Extras! Extras! Read All About 'Em! : The Pay's Low and the Perks Few, but Actors Still Line Up for Small Parts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Helen Shelley of North Hollywood arrives with color photographs showing her holding a can of Pedigree dog food.

"Darling, I know nothing about acting," says the retired schoolteacher. But her dream, she explains, is to one day perform in a commercial.

Janet Nicholson of Calabasas arrives in a sequined evening gown. She walks slowly around the room, turning this way and that, giving the casting directors the opportunity to see how she looks in formal attire.

"You get known for your wardrobe," she says.

Welcome to visiting day at Central Casting.

Yes, there really is a Central Casting. Located on the fifth floor of a Burbank office building, the company provides up to 1,000 extras a day to films, television shows and commercials.

Founded by the major studios in 1925 to supply their movies with background players or "atmosphere," the firm has been privately owned since 1976. Although there are several dozen such firms in town, none has a more legendary name.

And it is here that twice each week a little-known Hollywood ritual is played out.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, dozens of union extras like Nicholson drop by "Central," as they call it, to work the room. Non-union extras like Shelley visit Central's sister firm, Cenex, next door during different hours.

At Central, the extras stop to talk with each of the 11 casting directors to show off their latest look and keep the casting directors up-to-date on their wardrobes. In the world of extras, how you dress is often as important as what you look like.

"People come up here to say hello and try to be remembered," said senior casting director Franklyn Warren. "You don't just remember a face. You have to put something with it . . . . Either they have a certain look, a certain skill or they're from a certain place. It's an association that helps you remember who they are."

In Warren's mind swirl the names and appearances of some 2,000 extras. After 11 years working at Central, he said he has come to know most of the union extras who work regularly in town.

"I know bikers, I know cowboys, I know gorgeous ladies, I know big hulking guys, I know motorcycle specialists, I know a guy who walks on stilts," said Warren. "I know all of that in my head."

Some actors resent having to parade themselves about in such fashion, but believe it is the only way they can get the casting directors to notice them.

"The chances are you won't get consideration until they associate your name with a face," said one male extra, who asked not to be identified. "You go up and it's mostly male. They all look up and if it's not a pretty woman walking through the door, they usually look back down at their desk. So, it's a little tough."

Another complained: "They sit around this long table with their backs toward you and you walk in and wait for them to look at you. They've got these telephones attached to their ears. Some won't even talk to you."

For extras, this is where the hustle begins. It is a daily grind far removed from the glamour of Hollywood. The lowest paid of the industry's actors, nonetheless they recently were thrust into controversy when the Screen Actors Guild announced that it wanted to represent them in bargaining talks with studios next year. The studios, which oppose the move, have said they will shut down new productions in March if the issue is not resolved by then.

Each day by 7 a.m., the extras have already phoned Central to see if there are any "rush" calls for parts that day. If not, they will call back by 10 and continue calling--sometimes as often as every 20 minutes--to see if there are any jobs for the following day.

Some extras make the calls themselves, but many pay $50 a month to services that do the phoning for them.

The calls come in so fast and furious that an extra only has time to utter his name. The casting director knows instantly many who call and what they look like, but if the name doesn't ring a bell, the director can call up the actor's photographic image on a computer screen by typing in his Social Security number.

At times, Central resembles a trading floor with the casting directors shouting out the names of extras to other casting directors seated in the room. "Can anybody use Bill. . . ?" "Does anybody need Susan. . . ?"

If there is no response, the extras hang up and call back later--if they can get through.

There is a recording they can dial that is updated throughout the day. The casting directors use it when they need people for hard-to-fill parts or if producers need someone who has a specific prop.

One recent recording sought extras who had either "brand new Mercedeses or brand new Jags, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, DeLoreans, new 7-series BMWs" or other expensive cars.

"Don't call me with older Mercedeses or Cadillacs, stuff like that," the casting director warned.

Another call went out for "Caucasian or Asian men in their 30s or very early 40s with long sideburns--that means sideburns down toward the end of (your) ears--who are very upscale."

Still another casting call went out for a "Caucasian lady, very upscale, Beverly Hills-type in her 40s, 50s or 60s with her own dog." The dog should be one that is typically found in Beverly Hills, the casting director said, such as a full-size poodle or a chow chow. He said a golden retriever just wouldn't do.

Extras who have the right car or right wardrobe can receive extra pay. Union extras earn a base salary of $86.32 a day, while non-union scale is only $40. But bonuses of $27 a day are paid for average cars and as much as $100 a day for luxury models.

"I have a '90 Cadillac and an '86 Oldsmobile," said Joyce Goldman, a charter member of the Screen Extras Guild, who has appeared as a courtroom sketch artist on the television series "L.A. Law."

"I have a complete wardrobe, right down to the formals, furs, jewelry, everything," she added.

Goldman said veteran extras know to come prepared on the set. If a role is not a period piece, the extras have to wear their own clothes.

"You always bring a change or maybe two changes to make sure you fit the part," she said. And you also should bring a light folding chair and a pillow, she advised, and come prepared to wait hours before being called.

Ted Chase of Studio City said he made the mistake recently of showing up on the set of the new Batman movie wearing only light clothes.

"It was Gotham City and they wanted to see you breathe," Chase said. "They had this gigantic air conditioning unit freezing out the entire sound stage. I wasn't prepared the first day for that. Sometimes they don't let you know about all the environmental considerations."

Some non-union extras complain that not only are they paid low wages, but they are not always treated very well.

One extra, who refused to be identified, said he was on one set where the principal actors and crew members ate shrimp, cakes, fruit and cookies while the non-union extras went without lunch and then were given only cold water, salted dry-roasted peanuts and a dry mixture of crackers.

"After eight hours of work, that was all we got," he complained.

Ken Webb of Altadena, who has written a booklet called "Being an Extra in Film" and gives local workshops on the topic, said conditions vary with every production.

"There are some times you feel like you are being treated as a second-class citizen," said Webb. "I hate to say this because it takes away from the pleasure of being out there."

But extras say they often work without complaining about bad conditions because of their enduring dream of one day grabbing a director's attention and hoping he will bump them up to a speaking part.

So they come.

At Central Casting and Cenex, the casting call can go out for thousands of extras at a time.

Senior Vice President Carl Joy said that the movie "The Last Boy Scout," starring Bruce Willis, required 4,500 extras a day for stadium shots at a football game.

"That show was beyond the scope of our office," Joy said. "We filled a couple thousand a day out of Cenex, but we had the help of the (state) Employment Development Department because the numbers were so staggering. Plus, that was only one show. We had all our other shows to do as well and we were virtually tapping out."

The heaviest one-day scene for extras, Joy said, was for the Bette Midler movie "The Rose."

"It's when she goes back home to sing in her hometown and they do an aerial shot above where she is coming in on this helicopter," he said. "I think we had 11,000 to 12,000 extras that day on that shot.

"We drained everybody we had in our ranks," he added. "We took and placed ads on all the rock stations and gave out tickets a couple weeks in advance. . . . It was a night shot, but it looked spectacular."

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