What was it like to be a film extra?
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a film extra? I did, and on a fluke I responded to an advert in a French newspaper. They needed people to be extras for a film they were shooting in Paris and Bordeaux. I wanted to give it a try.
Ironically, I had just finished working as a voice actor for a suspense thriller called Agent Kelly a month earlier and I was keen to keep the momentum going. With this experience under my belt, I could use that in my introduction, so the French crew knew I wasn’t a ‘newbe’.
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Film extras needed for an American film
- 1 Film extras needed for an American film
- 2 Draft a quality letter to be accepted as a film extra
- 3 Film extras should expect last minute changes
- 4 Practice getting to the film set if you can
- 5 Being a film extra is nerve wracking
- 6 Make friends with the other film extras
- 7 Film wardrobe and contract signing
- 8 Tips for being a professional film extra
- 9 Plan to sit around as a film extra
- 10 Day 2 of being a film extra
- 11 Interacting with actors as a movie extra
All I knew was the name of the film and nothing more. A movie-buff friend in-the-know knew to look at IMDb for upcoming films, and found out much more information about the film. And WOW! It’s an American film.
The director is a well-known American with a load of credits under his belt, and he paired up with a brilliant, budding French actress/director, Judith Godrèche. The lead actors are two Chicago boys, Gary Cole and Matt Walsh! I was familiar with them from VEEP, and the rest of the cast was primarily American except for Judith. This is becoming frickin’ cool!
The movie is a ‘Romantic Comedy’ and they were looking for extras to play ‘tourists’ in some vineyard scenes in the Bordeaux area. I just had to apply. What did I have to lose? I have all the tourist kit I could need!
Draft a quality letter to be accepted as a film extra
I drafted a professional email supporting my credentials from my brief stint as a voice extra, my previous acting studies, my years of voice work, and sent it off. Then I forgot about. A couple weeks later, I received an email from a crew assistant saying I was accepted!
So I started planning my trip to Bordeaux, which is where they said the film would be shot. Ideally they were looking for people who LIVE in Bordeaux, but I’d never seen Bordeaux before so I planned to kill two birds with one stone.
As a movie extra you have to be quite patient and cautious. You are not paid much, if at all, and if you want to participate you need to pay your own travel and housing expenses. This is fine if you have the time and spare cash.
The information I received from the film crew said that the segments would be shot in Bordeaux. Fine. Being the organized traveler I am, I booked my flight to Bordeaux and found a hotel in town. I was looking forward to four days to explore Bordeaux when I wasn’t busy with the shoot.
Film extras should expect last minute changes
The morning I was flying to Bordeaux, I received an email from the film crew telling me where I need to be and when. Great…. No, not great. It wasn’t in Bordeaux at all, but in a little village called Gensec, an hour from Bordeaux. I needed to report in at 9a the next morning.
Shit! There was no way I was going to risk traffic on a Monday morning, out of Bordeaux, to reach this village. I had no clue how I’d get there aside from maybe taking a train. Even worse, this little village had NO train station. The nearest train station was about 20 minutes away by car. Double shit!
Stupid mistake number 1: I booked a non-refundable hotel in Bordeaux, but there was nothing I could do. I needed to be close to the movie set, so I started looking for a hotel near Gensec.
Right… Gensec, France has a population of 850 people in the middle of the sticks, and there ARE no hotels. OMG, can this get any worse?
So I searched and searched a bit more, and by the grace of God, I found a 2-bedroom cottage on Airbnb right in Gensec, itself. Seriously? It was way over my budget considering I had a non-refundable hotel room in Bordeaux for 4 nights and now this. But I committed to being an extra and I had to eat the cost.
Practice getting to the film set if you can
Next issue was getting to Gensec. I planned to get into Bordeaux at 5p to get settled in, so I now needed Plan B. How do I get from the airport to Bordeaux’s train station, and then to the nearest station to the shoot location? And then how do I get from that train station to this obscure little village? My head was spinning. I was fearing I would have to rent a car, and I don’t drive much any more. Major aggravation.
I contacted the Airbnb hosts, Debbie and John, and explained my predicament. Coincidentally, Debbie mentioned she was volunteering at the Saint Emilion Jazz Festival that night, and if I could get as far as Saint Emilion on the train, she and John would take me back to their cottage in Gensec. Brilliant. At least I could get to the Saint Emilion train station….or could I?
