Location, Location, Location

Brenda Arechiga is a freelance writer and screenwriter in Los Angeles.

By lunchtime, a line has formed outside the heavy double doors of a school auditorium in Baton Rouge, La. Among those waiting is a teenage beauty queen accompanied by her parents; a woolly haired bohemian woman from Ohio; and a dozen people with their children in tow, hoping one of the little boys will be selected to play the young Ray Charles in the movie "Ray," whose makers have called this open casting call in search of extras for the film.

Near the front of the line, an ageless woman with flat shoulder-length hair and thick-frame glasses appeals to one of the volunteers. Her car broke down. She was stranded for hours. She needs to use the restroom.

Once inside, however, Susie Labry, 50, ushers herself into the holding area for the casting call, essentially jumping the line. "I expected to get in," she says with a mischievous grin.

A former secretary, Labry began her career as a location extra in a funeral scene for a 1977 TV' movie "The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish," starring Ed Asner, about the life of Huey Long. She earned $20 plus a hot meal for a day's worth of work. "That was good money back then," Labry says, "and we ate like kings and queens." These days, she thinks nothing of taking extended leaves from her $7-an-hour cashier job at Calandro's Super Market in downtown Baton Rouge to work as background on a film. Labry has been in the Dennis Quaid film "Everybody's All-American" and in "Blaze" with Paul Newman. She camped at a state park in Natchez, Miss., while working on Disney's remake of the classic "The Adventures of Huck Finn," and more recently she crashed on the couch of someone she met on the set of the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

When it comes time for one of the workers to take a Polaroid of Labry, she reaches deep into her purse and counts out the $2 fee in nickels, dimes and pennies. She stands up a little straighter and stares into the camera lens with a penetrating gaze and a politician's smile.

Considering that extras typically earn just $48 for an eight-hour day, and about $100 for 12 hours, most of these folks are just getting by. Though they can earn $3,000 to $4,000 on the average studio film, they need to be flexible because of weather and production schedules.

"Most people use their vacation days to go sit out in the sun, do nothing and bake," Labry says. "I use mine to follow my dream."

As it turns out, her bravado lands her two days of work. One day she plays a female legislator in a scene in the state Capitol. On another she's a face in the crowd as an actor playing then-Gov. Jimmie Davis honors the musician.

One film commissioner calls movie extras the wandering homeless. Another commissioner says extras live as if they're on permanent summer vacation. But to the location casting directors familiar with the mostly low-income die-hards crisscrossing the country in search of anonymous parts in movies, the tender and bittersweet experiences of these American gypsies are real life.

"They come in ramshackle cars tied together with rope," says Maxann Crotts, a North Carolina-based casting director. She has 6,000 names in her database, most of them people who will drop everything and drive all night to make a casting call the next day. In 1999, for instance, 4,000 people showed up in Idaho hoping to be one of 50 to 100 extras in the Bruce Willis film "Breakfast of Champions." Some drove from as far as Tennessee and Georgia, and offered to pay Crotts for a part in the film.

The distances pass quickly when feuled by dreams like those of location extras such as Tonya White of Rainbow City, Ala. Some days White sees herself being cast in a love scene with Brad Pitt (with lots of retakes). Other days it's being able to afford breast augmentation. Sometimes it's the chance to finally move away from the vinyl-sided house where she was raised and now is rearing her four children.

Occasionally, the dreams come true, at least for a while. Dale Gould, a 47-year-old former landscape gardener, had long been told he resembled Mel Gibson. So he answered a casting call for Gibson's 2000 film "The Patriot" at the urging of his wife, who hoped to meet the star. Gould drove from his home in South Carolina to an open casting call at the state's Winthrop College. He was lucky enough to be among the first to arrive. Within 45 minutes, a line numbering 6,000 men wrapped around the campus and as far down the road as Gould could see.

Gould's long chestnut brown hair and thick muscular build fit the look sought by location casting director Shirley Fulton Crumley. She chose him to play an American militiaman and sent him to boot camp to prepare for the 102-day shoot. Then came 12-hour shooting days, two-hour waits in wardrobe lines and uncomfortable period costumes that reeked of perspiration. But Gould says it was worth it to stand alongside Gibson in a muddy battlefield. And it made his wife and three children proud.

"You don't get many shots like 'The Patriot,' " he says, referring to the regular work provided by a long shooting schedule and his easy 40-minute commute to the filming. "The Cinderella stories just don't happen enough."

