Extra. Just the name of the job suggests its superfluous, throw-away nature.
But for the burgeoning business of filming movies and TV series in metro Atlanta, extras are crucial to scenes shot in restaurants, parties and busy sidewalks. Or, in the case of AMC’s popular drama “The Walking Dead,” a field of vacant-eyed zombies.
The job draws a mix of actor wannabes and the ranks of unemployed seeking income to tide them over between regular jobs. The wages are fast-food modest: usually $8 to $10 an hour (though in most cases, you are guaranteed an eight-hour shift with possible overtime.)
Many extras catch the Hollywood bug and start taking acting classes, auditioning for roles and hiring agents in hopes of becoming “real” actors, however unlikely that may be.
Bob Susko, a 64-year-old local personal injury lawyer from Marietta, will sacrifice actual law-related income on occasion to play a fake attorney on “Drop Dead Diva,” a Lifetime drama shot mostly in Peachtree City. The series concludes its fourth season Sunday with a wedding scene shot at the Atlanta Botanical Garden shot on an unusually cool summer day in July.
Susko, who played a wedding guest in that scene, that day, says he can be seen unobtrusively walking down a hallway or wordlessly sitting in meetings on eight different “Drop Dead Diva” episodes. “They need someone with an expensive suit who’s a little older. I fit that.
“Obviously, I don’t need the money. It’s just a relief to get away from the office and the stress.”
But he’s also looking to get into the business more seriously and perhaps nab a speaking role. “I just auditioned for a commercial,” he says.“I have an agent. Being an extra is a stepping stone.”
Hunter Hughes, 50, was in mortgage banking until the economic collapse and is using extras work to bridge the time and make a little cash — very little cash. The Elijay resident tries to look on the bright side: The food is free.
The downside: Hours can be long and waits tedious.
For “Drop Dead Diva,” Susko says he’d often have to get up at 4:30 a.m. for an hour commute, then work a 12-hour day. On shows such as the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries” or MTV’s “Teen Wolf,” which require plenty of night shoots, staying up all night isn’t unusual.
During breaks, extras are usually corralled into a room or a cordoned-off area where they read, play cards or fiddle with Words With Friends on their iPhones. For regulars, it’s a mini-social club where they gossip and trade jokes. They scan Facebook for other casting calls and line up future gigs.
Sometimes, they rub shoulders with A-listers such as Clint Eastwood and Vince Vaughn (though it’s recommended an extra only speak to them if they speak to you first).
Tripp West, a radio DJ between gigs, recently did some extras work on “Devil’s Knot,” an upcoming film starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
“Colin was very approachable. Reese was heavily protected. I got to talk to [“CSI Miami’ actor] Rex Linn for awhile. Not a deep conversation. But we talked football. He’s a University of Texas guy.”
Clyde Cauthen, a 50-year-old accountant from Oxford who does extra work on the side, spent time on the upcoming Eastwood film “Trouble With a Curve.”
“I sat right beside him on the set playing a bar patron,” he says. “He was super nice. He showed respect for everyone around him and made us all feel comfortable.”
‘One big family’
West says it’s fun to see if he actually ends up in the final product — however fleeting. When he watched the 2010 ABC Family film “Christmas Cupid,” he scanned for his face at a party scene and was able to catch himself for all of three seconds.
For a bit more money, some extras become stand ins for big-name actors. For three seasons, Peachtree City resident Jennifer Eden has shown up every day during production to be a regular fill-in for “Drop Dead Diva” lead actress Brooke Elliott while the staff sets up a scene. The time she has spent on set has inspired her to get into the production side of things.
“We’ve all become one big family,” she says. “Brooke takes care of me, always checks on me.”
Among local shoots, the coolest gig for many extras is to be a zombie. Maya Santandrea says the minute she saw “The Walking Dead” when it debuted in 2010, the Atlanta resident was hooked and told friends she wanted to be a zombie.
So this spring, she attended a special audition for zombies in Senoia where she impressed co-executive producer Greg Nicotero with her extra-scary facial expressions and aggressively pantomimed attacking a fake victim.
“When I think of zombies, I have an image of a ferocious dog. I’m going to eat you!”
Santandrea has since been cast in three “Walking Dead” episodes and rewarded with a “hero” zombie role, which means getting whacked by one of the main actors.
“If you’re a hero zombie, you get prosthetics put on instead of just paint. And you get a little bump in pay.”
Jamie Lynn Catrett, co-owner of year-old, Atlanta-based CL Casting, said extras need open schedules and be responsive to phone calls, texts and emails because schedules can change six times in a week.
Another piece of advice: “Be respectful of everyone on the set, whether it’s a production assistant or wardrobe. Anyone could ask you to not come back.”
– Rodney Ho, AJC Radio & TV Talk blog