Every time I do a movie or TV show, a production assistant (PA) will inevitably assume I’m an extra. Sometimes this happens right away when I first report for work, sometimes it happens after I’ve been on set for a week. Other background artists will also immediately embrace me as one of their own. I have no problem with any of this; I’m simply puzzled by why it happens.
On the first day of work on a TV movie I did years ago, I checked in, then went to craft services to get some breakfast. A PA will usually do this for “talent” (actors) so we can focus on getting into costume and/or learning our lines, but I like to do it myself since I’m picky about how I want my eggs (whites only, scrambled with mushrooms and peppers, doused in Tabasco) and bagel (dry, slightly toasted).
As I approached the table, a PA came up to me. “Hi, extras eat over there,” he said, pointing to an area across the parking lot. I said, “Okay” then proceeded to pick up a plate. He blocked me and said, “The food is exactly the same.” I said, “All right,” and attempted to reach around him for some home fries. I didn’t know why he was going on about the extras’ food.
Then he said, “You are supposed to eat over there. Only principals (actors with lines) are allowed here.” Wait, what?
I explained I wasn’t an extra and he apologized profusely. I wanted to ask why he assumed that but my eggs were calling.
Another time, I’d been working on a TV show for a week when I arrived early on set so I could leisurely enjoy my breakfast. It’s no fun having to cram down an egg burrito in the makeup chair while someone’s spewing hairspray all over it. It’s also hard to eat when you can’t open your mouth while the makeup artist applies lipstick on you. So, on this day, even though my call time wasn’t until 7:30 a.m., I got there at 7:00. Hoo whee, I was gonna eat my pancakes in peace.
I was sitting in the tent where meals were held when a PA named Josh came in with his bullhorn. “All extras please get into costume now!” (Yeeks, bullhorns do not go well with 7 in the morning.) A bunch of people got up and stumbled out, bleary-eyed and clutching their styrofoam cups of coffee. Knowing I still had fifteen minutes before I had to get to hair and makeup, I sat back and savored my super fresh orange juice which I’d just squeezed myself.
Until Josh came over and stood over me.
“You need to get into costume now.”
“No, I don’t. I have fifteen minutes left.”
“You’re actually fifteen minutes late.”
Here’s the thing–Josh and I had been goofing around between takes for the past week, busting each other’s chops for fun. I thought he was playing.
“My call’s at 7:30. I’m early.”
“Your call was at 7:00.”
“Josh, stop bugging me.”
“What extras agency are you from?”
Hold the phone—he really didn’t know who I was?
“Hey, it’s me, Elyse.”
He looked at me for a moment then recognition dawned on him. “Oh, man, I’m SO sorry! I didn’t recognize you out of costume! Can I get you anything? A coffee? Danish?”
“No, thanks. I just wanna finish my breakfast then I’ll be over in fifteen.”
“Again, I’m SO sorry! Let me know if you need anything.” Josh scampered out, bullhorn hanging limply by his side.
There have been many more similar incidents on different sets. Sometimes I’d just sit and eat with the extras because it’s easier and hey, the food is supposedly the same. Protesting too loudly that I’m not one of them might make background actors think I think I’m better than they, and I don’t.
But I did wonder about the constant confusion so I finally said something to my friend Susan. Is it because I don’t show up looking Charlize-Theron glamorous? Why would I? Actors get free hair and makeup on set; no one shows up with a blowout and lipstick. Many actors arrive looking homeless (unshaven, unwashed) until the magic of hair and makeup transforms us into bright, shiny people (probably why Josh hadn’t recognized me).
Susan said, “I don’t think it’s the way you look but the way you carry yourself. How often do actors show up early and insist on getting their own food? PAs are probably so used to diva behavior from principals that if you act normal, they assume you’re an extra.”
Wow. All these years, I’d never looked at it that way. In one fell swoop, my friend succeeded in making me feel great about being asked repeatedly to eat at a “different table,” being rushed through meals, and hustled to cramped holding areas with back-injuries-inducing folding chairs. I now know that crew members weren’t trying to downgrade me, or thinking I’m not worthy of being one of the leads. They were really just giving me a compliment.