News & Views » Opinion

The diary of an Atlanta film extra

Aspiring starlets, boredom, and dreams, glorious dreams



"I have a YouTube channel," a small-boned young woman tells two men waiting with her for wardrobe outside several tents in the Old Fourth Ward. It's not yet 10 a.m., but we are all fueled by a ridiculous selection of doughnuts and the hope that we might make sustained, sensual eye contact with someone famous, because today we are all extras on a major motion picture that recently wrapped in Atlanta.

YouTube Girl has a dream, like everyone else here, and like everyone else here, she is happy to tell you all about these dreams without ever asking your name or offering hers. The two men in line with her have a comedy channel on YouTube. "Mine is more serious stuff," she says. "We should collab!"

I am here because I saw a call for extras online and it seemed like a fun way to spend a Thursday, but the majority of the people here have appeared in numerous TV shows filming in the area. It's paying work. Meals are provided. The day before, I get the most amazing email I have ever received in my life reminding me, with the fervor of a University of Maryland Delta Gamma sister, to arrive early, wearing Spanx if needed, and remove the cat and dog hair from my clothes.

Fame might be possible on set, but boredom is assured. A friend has gotten so bored waiting between scenes that she's helping the catering staff peel potatoes. She met a woman who has been an extra on "The Vampire Diaries" so many times that they've written a small role for her.

That seems to be the dream — get on camera, then keep getting on camera until some 42nd Street fantasy roars into being on the set of "Drop Dead Diva." We are, after all, not extras, we are background, an essential component of the celluloid fabric!

As we line up to enter the set, a production assistant says we need to group up. "Find a family!" he shouts, striking instinctive fear into the heart of single women of a certain age. I half-heartedly join up with YouTube Girl and the two men, but once we enter the set I'm torn from them by a PA who guides a young girl toward me, telling me I'm a mom now.

"M" is 8 years old, charming, and her company is easily some of the best of the day. I ask if her dress came from the wardrobe department. Turns out she brought it from home, but has evolved past it as she's left her 7-year-old aesthetic behind. "My style is a little harder now," she says.

M is one of several children here who are home-schooled and part of a kid talent agency of some sort. She's been on movie sets before. Another girl misses a dance recital at the last minute because she didn't realize how late filming would go. She had a solo.

Later, I sit by a smiling and polite young girl whose mom drove her from Newnan to appear in one scene. She tells me her only other screen credit was in Catching Fire, where she played a District 6 resident and was the second choice for Rue's sister. She lost out because she was too light-skinned, she says, which is a startling thing to hear from a girl who can't be older than 8.

During dinner break, a man who looks like the second coming of Christopher Reeve recalls how he appeared on "The Steve Harvey Show" after coming across a Craigslist ad looking for people who were secretly in love with a friend. The man fabricated a story, enlisted a pal, and flew to CALIFORNIA. "I got to hug him," he confirms.

The more experienced background artists take a certain donnish tone when describing the mechanics of filmmaking — dialogue laced with "Goddamn!" means a film is destined for a hard R rating, an older man who was an extra in Flight tells me; make sure you know where the camera is so you can angle more of your face in a shot, a tall man tells me later.

Plenty of other extras channel the same pedagogy when describing their encounters with celebrities — on set, in the real world — as well as ways to maximize these brushes with fame. Show tattoos, one young woman offers. "Anything to make an impression, because otherwise you're just some girl who asked for a photo in Starbucks," she says.

After a pause, her friend asks the universe: "Where do the Braves go to party?"

As we line up for the final few shots of the evening, a woman in front of me is using a Penn Badgley look-alike's smartphone as a mirror to check her hair and makeup.

She tells Not Penn Badgley that she drove from Cleveland for a background spot on The Good Lie, the Reese Witherspoon flick filming in town. It was her first acting job. This is her second gig and Not Penn Badgley is pumped for her, just super-thrilled, the two of them laughing the laughter of the chosen as they rattle off the job boards and listservs that have helped them find work. Not Penn Badgley mentions that he doesn't think he wants to act forever, though. He's planning on becoming a plastic surgeon.

By the end of the day, YouTube Girl looks tired. We all look tired because most of us have been on set for nearly 12 hours. But there are ridiculous vintage dresses to wear in front of movie stars! We can't go on! We will go on!

Add a comment