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Playing Small is Big Fun for Film Extras

Michigan films provide star-studded diversion from routines and deadlines.

Semi-retirement can inspire people to do all sorts of crazy things. Last year, thanks to Michigan's film incentive program, my husband Doug and I made an unexpected foray into background acting.  

Our first gig began on a lark last year when we were cast with several Royal Oak neighbors in the opening scene of the controversial Red Dawn remake. Humvees and tanks rolled through our Vinsetta Park neighborhood while a troop of gun-wielding Communist soldiers took us captive. It was a blast, literally and figuratively, and some of us were called back to appear in additional scenes in Detroit.

Since then, Doug and I have worked as extras in 14 film and TV projects. We've played wedding guests, medical professionals, foreign diplomats, suburban parents and homeless refugees. We've run from explosions and steered our cars through crash scenes. We've belted out hymns in church. We've nursed fake cocktails at formal receptions. Topping it off, this fall we were booked for two episodes of Detroit 1-8-7, one of our favorite TV shows.

Our friends keep asking why we never audition for speaking parts. Why are we playing small? Why would anyone spend hours toiling in the background for a few seconds of screen time – or to end up on the proverbial cutting room floor?

Speaking for myself, I'm proud to be part of Michigan's growing film community. I thrive on the creative energy it's bringing to our state. Despite the political uproar over tax incentives for filmmakers, even the naysayers get excited when the talk turns to movie making or yet another celebrity sighting in downtown Royal Oak.

Bright lights, big stars

As an extra, you get a rare look behind the scenes and a crash course in filmmaking. This takes most of the glitter out of the stardust, yet you can't help but return home with a deeper respect for the hard work invested in any given film project.

"I've always been a fan of film, so it's exciting to see how much preparation goes into even the shortest scenes," explained Ron Zill, a Royal Oak resident and teacher at Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights.

Zill has worked in five film projects this year. His first experience as an extra was playing a Swiss cop in The Double, a thriller starring Richard Gere that's scheduled for release in 2011. The role had special meaning to Zill because his late father was a Royal Oak police officer. Since then, he's played a cop in other films and often jokes about being "typecast."

Schoolteachers like Zill find background acting ideal for earning extra money during the summer. But given Michigan's depleted job market, unemployed workers representing a variety of fields, from retail to finance, are finding work on film sets these days.

As Zill points out, it's the camaraderie on and off the set that makes the whole experience twice as rewarding as the paychecks.  Extras spend a lot of time waiting between takes and often form bonds with fellow actors. "I've met so many wonderful people from different walks of life," Zill told me. "Getting to know other extras and crew members between scenes has been one of the best experiences in my life." 

Of course, any background actor would be lying if she told you that rubbing elbows with celebrities wasn't part of the allure.

While I can't discuss too many details about the unreleased films I've worked in, I can tell you that I've literally brushed shoulders in a street scene with Richard Gere when downtown Detroit was transformed into Paris for The Double. I met Thomas Jane on the set of HBO's Hung, and worked for a week in a Real Steel crowd scene with the amiable Hugh Jackman. (Yes, all of these guys are just as gorgeous in person as they are on screen.)

Life lessons on the set

It all adds up to lively cocktail party conversation, but honestly, that's about as glamorous as it gets.

Though we're treated with respect on most film sets, extras are at the very bottom of the cinematic totem pole. It doesn't matter if we run companies or rule the world in our off-camera lives. We don't get special treatment. We rarely eat lunch or dinner until after the stars and crew have been fed. We spend long hours on our feet and our pay is minimal.

On the other hand, we don't have the stress or responsibility of memorizing lines; our job is simply to provide authentic atmosphere. We're merely props in the director's creative vision, which is, at least to me, both humbling and freeing.

My high school drama teacher liked to remind me, "There are no small parts, just small actors."

I've always thought that was terrific advice to remember, no matter where or how you're employed. Whether you're talking about sports or the performing arts or the ever-changing drama of real life, every player is part of a larger ensemble.

As I tell my friends, I know I won't get rich or famous working as an extra. Nobody's going to ask for my autograph or list my name in the film credits. I know I won't be discovered and given a one-way ticket to Hollywood, and I'm totally cool with that. Working as an extra gets me out from behind a desk – and is another way to feel like I'm part of a team.

