by Laura Tucker
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We don’t often think about the extras in the films and televison shows we watch, because they blend so perfectly into the background. Yet the new documentary, Strictly Background, just released on DVD, shows us… Well… The background on the background actors.
Strictly Background focuses on twelve movie and television extras in the business, all that have been at it for at least a few years, if not Cecilia Hartfeld who’s been doing it since 1960, debuting in Tall Story. Jeff Olan of Jeff Olan Casting tells us that most extras work for six months to a year before they disappear. Some stay away form extra work forever, but others come back, as they “believe it’s their calling.” In fact, later they flash the figure on the screen that 90% of extras leave the business withn the first year.
This documentary explores these ten people and why it is they choose to stay with this not always very promising occupation. Non-union members only make about $54 a day for eight hours of work, and they need to provide their own wardrobe as well. Union members make about $110 a day, but as one extra complained, once he finally got his SAG card, his work dropped off about eighty percent. While he was making more when he was working, he wasn’t working nearly as much.
All of these extras seem to have a lifelong fascination with acting and/or movies. Olan shares with us that extras aren’t doomed for that same work their entire career, as some that stick with it do eventually make it big. Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood are just two names of actors that started out small, dreamed big, and made it.
Yet while the extras are waiting for their big break, it gets very tough for them financially. They wait for phone calls and call casting hotlines hoping to be working each day. Terry Bolo made her debut in 1978 in Big Wednesday, and worked often doing “18, but looks younger” roles until she was around 30 (she appeared in several scenes in Carrie), but as she gets older, the roles get few and fewer between.
Louis McCarten debuted in 1989 in Major League, and figures his extra thick glasses net him some great work. He relied on his mother for a donation to get started in the business, and by some strange twist of irony, when she recently passed away, he had to depend on others in the family to fly him out for her funeral.
That was just one of the sadder moments of the film. The opening music and much of Strictly Background is extremely positive, especially the attitude of Tafan Nieves. He made his debut in 1993 in Coneheads and had many great anecdotes throughout the film, and all were followed by his laughter, until close to the end when he discussed how difficult the business was getting for him and he broke down in tears as he recalled the time he thought about ending his life.
It’s not an easy business. It looks like a fun busines, and probably is for a short while, but when the work gets more sporadic and you have bills to pay, it can be tough to wait for that $54 you’ll make for that one day of work.
Watching these ten extras, they all looked so familiar to me, and I couldn’t decide whether I’d seen them in these films numerous times, or whether they were just so good at being extras that they perfectly blended in the background, looking like people I had seen a dozen times before.
Laura Tucker is a freelance writer providing reviews of movies and television, among other things, at Viewpoints and Reality Shack, and operates a celebrity gossip blog, Troubled Hollywood. She is also an Associate Instructor and 1st dan black belt in tae kwon do with South Elgin Martial Arts.
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