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How to Be a Movie Extra
May 10, 2013 | by Evelyn Reid - Nabbing movie extra work is easier than you think. It just takes a little guidance. So how does your average Joe or Jane break into background performing? I sat down with Montreal resident and Hollywood veteran Noelle Hannibal to find out, a singer/actress/L.A. transplant who's gotten her share of roles in the Star Trek franchise and who's scored speaking parts as well as extra, stand-in and photo double work on a whole variety of Hollywood blockbusters, TV dramas, sitcoms and cult Sci-Fi shows, sharing set space with, among others, Ellen DeGeneres, Jim Carrey and Robert Downey Jr.
We get into the nitty gritty of what to expect on set, Noelle shares a slew of anecdotes on everyone from Ben Stiller to Viggo Mortensen to Al Pacino and finally, we pinpoint the one quality essential to achieving success and longevity in one of the most cutthroat, competitive industries in the world: showbiz.
Evelyn Reid: So how does one go about getting work as a movie extra?
Noelle Hannibal: First of all, it's not as glamorous as people think it is. Being on a movie set is not glamorous in any way, shape or form. There's a lot of sitting around and waiting. And the days are long. You're looking at likely a 12-hour day minimum. I worked for a long time, in L.A., as an extra and as a stand-in, and the very first time I was an extra, my cousin and I had dyed our hair pink out of the same bottle. We both had fuchsia hair and we were walking down Melrose Avenue in Hollywood and somebody came up to us and just asked “do you want to be an extra in a movie?” And we were like “okay!” We were in our first year at university and it was this movie starring Robert Downey Jr. I was supposed to be in one club scene but we ended up getting six weeks worth of work out of it. We were getting paid like $40 a day at the time -- I wasn't part of the Screen Actors Guild yet so it was non-union rates -- but it was summertime and we were college students so it was great! And I think I did one other movie after that where I did work for like a day, and then I didn't really do much for a while. And then, I got a regular extra gig on The Ellen Show, Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom.
Evelyn Reid: a regular extra gig?
Noelle Hannibal: Yeah. A sitcom is a little better than a movie or a dramatic TV show in that they film for one day in front of an audience. Well, back then they did. They were all taped in front of an audience. So you show up at 9 o'clock in the morning and then you rehearse and then the audience comes in at like 7 p.m. and you film the show twice and you're done. So it could still be a 12-hour day but that's sort of the maximum with sitcoms whereas on a film, you could be called for 5 a.m. and not get home until 9 p.m. It can be be really long.
Evelyn Reid: And how do you get to the set if it's out of the way or you don't have a car? Does the production company cover your transportation?
Noelle Hannibal: Oh no. Especially if you're non-union. Also, keep in mind I was doing all of this in L.A. and I had a car. In L.A., you have to have a car to get around. It's too vast of a place. But here in Montreal, you would just have to take the metro, find a way to get there if the subway's closed, take a taxi if you have to. But if you're interested in film in the way I was at the beginning, it was an amazing learning experience because whereas a lot of co-worker extras would just sit and read a book because they knew it was long days just sitting around drinking cold coffee and doughnuts, I would watch everything that's happening. I would watch the director. I would watch how everything was working, how filmmaking worked, how loud or softly actors were speaking because it was what I wanted to pursue. See, the thing about training in theatre and having a degree in theatre, we're taught TO TALK LIKE THIS whereas on a film set we're talking softly, like we're having a normal conversation. So if it's somebody interested in acting, it's a great starting point to see what it's all about.
Evelyn Reid: But can you expect to have your big break by being an extra on a film set?
Noelle Hannibal: It's not likely. I mean, if somebody looks at you and thinks “hey, I want that person,” I mean, yeah, it could happen, but the odds are no.
Evelyn Reid: And how does the pay work? Is it more than minimum wage?
Next: Noelle on Working with Jim Carrey, Stand-In Dress Sizes, and MoreContinue to 2 of 3 below.
02 of 03
How to Be a Movie Extra
Evelyn Reid: And how does the pay work? Is it more than minimum wage?
Noelle Hannibal: I don't really know what pay is like for extra work in today's market. Non-union pay, I'm going to estimate that it's probably about $100 a day. And a day is an 8-hour time period. You do get overtime. You would get time and a half by Hour 9, then double time by I think it was Hour 12 and if you get to Hour 16 ... I worked on The Cable Guy with Jim Carrey in the medieval time scene. I was one of 500 people waving flags. And I worked on that movie for 3 or 4 days but Jim? He never tuns off. So, in between takes, he was entertaining us, entertaining us to the point where the days were getting longer and longer because he was always goofing around and laughing and messing up. So we hit Hour 16 and any hour after Hour 16 was called Golden Time, which means you get your day rate. For each hour! So if your day rate is $100, then anything after Hour 16 is 100$ an hour. So I'm in the union, I'm in the Screen Actors Guild, so at the time our day rate was close to $200 so when we were hit Hour 16, five hundred people went “chi ching!” And then Hour 17, “chi ching!” And we got second and third winds. We got all loopy but we didn't care how long we were stuck there. I was making a ton of money! And it was fun. We were being entertained by Jim Carrey.
