Do you know what it's like to have to fake laugh for hours? Always on command, and even if your mouth hurts? DO YOU?
My name is Erin La Rosa, and I'm a reporter for BuzzFeed. I was recently taken in by the tight-knit alien community of Zabvronian extras, where they allowed me to walk amongst them as an extra on the set of ABC's The Neighbors.
For those who haven't seen The Neighbors, it's a half-hour sci-fi sitcom about a normal family, the Weavers, living in a gated community of aliens. The Zabvronians look normal, or at least normal-ish, so long as you can ignore the fact that they're preppy with a penchant for dressing exactly alike.
Since the show premiered in 2012, it's tried to remain consistent with its alien neighbors by using the same extras every time. Now in its second season, in a lot of ways the actors who play Zabvronian extras have become like a mini-family to each other. They not only hang out on set, but remain friends and socialize when the cameras aren't rolling.
It was unique, then, when they let me step in for the day as an extra and become a Zabvronian. Much like the aliens from the planet Zabvron, I wanted to learn from my new neighbors. These are the lessons I took away from what it's like to live in the world of The Neighbors:
Lesson 1: Arrive on time, no matter how early that time is.
Lesson 2: The trailer is your home away from home.
Lesson 3: There's no such thing as too much makeup.
Once you're dressed, the next step to looking the Zabvronian part is hair and makeup. Because you're on camera, the makeup is practically shellacked on so that it will show up under the glare of harsh lighting. There's plenty of blush, lots of mascara, and a smear of hot pink lipstick to match the skirt. My hair was curled and sprayed until there was no possible way it would move. It was intense.
Lesson 4: If you get lost backstage, a PA will always know the way back.
After a half hour of hair and makeup, you're finally ready to head to the stage. But backstage on The Neighbors involves a series of narrow hallways that lead from one part of the stage into the next. For people who work on the set full-time, it's easy to navigate. But for those who don't, like me, you get a PA to guide you to the extras holding area.
Lesson 5: Bring a book.
The holding area is mainly just a space with folding chairs. It's far enough from set that you can talk and not interfere with scenes that are filming, but still part of the backstage area so that PAs can find you.
As an extra, it's important to bring two things with you to the holding area: 1) A book, iPad, or newspaper so you don't get bored, and 2) Your hanger and wardrobe bag, which is assigned to you and you're responsible for taking care of. It's an easy way for the wardrobe department to know if you're missing any parts of the uniform, and for you to return the costume at the end of the day.
Lesson 6: Nothing is real, not even the grass.
Lesson 7: Only raise your hand when you're told to.
Once the scene is set, the alien extras are brought back from the holding area to take their marks for the shoot. Even though all the audience will ever see is the actual actors, behind them are lighting and stunt people, and all around them are crew members, making sure that everything in the shot is just so. In essence, it takes a small village to create just one small scene.
As an extra, you may have to move a step to the left, or another to the right. The makeup and wardrobe people will be watching you closely, and will step in to fix things if so much as a hair falls out of place. You're told when to raise your hand, when to smile, and exactly where your eyes should focus when the director yells, "Action!"
To film this one scene, which will last all of a minute, you'll end up doing several takes. Each take is more or less the same, with the occasional change in direction. "Now try looking really excited," is a phrase you might hear often. At one point, I didn't listen closely enough and raised my hand when I wasn't supposed to. That's why I'm not an actress for a living.
Lesson 8: The orange tape is where you're supposed to stand.
Extras are just one slice of the TV crew of The Neighbors. There's a prop department, camera crew, director, assistant director, caterers, line producers, and so many more people that make it possible just to film one episode of this show. Because of all those moving parts, it's important to not have too many extras in the TV kitchen when filming is happening. One way to make things easier for everyone is set marks. A mark is where the actor will be standing, it helps the lighting and camera folks know where everything should be aimed, which makes the process of filming a lot simpler.
As an extra, you may be called into a scene just so the crew can put down a piece of tape to mark your spot. Then you'll be asked to leave while they set up things like lighting and sound.
Lesson 9: Being an extra is actually a pretty great job.
Eventually, when the scene is set, you'll be called back into the room to take your marks. Even then, some fine tuning needs to take place. Which means you'll spend a lot of time standing with your fellow extras. If you're all one big family, like the extras are on The Neighbors, chances are you'll spend that time chatting and catching up with each other. It's basically an excuse to socialize while still technically being at work. As far as jobs go, this is by far one of the more unique and interesting ones I've ever experienced. Plus, on a comedy set like this one, chances are that the people around you are pretty funny.
Lesson 10: Remember to return the wardrobe, and leave your Zabvronian identity on set.
When the cameras stop rolling and it's time for you to go home, you head back to the trailer to de-Zabvronian yourself. The preppy clothes come off, but the hair and makeup stays. (Until you wash it off, of course.) You return the costume to the wardrobe trailer, and just like that: you're not in Hidden Hills anymore. If you're lucky, you'll be called back to return to the neighborhood sometime soon.
To see new episodes of The Neighbors, tune in on Friday at 8:30/7:30 C on ABC.
And if you're interested in watching me on the show, make sure to tune in to the "Thanksgiving is No Schmuck Bait" Episode on Nov. 22.