Gawker.TV claims Your Work Can Wait. However, if one has no work to put off and is obsessed with entertainment, being an extra is a decent way to make cash. In this economic climate, a TV junkie could do worse.
Granted, it's unglamorous, exhausting, and sometimes boring, but extras are given a glimpse into a world of craft services, TV stars, and backstage antics. At least it's rewarding and they feed you. Unlike working at a restaurant, where they may feed you, but you'll want to kill yourself.
What is an extra? Extras are all those people filling in the background of your favorite TV shows and movies. It's easy to get sucked in when watching a movie like Green Zone and forget that every line-less "Iraqi" blocking Matt Damon from finding WMD is, in fact, a poorly paid actor wearing a beard and a windbreaker.
Every extra experience is unique, but uniformly baffling. In one year of background work, I've played a hobo on Cupid, a club-goer on Fringe, been a body double on Gossip Girl, and a stand in on Celebrity Apprentice (tough break, Leifer).
Most recently, it was a dream come true to be asked to play a bus crash victim on Law and Order: SVU and it is my honor to describe for you all that I witnessed as an extra. I sincerely hope that my deep affection for this show comes across as I detail my observations from set. In my mind, Mariska Hargitay can do no wrong and Christopher Meloni—don't change a thing, baby.
Extras are given the least amount of information necessary. In this case, I was told to meet a bus at 43rd and 9th and to wear neutral, olive, or dark purple, no puffy coats, no white, no red, and no head-to-toe black. At 8pm, I loaded into a silver, 14 passenger van bound for North Bergen, New Jersey.
When my van load of extras arrived in the studio, all the chairs in the holding area were occupied by people dressed as cops, plain clothed detectives with badges on chains, EMTs, nurses, doctors, and orderlies. We were told to wait in the other room which, to my sheer delight, was the set of the morgue, complete with metal slab and autopsy files.
The costumer declared that all bus crash victims would be "getting bloody" so she assigned us each costumes. My costume was oddly combined dress pants and a pastel, striped, long sleeve waffle shirt which I carried toward the restroom to try on. Luckily, I got lost on my way to the restroom and wound up in the cast dressing room area. There, I was met by a little barking dog, clearly unhappy with my presence. Hearing the dog bark, Richard Belzer (Munch) and a bespectacled Coco (Ice T's wife) appeared!
I'm not sure, but this could very well be the dog I'm talking about. Belzer playfully said, "Isn't he scary!" and Coco said, "I've never heard Benny bark before." Stunned, I finally found the restroom, threw on my costume, and headed back to the morgue.
A production assistant rounded up the bus crash victims and took us to the set of Mercy Hospital. Just rooms away from the morgue, the hospital looked as authentic as Lenox Hill. I was assigned a neck brace, wooden back board, and stretcher and posed for a still shot with the episode's guest star. She was blonde, bruised, and pregnant. Her name was Hannahleena or something; I'd never seen her before in my life. I lied on my stretcher and tried to eavesdrop on Mariska, whom I could hear rehearsing in the other room.
I have zero hard and confirmed facts about the plot of this episode. I do, however, have eyes and ears. By piecing together clues from the lines I over heard, such as, "Who rapes a pregnant woman?" I can say with relative certainty that this episode will feature at least one pregnant rape victim.
The production assistant who's job it was to assign us injuries decided that I should have a gaping leg wound. And just like that, a costumer was ripping holes in my pants and drenching me with dyed corn syrup. A second costumer followed to add detail blood to my eyebrow and fingers. This casting called for real life amputees, so there were actors having their actual stumps dressed in bloody gauze. Once every extra was sufficiently beat up, we were released back to holding.
In the hall, Detective Benson herself, Mariska Hargitay stopped me and another bloody extra.
"Is that a gun shot wound?" she asked as she pointed to my leg. I could have died right then. Jayne Mansfield's daughter spoke to me.
"I was in a bus crash," I explained.
"Really? Did they tell you that, or did you two make that up yourselves?" she joked. At which point a costumer blurted, "It's in the script, Mariska," and we were sent back to the morgue where, with my wounds wrapped in cellophane, I ate free cookies and waited to be called back to set.
By the time we went back to the hospital to rehearse, it was already after midnight. There, I caught my first glimpse of Christopher Meloni, the man after whose character I once named my dog, Detective Elliot Stabler. He was reclining at the fake hospital reception desk counting our collective blessings that at least we weren't in a real hospital at this hour. Then he sprung into action massaging Mariska's shoulders. Welcome, I suppose, but when the director called them over, he didn't stop the massage. Mariska complained she had "a perv with a dream" on her back, a reference to one of Meloni's lines in the scene, "For every kink there's a perv with a dream." Meloni then did a touchdown style dance complete with pelvic thrusts and read aloud from a prop pamphlet on Tay-Sachs.
In the scene, a doctor with highlights and an unseasonable tan whirled through the hospital action, signing forms while explaining to Benson and Stabler that a raped, pregnant woman had come to the emergency room. Then, Benson discovered that the victim had escaped!
I was promoted from stretcher to gurney and, with each rehearsal, two relentlessly shticky EMTs strapped me down and wheeled me through the shot As I squirmed in my braces trying to ignore their banter and jokes, it occurred to me that I was the definition of a captive audience. I couldn't move, so when they decided to lift me off the gurney and drop me and my board onto another surface, I had to go along with it.
The shot began with the camera focused on my leg wound then the EMTs rolled me out of frame. I realized that my character of bus crash victim was mere breaths away from the coveted role of Law and Order dead body. So sometimes, as I whizzed past the camera, I would pretend to die.
There were several rehearsals then several takes with Meloni goofing off in between. Everyone seemed a little slaphappy. I couldn't hear specifics, but Mariska definitely told the director, "If you … one more time I'm going to knee you in the balls." It was 1:30am by the time we wrapped.
I put my syrupy clothes back on the hanger, collected my time sheet, and boarded the van back to Manhattan. The next morning, I saw that tan, frosty haired doctor on my street. He had his earbuds in and walked with a purpose. I too walked with a purpose because I was a Law and Order:SVU bus crash victim and I lived to tell the tale.
For some additional fun, here's the Law and Order: SVU theme song ...with lyrics.