Evelyn Reid: So it sounds like this kind of gig is for people who have a really free schedule?
Noelle Hannibal: Oh yeah. You never know how long you're going to be on set. They can never tell you how long it's going to take.
Evelyn Reid: And how much notice do you get? When do you find out if you get a movie extra gig?
Noelle Hannibal: I used to get called the day before. But that was my job. In L.A., there was one big extra casting company called Central Casting and when you look at the end credits of most movies, you'll see Central Casting on the list, especially if it was shot in L.A. and I knew all the casting ... like when I went to register, I was introduced to all of them. And it's like any business. A lot of it is who-you-know. You have to make connections and you have to network and I made sure to go and speak to every single one of them and pick up all their cards. And I had a favorite. And I would call him and say “what you got?” and it got to the point where he would just call me or refer me to others. So it reached the point where I was working almost every day. On the days I wanted to work.
Evelyn Reid: So you find out if you have a gig the day before but then you don't know if a gig is going to last one day or two weeks?
Noelle Hannibal: Usually they'll tell you if it's going to be more than one day. But, while on set, even if your job is supposed to last one day, they might decide to use you for something else. Like, I worked on a film that was shot in L.A., the interior scene was in L.A.. But the exterior scene was shot in Palm Springs. Well, they had this guy and myself walking out of a door, which means we have to be on the street in Palm Springs. So they put us up in a hotel and I got two extras days of work and I got to go to Palm Springs, which I had never done before, so it wasn't so bad.
Evelyn Reid: And what about getting hooked up with casting agencies. Is there anything scammy people should look out for? I noticed for example this one Montreal extra casting agency asking for $40 to be included in their extra actors database. Is this standard procedure to make background performers pay for the chance to be background performers?
Noelle Hannibal: I honestly have no idea. My experience working as an extra and stand-in was all in Los Angeles. I would never have paid to get extra work. The production company for whatever TV show or movie the extras casting company is casting pays them. I would never pay any agent or management company up front. They get paid when they book you.
Evelyn Reid: Now how does it work to become a stand-in?
Noelle Hannibal: It's still through the same agency usually. But you have to fit the physical type of the actor in the movie or the TV show that you're working on. It is again, who you know. You make friends with the people at the casting agency and they might think of you for stand-in work.
Evelyn Reid: So you've got to have the same body measurements, height, skin tone and hair color as the actor you're standing in for?
Noelle Hannibal: They can put you in a wig if they want to, if they really want you, if you're the exact physical type of the actor. And I mean there's a range. I worked as a stand-in for an actress that is two inches shorter than me. But she was always wearing heels so it didn't matter.
Evelyn Reid: Now for us women out there, what kind of body measurements do we need to have to match up with Hollywood actresses? It can be hard to figure it out just from seeing A-listers in photos and film.
Noelle Hannibal: Well, first off, you can't really go after stand-in work. You just have to make sure you know the people who are hiring the stand-ins because then they'll think of you. If you stay in contact with them and work regularly as an extra, you're going to come to their mind. Let them know you're more interested in stand-in work than just extra work and they have files, they have pictures of you.
Evelyn Reid: But what kind of dress size do you need to have?
Noelle Hannibal: Everybody is different. What if they're looking for a stand-in for Melissa McCarthy for instance? It depends on the actress. I mean, if you're looking at the X-Men film and Hally Berry, she looks to me like she's a tiny person. Go on IMDB, check her height and try estimating if she's a size zero or a size 2.
Evelyn Reid: or size 4 even?
Noelle Hannibal: Oh, I think size 4 is considered big now. Have you seen actresses lately? They're tiny. They're bony. They're little stick figures.
Evelyn Reid: Go figure. Rebecca Romijn looks like a towering Amazon on film but she's probably less than a size 4 in person?
Noelle Hannibal: Or Jennifer Lawrence. She looks like a healthy sized girl. But she's probably a size 2 or something.
Evelyn Reid: And stand-in work pays the same as extra work?
Noelle Hannibal: Nah, it pays more.
Evelyn Reid: But it's the same as extra work in terms of having to drop everything at a moment's notice and be flexible?
Noelle Hannibal: Absolutely.
Evelyn Reid: And what about photo doubles?
Next: Photo Double Work, Al Pacino's Preferred Transportation, and One of the Nicest Celebrities Noelle Ever MetContinue to 3 of 3 below.
03 of 03
How to Be a Movie Extra
Evelyn Reid: And what about photo doubles?
