‘Game of Thrones’: I was an extra in that King’s Landing crowd scene
How IMDB keeps up with my screen appearances is beyond my ken. My credits are mostly as “miscellaneous crew” or “self” — i.e. a talking head in documentaries. The one time I actually emoted professionally is missing. I had a few lines as a Synanon cultist in the CBS telefilm “Attack on Fear” in 1984. I was dining with the director a few weeks before shooting began. He said I looked the part and asked whether I had ever done any acting.
Now to the list you can add “extra” in “Game of Thrones,” Season 8.
Last spring, I was living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, teaching courses for the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University. One day, a student told me she was making ends meet as a paid extra in the numerous film and television productions being shot in Northern Ireland.
Long have I yearned to be an extra. No doubt, the gig would be interesting as well as easy money. No doubt, it would deepen my understanding of filmmaking.
And so my amused student sent her professor to an internet agency that was hiring hundreds of locals for the final season of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy saga, which was being filmed at Titanic Studios in Belfast and in natural locations around Northern Ireland, where the tourist buses are doing a brisk business pointing out monuments and ruins that are glimpsed in the series.
I have not read any of the books. I have never watched a single episode of the popular television show. But everyone else in my family is obsessed with “Game of Thrones,” and they would be so jealous.
Getting in the door was harder than I thought. First, I had to meet eligibility requirements: attest to my health, fill out detailed wardrobe questionnaires (“What is your neck size?”) and vow secrecy. Special photos taken at passport shops had to display the top half of my body and, for some reason, prove me beardless.
I had the distinct edge, I reasoned, of being a white male in my late 60s. How many of us could there be in Belfast, willing to drop everything for a day of filming?
Yet weeks went by, and so did many electronic casting alerts, without a callback for yours truly. Until one night, just as I was sitting down to a very good Nepalese dal on Botanic Avenue, my cellphone, which never rang, suddenly did. Was I available at 4:30 a.m. tomorrow for fittings and makeup at Titanic Studios?
That day, the production set a record for extras: 650 plus. That day, the question of how many white men in their late 60s could possibly be available for extra work was answered: a surprising large number, many of them striking specimens with firm jaws, broad shoulders and long, flowing silver manes.
A huge warehouse-type building, part of the studio complex, was set aside for wardrobe and makeup. Arriving in darkness, we were logged in, had our cellphones tagged to block selfies that might give away story secrets (violators were marched off to the constabulary, it was whispered) and were treated to a pre-dawn full Irish breakfast buffet, the beginning of the all-day nourishment loved by extra-dom.
We had been pre-separated into categories — Lannister soldiers, peasants, merchant class — which were represented by different long rows of costume racks in the vast open space of the warehouse. Assistants whispering into walkie-talkies led us in small groups to our assigned outfits. As I reached for mine, so did another sharp-nosed man who looked much bigger than me, including neck size; there was a mistake, one costume assigned to two people, and we were pulled aside. Our wardrobe would be “built” from scratch.
A lucky break for us, even if our initial reaction was to glower faintly at each other. When everyone else was done, we got special treatment and were swaddled in earth-colored robes and sashes, blouses, vests, sackcloth and primitive sandals. Makeup (at least for the men) was simple — dirt smudges and mussed hair.
Still logy after the full Irish, many extras lay down and catnapped on the floor. Some had brought books. There was time to kill, in part because the women were being more meticulously costumed, made up and coiffed.
I was wise to stick close to the sharp-nosed rival for my original costume, Kieron Black, a Dubliner now living in a northern village on the Irish Sea. Black was a veteran who knew everything about “Game of Thrones” and could fill me in. He had been an extra on multiple productions, including “Derry Girls,” the Northern Ireland sitcom set in a Derry parochial school at the height of the Troubles, which for my money rivals “Veep” for its political satire and scatological hilarity.
Black was finishing up his first children’s book and dashing off illustrations for future projects all day long; he also taught therapeutic writing at a night school. He introduced me to another longtimer, more my vintage, a newspaperman taking time off from journalism to write a stage play. His wife, he said, had edited Seamus Heaney for Faber & Faber and now was one of Ireland’s leading drama critics. Black seemed to know everyone passing by, and he pointed out one strutting fellow who was notorious for pushing his way into the front of every crowd shot.
Finally, we were led outside en masse through a city set that was faintly medieval. It was something like waking up in the middle of a big crowd scene in “Ben-Hur” — dreamlike, yet eerily real, like being at a themed costume party with hundreds of people.
With an assistant director barking orders, we practiced storming the last sanctuary of the Red Keep of Kings Landing, which I know only because Black was a patient explainer of everything. In the scene, our desperation and urgency nearly trap a young girl — played by a young local actress whom everyone recognized because she’s found roles in many shows filmed in Northern Ireland — between the mob and the gate.
Soon, it was time for a free lunch and more reading, dozing and waiting until midafternoon, when we were again led in a huge procession to stand in line for props such as the dummy babies a few female extras cradled in their arms. Random people were skipped, including me, while poor Black was saddled with a pack inexplicably laden with 20 kilos (44 pounds) of actual weight for believability’s sake.
For the next four hours, we stormed that keep over and over and over again. We were crammed into a narrow street leading to the gate of the keep, which was sometimes an actual gate, sometimes a green screen. There was a surfeit of cameras: one on top of the gate, a crane overhead, a fixed camera directly ahead of us, a Steadicam among the crowd.
With orders from a director wearing a baseball cap and a windbreaker — indistinguishable from any other Hollywood auteur — we tried it endless ways. Stampeding frantically. Marching anxiously. Shouting. Mouthing. Gesticulating. Less gesticulating. Bunched together. Less bunched together. You’d be surprised how many variations the director could think of while moving the cameras around.
The sun was out. It was a hot day for Belfast. Two, three hours ticked by with take after take after take. There was chatting between takes. There was flirting. There was boredom. The short afternoon break for another snack was not long or snack enough. Many extras in their heavy garb with bad sandals began to grump and wobble, and not just the older white men in their 60s. Black mysteriously “lost” his hefty prop. The director had obviously decided to get every possible shot out of the fortune he had spent on extras and then fix it all in the editing room.
At one point, a bunch of the stars did a walk-through on their way to their dressing rooms, waving cheerily and briefly reviving the slumping extras. Black named them for me. The main one in our scene stood out for being taller than everyone and bearded. The Steadicam followed him. It was Rory McCann, a.k.a. the Hound; between takes, he took espresso at a small café table set up for his benefit.
Our director seemed to grow manic as the sun began to set, for the hundreds of extras would receive time and a half for all work past 6 p.m. If we had a choice, we probably would have voted to go home. At five to 6, the man in charge called one last frantic take with his most strident directions of the day — Go faster! Be angrier! Shout your heads off! Really physically attack the gate this time!
I don’t think he beat the clock, because I later got 30 euros (about $34) in overtime. After the agency’s commission and my registration fee for extra-ing, 94.85 euros (about $107) was deposited into my Belfast bank account. I arrived home after that 14-hour day sore and exhausted, barely able to stand or walk throughout the ensuing weekend. I got many callbacks from the “Game of Thrones” casting office, and each time I really agonized — and then said no. The extras were lovely folk. The money wasn’t bad. Nor was the free food. But the work was grueling.
Still, it was all great craic, as the Irish say. And hey, imdb.com, look for me. Look quick. You’ll find me in the back. The way, way back.
McGilligan’s latest book, “Mel Brooks: Funny Man,” is out now. He completed it in Belfast.
‘Game of Thrones’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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