By three little words, I don’t mean “I love you” and why those words can be so hard to say or feel. I mean the fact that three little words can make a huge difference in the amount of money and respect an actor earns.
Yesterday I auditioned for a speaking role in a major motion picture. The character says–you guessed it–three words. She speaks to the lead character, then he moves on. A very short scene. But should I get it, I’m pretty sure I’d earn the Screen Actor’s Guild day player rate, which according to their site is currently $782. And I’d be eligible to join SAG, earn residuals, etc.
The saying goes, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” If you ascribe to this theory, then every role is important, including those who speak a few lines and extras. First, extras create essential atmosphere: Imagine the hero walking down Michigan Avenue…with no crowd. You’d immediately assume there’d been an apocolypse, or that it was very early on a Sunday morning. The scene wouldn’t feel or look right without a bunch of appropriately dressed and appropriately milling about tourists, shoppers and businesspeople.
Second, extras can screw up a shot. Walking patterns, sometimes very complex, are established during rehearsals. Extras are expected to do the same thing for every take…partly so everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and partly for continuity and to match up shots. You are expected to reset yourself and any props for each take. I recently did an office packing scene for a Fox pilot…and every time we had to take out all the papers and files we’d put into boxes (with the director calling out, “pack faster”) so we could pack them again. Without all of our packing and unpacking, the scene wouldn’t work. If an extra is supposed to cross in front of a moving camera or pass by a star but is a few steps late or early, he might run into a cord-carrying grip, the camera or the star, necessitating another take. And on a movie set, time is money.
If you’re seated next to a star, say, in a corporate meeting or at a wedding, you might also end up with more screen time than the person playing that three-word speaking role. Yet non-union extras in Chicago are currently paid $65/8 hrs, then time and a half not counting lunch, or sometimes $100 for 12 hours. I hear a small increase may be in the offing. But recently I’ve also come across major projects that expect extras to work for free.
Extras in LA and NY can earn their SAG cards by working 3 SAG projects. Not in Chicago. If I have a line, I can put it on my resume. Extra work does not count and in fact can be looked down on…even if the director directs you personally. I’d think that watching major stars and directors in action, which to me is like taking a master class, would at least show agents you’re learning your craft, that you’ve spent time on movie sets and so presumably are familiar with how to behave. You understand the jargon. I’ve been mere feet from directors including Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and stars including Johnny Depp. I’ve been directed by Ron Howard and Sam Raimi, for example.
So…I’m not quite sure why an actor gets respect and a lot more money for saying three little words to a star, but not for being one of a few extras near a star. Thoughts?