By lunchtime, a line has formed outside the heavy double doors of a school auditorium in Baton Rouge, La. Among those waiting is a teenage beauty queen accompanied by her parents; a woolly haired bohemian woman from Ohio; and a dozen people with their children in tow, hoping one of the little boys will be selected to play the young Ray Charles in the movie "Ray," whose makers have called this open casting call in search of extras for the film.
Near the front of the line, an ageless woman with flat shoulder-length hair and thick-frame glasses appeals to one of the volunteers. Her car broke down. She was stranded for hours. She needs to use the restroom.
Once inside, however, Susie Labry, 50, ushers herself into the holding area for the casting call, essentially jumping the line. "I expected to get in," she says with a mischievous grin.
A former secretary, Labry began her career as a location extra in a funeral scene for a 1977 TV' movie "The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish," starring Ed Asner, about the life of Huey Long. She earned $20 plus a hot meal for a day's worth of work. "That was good money back then," Labry says, "and we ate like kings and queens." These days, she thinks nothing of taking extended leaves from her $7-an-hour cashier job at Calandro's Super Market in downtown Baton Rouge to work as background on a film. Labry has been in the Dennis Quaid film "Everybody's All-American" and in "Blaze" with Paul Newman. She camped at a state park in Natchez, Miss., while working on Disney's remake of the classic "The Adventures of Huck Finn," and more recently she crashed on the couch of someone she met on the set of the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
When it comes time for one of the workers to take a Polaroid of Labry, she reaches deep into her purse and counts out the $2 fee in nickels, dimes and pennies. She stands up a little straighter and stares into the camera lens with a penetrating gaze and a politician's smile.
Considering that extras typically earn just $48 for an eight-hour day, and about $100 for 12 hours, most of these folks are just getting by. Though they can earn $3,000 to $4,000 on the average studio film, they need to be flexible because of weather and production schedules.
"Most people use their vacation days to go sit out in the sun, do nothing and bake," Labry says. "I use mine to follow my dream."
As it turns out, her bravado lands her two days of work. One day she plays a female legislator in a scene in the state Capitol. On another she's a face in the crowd as an actor playing then-Gov. Jimmie Davis honors the musician.
One film commissioner calls movie extras the wandering homeless. Another commissioner says extras live as if they're on permanent summer vacation. But to the location casting directors familiar with the mostly low-income die-hards crisscrossing the country in search of anonymous parts in movies, the tender and bittersweet experiences of these American gypsies are real life.
"They come in ramshackle cars tied together with rope," says Maxann Crotts, a North Carolina-based casting director. She has 6,000 names in her database, most of them people who will drop everything and drive all night to make a casting call the next day. In 1999, for instance, 4,000 people showed up in Idaho hoping to be one of 50 to 100 extras in the Bruce Willis film "Breakfast of Champions." Some drove from as far as Tennessee and Georgia, and offered to pay Crotts for a part in the film.
The distances pass quickly when feuled by dreams like those of location extras such as Tonya White of Rainbow City, Ala. Some days White sees herself being cast in a love scene with Brad Pitt (with lots of retakes). Other days it's being able to afford breast augmentation. Sometimes it's the chance to finally move away from the vinyl-sided house where she was raised and now is rearing her four children.
Occasionally, the dreams come true, at least for a while. Dale Gould, a 47-year-old former landscape gardener, had long been told he resembled Mel Gibson. So he answered a casting call for Gibson's 2000 film "The Patriot" at the urging of his wife, who hoped to meet the star. Gould drove from his home in South Carolina to an open casting call at the state's Winthrop College. He was lucky enough to be among the first to arrive. Within 45 minutes, a line numbering 6,000 men wrapped around the campus and as far down the road as Gould could see.
Gould's long chestnut brown hair and thick muscular build fit the look sought by location casting director Shirley Fulton Crumley. She chose him to play an American militiaman and sent him to boot camp to prepare for the 102-day shoot. Then came 12-hour shooting days, two-hour waits in wardrobe lines and uncomfortable period costumes that reeked of perspiration. But Gould says it was worth it to stand alongside Gibson in a muddy battlefield. And it made his wife and three children proud.