There were trains that depart from Bordeaux Station every couple of hours to Saint Emilion. And given the time I was arriving, I would have had to wait 2 hours for the next train to Saint Emilion, and I risked arriving late and not meeting up with my hosts. Ok, sod it. I’m taking a cab! Seriously, I took a cab! A cab from the airport to Saint Emilion will cost nearly $150. Not cheap, but there was nothing I could do.
I have now paid for a flight, a 4-night hotel stay I’m not using, a pricey cab to get my ass to a Jazz festival, and an Airbnb way over budget for 4 nights.
Being a film extra is nerve wracking
I can easily understand why movie extras don’t show up for gigs. The information is sketchy, at most, and you can only plan at the last minute when the film crew have the exact details and dates. It’s very nerve wracking, and to be honest, it would have been better to have rented a car. Information was all very fluid, and I had to go with the flow if I wanted to be an extra in this film.
I arrived at Saint Emilion, and the last night of the Jazz Festival was in full swing. I spent an hour wandering around this lovely little village, schlepping my suitcase with me. My suitcase was click, click, clicking over the cobblestones and I stopped every 30 feet to snap a photo of this darling, quaint town. Then I returned to the festival grounds to find my hosts.
The police rummage through my suitcase
As France is under a continual state of emergency, police are checking every handbag and what not. When I arrived at the check point of the St Emilion Jazz Festival, they must have thought I was an idiot. I asked if there was a place I could leave my suitcase and they laughed and said, ‘No.’ Knowing I’d have to take it with me, I then said, “You can certainly look through the suitcase”, and the police said, “You can bet I’m going to look through your suitcase.”
So, in front of everyone, I dropped my suitcase, unzipped it and let them rummage through my clothes, underwear, selfie stick, 2 computers, camera, 2 phones, all my chargers, blowdryer – the whole kit and caboodle. I didn’t give a shit if I was holding up people. Rummage through.
After I got through, I schlepped the bag past several hundred music-goers while waiting to hear back from my hosts. Once I found them, we found a place to store my bag and I could enjoy the music with John, as Debbie was working for a few hours more. I’m a big lover of jazz, well Smooth Jazz, but the Saint Emilion Jazz Festival is quite well known so I was really quite happy to spend a few hours chilling out, having a glass of wine and listening to the music.
Make friends with the other film extras
As my host John and I were getting acquainted, I discovered they, too, were extras in the SAME film. Wow, what a coincidence. They are British expats who call Gensec home now for several years. They have a home there and a cottage just behind their property they rent out on occasion.
Once the jazz festival finished and we finally drove to Gensec. To be honest, I was glad to get there. I’d had a hectic day and my nerves were shot. I arrived at the cottage to discover I had a lovely new 2-bed home just behind their house, separated by a pool. Had the weather been better in July I would have jumped in. The cottage is very well-kitted out and I could have easily stayed for months. It had everything you need and I highly recommend it.
I bid my hosts a good night and settled in knowing the movie set was a five-minute walk the morning. The angels must have been in my corner to allow me to find these two!
In the morning, I made my way toward the Mairie (town hall), which was the meeting point. I stopped for a quick cafe au lait and a croissant at the one patisserie in town.
At the Mairie, I met a mother and daughter duo, Fiona and Morgan. Then, Amanda and Jan showed up after having driven to the wrong town which sounded similar to Gensac. It was just us seven as the ‘tourist’ film extras that day.
Film wardrobe and contract signing
As we wait for everyone to arrive, we first meet the wardrobe woman. We needed to bring 3 outfits for them to decide what we should wear. Nothing white, nothing black. She picked my outfit for the 2-day shoot, which was a pair of jeans, a yellow top and a lacy coverup. The other things I used were my backpack, camera and a hat.
Next was the contract woman. We needed to sign a contract, which was pretty painless. Since we were getting paid as film extras, I had to give her a copy of my passport and a bank deposit slip. The whole process took 10 minutes.
Tips for being a professional film extra
It’s one thing to be a film extra and think your role isn’t important because you aren’t front and center, or aren’t being paid, but that is far from the truth. Regardless of your role, here are some key tips to being a professional movie extra.
- Get to set 30-45 min beforehand. You aren’t running the show; they are. It’s disrespectful to show up late. If you don’t know where to go, do a test run ahead of time. I did this in Gensec and it took 5 minutes. I did the same during the Rome filming.
- Introduce yourself when you arrive, and find out who the point person is. Let them know you are there, and stay close by.
- If you need to bring 3 outfits, bring more. More is better. You are helping by bringing extra clothing they can choose from, even if you schlep a bit more. And bring comfy shoes!
