Nathan Johnson has landed in one of the longest unemployment lines in Los Angeles. Just another face in the crowd, Johnson is here because he’s hoping to get a job as, yes, just another face in the crowd. But the crowd keeps getting bigger every day.

The lobby at Central Casting is so packed it seems impossible that one more person could squeeze through the door. Johnson, 30, handsome and elegant in a crisp, white shirt, has been waiting to sign up for an hour. “It feels like two hours,” he says, eyeing the registration desk. It’s only a few feet away, but it will take a lot of patience to reach it. “I’m an EMT,” he says, gazing around the congested room with the sort of dignity that Will Smith might envy. Utter cool in a crisis. “If someone goes into cardiac arrest, I’m there.”

Johnson has been out of work for two years. He injured his shoulder, which made it impossible for him to do the heavy lifting required in his medical tech job, and he’s seen the toll of the recession all around him. “All my friends who owned houses are out of them now,” he says. He grew up in Venice, but when the housing boom hit, his old beachside neighborhood became gentrified almost overnight. “The past five years was kind of a greed session, and now everybody’s got a hangover.”


Background artists, also known as “atmosphere” or extras, are the folks whose mere presence on the set makes the land of make-believe seem real. They are the entertainment industry’s most reliable temporary workers and, since 1926, Central Casting has been supplying the creators of feature films, TV shows and commercials with most of them. Three days a week, for one hour, Central registers anyone 18 or over with a spare 25 bucks (cash only) and the documentation to prove they’re legal to work in the United States to be a nonunion extra with the company.

There’s no interview to sweat. No psychological tests to take. No experience required. Nonunion extras make a humble $64 a day and must follow strict orders: Never look at the camera. Never speak to principal actors or the director. Stay out of the way. Basically, keep your head down and your mouth shut.

Clutching their identification cards as tightly as their dreams, people have always flooded into Central Casting looking for work, taking that first step to become a star. Brad Pitt was discovered here. So were Eva Longoria Parker, Kelly Clarkson, Ronald Reagan and Ava Gardner. But more people are signing up to be extras than ever before -- and becoming famous, or even an actor, isn’t the reason why.

“Whenever there’s a downturn in the economy, we see an increase in the number of people applying for background work,” says Allen Kennamer, vice president of Central Casting. “The line started getting longer right after the first of the year,” he says. “It started to double in size.” Lately Central’s been registering more and more people, about 300 a week, a total of 50,000, for noticeably fewer jobs.

This warehouse building on an industrial, dead-end street in Burbank is an interesting window into the recession in Southern California: It’s where anxious folks from all walks of life, not only the entertainment industry, come seeking a big break.

Brian Estwick, 42, is a chess teacher. Until last December, he taught at an after-school program in Pacific Palisades but lost his job when the funding was cut. Estwick has never done professional acting, but his family’s been encouraging him to try. “My brother’s been pushing me to come in because I’ve got a different look,” he says. When asked to describe it, he laughs, an earthquake rumbling through 320 pounds of muscle. “The guy from ‘The Green Mile’: an athletic, big black guy.”


If he does land background work, it seems unlikely that he’ll stay there long. Estwick hasn’t even registered and already his overall shorts, black clogs and smart-as-an-owl glasses are attracting a lot of attention. “I got lucky today,” he says. “As soon as I walked in, a casting director came out from the back, told me I had a good look and took my name.”

“Casting extras is like painting with people,” notes David Feige, co-creator and supervising producer of TNT’s legal show “Raising the Bar.” The show, which is shot in Los Angeles, is based on Feige’s real-life experience as a public defender in the Bronx, N.Y. Feige didn’t know much about Hollywood when he arrived and was fascinated by the process. “The extras casting really made an impression on me,” Feige says.

For the pilot, he helped select people to fill in the jury and crowd the hallways and courtroom. “I remember vividly sitting down and they pulled out an ocean of pictures. It was crazy,” he says. “The possibilities are so vast. You really are creating this universe, and you can populate it with almost anyone. ‘What we need is an old guy with a walker.’ ‘OK, here’s 50.’ Of course the process of choosing is oddly dehumanizing, precisely because you’ve never spoken a word to any of these people and ultimately you’re evaluating them as textures rather than individuals. Like pointillism, it’s only when you step back and your eye scans over the whole group that you get the effect of the individual choices.”

Christina Tucker, 45, is hoping to get temporary work as an extra after being laid off from a 27-year career as a postproduction audio technician. She’s worked on big hits: “Law & Order,” “Ghost Whisperer” and “House.” “Scooby Doo,” her most recent employer, dogged her with a pink slip last April. “Warner Bros. cut the whole animation department in January 2008. They cut it [by a] third,” she says, emphasizing that fraction. “Now I’m just trying to find a chair.” That’s what the sound techies call it when you’re looking for your next big job.

The Central Casting line moves forward and the blond, suburban soccer mom inches along. “My son did this seven years ago,” she says. “He got bumped up on two commercials and wound up making $50,000.” The number causes a few nearby heads to turn. The money helped the family get through a difficult economic time before. Tucker’s hoping she’ll have similar luck now. “At least it’s worth a try,” she says. “I’ve had ups and downs in the industry before, but I didn’t really think it was going to last this long.”


Opportunity wanes

As the recession deepens across California, Hollywood’s extra casting reflects a Catch-22: The labor pool is growing at a time when film studios are shedding staff and dropping projects, independent filmmakers are finding it harder to raise financing, and television studios are making more reality TV shows that don’t require atmosphere and far fewer dramas and comedies that do.