Dennis Budziszewski December 12, 2010 at 02:21 PM
As a fellow background actor I concur with everything in this wonderful article. It is my belief that the Michigan film tax incentive has been a much-needed shot in the arm for Detroit and its surrounding communities. It has provided opportunities such as being an extra, but also many ancillary employment for caterers, crew members, restaraunts, hotels, etc. that otherwise wouldn't be there. It is, therefore, my sincere hope the incoming administration will allow this blossoming industry to continue and bloom into a permanent relationship with Michigan! Dennis Budziszewski Canton
Alan Stamm December 12, 2010 at 03:18 PM
In addition to lively cocktail party conversation, it actually adds to much more for the state economy: Nearly 4,000 jobs in 2009 for "day players" such as you and more than 7,000 productions jobs since tax incentives began in 2008, according to the Michigan Film Office. "Incentives are working to create jobs, reverse the brain drain and are building on our heritage of entrepreneurship and innovation," Director Carrie Jones of that office says in a Nov. 29 post at its site. "Michigan has paid $89 million in incentives to date, compared to the more than $648 million that has been spent by productions in Michigan since the incentives took effect in April 2008." Congratulations on being part of an emerging local industry, Cindy and Doug. Thanks for taking us into your world.
Laurie Valko December 12, 2010 at 03:50 PM
A wonderful article about Michigan Background "artist" work that is spot on. I have had the forture of working on multiple televison and film projects here because of the Film Tax Incentive and Cindy conveys my sentiments exactly. My son was majoring in film at Wayne State University when the big budget film "Red Dawn" came to Michigan. He got a job on set which springboarded him right into camera work. He is now in the International Cinamatograpers Guild and has worked on multiple film and television projects. What an amazing opportunity for the young people here as well as so many thousands of others left unemployed by the devastated auto industry.
Cindy La Ferle December 12, 2010 at 04:06 PM
Dennis, Alan, and Laurie -- thanks for continuing the dialogue. Spot on! Alan, I appreciate your including the stats and emphasizing the economic impact of our new film industry. Laurie, your son is a shining example of how the incentives are working -- literally working.
Susan Lambert December 12, 2010 at 09:34 PM
What a wonderful glimpse into an unknown world for this small town gal. I loved reading about the experiences you and Doug are having and I especially liked learning about the economic impact of this unusual form of employment. Way to go Michigan for supporting the arts in such a unique way!! ....and thank you again Cindy for an interesting as well as informative article! Sue Lambert, former Clawson resident
Nicholas Ritz December 12, 2010 at 11:45 PM
Cindy thanks so much for your excellent first hand insight into the Extras world. I too have been very fortunate to have been involved as an Extra and "Stand In" on Feature Films and Television thanks to the Film Incentives here in Michigan. Who would have dreamed that the movie industry would be right here in our home state? When people ask me what it is like being an Extra, I tell them it can be challenging with long hours of waiting around. However, once you are on the set and the cameras are rolling and you take in the sites and sounds of the production it is so awesome! When you hear the call for action and background it is so exciting! You will meet some great people, be part of a creative project, and the stories you will have.... *Nicholas Ritz*
Joanna Jenkins December 13, 2010 at 05:13 AM
It all sounds like great fun to me! I live in Los Angeles and get a big kick out out of having film shoots on our street. There's a unique excitement about a film crew and being close to "the action" and sometimes the stars. Keep having fun, you never know when it might be time for your "close-up". Cheers, jj
Dolly Traicoff December 13, 2010 at 02:56 PM
I've been an Extra several times, it's long hours and I love it! Let's hope our State leaders give this a chance to get even bigger and better. A lot of people are depending on this.
Janita Gaulzetti December 13, 2010 at 07:57 PM
Cindy, thank you for your wonderful insights and look behind the scenes of Michigan's film and television work! We worked together in "Paris" on The Double, but hadn't me. I've worked as an extra several times over the last couple of years but it took on a different meaning the past few months while I looked for a new job. I have met some of the most interesting people in Michigan and just as you say, "Working as an extra gets me out from behind a desk – and is another way to feel like I'm part of a team." Hope to see you soon....on set!

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