For my first day in the professional workforce, I wore heels and a blazer, bought just for the occasion. I was a film and television extras casting assistant in New York City, and felt optimistic, grown-up, and eager to present my contribution to the world.
"You're gonna wanna do a database search for African-American men, ages 50-65," my boss told me flatly. "Then just call them, find out if they're if they're available for work tomorrow, and if they know how to shine shoes."
No sweat, obviously. I did have a freshly mounted Bachelor of Arts degree. I plugged in the criteria. Gender: male. Ethnicity: black. Age range: 50-65.
Results Found: 192.
I scanned the small town of faces — a myriad of hopeful candidates — then glanced quizzically at my boss. "Nobody too good-looking," he guided me further. "Find a guy who looks working-class, like he's been shining shoes for a few decades."
I nodded, my eyes darting from one image to the next. Some men looked happy, some looked shy or uncomfortable. Short Caesar cuts, long dreads, beards, goatees — some of these 50- to 65-year-olds were definitely stretching reality and were well into their seventies. I chose my guys discerningly and began to dial. "Hi! This is Mihal from Hollywood Casting*," I squawked, disturbingly chipper. "How are you today?" Option No. 1 was well, and pleased to receive my call. "Great! I wanted to know if you're available for some background work tomorrow on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." He was. "Perfect! And do you by any chance know how to shine shoes?" A heavy pause landed with a thud on the other end. "Well, uh, no I don't actually," Option 1 replied, treading softly. "Oh, OK, no problem!" I replied — still alarmingly animated. "Thanks anyway. Bye!"
I placed the receiver down and paused for a moment. For two moments, and then one more. Did I really just do that? Did I just ask an old black guy if he knew how to shine shoes? Dumping him like a bad date when he said no? "I really just did that," I echoed out loud to my boss, feeling bits of vomit crawling up my throat. "I just asked an old black guy if he knew how to shine shoes." He shrugged, neutral. "Yeah…keep calling, we've gotta fill that spot."
So I did. And after 11 or 12 more calls, I filled that spot.
I majored in film in a pocket-sized department at a New England liberal arts college. We addressed our professors by their first names, and I wrote innumerable essays with titles like "Cher & Clueless: A Critical Analysis of Postmodernism"; "Social Threats: As Presented by Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse, and Nosferatu"; and "Seeing Red: The Intersection of Fight Club and American Beauty." I believed that film served a more profound purpose than just entertainment. Innocent and eager as I was, this small-town, small-college gal was game for the complexities and adventures that awaited me in the industry of glitter and dreams.
I soon found out, though, that extras casting is not really casting at all. For a typical production, there are no auditions, because extras don't act. There are no interviews, because they don't speak. Extras casting — or background casting, as the union demands it be called (and extras prefer being referred to as "background actors" or "background artists") — is the business of weaving a fabric. Extras form a backdrop: unremarkable scenery that mirrors society — or mirrors society's image of itself. Like lighting or wardrobe or location, extras inform how viewers interpret a scene they didn't even know they were interpreting. Here's an example: You're watching a movie that's set in an elementary school in Minnesota (even though it's shot in Westchester). All of the kids are Caucasian, all of the parents picking them up are Caucasian, perhaps a sprinkle of Asians for good measure. Then we cut to a park scene, with a mix of black and Latino kids and their parents. Obviously we're in a different — perhaps tougher — part of town, right? Or perhaps a different city altogether, and the rest of the story takes place in Queens, New York, or Compton, California. Put Caucasian (and a peppering of Asian) kids in that same park and you'll probably just assume we're still in Minnesota.
Extras casting has become a perfected science, an intricate system of classification and de facto discrimination. Extras casting directors are a group of professional stereotypers. In fact, we're such experts at stereotyping that our level of dehumanization rivals that of, I don't know — the Aryan Brotherhood? We see not personality, but color; not talent, but type. To extras casting directors, extras are not people with lives and families and values and thoughts and feelings. They are categories: young, old, fat, skinny, white, ethnic, upscale, downscale, attractive, quirky. Generally the most we know about the temperaments of these people has to do with their behaviors on set: arrogant, slow, high-maintenance, reliable, bothersome, and so on.
We know who wears a toupee, which guy claims to be 5 feet 8 inches but is actually 5 feet 5 inches and wears inserts, which mom brings her kid to set, who's a perv, who's always available (read: who rarely gets called for work), who claims to have a full suit but really wears matching slacks and sportscoats, and who chased Matt Damon down for his autograph and got sent home without pay. We care about stats, not people, and we keep track of all of them.
Other stats we keep track of are scene stats. Every show is broken down by scene, and every scene is broken down by shot — all orchestrated by the director and his or her cronies/support staff. This team generates an "extras breakdown," outlining which types of extras should be in every scene of each day.
The most recent production that I worked on — I'm going to call it Manhattan Lights — was my last. Manhattan Lights was set and shot in New York City, and a typical extras breakdown for one day looked like this:
INT. EAST VILLAGE BAR
- 30 East Village Bar Patrons (young, hip, friendly looking, 50-50 M/F split, 20% ethnic flavor)
- 2 Bartenders
- 1 Pizza Making Guy
- 1 DJ
INT. LOFT PARTY
- 50 Party Crowd (50-50 M/F split, mix of older wealthier types with younger hip model types)
- 10 Catering Staff
- 1 DJ
EXT. CITY HALL
- 20 City Hall ND Pedestrians (business/politico types, suits & briefcases, 70-30 M/F split)
- 25 ND Park Pedestrians
- 2 Dog Walkers
Like all New York–based movies and TV shows, Manhattan Lights had many unwritten (and sometimes explicitly written) rules. East Village bar patrons (or any hip bar in lower Manhattan or Brooklyn) should appear to be ages 21–34ish. They're funky, they're attractive, and standout styles are welcome: tattoos, piercings, edgy clothing, etc. The "ethnic flavor" they're referring to here means something like black people with big natural hair or dreads, Asian guys with full-sleeved tattoos, and maybe a top-heavy Latina gal with a raunchy leather dress. The DJ in the booth better either be a really hot chick or an extra-cool-looking dude.
