My Life As An Extra (part 1)

As I write this I’m sitting in the green room for a quick one day shoot on Matchbox Pictures’ latest film Grey Matter. I wasn’t sure exactly what the role would entail, but given the time frame of the shoot, and the past films written, directed, and produced by Greg Sager and his staff at Matchbox I knew it would be some sort of “monster.”

Well today is kind of a first for me, instead of the hours in the make-up chair that I’ve become accustomed to, I am just being shot for reference for a CGI effect. Luckily I don’t have to be back on the Dave And Greg set until July 1st. Yup, we’re shooting on Canada Day.

But seeing as I’m sitting here just waiting to be called to set, and I don’t even have my wardrobe yet, I figured I’d give you a little history on how I ended up here. I’ve had many friends, and members of the comedy community ask me how I land these gigs… Well if you really want to know, here’s how.

From crew member to extra

First day of shooting on Bloody Knuckles.

I’m going to skip right over the film school story, the films I’ve written and directed, and land right into the various crew positions I’ve had. The one thing I have figured out is no matter what department you are working on during a shoot of any kind is to always take the time to chat with everyone you can on set. Not only does it help keep morale up if everyone gets along, it’s also a very relaxed way to network. By doing this I unknowingly set things in motion to where I am now.

I was working on a long forgotten CBC series, MVP: The Secret Lives Of Hockey Wives, as a P.A. Now I know most of you know that “P.A.” stands for “production assistant,” in reality if you’ve ever been a P.A. you know it can also mean “please abuse.” Depending on the production, and director you’re working with. Luckily I’ve only had one or two sets where this ever happened. 99% of the time everyone understands we’re making pretend for a living, and although it can be long hours it’s really the best job ever.

It was just after our dinner break, got to love catering, and I was resuming my usual routine of walking between the trailers, and trucks cleaning the garbage and butt buckets waiting for someone to shout through the walkie to run a chair to set. It’s not a glorious job, but then again when I’m on set in any capacity that’s when I feel the most content. As I rounded the corner I saw a very familiar face, it was my friend Anthony.

“Hey man, what are you doing here?” I asked brightly.

Anthony smiled, “production hired me to design the tattoo that appears in the opening credits, and they asked me to come down to get inserts of my hands and my machine, ‘tattooing’ the design.”

Ant in studioNot only is Anthony a brilliant artist in a number of mediums (drawing, sculpting, tattooing) he has also worked in film and television as a special effects make-up artist with a resume that is extremely impressive for someone who is based in London, Ontario. We chatted for a while and caught up with what we had both been up to in the past couple of years. Knowing I had to get back to finishing my garbage hauling duties, I made a quick joke about being a zombie, or a corpse, in one of the upcoming projects he always seems to be working on. We both laughed and I walked away not thinking anything of it.

Fast forward a few years later and I was now working with Anthony at True Love Tattoo. He came in one morning as I was opening up the shop, and he gave me an email address. “You need to email this person right away.”

“What for?” I was sincerely confused. Actually I thought I was in trouble for something I didn’t know I did, to someone I didn’t even know. Sorry that’s how my brain works. Pathetic, isn’t it?

So right after getting the clients in the door, their paperwork completed, and the shop was filled with the familiar hum of tattoo machines I finally sent the email. Within less than an hour I got a reply. Turns out I was emailing the person in charge of background casting for Resident Evil: Retribution.

Cattle call casting

After a few brief and cordial email exchanges, they called me in for a meeting and possible audition in Toronto. After jotting down the address to the studio, and assuring the very friendly lady on the phone that although I was coming from out of town I did live in Toronto and I am extremely proficient in using the TTC. She laughed, and I hung up the phone.

Pictching in as Boom Operator on the set of Matchbox Pictures' Devil Seed.

A few days later I was on the morning Via Rail on my way to a major film studio’s sound stages. You would think I would’ve been edgy, or nervous, surprisingly I wasn’t. Having crewed on shows, and even been in charge of background holding (this is where production keeps the extras until they’re needed on set), I figured I knew what was coming, a “cattle call” audition.  The visual that term may conjure up in your mind is most likely right. It’s a room filled with anywhere between 20 – 80 people who kind of look like you… It can be a little creepy, and you go through one by one to stand and chat with casting and whatever member of production has shown up that day; you’re escorted out; and you wait for a call. It can be taxing on your ego, and mood because if you don’t get the part, they don’t call. You only ever get a phone call when you actually get the role. It doesn’t matter how big the role is, that’s how it works. Now I’ve learned to just let it go. The moment I leave an audition, I toss my sides away and don’t think about it.

So that’s what I thought I was walking into. Me, and 40 other dudes who kind of look like me, doing the same thing then I get to leave and have the rest of my day in Toronto. Seems like a decent trade off. I get right off the train, and right on to the subway. Two things always have to happen when I go to that city otherwise it doesn’t feel like I’ve actually been in Toronto. Those two things: I have to take the subway and the streetcar. I don’t know why, I just have to. I love their transit system, now that could only be because the LTC here isn’t very well organized, and if I miss a bus nine out of ten times I can walk to my destination before the next bus gets there.

I get off the subway, and that’s when I realize I’m about 45 minutes early. So I casually walked from the station to the studio. By the time I got there I was still 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Regardless I signed in, and was lead through a series of winding hallways, passing all the production offices of the various departments, and seated in a board room.

“If you’re hungry, or you want coffee it’s all right there,” the petite production assistant pointed to table filled with all the usual suspects when it comes to craft service. Bagels, croissants, granola bars, chips, chocolate, etc. etc. etc. Then she quickly closed the door.

Dead Russian Army just waiting to go home...

I got up and made myself a coffee, took a bagel, and a granola bar and sat down at the table. Puzzled, but still not anxious, I munched away and as each new actor was let in (yes they all kind of looked like me), I would smile and introduce myself, and go back to eating. Finally table that sat 10 was filled.

That’s right when the door flew open and in walks the bundle of energy and excitement, “hello I’m Jane, I’m the head of background casting. I’m sure your agents have informed you of what your roles are going to be for this production….” Her eyes scanned each and every face as she spoke, the second time her gaze passed our eye’s locked.

“Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. You’re Matthew, Anthony and Paul’s friend. I’m so sorry.” She reached her hand across the table, and I shook it. “My name is Jane, nice to meet you.”

***End of Part 1***