Though Hollywood is still the undisputed home of the film industry, Louisiana (and New Orleans in particular) has been grabbing a bigger and bigger share of entertainment business since the state instituted film tax credits in 2002. Now, with 10 years of experience under its belt, the New Orleans area has a cadre of film professionals, including actors, casters, production professionals, and others, that have served to make the city a tempting option for many major TV and movie productions. That doesn't just add to the city's notoriety, it also gives residents a unique opportunity to break into the entertainment industry by working as a background extra.
Though stereotypes tell us that work in film is reserved for the gorgeous and the glamorous, in reality the film industry needs people of all shapes and sizes. According to Robin Batherson, owner of New Orleans-based Batherson Casting, "It depends on what the director wants. Sometimes they're looking for really seedy characters, sometimes they're looking for high fashion models." This is partly because directors want their movies to mimic real life as closely as possible, but also because of the sheer variety of films that comes through New Orleans: Batherson has cast for films as diverse as Tarantino's upcoming Django Unchained, which takes place before the Civil War, and the film adaptation of Ender's Game, which takes place in the distant future.
Because the requirements vary so much, most casting agents encourage pretty much anyone to take the first step towards being an extra by creating a free profile on casting agencies' websites. Once the profile is completed, casting agents will search their databases for the various looks they need at a particular time, then contact the extras they want by phone or email. If a film calls for a very large number of extras in a scene, casting agents will frequently email their entire databases to get as many people signed up as possible.
Because they look for such a wide variety of physical traits, agencies tend to place a higher emphasis on their extras' professionalism and reliability than anything else.
"Dependability and reliability are key to extras," said Ryan Glorioso, owner of New Orleans' Glorioso Casting.
"Even if there are 500 people booked, we need 500 people for a reason. We need them to show up." Founded after Katrina, Glorioso Casting has a presence in both Shreveport and New Orleans, and its credits include Glory Road and Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. Batherson further emphasized the importance of reliability in background work, saying, "If I book [extras] and they don't show up, I put them on a list because I know I can't depend on them." Most casting agents are sympathetic to emergencies and extenuating circumstances that people may run into, provided they get notified. "Give us time, if possible, to replace you," said Batherson.
When extras receive a call or email, they will typically be directed to a page on the casting agency's website that details everything they will need to know, including call times (the time at which extras should show up), maps outlining where to park, and a list of what to bring. To be successful, extras need to show up at the correct place, at the correct time, and bring everything the casting agent asks them to (which typically includes two to three different outfits for the wardrobe department to choose from, unless the film is a period piece that provides its own costumes). Once on set, the real fun begins.
"You meet a lot of interesting people, and the majority of them are just fantastic," said Shadoe Knight, an actor and background extra who has worked on The Expendables, The Mechanic, and Memphis Beat, among others. Extras have plenty of time to get to know each other because it can take several hours for the film crew to take care of all of the logistics that the film requires.
"It's a lot of hurry up and wait, and usually you get there very early," said Glorioso. "If we have 200 people to check in and get through hair and makeup, we have to start early." Extras should also expect long days and bring something to do while on set. "We usually shoot 12 to 14 hours per day," said Batherson. "Bring a book, or headphones. I tell kids, 'bring your schoolwork,' because there's a lot of sitting around and waiting."
Though this sounds unpleasant, extras are typically given at least one meal while on set, and many pass the time by working, studying, or chatting with other extras. "I think for the most part people have a good time," said Glorioso. "Come with a good attitude and ready to stick it out, and it'll be fine." Knight told us that he has found work on several independent films through networking he has done on set, and Glorioso said that was commonplace. "It spawns friendships, and sometimes it spawns a new filmmaker, or people grow into actors."
After some time spent sitting in the holding area, extras will receive their assignments and head to their sets, which may be busy streets, buildings, or sound stages. Once the scene is filming, it's important that extras keep their eyes and ears open for direction.
"Pay attention to the PAs [Production Assistants] and ADs [Assistant Directors], follow directions, and if you have questions, ask," said Knight. As before, reliability and professionalism are key, and according to Knight, simply paying attention and following directions can also be an easy way to find recurring work. "If [the AD] doesn't have to look for you when you're doing work, then that gets around," Knight said, "They'll say, 'we'll use him again because we can trust him.'" Though taking pictures or asking for autographs are strictly frowned upon (according to Glorioso, you could even be sued if a picture leaks to the press), many extras have learned more about the industry simply by watching what happens on set, which has lead some to full-time careers in film. In other cases, it has lead people to realize that they want nothing to do with the entertainment industry. "I always tell people to try being on set, because they might not like it," said Batherson. "Start out that way, then if you love it, get classes."
Though many extras have tried to make the jump from background to principle casting, they have to be ready for the pressures that come with an acting career.
"A lot of it depends on who you know," said Knight. "There's a lot of backstabbing in the business, especially when they're looking for someone who wants to star in an indie film or something like that. You definitely have to have a thick skin." As before, the degree of professionalism an actor or actress can bring to the table is important, too. "A lot of it has to do with how casting perceives you," said Knight, "If they think, 'this person is serious,' they'll put you in a better position where you can be seen." Glorioso agreed, saying, "If you're going to become an actor, at some point you need to say, 'I'm going to focus on acting, and only take the extra work when I need extra money.'"
In other words, the work isn't for everybody, but being a background extra can be an important first step to an acting career if someone is responsible, reliable, and knows how to network. According to Glorioso, the first step is just to sign up. "Sign up in all the companies' databases, and follow them on Facebook," he said, "There are also general Facebook groups for extras that we'll use if we have last-minute needs." With the large number of major and independent films and TV shows coming through the area, there are plenty of opportunities to find work, especially since New Orleans has a much smaller community of background actors and actresses than Los Angeles. Still, that doesn't mean it's work anyone will get rich from. "Because so many people are in it and the unemployment rate is so high, there's twice the number of people now [than there were two years ago]," Knight said. Though some people can find enough openings to do background work full time, "You definitely don't want to quit your day job."
Whether locals want a career in film, to meet interesting people, to get a cool story to tell their friends, or even just to see what it's like on set, background work in New Orleans is easy to get into and can lead someone who's willing to work to opportunities in the entertainment industry. "Just sign up and give it a shot," Glorioso said, "We're always hiring for extras."
Interested in being an extra? Sign up with Batherson Casting at BathersonCasting.com and Glorioso Casting at GloriosoCasting.com or MyCastingFile.com