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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Extra special: Annandale resident moonlights as a background actor

Bob Kovacs in "Turn."
By Bob Kovacs

Do you ever take a moment to look at the people in the background in your favorite movies and TV shows? I could be one of them.

Well, probably not if your show or movie is more than a couple years old, but I have worked as a background actor on three TV shows and two movies. And I did it from my home in Annandale, without having to go to Hollywood or New York.

I’ve been a video professional for years, lately working as a writer and editor for trade journals for the technical side of the television industry. I shoot a lot of video and post lots of videos to YouTube, so I decided to grow my industry contacts by joining the Virginia Production Alliance.

Bob Kovacs and his wife appear as extras in a promotional video for the Charlottesville Airport. 
The VPA works to attract film and TV productions to Virginia, then spreads the news to its members so they can get jobs working on these projects. In addition to crew jobs, the VPA also has listings for cast members, including background actors — or “extras” as most people call them.

A couple years ago, I got my first extra gig working on a promotional video for the Charlottesville Airport. My wife did it as well, and we portrayed a couple walking through the airport and sitting at the airport’s bar. (That’s hilarious, since we are both teetotalers!)

It didn’t pay anything, but they did feed us. The production people were really nice, and my wife and I had a lot of fun. During each take, I’d tell my wife something funny as we walked through the scene and we both laughed. After one take, the director came up and said that we looked really good laughing in the background, so I figured we were doing the right thing. In the final promotional video, you can see us just behind the lead actor, looking like we really enjoy Charlottesville Airport.

I enjoyed the process enough to keep an eye open for another opportunity. That happened in March 2017, when I got a background role as a British officer on the TV show “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” A Revolutionary War drama, “Turn” was shot in the Richmond area. One episode needed LOTS of extras for battle scenes, and I was one of these extras. It involved getting fitted in an authentic-looking British redcoat uniform, complete with wig and tri-corner hat.

Work on “Turn” was paid — at minimum wage, with overtime after 10 hours. My big reward was when I saw myself several times in the finished show, watching the program at my neighbor’s house as we all hooted at the screen.

Later that summer, I saw a notice that a Korean film called “I Can Speak” was filming in Richmond and D.C., so I got a background role in it portraying a member of Congress. (The scenes showing the star speaking to Congress were shot in the Virginia Hall of Delegates in Richmond.) Again, the pay was close to minimum wage.

I’ve seen the film — which is mostly in Korean with some English — and can definitely be spotted in it.

Kovacs (right) in "I Can Speak."
In September 2017, the TV series “Homeland” started shooting episodes in central Virginia. In the first episode of the season, I got a background role as a reporter, taking photos and shouting questions at a prisoner as he was rolled into prison. I’ve not seen that episode, but I was in the shadows and probably can’t be seen.

Earlier this year, I appeared in a few scenes of the TV series “House of Cards,” which is shot in the Baltimore area. I was contacted for more work on “House of Cards,” but my wife and I were going to be on vacation and I had to turn them down. “House of Cards” actually pays a bit more for extras: $10.50 an hour and overtime after eight hours.

On May 31, I started work on a major feature film shooting in the D.C. area, with scenes to be shot at Landmark Mall. Set in 1984, this big action film has a preliminary title of “Magic Hour,” and it is the sequel to a popular action film from last summer. (A good one, too!) I can’t tell you more than that, since I signed a non-disclosure agreement.

In fact, all the films and TV shows have non-disclosure agreements with everyone, since the shows do not want twists and turns revealed on Facebook and Twitter.

“Magic Hour” pays $12.50 an hour and overtime after eight hours. I expect to shoot scenes on June 16-17. The really good news is that it is being shot at Landmark Mall, and not Richmond or Baltimore. Yay!! [Editor’s note: That project has been identified in the press, including the Annandale Blog.]

Other than the modest pay, what do you get for working as an extra? First, if you are in the Screen Actors Guild union, you get MUCH better pay. However, it is difficult and expensive to join the union, so don’t think you can just join. You need to meet certain requirements and it takes time to get those under your belt.

You can expect to be fed reasonably well when you are on set. I have found my fellow extras are delightful people to talk to, and I’ve developed a couple of good contacts from my work as an extra.

The work can be surprisingly grueling and often tedious, either standing around waiting for scenes to be set and reset or repeating the same actions over and over again. In one White House press conference scene on “House of Cards,” I must have shouted out the same question 25 times. On “Turn,” I spent one warm afternoon marching in a column of troops in a big uneven field — it was hard, physical work.

Working as an extra can give you the feeling of being treated as cattle. There is an “extra holding” area where you need to stay until called. All sets prohibit cameras and cell phones, and it is absolutely forbidden to approach the lead actors or primary production crew. Even gawking at the lead actors is a reason to be fired from the set, so I’ve barely caught a glance at the main actors on the shows I’ve been on.

Extras need to do what they are told, be where they are supposed to be, stay quiet and keep out of the way of everyone else. You can’t have an ego and work for long as an extra.

That said, Jamie Bell (the lead actor on “Turn”) offered me his hand to get me up off the floor after a scene where I “died” as a fort was overrun. There are occasional moments like that.

How can you get hooked up as an extra? Right now is actually a good time, since the film being shot at Landmark Mall will need lots of extras.

As I previously mentioned, there are jobs listed by the Virginia Production Alliance, but you need to pay an annual fee to access them. You can get free announcements of casting notices by signing up on a D.C.-based website called Dragonuk Connects.

Dragonuk Connects has paid memberships with added benefits, but a free membership gets me more than enough job listings to keep me busy. Casting for extras in “Magic Hour” will definitely be on Dragonuk Connects.

Work as an extra has been fun, but I’m not doing it for the money. You can do it for the money if you are in the union and get steady work. At $250 a day or so (the union rate), you can make a decent living at it if you can get enough work. At $100 a day (non-union rate), you will work to a frazzle trying to support yourself.

The curse of the background actor is that directors don’t want to see you in every scene, so you typically get work for a day or two while one particular scene is shot.

An exception to the “every scene” rule is a show that is shot in a confined location, such as a prison or police squad room. I know one woman who worked very steadily on “Orange Is the New Black” as an extra dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit — I saw her on the show after watching for just a couple minutes.

To get steady work, you have to be someplace where there are many projects in production, such as Atlanta, New York, Vancouver, or Los Angeles. The D.C. area just doesn’t have as many films and TV shows shot here as you might think.

Work as an extra is something I do occasionally, but it is fun and sometimes interesting. I enjoy seeing film production from behind the scenes. And it is possible to live in Annandale and work in movies and TV. Just keep your expectations modest.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!