Nathan Johnson has landed in one of the longest unemployment lines in Los Angeles. Just another face in the crowd, Johnson is here because he's hoping to get a job as, yes, just another face in the crowd. But the crowd keeps getting bigger every day.
The lobby at Central Casting is so packed it seems impossible that one more person could squeeze through the door. Johnson, 30, handsome and elegant in a crisp, white shirt, has been waiting to sign up for an hour. "It feels like two hours," he says, eyeing the registration desk. It's only a few feet away, but it will take a lot of patience to reach it. "I'm an EMT," he says, gazing around the congested room with the sort of dignity that Will Smith might envy. Utter cool in a crisis. "If someone goes into cardiac arrest, I'm there."
Johnson has been out of work for two years. He injured his shoulder, which made it impossible for him to do the heavy lifting required in his medical tech job, and he's seen the toll of the recession all around him. "All my friends who owned houses are out of them now," he says. He grew up in Venice, but when the housing boom hit, his old beachside neighborhood became gentrified almost overnight. "The past five years was kind of a greed session, and now everybody's got a hangover."
Background artists, also known as "atmosphere" or extras, are the folks whose mere presence on the set makes the land of make-believe seem real. They are the entertainment industry's most reliable temporary workers and, since 1926, Central Casting has been supplying the creators of feature films, TV shows and commercials with most of them. Three days a week, for one hour, Central registers anyone 18 or over with a spare 25 bucks (cash only) and the documentation to prove they're legal to work in the United States to be a nonunion extra with the company.
There's no interview to sweat. No psychological tests to take. No experience required. Nonunion extras make a humble $64 a day and must follow strict orders: Never look at the camera. Never speak to principal actors or the director. Stay out of the way. Basically, keep your head down and your mouth shut.
Clutching their identification cards as tightly as their dreams, people have always flooded into Central Casting looking for work, taking that first step to become a star. Brad Pitt was discovered here. So were Eva Longoria Parker, Kelly Clarkson, Ronald Reagan and Ava Gardner. But more people are signing up to be extras than ever before -- and becoming famous, or even an actor, isn't the reason why.
"Whenever there's a downturn in the economy, we see an increase in the number of people applying for background work," says Allen Kennamer, vice president of Central Casting. "The line started getting longer right after the first of the year," he says. "It started to double in size." Lately Central's been registering more and more people, about 300 a week, a total of 50,000, for noticeably fewer jobs.
This warehouse building on an industrial, dead-end street in Burbank is an interesting window into the recession in Southern California: It's where anxious folks from all walks of life, not only the entertainment industry, come seeking a big break.
Brian Estwick, 42, is a chess teacher. Until last December, he taught at an after-school program in Pacific Palisades but lost his job when the funding was cut. Estwick has never done professional acting, but his family's been encouraging him to try. "My brother's been pushing me to come in because I've got a different look," he says. When asked to describe it, he laughs, an earthquake rumbling through 320 pounds of muscle. "The guy from 'The Green Mile': an athletic, big black guy."
If he does land background work, it seems unlikely that he'll stay there long. Estwick hasn't even registered and already his overall shorts, black clogs and smart-as-an-owl glasses are attracting a lot of attention. "I got lucky today," he says. "As soon as I walked in, a casting director came out from the back, told me I had a good look and took my name."
"Casting extras is like painting with people," notes David Feige, co-creator and supervising producer of TNT's legal show "Raising the Bar." The show, which is shot in Los Angeles, is based on Feige's real-life experience as a public defender in the Bronx, N.Y. Feige didn't know much about Hollywood when he arrived and was fascinated by the process. "The extras casting really made an impression on me," Feige says.