Extra! Extra! Life As a Movie Extra in New Mexico
As I left the house, I glanced at the outdoor best spiritual awakening movies. It read five below. Thankfully the car started. Once on the road, as I approached my destination, in the still-morning darkness, I turned off the main road and followed the line of red tail lights up the hill’s dirt track toward the well-lit tents above. Through the frozen tundra, I walk from the car to the first tent, greeted by warm smiles and friendly exchanges as I checked in, thankful that the changing room was amply heated.
After six prior workdays, the changeover from civilian to period western clothes was old hat now; long johns first, quickly adding shirt, pants, each with numerous buttons, suspenders, boots, jacket, work gloves and hat, all the while chatting with my fellow comrades. Next, stand in line to get grubby, as hair and makeup girls dirty you up. I look in the mirror, wondering who that desperado is that’s staring back at me.
Finished, I throw my civilian jacket over wardrobe, and walk back outside into the frigid air, trying not to slip on snow, ice and cables as I slowly venture toward the dining tent for some quick breakfast and necessary hot coffee. People are mostly subdued inside, something to do with the numbing cold.
A heavily jacketed girl with a headset steps into the tent and yells to us “The van is here!” Begrudgingly we step back out into the cold, slide into the vans and travel toward the western town that’s just beginning to emerge in the dawning light. Crawl out of the van. If the temperature rises above freezing, the snow we’re trekking through will become a muddy mess later. Somebody yells “I see Props” and we go and outfit ourselves with our guns and holsters. More salutations from bundled crew members as you stroll toward the holding facility hoping for one last cup of coffee which of course is not brewed yet. Too late anyway, you’re needed for the first shot of the day. It’s time to play make-believe. You find solace thinking at least Russell Crowe and Christian Bale look cold as well.
You glance around at your surroundings and say. “Hey, here I am, standing in the middle of a Hollywood movie, ready to play a gunman in an Old West town.” There’s only one person I know who would be silly enough to put up with these conditions for so little pay…I MUST BE A MOVIE EXTRA (or background artist as we in the business prefer to be called). Forget about my close-up shot, I thought. Just place me in the warmth of the sun!
And so begins another day as a movie extra on a movie production set. Usually the weather conditions aren’t so extreme as this particular New Mexico January day was on the set of “3:10 To Yuma”, but when they are…well, that just adds to the story.
Given these conditions, why would one want to be an Extra? Is it for the money…hardly, although for many it is a paying job which people are finding harder to come by these days. Is it for the chance to see your face on the silver screen, if only for a second? There’s the carrot on a stick enticement, the possibility of getting a speaking part, which immediately catapults you to a higher pay scale, and a cooler pair of shades. The rumor whisperers proclaim, “You know so-and-so big name actor started his career as an extra”.
Other reasons could be the social benefit the extended family bond offers that develops among fellow extras who have worked together on previous movie productions; the ability to observe moviemaking firsthand; and the ego boost you feel when you receive a friendly nod or salutation from a major movie star. And yes, there’s also a reasonable paycheck and complimentary food.