Using Craigslist, my wife and I volunteered to be extras on a movie filming in the New York City area. We submitted a photo and our measurements. We both expected to play tourists visiting a restored nineteenth century village that uses costumed re-enactors. While she did portray a tourist, my fate was different.
We arrived on set at about 11:30 am and signed in with a bubbly young woman who was coordinating the extras. She told us she would try to have us in and out expeditiously. Of course, we waited and waited. We had been told there would be air conditioning, but as the outside temperature approached 100, all we had was two medium-sized electric fans for at least one hundred extras. We therefore decided to go out on the terrace, where the temperature felt at least ten degrees cooler. I had an inkling that something was about to change, when the extra wrangler approached us and told us to come inside and sit near her. She then told me I looked like “The Mayor.”
The wardrobe mistress fetched me and took me to a room where I had two choices of nineteenth-century-style wool jackets whose sleeves were a little long on me, one top hat that mysteriously fit perfectly, and a black cravat. She then sent me back to the hot-box holding room.
A half hour later she came for me again, gave me my clothes, and told me to put them on. A half hour after that, the make-up woman did my face. I was now officially “The Mayor,” clad in three layers of clothing, trying to adjust to the heat. Then I was on call for what turned out to be the next five hours.
Putting on the costume metamorphosed my shy self into an outgoing, talkative personality. When I looked in the mirror, I appeared a little like Abraham Lincoln. The staff started calling me “Mr. Mayor.” Other extras asked me to pose for pictures with them. One star-struck guy wanted to know what other movies I had been in. A little girl kept giving tea and lemonade to “The Mayor.” Another extra who had brought his own outfit looked like Stan Laurel of the Laurel and Hardy comedy team of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a voice impersonator with a spot-on Bullwinkle and Yoda, and said he had been in more than 100 movies. The SAG-AFTRA actors, normally aloof from the non-union extras, treated me like one of them, sharing their stories with me. One sweet looking young woman had been an international karate champion and had qualified for the Olympics.
Finally, at about 6 pm, those in period costumes took a van to the outdoor area where filming was taking place. Everybody seemed to know my character, including the co-director and her assistants. I was “The Mayor.” I had my picture taken by an official set photographer and by an assistant director. My actual part was fairly small. I was to wave, tip my hat, and greet visitors entering and leaving the park. While I assumed we were filming a comedy, I actually have no idea if my assumption was accurate. When the two stars passed by me, one of them started exaggeratedly bowing to me, which I returned in kind. Through the five takes, it became a game between us.
As we were returning to holding, all the extras, including my wife, were told they could go, except for those dressed in period costumes. The staff at holding hadn’t gotten the message, however, and some told us we could leave as well. I had to inform them we were asked to wait. Finally around 8 pm as the sun was starting to set, all of us, including my wife who had to stay because of me, were summoned back to the set for the last scene to be shot at the park. My job was similar to the first scene, except I was to thank people for visiting. Because of the lack of time almost no one was able to exit and I would be surprised if I were in frame in the scene.
In most movies the stars are off limits to the extras. You’re not supposed to talk with them or have any contact with them, including eye contact. This time was different. The two stars, who are household names, graciously allowed their pictures to be taken with some of the extras. As “The Mayor,” I was allowed to cut in line to do so with one of them.
I didn’t want to give back my costume, as it had somehow made me other than I was. I had been magically transmuted into a different person and energized. All in all, it was a pleasure for this usually skeptical observer of life, who is now smitten with the acting bug. In this one area, my wife is now more skeptical than I am about looking for more jobs as extras.