Noelle Hannibal: Photo doubles are used for body shots. Like if there's a butt shot, for instance? Some actors don't want their butts shown, so... body doubles are basically the same thing as a photo double. There was a picture from Pretty Woman of Julia Roberts. But it wasn't her legs in the picture. So it's stuff like that.
Evelyn Reid: What do you do to become a photo double?
Noelle Hannibal: That I don't know because I never did anything like that. Wait, I did somebody's hands once. [Chuckles]. I've done so much stuff that you know, you just forget. But now that you mention it, I recall being somebody's hands and I can't remember whose and I can't remember what but I think the person [in question] had bitten fingernails or something like that but there was a closeup of a ring or something so they wanted nice hands. I can't remember what [film] it was. It'll probably come to me at 4 in the morning. I won't call you and wake you up! But ask the extra castng agency questions! That's what they're there for. You have to show initiative. And you have to be nice!
Evelyn Reid: Be nice.
Noelle Hannibal: It doesn't matter what level you're at. You should always be nice. Being nice gets you much farther than being not nice. [Chuckles].
Evelyn Reid: That makes me think of Johnny Depp. I keep hearing how down-to-earth and nomrla and nice he is. And just the way you described Jim Carrey ...
Noelle Hannibal: And he was so huge then when he did The Cable Guy. Ace Ventura had already been out and that's what propelled him and here he was, a big star, and he was just so nice, down-to-earth and easy to talk to...I mean, yeah, he had a bodyguard, but still.
Evelyn Reid: But the Hollywood A-listers Noelle, the ones who make it to the top and stay there for more than just a couple of years, did they have to be nice to pull that off?
Noelle Hannibal: In my experience, yes. Like, working on The Cable Guy with Jim Carrey? It was directed by Ben Stiller. And Ben Stiller was incredible. He just ... [pause] ... he made us feel like we were important. Whereas quite often, when you're working on a film set as an extra, you're just background, you're nameless, faceless people. I mean every set is different and it depends on the second assistant director who is responsible for you, or the production assistant who is also responsible for you. But most the time, you don't matter. And Ben made us feel like we mattered.
Evelyn Reid: So the best of the best are nice.
Noelle Hannibal: In my experience, the ones who I've met who are A-listers have been super kind, super super nice. I've met Johnny Depp, I've met Viggo Mortensen... one of my favorite people that I ever met is Viggo Mortensen...
Evelyn Reid: And he's a Montreal Canadiens fan too.
Noelle Hannibal: That's right! He's a Canadiens fan because he went to St. Lawrence College in upstate New York. Yeah, I'm a Viggo fan. Can you tell?
Evelyn Reid: [Laughter]
Noelle Hannibal: Now I had met him before he had done The Lord of the Rings b ut he had still done G.I. Jane and he had done A Perfect Murder with Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow. He was well on his way to becoming a star and he was lovely, really really sweet and very quiet and down-to-earth.
Evelyn Reid: Humble.
Noelle Hannibal: Yeah. Or Robert Downey Jr. Amazing. I mean he had his troubles, you know. But my complete experience with him was really really positive. So maybe, yes, you need to be nice. But then again, I've met others who haven't been so wonderful. There are exceptions to every rule. There are those actors who, you can guess who they are, whose publicists who need to reign them in a little bit. But you know? Just let them be actors. We don't need to know what they're like as people because that kind of ruins our perception of them as an actor on the screen when all we think about is who they are as a person.
Evelyn Reid: You kind of have a point there.
Noelle Hannibal: So there are exceptions to every rule. There are some people who might not have the best personalities but they're awesome actors. And that's what matters. I remember the very first time I went to New York, I saw Al Pacino on the subway. Al Pacino. Taking the subway! And I remember Telling me friend “oh my God. That's Al Pacino!” She said “I don't think so Noelle. I don't think Al Pacino takes the subway.” Then Pacino was on Jay Leno or David Letterman or something maybe a couple of months later and whoever it was who interviewing him said “hey, I heard you still take the subway.” And Pacino said “yeah. It's the only way to get around New York City.” I called my best friend right away and said “Ha! I told you! Al Pacino!” That's a pretty down-to-earth guy who doesn't think he needs a car driving him around with tinted windows.
Evelyn Reid: So when it come down to it, if you want to do extra work, you want to do photo double work, stand-in gigs or even if you wanna be a big star, be humble, and stay down to earth.
Noelle Hannibal: Don't ever expect to be the big star. If you want to be in the performing arts, in film, in television, in theatre, aspire to be a working actor. I know there are people who say “no, you have to set your sights beyond the stars,” or whatever but being a star is unrealistic. And you never know when it's going to happen. And what, 5% Screen Actors Guild members are working actors. Aspire to be a working actor.