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Hollywood's Faces in the Crowd Working Harder for a Little Extra

May 05, 1996|JAMES BATES

Back in the days of such epics as "Spartacus" and "Ben-Hur," Hollywood studios would sell films by boasting that they featured a "cast of thousands."

These days it may only be a cast of hundreds, multiplied several times over using computer-generated graphics. Indeed, recent films such as "Braveheart" and "Forrest Gump" used computers to make crowds look a lot bigger than they were.

As if being a Hollywood extra wasn't tough enough, now you have your job replaced by a few keystrokes on a computer.

For those who do actually make it into the business, the pay is low and the work is infrequent.

"Extra work does not support people anymore. You used to be able to make a living at it," said casting director Jim Green of Central Casting, the best-known supplier of union extras to the industry.

And if you are one of the lucky few to get hired, bring a lengthy novel or two. The downtime can be excruciatingly long. One also has to be available on short notice, so it isn't the kind of job a person can do in their spare time.

"If you want to do extra work, it's terribly difficult to hold down a full-time job doing something else," said Joyce Matlock, who has worked as a stand-in for such actresses as Sandra Bullock. She works part time as a caterer.

Still, working as an extra is the way a lot of people dreaming of stardom get a taste of it. Screen Actors Guild officials estimate some 15,000 people try to work as extras in Hollywood. They range from aspiring actors to doctors, real estate agents and others who don't mind sitting around all day to be a face in the crowd or to crisscross in front of the camera.

"It ranges from the person who wants to get a foot in the industry to the person who just wants to see what's going on and how it all gets made," said Robert Todd, senior administrator in the production services department of the Screen Actors Guild.

Most get placed through casting offices that serve as clearinghouses. Green said the glut of extras has always been so large that the agency has never had to advertise for people. Some extras even retain services to call around to casting agencies to check on prospective jobs for them.

Extras in the past few years have been represented by the Screen Actors Guild, but rules are tight. Only the first 30 extras hired by producers per day on a film job are covered under SAG rules; the number is 15 for TV work. The remaining extras above that number work as nonunion.

Veteran extra Millie Wright, who serves on an extras committee at SAG, said it is especially tough on extras now because producers under guild rules don't have to hire as many union extras as they once did.

"It's very tough to be in the business now," she said. "It's tougher than ever."

To become a SAG member, one has to work three days in one of the coveted 30 slots (and get enough work, or have enough money put away, to afford the dues).

The lowest category is a "general extra," which carries with it pay of $72 a day (it rises to $79 as of July 1 and $86 next year). Nonunion extras get only $40 a day.

Then there is the "special ability extra," or someone with a special skill such as playing tennis, golf, dancing, swimming, driving livestock, driving a truck, riding a motorcycle or dealing cards. They earn an additional $10 a day, or $82 total, for having those skills.

A stand-in, or performer used as a substitute for another actor while lights and cameras are adjusted, gets $97 a day. Choreographed swimmers and skaters get the top rate of $244 a day.

Amenities that must be provided by producers under the SAG rules include bottled water and a chair.

If you get wet during your performance, add $14 to your pay. Working in smoke gets the additional $14 as well.

Extras get $18 more if they have to wear makeup over more than 50% of the body, a rubber skullcap, an artificial beard or facial hair. Bring your own hairpiece, and you are entitled to $18 more a day.

Extras get $23 more if they furnish their own pets when needed, $12 for supplying golf clubs and $5.50 extra per piece of luggage they bring. Supply your own moped, and you get $15 more.

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