two days to shoot the scene, and by the end of the weekend, I had heard the few minutes of dialogue repeated so many times, while shot from every imaginable angle, that I had memorized the pages of script and was slapping myself to stay awake. The courtroom scene takes place near the beginning of the movie, and finally, you can see me on camera. I share a shot with Eric Roberts; he’s in the foreground while I’m a blurry brown blob in the back. Before you can say “one-Mississippi” the frame is over, but I was visible just long enough for my old boss to approach me at work and ask me “This is a crazy question, but is that you in that new Batman movie?” Behold my background artistry!

My most recent experience was on Divergent, a movie based on a popular Young Adult book trilogy. Between the young cast and crew of extras (the main characters in the book are teenagers), I was the old lady on set at 35. I was called in for a wardrobe fitting, and for the first time, I wouldn’t be wearing my own clothes. The movie takes place in a dystopian future version of Chicago, so the crew dressed me in the clothes of my ‘faction’ in the movie, Dauntless: black moto pants, leather boots, a dark purple tank, and black leather jacket. All perfect attire for Chicago in July, when the temperature and humidity climb towards their peak. I spent three very sweaty days on the Divergent set, mostly shooting a scene with 300 other extras in which the lead of the movie, Tris, sees her fellow Dauntless members getting injected with a dangerous serum. By random luck, I had been selected as one of the technicians injecting the kids, so a prop master came over to show me how to use the fake syringe. One of the other technicians kept fumbling with his prop, so he was ‘cut’ and sent into the line with the other extras, basically off-camera purgatory. I was doing well with the syringe, so the director, Neil Burger, waved over the camera guys to focus on me. My heart sped up in my chest as I saw the camera in my periphery. Over the camera man’s shoulder, Neil Burger started giving me direction for my character: “You don’t care about these kids. To you, they’re like cattle in line for slaughter.” I could hardly believe it; I was being asked to do actual acting! (in my head, always pronounced in Jon Lovitz-as-Master-Thespian’s voice). I shifted my expression to reflect boredom, disinterest, img_3491and disgust as I fake-plunged a non-existent needle into each extra’s neck with my prop plunger. Satisfied that he got the shot, he waved the camera operator over to the next setup. This all happened before 10 a.m. For the rest of the day (until almost 8 p.m. when the director called a wrap), I was on my feet in tight boots and a too-small jacket that left bruises in my armpits, my lower back aching and longing for a break.

For the 8 months between filming and the release of the movie, I tried not to get my hopes up. I knew all too well how you can never predict which shots will get chosen for the final cut. The director could have decided during dailies that he didn’t like the lighting and reshot the scene the next day with a brand new extra. When the movie opened, I went to the movie theater with my friends who were fans of the book. Near the beginning of the third act, my scene came up. My closeup was used! For three seconds, I am the focus of the scene as I inject an unknowing Dauntless in the neck, looking mean and evil. I didn’t get anything special: no padded paycheck, no name in the credits. However, I became much cooler in the eyes of every middle schooler I know (at least until they moved on to the next popular teen trilogy).

After Divergent, I decided that I was retired from background acting. The experience on that movie would be difficult to repeat so I am hanging up my headshot at the peak of my game, Peyton-Manning-style. But I would recommend extra work to anyone interested in learning more about filmmaking and acting. A few pieces of advice: Search for agencies in your town that specialize in hiring movie extras, and keep an eye on your city website and local paper for local productions. If you are selected, show up on time and follow all of the directions given to you. On set, keep quiet, stay focused, and be mentally prepared for a very long day. And most importantly, ask the wardrobe assistant if you can wear the most comfortable pair of shoes.

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4 Comments

  1. Although I was never an extra, I saw many movies and TV shows being filmed when I lived and worked in Chicago in the late 80s through the 90s. Among my favorites were Ferris Buehler and an episode of Knight Rider! haha! Lots of fun!

    1. I love walking around downtown and coming across a movie or TV set. One summer, a Transformers movie was being filmed outside my office building and we would watch action scenes through the window during our lunch breaks.

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