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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.

"It's surreal at first," says Miles Powell, 35, a former drama student from Louisiana State University, who spent a week working with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman in the climactic verdict scene of "Runaway Jury."

Some location extras get the validation without necessarily getting any screen time. Bill Cowart, 73, achieved superstar status among extras as well as his family and friends in Montgomery, Ala., when he was selected as Albert Finney's stand-in on Tim Burton's 2003 adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel "Big Fish."

"Have you seen my movie?" Cowart sniffs, sounding weary from a series of radiation treatments for cancer. Traveling with what he refers to as his "drama group" since 1968, the former interior designer sees himself more as an actor than an extra. "That wouldn't be my standard of living," he says, referring to the notoriously poor living conditions of the migrant extras. His voice fills with pride as he describes the five months he spent working with Burton, Finney and the film's other stars, Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange. "It was absolutely marvelous," he says. "They're my good friends now."

One casting director has seen many an A-list star called upon to breathe life into the weary location extras. On the Academy Award-winning "Forrest Gump," Tom Hanks handed out chilled bottles of water to a sweltering school bus full of kids. On "Radio," Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr. played catch in the bitter cold with hundreds of extras whose job it was to fill the stands at the football stadium where many scenes were shot. By the time principal photography was completed on "The Patriot," Gibson had posed for countless snapshots and autographed thousands of head-shots, including one for the wife of Dale Gould.

After earning about $7,000 for just over three months of work on "The Patriot," Gould decided to pursue acting full time. During his first year, luck was on his side. He landed four other jobs, each one on a studio film production or network television show. He even tried incorporating his family into his newfound career by getting his then-15-year-old son Nick a job as an extra on the 2002 Warner Bros.' sports comedy "Juwanna Mann." Much to his disappointment, his son didn't take to it. Despite making what most teenagers would consider a good amount of money, Nick found the shooting tedious and was bored by all the standing around.

Though Fulton Crumley has done a lion's share of work on big-budget studio productions, including "The Last of the Mohicans" and "A Time to Kill," she considers her work on the $120-million "The Patriot" the biggest challenge of her career. Four years later she still sighs with relief when she thinks of the epic shoot that required 28,000 man days, which broken down into layman terms meant 300 soldiers per day, five days a week, for six months.

The extras worked so hard that "by the middle of the third week people were dropping like flies," says "Patriot" director Roland Emmerich. "It gets hard," he says of the battle scenes, which required exhaustive rehearsal time and repetitive actions. It got to the point that Emmerich asked Gibson to address the troops. Gibson's "Henry V speech" bolstered the extras' morale.

"I feel like we're the circus coming to town," Emmerich says. "We go to these normal towns and strange things start to happen." Known for blockbuster event films such as "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Independence Day," Emmerich is no stranger to extras who make a living working on his films. His voice is filled with dismay and astonishment as he describes his early morning drives to the set of "The Patriot," past rows and rows of parked cars, expectant faces and tents filled with people stiff from the cold. The scene he describes sounds more like a chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration than a story from a Hollywood movie set.

"I tell everybody it's going to be like a bad camping trip," Crumley laughs as she lights yet another cigarette. She made her entree into show business 31 years ago as a casting assistant, and she is known for her eye for detail. "I get to know the director's tastes," says Crumley, who has shelves of reference books she uses to analyze faces. Of the directors she has worked with, Michael Mann of "Heat" and "The Insider" has the most critical eye, she says. "It's the difference between real and movie real," Crumley says.

On "Ali," Mann presented Crumley with photographs from the period and told her to use them as her guide for the extras casting. He was resolute that even the smallest face on the screen resemble the actual subject. So Crumley spent months looking for the perfect extras to play reporters, referees and cornermen in the boxing ring.

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