Andrew Morris explores a new career opportunity in retirement as a film extra.
‘Diner number 5. Can you please not actually drink the milkshake? Just put the straw to your lips, and pretend to sip it. Thank you’.
Diner number 5. That’s me. And I’m sitting in a booth in a traditional American diner, on location in London, just across the Thames from the iconic O2 dome.
Why? Because this is my first experience of being an Extra. Although I’m learning that the industry seems to call us Supporting Artists these days, rather than Extras. Or SAs. So here I am, an SA on the set of a movie with a mysterious codename. We’re sworn to secrecy but it seems to be about two young British-Pakistani runaway brides, and as it happens our diner scene is being shot on the very last day of a 3-month shoot.
I had started the day in a car park, in Billingsgate Fish Market in the shadow of Canary Wharf. I had checked in with the second Assistant Director, had a Covid test with the crew doctor, and been to the make-up and costume vans. And then I had sat around on the food bus, drinking coffee and getting to know the other SAs.
There is a lot of waiting around in this business. When we were finally transferred to the riverside shoot location, we spent hours in another holding building, which was crammed with technical kit and bustling with crew members exercising their individual skills. When our moment of fame finally came, we were escorted across the tarmac to the diner and given some brief instructions. Then it took a while for the sun to be at the right angle, for the two young stars to be ready and for all the crew to be in place. Finally, the Director called for quiet and the cameras rolled. Later, we went back to do another scene and from a total working day of 9 hours, I guess we were in the diner for an hour, with cameras rolling for just a few minutes.
But that’s ok. I’ve always been interested in films and the creative process in making them, and this gave me a brief insight into the magic behind what we ultimately see on screen. And for the rest of the time, it’s fascinating to hear what has brought the other SAs here, their own life stories and previous experiences in this alluring industry. Or you can spend the time reading, or listening to a podcast. Or planning your next Silver adventure.
And then there’s the eating. There seems to be a lot of eating in this business. We’re treated to some very decent hot food, cooked off-site and transported to the set. The crew are forever raiding another table, laden with snack bars, fruit and sandwiches. And at the end of a long day we benefit from celebratory cupcakes, as the whole crew slap each other on the back and celebratory speeches are made.
If, like me, you have some interest in film and TV production, being a Supporting Artist is a great way to do something different in later life, when you have more time at your disposal and want to enjoy new challenges. And you get paid. It might not pay for that 3 month retirement trip to Australia, but I was very happy with my earnings for my first day in the industry. The basic pay is at union rates, and you can expect to be paid around £100 for a full day. But I was surprised to receive extra amounts for holiday pay, the London location, overtime and even £20 for using some of my own clothes.
So far I’m looking at four websites/agencies for SA opportunities, but with the insatiable demand for new film and TV content, I’m sure there are many others. And there are also some interesting ads out there for people to be used on shoots for adverts, corporate videos and even music videos. I was hoping to be chosen this week for an advertisement being made at Heathrow Airport for a major airline, but unfortunately I wasn’t strapped in for that one.
That’s something else you should be aware of if this has piqued your interest in being a Supporting Artist. Whilst the process is definitely suited to anyone with a flexible schedule, you will nevertheless have to be very patient. Once you’ve signed up for one of the agencies or platforms (for which there is a set-up fee and a commission on your earnings) this is what will happen next:
- Availability check – if it looks like you might fit a role, someone will check your availability for those dates
- Pencilled – an industry term meaning that you’ve been matched with a role, and that you should make sure you’re completely free for all pre-production and filming dates
- Sent to production – once you’ve been pencilled, all your details will be sent to the production team. Make sure your profile is completely accurate and up to date!
- Booked – the production company want you. Hurrah! But you’ll probably only hear this the night before you’re needed on set
- Arrive on set for your moment of acting glory
But be ready for additional frustrations at any of these stages. I was booked for a gig, and was due to go for a pre-production Covid test but it was cancelled the night before. Still, I did receive 50% of what I would have been paid.
I hope this has given you a flavour of what it takes to be a Supporting Artist. And at my age, it’s given a whole new meaning to the cheesy term Extra Mature.
See you on set.
Here are the platforms I’m currently signed up to or aware of for SA roles:
Contributor: Andrew Morris