Gould commonly drives 12 hours or more to casting calls for jobs that might last a week at the most. He lost money on a 14-hour drive to Savannah, Ga., on a casting call for "The Fugitive" TV series when he didn't get the gig. He was devastated when Miramax's adaptation of Charles Frazier's best-selling Civil War epic "Cold Mountain," which promised to bring about six months of work to the South, went overseas to shoot in Romania. The loss of "Cold Mountain" was doubly frustrating when work on "The Alamo" didn't materialize because casting focused primarily on Latinos and Native Americans.

Unlike hard-core extras who spend half the year traveling from casting calls to movie sets, Gould is not willing to sacrifice too much to see himself onscreen. "If I can't pay the bills, I gotta do something else," says Gould, who has earned more money lately as a $20-an-hour carpenter than as an extra. When pressed, he concedes that he would like to be a movie star along the lines of a Bill Paxton. "Big, but not too big," he says.

It would be easy to attribute such devotion to an ailing economy or the explosion of celebrity worship, but in fact the trend dates back to Hollywood's silent film era. In the early 1900s, Americans began migrating to California, many of them leaving workaday jobs for careers in the more glamorous entertainment industry. When studios began shooting pictures outside of Los Angeles in more natural settings, location casting was born. Before long, residents of rural areas discovered they could make money by doing something new and exciting alongside fascinating movie stars.

Today, with Screen Actors Guild rules and an abundance of professional extras, location casting is primarily done in the 22 Right-to-Work states, where the guild doesn't have jurisdiction. In California, New York, Nevada, Hawaii and other states where SAG rules apply, the union makes deals requiring productions to hire a specific number of union extras before allowing them to hire non-union extras.

"But it's not a question of union versus non-union," says Taylor Hackford, director of films including "An Officer and a Gentleman," "Proof of Life" and "Devil's Advocate." "Location extras are crucial to creating the feeling of a film."

With more studios taking their productions to Canada, Australia, Eastern Europe and New Zealand, though, the number of big-budget studio films shooting in the U.S. has diminished. Now most location extras work just a few days every couple of months.

Between jobs, Kevin King, 37, of Charlotte, N.C., sells knickknacks and collectibles on EBay that he has culled from the shelves of the local Goodwill. Tonya White supplements her income by grappling in the Southeastern Professional Wrestling Federation. Just two matches a month earns her about $750, and she can still be available for casting calls.

Even with the odds against them, the almost hypnotic lure of Hollywood's bright lights is too strong to resist, and they remain committed to their peripatetic lifestyle.

Shannon DeAntonio, an associate casting director with Fincannon and Associates, a North Carolina-based locations casting company that has staffed more than 300 feature films, thinks most lifetime extras, especially a subpopulation of World War II veterans, do it for the friendship and sense of community. "You get to know people. You become part of their lives," she says.

Marty Keener Cherrix, who did extras casting on the Sandra Bullock feel-good film "28 Days," and on "Hannibal," the Ridley Scott-directed sequel to "The Silence of the Lambs," is convinced a large percentage of location extras, many of whom live at the poverty level, turn out just for the hearty catered meals served during the shoot.

But Tona Dahlquist, a 15-year veteran of location casting, is not so sure. Specializing in casting big movies in small towns, she has come to believe these average Americans show up for the validation that working with movie stars gives them. In 1991, Dahlquist watched as one of her extras on Disney's "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken" collapsed from kidney stones in between takes. The male extra, who had been directed to stand next to the film's teenage star, Gabrielle Anwar, had been silently suffering from the pain all day. Rather than lose his place next to Anwar, he finally blacked out and had to be removed by paramedics.

Dahlquist shrewdly capitalizes on this notion when advertising for extras. On "Forrest Gump," which was shot in Beauford, S.C., she wrote, "This is your chance" at the top of the press release, knowing it would draw out the starstruck residents of the tiny Southern town.

"It's surreal at first," says Miles Powell, 35, a former drama student from Louisiana State University, who spent a week working with Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman in the climactic verdict scene of "Runaway Jury."

Some location extras get the validation without necessarily getting any screen time. Bill Cowart, 73, achieved superstar status among extras as well as his family and friends in Montgomery, Ala., when he was selected as Albert Finney's stand-in on Tim Burton's 2003 adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel "Big Fish."

