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Being an Extra, Extra! Read All About Life as Living Backdrop


Scene I:

Exterior. A bustling street in "Los Angeles." Midday.

All eyes follow actor John Travolta as he strides across Main Street in downtown Ventura. The character he plays is in the process of stealing $6 billion from the fictional Worldbanc.

For the star of such action thrillers as "Broken Arrow" and "Face/Off," it's just another day on the job.

Over Travolta's shoulder and all around him, SWAT team members train their sights on him. Reporters angle for better position. Pedestrians gather to see what's going on.

Days earlier, some of these cinematic characters were Ventura County residents minding their own business when a casting director decided they had the right look. And if all goes well, when the Warner Bros. film "Swordfish" hits movie theaters next June, no one will notice them.

People go to the movies to see big stars like Travolta or his co-star, Halle Berry, not "paramedic No. 2." But movie extras--the people crossing the street, buying a magazine or cashing a check during a scene--make it all work.

Extras are the often-faceless people who provide a film's living backdrop. You're not really supposed to pay attention to them, but you'd notice if they weren't there.

In any other profession, such people would be regarded as obsessive-compulsives. For the duration of a shoot, they wear the same clothes day after day. They do the same thing over and over. They report to work at sunup and then sit around for hours. But this is Hollywood, or at least Ventura's version of it.

Most of these extras--the nonunion ones, that is--work for minimum wage and a catered lunch, plus the chance to say, "I worked with Travolta." Not a bad way to earn $5.75 an hour.

Scene II:

Interior. Nicholby's bar. All day.

Each of the 150 extras came to be a part of "Swordfish" through a different route. Some are professional actors, while others just fell into it.

"Half these people I hustled off the street," casting director Lisette St. Claire said.

Depending on who you ask, extras are either "professional background artists" or "props that you have to feed." Extras represent probably the lowest, most replaceable position on a movie's acting totem pole, but most of them accept that this is just another step on the long road to stardom.

Through a bit of luck--and possibly desperation on the part of the casting folks--I was even selected for the movie as--here's a stretch--a newspaper reporter.

On my first day, I arrived on the set at 9 a.m., ready to make a go of it as a thespian. I was going to work with the star of "Michael," "The General's Daughter" and "A Civil Action." I was going to make some movie magic.

Actually, I was going to wait around with everyone else.

Most people imagine life on a movie set as nonstop fun and revelry. Behind the scenes, some think the cast and crew must be downing caviar and champagne while making witty bon mots.

The reality is much less glamorous. Extras spend hours at Nicholby's, which sits at the heart of filming at Oak and Main streets. No alcohol or pool playing allowed. Some slept on the floor. Others played poker.

Rookie extras grew bored and impatient, but the veterans didn't seem to mind. This is all part of the job. Ventura native Eileen Trulock seemed at ease.

"I was here when they opened this club," said Trulock, who has worked other extra jobs, primarily for television. This movie shoot allowed her to come home for a visit.

"My folks live out here still," she said. "It made it really easy for me to take this job."

Dressed in a pink uniform as a waitress, Trulock paired up with first-timer Keli Bartlett, who normally spends her days loading and unloading container ships at the Port of Los Angeles.

James Schmitz taught sixth grade for five years in the Bay Area and moved to Ventura recently to write screenplays. Suddenly he found himself working with the fictional "KCGI" television news crew as a cameraman.

"It was completely fate," Schmitz said. "Hollywood came to me. . . . I'm going to observe and see what I think at the end of the process."

On the set, which is supposed to be in the Los Angeles business district, I am surrounded by other members of the cinematic media, folks who make their regular livings as track coaches, ATM servicers or massage therapists. It's that same "anybody-can-do-it attitude" about extras that can leave background actors marked as less talented than those who have speaking roles.

"It's a stigma," said actor Laura Gray. "I've been ready to quit, but I need health insurance."

New Jersey native Bobby Pappas plays one of a few dozen faceless members of the SWAT team. Sometimes background actors get stereotyped and have to fight the idea that "there's no way this person could be intellectual enough to have a line," Pappas said.

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