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By Martha Patterson


Extra work.  Yes, showing up on a movie set, being of a certain age and type and sex and height and weight – then getting a different shirt put on you from the wardrobe people, because what you are wearing from your own closet isn’t “interesting” enough.


Being a member of Screen Actors Guild, I have done this kind of work many times.  It always adds a few hundred extra dollars to my bank account.


The problem is, it is not really “acting.”  More like being a body in clothes, showing up in the background as some passerby who is pretending to shop for the holidays or work in a cubicle or be a guest at a party.


                      I did this once, for “Bright Lights, Big City.”  I was supposed to be a guest at a party where Michael J Fox and Keifer Sutherland                               were in conversation and were waiting for Michael’s character’s ex-wife, played by Phoebe Cates, to show up.  Michael J Fox                                   actually spoke to me in the hallway during a moment when we were not filming.  He said, “Hi,” and, being shy, I just said “Hi”                               back, not wanting to impose my non-illustrious self on an actor who seemed to be so accomplished. 


I was an extra on the set of a John Travolta movie once, too.  I didn’t get to talk with him, however.  One of the other extras yelled out to him, “Can I take your picture?”  This is a no-no for an extra.  You’ve gotta “be cool,” not give stars a hard time, and not interfere with them.  It is not about your own ambitions.  John Travolta seemed not to be interested and ignored the guy.


“An extra.”  Who could be less important on a film set?  Well, maybe the craft service people – the folks who organize food and drinks on a banquet table for the actors who spend so much time waiting around for cameras and lights to be set up.  Bagels, cream cheese, and maybe some fruit.  Not a stupendous meal, but enough to tide you over, since you have been living on coffee for the hours during which you have been waiting to be called to the set.


                      One bone-chillingly cold night in New York City I worked as an extra on the set of a movie called “Arthur On the Rocks,” the sequel

                      to “Arthur,” starring Liza Minelli, Dudley Moore, and John Gielgud.  A kind fellow extra loaned me his down jacket during the                                   outdoor scene, because I thought I was going to freeze to death.  The great English actor John Gielgud didn’t have to come out                               of his trailer until we were almost ready to shoot.  I remember him, in his topcoat and very erect posture, staring at me, dressed                             up as I was as a virtual hooker, in my mini skirt and spike heels and big hair – recall, this was the 1980s – and I stared back at him,                         thinking, “My God, do you know how many of your Shakespeare performances I have seen in your films, and read about in your                             autobiographies?”  Suddenly his eyes glazed over as he was examining my rather outrageous costume – I got the distinct feeling   he didn’t want to be connected with a “supernumerary,” as we extras are often also called.  But it was the thrill of my evening to see this fabulous man in the flesh, and I went back that night to my apartment on the Upper West Side to write home to my mother, in Massachusetts, all about my brush with greatness.


Being an extra is far from a glorious occupation.  But every once in a while, while you are doing it, and watching some Hollywood star perform his single, momentary scene in that location you have been hired to appear in, for those few hours, you think that, yes, someday, maybe YOUR dreams of having your own trailer and being nominated for an Oscar will actually come true, also.






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