Always an extra, never a star

– Marco Brasil, staff

The movie business is a multi-billion dollar industry with major stars earning paychecks in the high millions. But not every actor in a movie is a star, or earns nearly as much recognition. In fact, some actors can be in many movies and never have a leading role.

Most people may not know who Mike White is by hearing his name, but if you saw his face you might remember that he plays Ned Schneebly in School of Rock, or you may remember seeing him in a variety of other movies such as Zombieland and Orange County.

Famous actors such as Angelina Jolie, Johnny Depp, Ryan Reynolds, and Natalie Portman are easily recognizable.  However, it is very likely that most people have never heard of Jesse Heiman, a 33-year old extra who has 55 acting credits on IMDB (The Internet Movie Database). That’s more than Angelina Jolie, Ryan Reynolds, and Natalie Portman and the same amount of movie credits as Johnny Depp.

Heiman has been appearing in movies and TV shows since 2001 with his first major role in American Pie Two. He’s been in other major projects such as Spider-Man, Old School, The O.C., Entourage, Heroes, The Social Network, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. While these are all big productions, many probably wouldn’t recognize Heiman as he usually appears onscreen for just a couple of seconds.

In regards to getting started in the movie industry, Heiman says “I just signed up and that day started working on a movie and steadily on TV shows, commercials and music videos too.”

While IMDB only has 55 credits for Heiman, he has many unaccredited roles that are not listed. Extras are essential to any movie, with some scenes needing as many as one thousand extras. Extras are important because they add to the realism of a scene. If a character is at a concert or a mall, the viewer expects there to be other people around, and that’s where extras come in.

Extras are important in other kinds of entertainment too. Musical theatre productions also require extras.

Alex Reed, a fourth-year music student at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, says, “it’s not just an easy job like some people would think it would be. You have to not draw focus to yourself. You still have to be in character but not draw focus away from the main characters.”

In theatre, extras are part of the ensemble, which is a group of actors who don’t have major roles and fill in where extra people are required. Their job tends to be a little more difficult than movie extras because they are often required to learn some kind of dance routine and, if it’s musical theatre, learn all the songs in the show.

She has been working as an extra in various productions for the last seven years.

“I still audition for musicals, and if I don’t get cast in a main role I’ll get offered an ensemble role and I’m more than happy to be a part of a show,” Reed said. “It’s a great experience to be in an ensemble too because you still get the acting experience…I’ve always loved musical theatre and any kind of theatre and acting and that’s kind of just where you get your start.”

Many extras get their start through casting agencies, like the Toronto-based Bcast Agency, which has been around for 13 years and has helped provide extras for various movies and TV shows.  They even delve into the world of sports with a section called SportCast, which provides athletes for different productions. They have been Toronto’s Top Rated Extras Agency from 1998-2011. Their extras are currently working on Total Recall, Degrassi: The Next Generation, Rookie Blue, and Murdoch Mysteries, just to name a few.

For someone to get started as an extra it is helpful to get an agency, such as Bcast Agency, to find available jobs and inform you of casting opportunities. Getting into Bcast Agency is quite simple; all you need to do is email them with a mini biography about yourself, a current photo and pay a onetime sign up fee and wait for approval.

Being an extra can be easier on some productions than on others. For one job, you may be only be required to stand in the background and look like you’re having a conversation, but other productions may require you to go through hours of makeup before you can appear onscreen. An extra may also have to learn some sort of choreographed dance routine for a musical or memorize a couple of lines.

Getting on set is a great way to break into the acting business. It can also help an actor decide if they prefer doing television, movies, commercials, music videos, or musical theatre. Although extras may start off with non-speaking roles, they may eventually get a small part in a big movie which could lead to higher-paying acting jobs. With talent and a little bit of luck, an extra can climb the ladder from no-name face to starring as the lead in a blockbuster. Being an extra is even a good way to discover what goes on behind the scenes of a movie production and can help you to learn the ropes if you aspire to be a director or any other behind the scenes member of a cast.

Minimum wage for an extra is roughly nine dollars an hour and you are guaranteed a minimum of eight hours of work per day. If you use a casting agency or an independent agent then they will take a cut of your earnings. Just being in a movie as an extra doesn’t mean you can pay the bills so it’s typical for many extras to keep some sort of day job.

But it still allows you bragging rights for being in a big Hollywood blockbuster.

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