“There’s a lot less work to go around,” says Kevin Goldson, a casting associate with Idell James Castingin Pacific Palisades, a company that competes with Central Casting but focuses strictly on advertising. That industry experienced sharp declines in 2008 when advertisers, particularly the automotive industry, which favored Los Angeles as a location for many of its car commercials, cut back on spending.

According to FilmL.A., the nonprofit organization that hands out permits for the city and keeps track of local filming, on-location commercial production days was down 17.4% in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared with the same quarter of 2007. It suffered a loss of 10.9% for the year. “It’s very slow and a lot of people are worried, because a lot of people did extra work for a living,” Goldson says. “When the budgets are cut, where they cut is the background because it’s cheaper to shoot with less people.”

The picture doesn’t get any sunnier for feature films: 2008 was the worst year for local feature production since FilmL.A. began tracking it in 1993. The major studios are making fewer movies, and they’re not shooting many of them in California anymore. Feature production in Los Angeles has been down 10 of the last 12 years. The number of production days FilmL.A. logged for 2008 is half of what it was during its most recent peak in 1996 and is a record low.

Television production, often called the bread and butter of the industry, remains the one bright spot on the local production landscape, but that is mostly because of reality programming. Production days in reality TV rose 19% in 2008. Sometimes talk shows and game shows will hire extras to fill out their audiences, but scripted television provides most of the background jobs, and those numbers tell a much different story.

Sitcom production days fell 25.3% from 2007. Dramas fared better, taking on a modest gain of 6.9%. But pilot production dropped 40.8%, partly because of the WGA strike. And this year, of the 39 hourlong pilots ordered by the major networks, at least 20 are scheduled to shoot out of town, according to Variety. That leaves only about 20 pilots to be shot locally. “Normally, it’s three times that,” Kennamer says.

While the unemployment rate for Los Angeles County rose to 10.9% in February, trying to pinpoint an unemployment rate for the entertainment industry makes even the economists’ heads spin. It turns out there is no number. But there have been job cuts at studios across town as parent companies try to control costs.

Show runners and producers are feeling the pinch, and many anticipate further cutbacks. With more and more laid-off people turning to background work to make ends meet, will there actually be much call for them?

CBS’ “Without a Trace” had its budget sealed in May 2008, before the economy fell apart, and the show is not cutting back on extras. “We tend to hold onto the bigger scenes because they add more production value,” says executive producer Greg Walker. “The bigger the scope, it has a wider cinematic feel, so the show doesn’t feel closed in.”

“Right now we’re down on the back lot of Warner Bros. and have dressed it as Chinatown and I didn’t cut back one extra,” says Scott White, “Without a Trace’s” co-executive producer. “That’s what gives the scene life. Right now we’re not forced to make those decisions.” But if the show gets picked up for its eighth season, Walker and White might be forced to make a different decision.

“The studio and network are going to be downsizing their budget, cutting back 10%,” says White. “Creatively, taking extras out of a show is a bad move, but in expectation of budget cuts we will cut back on our general allowance for atmosphere.” With regard to the unemployed people lined up at Central Casting eager to land background work, White adds, “I feel for those folks over there.”


Making a success of it

Jian Najac, 36, is one of the lucky ones. He’s built a career others dream about, turning random, unstable background work into a steady, well-paying job.

His advice? “Buy a couple of good suits and figure out what type of person you are. I know this well: I went from a homeless guy to a G-man overnight.”

With long hair that fell past his butt, Najac started as a nonunion extra with Central in 2003. He booked a few jobs as a prison inmate or street thug, but crime wasn’t paying. “One day I cut my hair and almost overnight I was allowed to join the union,” Najac says, speaking from the set of “Without a Trace” where, with a clean-shaven jaw and close-cropped hair, he plays one of the show’s regular FBI agents. He also carries a badge on “The Mentalist,” all three “CSIs” and “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

It takes three Screen Actors Guild vouchers to move from nonunion to the higher-paying, health insurance-providing union jobs. But acquiring those vouchers is tricky, a matter of hustle and luck. Najac says that befriending the first assistant director can be a good strategy, but sometimes it just comes down to a union extra failing to show up. “By contract, the productions are required to hire a certain number of SAG extras,” he explains, “So say you have one arm, and they need a one-armed guy -- you get the voucher that day.”

Najac won his first SAG voucher when he booked an extra gig on “The West Wing.” “Me and another guy were dressed up as SWAT officers. We were in Griffith Park on one side of a ravine and they wanted us to run through the woods, over a lot of fallen trees and sharp brush. So the first A.D. says, ‘Is that OK?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I might be a little underpaid for this.’

“I went for it and got it,” Najac says.

Kevin Jessup, 54, wanted to get into acting in the 1980s but then he got married, had four kids and decided it would be a better idea to install water heaters for Sears. He did that for 13 years, then owned a couple of pizza places in San Jacinto -- until Wal-Mart opened a store nearby and drove him out of business. When his wife died, Jessup, who sports a gray mustache and rides a 6-foot-tall unicycle, decided it was time to give his old dream a shot again. The kids were grown. He had his wife’s Social Security to count on.

“I’ve got a good work ethic. I’m well-mannered. That goes a long way in this particular job,” he says, sinking into a folding chair by the window, waiting for his son to register with Central Casting. Jessup signed up last June and inspired all four of his kids and his 82-year-old mother to become extras. He works a couple of times a week and is now SAG eligible but hasn’t paid the $2,335 initiation fee to join the union.

“It’s kind of tough in this economy,” Jessup says. “We live in Hemet, which is quite a drive. Over the summer when gas prices shot way up, I was spending $45 to make $65.” Still, his eyes twinkle at the thought of it. “You can’t look back on your life and say you didn’t try.”