"Have you seen my movie?" Cowart sniffs, sounding weary from a series of radiation treatments for cancer. Traveling with what he refers to as his "drama group" since 1968, the former interior designer sees himself more as an actor than an extra. "That wouldn't be my standard of living," he says, referring to the notoriously poor living conditions of the migrant extras. His voice fills with pride as he describes the five months he spent working with Burton, Finney and the film's other stars, Billy Crudup and Jessica Lange. "It was absolutely marvelous," he says. "They're my good friends now."

One casting director has seen many an A-list star called upon to breathe life into the weary location extras. On the Academy Award-winning "Forrest Gump," Tom Hanks handed out chilled bottles of water to a sweltering school bus full of kids. On "Radio," Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding Jr. played catch in the bitter cold with hundreds of extras whose job it was to fill the stands at the football stadium where many scenes were shot. By the time principal photography was completed on "The Patriot," Gibson had posed for countless snapshots and autographed thousands of head-shots, including one for the wife of Dale Gould.

After earning about $7,000 for just over three months of work on "The Patriot," Gould decided to pursue acting full time. During his first year, luck was on his side. He landed four other jobs, each one on a studio film production or network television show. He even tried incorporating his family into his newfound career by getting his then-15-year-old son Nick a job as an extra on the 2002 Warner Bros.' sports comedy "Juwanna Mann." Much to his disappointment, his son didn't take to it. Despite making what most teenagers would consider a good amount of money, Nick found the shooting tedious and was bored by all the standing around.

Though Fulton Crumley has done a lion's share of work on big-budget studio productions, including "The Last of the Mohicans" and "A Time to Kill," she considers her work on the $120-million "The Patriot" the biggest challenge of her career. Four years later she still sighs with relief when she thinks of the epic shoot that required 28,000 man days, which broken down into layman terms meant 300 soldiers per day, five days a week, for six months.

The extras worked so hard that "by the middle of the third week people were dropping like flies," says "Patriot" director Roland Emmerich. "It gets hard," he says of the battle scenes, which required exhaustive rehearsal time and repetitive actions. It got to the point that Emmerich asked Gibson to address the troops. Gibson's "Henry V speech" bolstered the extras' morale.

"I feel like we're the circus coming to town," Emmerich says. "We go to these normal towns and strange things start to happen." Known for blockbuster event films such as "The Day After Tomorrow" and "Independence Day," Emmerich is no stranger to extras who make a living working on his films. His voice is filled with dismay and astonishment as he describes his early morning drives to the set of "The Patriot," past rows and rows of parked cars, expectant faces and tents filled with people stiff from the cold. The scene he describes sounds more like a chronicle of the Dust Bowl migration than a story from a Hollywood movie set.

"I tell everybody it's going to be like a bad camping trip," Crumley laughs as she lights yet another cigarette. She made her entree into show business 31 years ago as a casting assistant, and she is known for her eye for detail. "I get to know the director's tastes," says Crumley, who has shelves of reference books she uses to analyze faces. Of the directors she has worked with, Michael Mann of "Heat" and "The Insider" has the most critical eye, she says. "It's the difference between real and movie real," Crumley says.

On "Ali," Mann presented Crumley with photographs from the period and told her to use them as her guide for the extras casting. He was resolute that even the smallest face on the screen resemble the actual subject. So Crumley spent months looking for the perfect extras to play reporters, referees and cornermen in the boxing ring.

Sometimes it's the extras themselves who take the creative approach. One pair of 18-year-old brothers whom Crumley cast as soldiers in "The Patriot" later staked out her home in Alabama, following her to Chicago as she began prepping "Ali." Crumley says the boys slept in their car for several months, finally renting a motel room after shooting began. They turned 21 before the shooting was completed.

Emmerich's comparison to the circus may be more true than he realizes. The dominant form of entertainment in America until the late 1930s, the circus was also known for disrupting families and depleting towns of its children, who chose to sneak away from their parents for a more exciting life with the charismatic ringmasters and animal tamers.

Several months after the release of "The Patriot," Emmerich ran into one of the extras on a street in Los Angeles, where he had moved to pursue an acting career. But the authenticity, eccentricity and humanity that make these extras good for what they do rarely meets Hollywood's impossible standard of superstar beauty. Emmerich, only half in jest, says: "I feel like I ruined this kid's life."

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