For Kay Robison, being a television extra is just one of several part time jobs, although she thinks of it as one of her more creative ones. A calligrapher and house renovator, Robison had no prior acting experience when she met a casting agent for The WB drama Everwood at a party. “I said, ‘Oh, pick me!’” Robison recalled. “I went down and had a couple of snapshots taken at her place of work, ... they called me sometime thereafter, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Robison earns a standard rate of $72.50 a day plus meals for her work as an extra. She says her favorite scenes are community meetings, which make her feel the most like a part of the story. Her least favorite experience on Everwood was when she was asked to play a street person during a flashback to a rainy scene in New York. “I didn’t think a street person would have an umbrella, so I didn’t,” she says. “I got soaked, and it was so cold. I eventually broke down and got a garbage bag and put that on, and that helped a little. Then, after all of that effort, they never used any of it!”
Kerry Pence, 34, is also a regular Everwood extra. As an aspiring actor, he took a more active approach to getting cast. “I called the Utah Film Commission’s job hotline every week or so and left funny messages in different accents until they started to remember me and called me back,” he says.
Pence says that one of his biggest challenges as an extra is the pantomiming. Extras are often supposed to move their mouths like they’re having a conversation in the background behind the main characters, he explains, but they’re not supposed to actually make any noise. He’ll usually write a script for a conversation in his head so he can do it the same way each time.
One of Pence’s favorite parts about Everwood is the food. “When there are only a few extras, we eat off the cart with the cast and crew,” he says. “Baked rockfish. I don’t even know what that is, but man! They take care of theirs. It’s flattering when your company feeds you.”
While many people like Pence seek out casting agents, sometimes casting agents have to seek out the extras. Katte Cottam recalls that in 1994, when she had fire engine red hair with black streaks and wore “black, black and more black,” she and some friends were approached at a coffeehouse by casting agents for the vampire movie Mortal Fear and asked to be in a scene in a night club. For the shoot, which took 14 hours, Cottam had to pretend to be in a conversation during which she flipped her cloak across actress Joanna Kearns’ face as she walked by. (Kearns is best-known for playing the mom on TV’s Growing Pains.)
“I actually ended up smacking her in the face with my hand a couple of times,” Cottam recalls. “She was pretty good natured about it, but she got angry after about the fifth time because they were supposed to cue me when to flip, and they were not doing a very good job of that.”
Utah has become a popular place for television and film crews due to its unique scenery and low cost of living. Leigh von der Esch, executive director of the Utah Film Commission, says that Utah is also a fertile place to find extras. “There is a lot of native talent,” she says. “I’ve had crews compliment that.”
Traci Shumway, 40, has held a number of jobs, including waitressing and working at a psychiatric hospital. She was also involved in musical theater for 35 years, and decided she needed a change, so she signed up with an agency and got into being an extra a year ago. Until then, she didn’t even know what an extra was.
“I thought that to be an extra, you just kind of had to be in the background,” she explains. “So when Touched by an Angel was [being filmed in Utah], I tried to park my car and walk where I might accidentally be on TV. I really thought that in every movie I’d ever seen, that there just happened to be people in the background while they were filming.”
Shumway’s knowledge of movie-making grew quickly once her experience in the theater started landing her roles as a featured extra. Some of her parts have included a woman holding a pie at a dinner in the movie Buffalo Dreams, and a purple-headed cyclops in the Disney Channel feature Halloweentown III: Halloween High. Next up, she’s looking forward to being in a scene with Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian, which starts shooting this week on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Shumway was also quickly given opportunities to work as a casting assistant. She says she had no idea when she first started being an extra that it would lead to all these opportunities. Now she gets to walk up to people at the gym and tell them they, too, ought to be in pictures.
The Utah Film Commission’s job hotline for extras is 538-8747.