- Bring your passport, ID card, bank account details and insurance card. You never know if or when you will need it.
- Put your cell phone away for the day, unless it’s during break. During the Rome shoot, they took our phones and I can understand why. Film extras aren’t there to chat with friends or try and get shots with the main actors.
- Don’t reach out to try and chat with the actors. If they want to chat with you, they will. Maintain your composure and just be professional.
- Don’t overact. And try not to be a nervous, ‘Chatty-Kathy’. Follow instructions and listen. And keep eye contact with the assistant who is giving directions.
- Bring food because you may not get fed. There’s nothing worse than hearing someone ask, ‘Is there food here?”
- Send a follow-up Thank You. If you’ve been communicating via email with the film assistant, send them a thank you once you are done. Here you can also let them know to keep you in mind the next time they need a film extra.
Plan to sit around as a film extra
There’s a lot of sitting around the scene as a film extra, and I had a lot of time to get to know the other movie extras during this time. What a frickin’ cool bunch of people!
We did two different scenes on the first day – basically walking around as tourists, interacting with the other tourist extras in some form while the main scene was taking place. We all followed the film assistant’s direction as to what to do, where to look, how fast/slow to walk around. There were a few film assistants directing us throughout the film day.
We took a break in the early afternoon for lunch and dined with the crew from a film food truck. There were 48 people in the cast and crew, and the film caterers did a super job getting people in and out in an hour.
Then it was back to waiting for the 2nd part of the day. We finished at about 6:30 that afternoon, and I have to admit, my feet were killing me. I was wearing ballerinas, and standing in those all day was not the brightest thing to do. Big tip for being a film extra: only bring shoes that you’ll be comfortable wearing for 12 hours straight!
I grabbed dinner on my own in one of the few restaurants in town and went back to the cottage to rest my weary feet.
Day 2 of being a film extra
The shoot the next day would be at a chateau in a vineyard 35 minutes from Gensec in Pomerol, France. Again, it was great I was staying with John and Debbie as we drove together early the next morning for a 7:45 start. Up at 6a and out the door at 7a. We arrived on time, then waited until about 10a until we were needed. Hurry up and wait!
Mind you, there are snacks, coffee, juice, croissants, sandwiches flowing all day long from a mobile refreshment area on this day. I don’t think I’ve drank that much coffee in a long time, but we were well fed and watered.
The weather was very grey and cool and we stayed inside the chateau lingering around until they needed us. Otherwise, we were sunning ourselves on the terrace or walking the beautiful grounds around the chateau. It was really beautiful landscape. We even ventured out to see the workers in the vineyard using age-old techniques.
Interacting with actors as a movie extra
The second day was actually more interesting than the first because the American actor, Matt Walsh was in the scenes, along with David Wain, who is a real character. We were able to interact with the actors in a very casual way and it was a surreal experience.
As long as you are cool about being in the presence of actors, you may get the chance to interact. There were many times when something funny happened on the scene and we were all laughing together, which made the atmosphere light and casual. We were all approachable to one another and had the chance to interact with the actors very casually, whether on the set, in between takes or at lunch.
The second film day was also longer. We didn’t finish until about 8:30p. We participated as part of a winery tour in acts where Matt, David and Judith were mainly present. It was cool to see how they shoot one scene with the camera in one direction looking at one main character. Then they do the same scene with the camera in a different angle to get the expressions of another actor.
Sometimes we’d do 10 takes of the same scene. Thirteen actors and extras, and 35 film crew watching monitors behind the cameras. Quite the production and quite surreal.
My time as a film extra has come to an end
The day ended and we returned to the cottage in Gensec for the night. My time as a film extra was done. Debbie kindly drove me to the nearest train station in the morning so I could get back to Bordeaux for my flight back to Nice.
I received a letter in the mail a week after the shoot was done regarding how much I would be paid – Less than €100!
If you want to be a movie extra, you need to be extremely flexibly and have the ability to go with the flow. You’ll meet some fantastic people, and it may open doors for you to be a movie extra in other films. But you won’t get rich!
You can rent or buy the film here:
Additional film to look out for
By the way, the film is called, Under The Eiffel Tower and it was released in February 2019. You’ll find me at the 1:40 min mark.
Ironically, a few weeks later, I flew to Rome to be a film extra in a Netflix production with Kevin Spacey as Gore Vidal. While I’ve written about the experience of being a movie extra in Rome, the film, Gore, will no longer be released.
If you’re curious about being an audience member of your favorite TV show, check that link.