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Location, Location, Location

As Film Extras, They Travel Hundreds of Miles for the Remote Chance to Play Nameless Faces in a Crowd. It's Not for the Pay.

June 27, 2004|Brenda Arechiga | Brenda Arechiga is a freelance writer and screenwriter in Los Angeles.

"You don't get many shots like 'The Patriot,' " he says, referring to the regular work provided by a long shooting schedule and his easy 40-minute commute to the filming. "The Cinderella stories just don't happen enough."

Gould commonly drives 12 hours or more to casting calls for jobs that might last a week at the most. He lost money on a 14-hour drive to Savannah, Ga., on a casting call for "The Fugitive" TV series when he didn't get the gig. He was devastated when Miramax's adaptation of Charles Frazier's best-selling Civil War epic "Cold Mountain," which promised to bring about six months of work to the South, went overseas to shoot in Romania. The loss of "Cold Mountain" was doubly frustrating when work on "The Alamo" didn't materialize because casting focused primarily on Latinos and Native Americans.

Unlike hard-core extras who spend half the year traveling from casting calls to movie sets, Gould is not willing to sacrifice too much to see himself onscreen. "If I can't pay the bills, I gotta do something else," says Gould, who has earned more money lately as a $20-an-hour carpenter than as an extra. When pressed, he concedes that he would like to be a movie star along the lines of a Bill Paxton. "Big, but not too big," he says.

It would be easy to attribute such devotion to an ailing economy or the explosion of celebrity worship, but in fact the trend dates back to Hollywood's silent film era. In the early 1900s, Americans began migrating to California, many of them leaving workaday jobs for careers in the more glamorous entertainment industry. When studios began shooting pictures outside of Los Angeles in more natural settings, location casting was born. Before long, residents of rural areas discovered they could make money by doing something new and exciting alongside fascinating movie stars.

Today, with Screen Actors Guild rules and an abundance of professional extras, location casting is primarily done in the 22 Right-to-Work states, where the guild doesn't have jurisdiction. In California, New York, Nevada, Hawaii and other states where SAG rules apply, the union makes deals requiring productions to hire a specific number of union extras before allowing them to hire non-union extras.

"But it's not a question of union versus non-union," says Taylor Hackford, director of films including "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Proof of Life" and "Devil's Advocate." "Location extras are crucial to creating the feeling of a film."

With more studios taking their productions to Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and New Zealand, though, the number of big-budget studio films shooting in the U.S. has diminished. Now most location extras work just a few days every couple of months.

Between jobs, Kevin King, 37, of Charlotte, N.C., sells knickknacks and collectibles on EBay that he has culled from the shelves of the local Goodwill. Tonya White supplements her income by grappling in the Southeastern Professional Wrestling Federation. Just two matches a month earns her about $750, and she can still be available for casting calls.

Even with the odds against them, the almost hypnotic lure of Hollywood's bright lights is too strong to resist, and they remain committed to their peripatetic lifestyle.

Shannon DeAntonio, an associate casting director with Fincannon and Associates, a North Carolina-based locations casting company that has staffed more than 300 feature films, thinks most lifetime extras, especially a subpopulation of World War II veterans, do it for the friendship and sense of community. "You get to know people. You become part of their lives," she says.

Marty Keener Cherrix, who did extras casting on the Sandra Bullock feel-good film "28 Days," and on "Hannibal," the Ridley Scott-directed sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs," is convinced a large percentage of location extras, many of whom live at the poverty level, turn out just for the hearty catered meals served during the shoot.

But Tona Dahlquist, a 15-year veteran of location casting, is not so sure. Specializing in casting big movies in small towns, she has come to believe these average Americans show up for the validation that working with movie stars gives them. In 1991, Dahlquist watched as one of her extras on Disney's "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken" collapsed from kidney stones in between takes. The male extra, who had been directed to stand next to the film's teenage star, Gabrielle Anwar, had been silently suffering from the pain all day. Rather than lose his place next to Anwar, he finally blacked out and had to be removed by paramedics.

Dahlquist shrewdly capitalizes on this notion when advertising for extras. On "Forrest Gump," which was shot in Beauford, S.C., she wrote, "This is your chance" at the top of the press release, knowing it would draw out the starstruck residents of the tiny Southern town.

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