Onto the loft party scene. "Older and wealthier" is otherwise referred to as "upscale" and is usually conveyed by clean, well-dressed white people (really full, coiffed white hair is always a great thing). For the teeny-tiny ethnic quota, the men must generally be same-day clean-shaven with a conservative haircut, and the women slim-bodied with tamed, relaxed hair.
In a noble effort, we extras casting directors try our darndest to be politically correct about it. We say stuff like "African American" instead of black and "Caucasian" instead of white. But when it comes down to it, most crowd scenes are simply made up of white versus "ethnic," where "ethnic" is a colorful mash-up of our choosing — black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, etc. Of course it gets more specific when dealing with singular roles, like the black shoe-shiner or a Mexican food-delivery guy.
For most productions (excluding those with time-period-specific costumes), all extras, no matter what color of the rainbow, are required to provide their own clothing. And when it comes to looking rich, costume designers want the real thing: Brooks Brothers suits, Armani, Gucci, Prada, designer cocktail dresses for the women — Louis Vuitton, Chanel, YSL. To afford these fancy duds, these extras — if they are a part of the union — make $148 a day before taxes, and are lucky if they see three days of work per week. Non-union extras make between $85–$100 for the day. When extras don't arrive with proper upscale attire, the infuriated trolls from the wardrobe department berate extras casting directors like Catholic school students caught rounding second base in the bathroom stall. You can usually find these upscale types in fancy-restaurant scenes, gala or theatre scenes, or anything that takes place on the Upper East Side (except, of course, for the working-class black women with strollers in their forties and fifties, cast to portray nannies).
The City Hall scene, like most scenes set in a corporate business environment, requires a 70/30 split to favor men — because really, what kind of world would Leonardo DiCaprio or Kerry Washington live in where businesswomen outnumber businessmen? Or at least match them in number?
And that brings us to our final scene of the day: exterior park. Any typical New York City park/street scene is always cast 80% white and 20% ethnic. Again, it doesn't matter which ethnicities (we actually say stuff out loud like, "OK, I'm still down five ethnic and two white for tomorrow…"). There are, however, certain crowd scenes that can sway the ethnic count to favor one particular group of people. Times Square, for instance, a tourist hub, standardly calls specifically for one crew of Japanese extras with cameras (and beside them a fat gaggle of Midwesterners in fanny packs and visors). An Indian part of town or traditional ceremony would require all Indians (or at least brown-skinned people presumably from that quadrant of the world, if not Dominican or dark-skinned Bolivians). A Bar Mitzvah scene, of course, would necessitate bigger noses and curlier hair.
You'll notice above that pedestrians are referred to as "ND": nondescript. This means they should be blendable — like one uniform, indecipherable mass. ND is the unnoticed fabric that weaves through our summer blockbusters or straight-to-DVD indies. But the description that goes into the nondescript is almost indescribable. It's the subtext found in the collision of art and commerce, the inevitable product of powerful Hollywood curators and their desires to challenge their viewers, but mostly it just gives them — gives us — what we want and expect. Could I, an extras casting director, simply cast differently? Put the "ethnic flavor" assigned to the East Village bar at the upscale loft party? Sure, if I'm committing job suicide. And that brings us back to commerce. (Not to mention that if I did that, the scene would inevitably be re-shot with the "right" types.)
The day I called those men for the part of the shoe shiner, I misplaced a sliver of myself. Maybe tomorrow I'll get handed something that keeps the chunks of vomit at bay, I'd hope quietly. But that day never came, and over the years my innocent optimism was extinguished. I became hardened, and I passed that veil onto every assistant I trained. "The more robotic you are, the better you will be at this job," I'd tell them — and I was right. By the time I left the industry, I was ruthless, and awesome at my job. I was also relentlessly fatigued and plagued by anxiety and sadness.
I quit with a short email on a Sunday afternoon, terrified yet certain. It was a few weeks into pilot season, the busiest time of year. Sure, the hairy knot of rigid bureaucracy and the dream of a more significant social contribution pushed me there. But ultimately, I had no hope left; the glittery façade had deflated into piles and piles and of shiny industry dung, with all things promising buried helplessly underneath it.
Will it ever be possible for an upscale restaurant or gala scene to be filled exclusively with well-dressed Latinos, blacks, and other dark-skinned "ethnics" without standing out to the viewers? You tell me. I'm certain that the same restaurant or gala scene could be cast entirely white and go unnoticed. Perhaps I'm still too hardened to speak objectively. One thing is for sure, though: Hollywood is operating on a default setting — and standards for extras have been one way for so long that they are no longer seen or judged.
David Foster Wallace once wrote about what he called blind certainty: "a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up." Hello, Hollywood? And all extras casting directors know that we're too insignificant to prompt true change, or any change for that matter, so when we finally do get the guts to escape, we're running fast and breathlessly. The film and television industry is not an agent for change after all, and the opportunity for true art is rare — but that won't diminish its grandeur. When extras casting directors have finally made it far enough away, we look back only to find that a whole new batch of assistants has surfaced for the sequel.
*Name of company has been changed.