Thanks largely to state film production incentives passed in 2008, the fabled 15 minutes of fame are well within reach in Michigan. It’s now quite possible to experience some watered-down Hollywood glamour in the state as an extra in a big-name movie.
The industry has been increasingly active on the University of Michigan campus and around Ann Arbor. Many students have seen the likes of Clive Owen or Pierce Brosnan striding across the Diag from a distance, and actually working with them (well, standing behind them) on film isn’t nearly as difficult as one might expect.
“Really, it’s not that hard to become an extra at all,” said Michelle Begnoche, communications adviser for the Michigan Film Office. “It’s really just a matter of showing up. Productions post casting calls everywhere — on Craigslist, industry websites. The Michigan Film Office’s website puts them up as well. There’s no real science to it.”
Some in the area have been surprised at the ease with which they made it onto the screen.
“I heard about being an extra from some friends in Grosse Point,” said LSA junior Chrissie Costakis. “It was during the time they were filming (Drew Barrymore’s roller derby movie) ‘Whip It.’ So I just signed up with a registry online, with my picture and my information. That was like two years ago. Then finally, this summer, they contacted me about being an extra in (the latest Miley Cyrus movie) ‘LOL: (Laughing out Loud).’ ”
Alex Fishman, a Michigan resident and student at the University of Pennsylvania, stumbled into being an extra in “Scream 4” in a similar fashion.
“I’m a huge fan of Wes Craven movies and I found a link on a website I’d heard about and just registered. The movie people e-mailed me and I showed up at six in the morning. Mostly, I wanted to meet celebrities, though. It wasn’t about a big acting break,” Fishman said.
Others take their roles more seriously. LSA senior Jesse Belanger, who’s been an extra twice now, has been agent shopping and got headshots in the hopes of pursing acting beyond extras parts, while LSA sophomore Cynthia Zhang has been modeling since she was 16. Zhang has been an extra in three films. She gets notifications about casting calls through her modeling agency.
“I’m not expecting to get exposure or anything by being an extra. I just like to see how movies are made, and that’s kind of why I do it. There are a lot of things that you would just never really think about,” Zhang said.
Zhang was an extra in “This Must Be the Place” with Sean Penn. But apart from a brief exchange with Penn, Zhang recalls, bizarrely enough, a glass of orange soda most vividly. She played a waitress.
“I watched a woman pour orange soda into a glass over and over and over, trying to get the right volume and the right color,” Zhang said.
A huge fuss was made over the orange soda, but nobody seemed to notice that Zhang, who had been outfitted in a traditional Chinese dress, was supposed to be Japanese, she said.
“It’s always the really small stuff that you wouldn’t think would matter that actually does. I mean, I really don’t think I would notice if a glass of orange soda wasn’t the right shade,” Zhang said.
Fishman, Belanger, Costakis and Zhang all had preconceived notions of what it would be like to be an extra. They felt they could probably look at a movie scene and tell you how it was made and whether it would have been painful to film as an extra. Basically, it’s not glamorous work.
Costakis’s role was in a club scene in “LOL.” She faked cheering all day.
“We had to pantomime because they didn’t want any noise so I was just kind of jumping around with my mouth open and a silly expression on my face,” Costakis said. “It was exhausting.”
Although she stood ten feet away from Miley Cyrus, Costakis didn’t consider the proximity to be one of the perks of the job.
Technically, extras aren’t supposed to talk to the stars. You speak only when spoken to. Sometimes, though, there is a bit of gray area in which it’s possible to have that shot to talk the celebrities.
“As long as you’re respectful, I don’t think it’s a problem,” Belanger said. “I was in this one scene (in ‘Scream 4’) and between takes, Neve Campbell was just sitting on a couch reading this philosophical book about living and dying. So you know, I asked her about it. It seemed pretty interesting.”
According to Belanger, the experience is really what you make it.
“I never really spent time in the little holding room. I went out and watched them film,” he said. “Once I snuck up to the murder room, which was pretty cool. It was all bloody because somebody was supposed to have been hacked on the bed.”
Sometimes, he said, it’s best just to sit back and listen.
“Eavesdrop. That’s key. I mean, you shouldn’t do it in real life, but you can learn a lot, like where to go to find a good agent, places to avoid, what to wear. A lot of your questions can be answered that way.”
Even though wandering through a murder house sounds fun, an extra’s job is still quite difficult. The hours are long and the pay isn’t always great, depending on the role. As an extra in a large scene, Fishman and Costakis made minimum wage. Zheng and Belanger, who had more specific roles, got paid slightly more. According to Belanger, the stand-ins for the actors make the most, but no one does it solely for the money.
“One gentleman I spoke to recently (is an extra) as a hobby. Others think of it differently. All kinds of people are extras. People are making careers out of this — it’s a way to generate income,” Begnoche said.
But sometimes the income is all extras get for their time, as their 15 minutes of fame are expendable as far as the filmmakers are concerned.
“As an extra, you’re in the background so there’s a chance that you won’t make the cut and see your scene in the final production,” Begnoche said.
All the money, time, effort and the cans of orange soda can seem a little over-the-top and perhaps a bit wasteful. Yet Begnoche maintains that a lot of the money is going back into the Michigan communities the movies are made in. In 2008, there were 35 productions that generated $125 million, according to the Michigan Film Office. This year, the Michigan Film Office expects more than $300 million to come from the budding film industry.
“Overall, the reactions have been very positive. It’s exciting. Communities are really very eager to have (these films made) in the area,” Begnoche said.
Zhang’s family owns a Chinese restaurant called Kim’s in Troy, Michigan. Incidentally, Kim’s was chosen as a filming location for part of the new “Harold and Kumar” movie.
“It was a huge deal,” Zhang said. There was a sprawl of 20 to 30 trailers in the parking lot and a massive crowd of people for two full days. Zhang’s father even got to be an extra in the film. The movie only spent two days filming in Troy, but it definitely left an impression.
“I think people (are looking forward) to being able to point and say ‘I was there, that’s my home,’ ” Zhang said.
The extras have built up their own community as well.
“Oh, there are definitely extras cliques,” Belanger said. “There’s a lot of people who have been doing this for a long time, then there are the people who are new to it. And there’s a lot of jealousy of people having done more than you. ‘How many movies have you been in?’ was something everybody was always asking.”
While acting’s a competitive business, there is something about being an extra that draws people in. For some, the experience of being an extra is a wake-up call that acting might not be their preferred profession.
“I’d never want to be an actress (after being an extra). It’s too repetitive. If you do an awkward scene like a make-out scene you’d have to keep doing it like 20 times,” Costakis said.
But others absolutely love it. Belanger would drive through the middle of the night in the pitch black, only to arrive on a set that was lit up to look like the afternoon. “It’s so real, but so fake,” said Belanger, and that’s what makes it interesting.