Get a proper job!

Get a proper job post title image

Possibly the absolute antithesis of getting a “proper job” would be something akin to film extra, or “supporting artist” work (for most of us at least). It’s an interesting ‘everyman’ route into the film industry, without necessitating painstaking training as an actor, proper - and without even having the desperate (and often unrequited) love for the genre that drives such masochistic, aspiring professionals.

The downsides (for some) include the sheer amount of inconvenience foisted upon you, the apparent glass wall that separates you from the pros and sometimes, the nature of your fellow extras themselves. Also your very status as a supporting artist, no matter how professionally you execute it, marks you out as a prop-with-legs. Essentially: a vase or hatstand with the capability of independent motion, to be ushered this way and that (usually within a herd of similarly appointed individuals) at the whims of the attendant production crew. Glamorous, it certainly isn't. You weren't assuming that this was going to get you discovered, were you? Oh dear.

Sarah Louise Lilley describes your newfound status well on The Green Room blog:

You are a number.  Literally. You no longer have a name. You are assigned a number and everyone will constantly ask for it and refer to you as it. From, “Hi.  What is your number? Here is your prop.” to “What is your number? Make-up is ready for you.

On the plus side: it’s usually an memorable experience, for one reason or another. Perhaps it’s the location of the shoot or the nature of the project itself, perhaps the interesting meetings and conversations with fellow-travellers who temporarily cross your path, or the weird, staged vignettes that you may find yourself a part of. With thick skin, some professionalism and a sense of humour, it can be interesting, enjoyable and financially remunerative. But from a cold start, the chances are that you’ll still need a flexible day job for the foreseeable future.

A TV camera

The most solid route into the industry is via dedicated, established and reputable agencies that provide supporting artists to the film and TV industries. These are a few web searches away (along with the dubious ones), so not far. Most will operate a roster of registered individuals who are ready, willing and able to fill certain on-screen gaps that a production may require. They will (probably) update their listings annually, and getting hired may be as simple as enquiring, registering, having a photo and interview session, and then simply: waiting. Most agencies will also find that they need to recruit extra individuals with specific attributes throughout the year. This can be another inroad if you have missed the recruitment drive/update.

Although I mentioned earlier that you don’t absolutely need prior training or experience to find work at this end of the film industry; it will still help if you have special skills or abilities, or own authentic period costumes/accessories/vehicles, or yes: you do in fact have some acting experience at any level. Have you said a line on camera before (professionally, that is)? Or handled props on camera? Can you ride a motorbike or a horse, play guitar, fire a gun, juggle? Can you dance in a period style to a high standard or speak another language? It’s odd: the amount of things that we just take for granted that are in fact “skills”.

Even attributes that are often regarded negatively by our society (and throughout other working environments) are not necessarily regarded in the same light here. For instance, age is no real barrier, providing that you are not infirm. All ages are required. Similarly, specific jobs may call for amputees or individuals disabled in some way. Anything is possible. The more you are a specific type, then the less you are any other, so therefore your suitability/employability range is correspondingly reduced.

You will need a high degree of time/distance flexibility when it comes to taking jobs, a tolerance (even a love) of early mornings and a professional outlook unfazed by fictional film industry glamour.

Job alerts may appear the night before, in locations several hours travel away and with the requirement that you sign-in, on set, the following morning at 6am, ready to attend wardrobe and makeup, followed by lots and lots of waiting around.

Notification may also appear several weeks in advance of a job, which can then be on-off-maybe-on again (with seemingly random rescheduling) according to someone’s apparent whim somewhere. This forces you to either be extremely tolerant and accommodating (essential attributes), or to step out of play. In the latter case the downside is that you may become know for turning down work, and subsequently less likely to be asked in the first instance.

Agencies are looking for artistes who are ultimately professional and reliable at every turn, regardless of what circumstance may throw their way - regardless of the erratic, mercurial nature of the work at hand. As an ‘extra’ you will be taking your agency’s name onto a film/TV set; - possibly after only a brief interview. They are potentially risking a lot in an industry where reputation counts massively.

A jungle film set

On set you can expect to be waiting around (again), repeating the same sequence of events multiple times, even yelled at - usually for (stupidly) disobeying instructions, or talking repeatedly. Yes, it’s hard to understand why folks commit these particular crimes; surely “do this” and “keep quiet” are simple enough instructions. But no, some folks decide that they need to be camera-centre for when they pause the DVD later in front of their approving friends. Others have a pathological need to keep that big, dumb hole in their faces flapping open at all times. These are grown adults that I am referring to, incidentally.   

Also, on set: expect to be ‘blanked’ with pained, disdainful expressions by proper actors who are decidedly up themselves, or sometimes even casually spoken to by their professional fellows who are grounded and laid back about the whole business. It’s a bizarrely polarising affair.

Going into fan-mode, asking for autographs or selfies are all amateurish forms of behaviour that can really backfire. For a start your mobile phone/camera is not allowed on set for quite severe copyright (legal) reasons, also: everyone is there to get the job done without having to deal with people who can’t handle themselves in a professional situation. No agency wants a reputation for hiring idiots, so if you are one, you may find yourself out of work very quickly.

Of the agencies themselves, there are some real gems out there who treat good supporting artistes as the assets that they are. Why abuse the very means by which they garner an income? They have a decent, upfront, structured pay scale for regular and out-of-hours work, as well as for the differing ‘levels’ and demands of the work itself. They provide good back-up and location services (not least an on-set rep.), offer travel expenses as applicable, provide emergency out-of-hours contact numbers, assist with problems that you may encounter and generally uphold their end of the bargain. They’ll also have terms and conditions and a contract to protect all parties. You do have a NI number, and are allowed to work in the UK, right?

With regard to pay; it’s worth asking if the quoted figures are gross or net of their deductions. If you don’t know what “gross or net” means then it’s really time to do some research, seeing as you are now a self-employed supporting artist. Whilst you are at it; you may want to enquire about insurance too. What if you are injured whilst working?

Yes, they do make deductions (that’s how they generate income) but these should be pretty obvious, understandable and reasonable. They earn, because you earn, so you should NOT be asked for upfront “registration” or “admin” fees, be given job details that are suspiciously vague or be expected to do something dangerous, illegal or that you find uncomfortable or “wrong” - all massive red flags, incidentally. A conscientious agency will already have asked you what you are prepared to do, and what you find objectionable.

Expect to find an established (physical) business address (that isn't someone’s flat!) and a presence within the industry. They’ll have a decent web page too: with solid, reliable contact details, even with artist/client logins and calendar-schedules, ongoing vacancies, guidelines and more.

Anyone can promise anything, hire a room or have a fine looking web page these days so you will need to be somewhat ‘smart’ yourself, sorry. Still want to be in the movies?