Extras Fear Extinction Amid COVID-19 Safety Guidelines: "Nobody Wants What I'm Selling"

ONE TIME USE ONLY -THR -Illustration by Sophia Foster-Dimino-15rep_extras_W_main- H 2020
Sophia Foster-Dimino

As film and TV shows aim to restart production with set protocols, background actors and casting agencies may see a sharp decline in job opportunities: "It's physically impossible."

The first reference to extras appears 20 pages deep into the industry's June 12 safety report on COVID-19 protocols. "Background holding areas must be larger than customary to accommodate physical distancing," states the paper, a joint effort from the DGA, SAG-AFTRA and IATSE. But for thousands of full-time background actors, the fate of their livelihoods is very much top of mind — and the prognosis does not look good.

"Crowd scenes make my year," says veteran casting director Sande Alessi, whose specialty is extras. She's filled frames of the Pirates of the Caribbean films with pirates and maidens, convincingly re-created anti-U.S. protests in Argo and broke her own record on Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, employing 1,500 extras. Worlds also earned her a sizable paycheck, as Alessi is paid commissions based on the number of actors she brings in.

But as writers scramble to eliminate crowds from scripts and line producers bristle at the notion of nonessential bodies roaming around sets, Alessi is wondering if those paydays have dried up for good — and if her talent pool of more than 50,000 will work regularly. "Nobody wants what I'm selling," Alessi says dejectedly. "Nobody wants human beings."

Similarly despondent is background coordinator Lisa Marie Boiko. "It's physically impossible," Boiko says of obeying the guidelines, which call for lettered safety zones and heavy testing. "Every department is going to have to go into Zone A at one point or another," she adds, referring to the area closest to the cameras, where actors work without masks. Boiko also questions the viability of keeping extras six feet apart. "How do you do that in a [transportation] van — bring one passenger per trip?" she asks. "I work with groups of 50 background actors or more. The holding areas we use are not very big. Renting out a hangar to spread them out will cost a lot more money."

In Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Health on June 11 outlined scene restrictions for film and TV productions, noting that any filming that requires actors to be within six feet of one another should be "as brief as possible" and "cast must be as silent as possible to avoid spreading droplets through talking." The health order also states, "Large crowd scenes should be avoided."

A long-standing concern among the background community — that human bodies will be replaced by the computer-generated kind — is all but inescapable amid COVID-19. Says Alessi, "I talked to a TV producer who said that they'd probably put the [background] actors in with greenscreen."

Arne Starr, a 65-year-old former comic book illustrator who found a second career playing courtroom sketch artists on TV, doubts computers could ever replace him. "Crowd scenes, sure," Starr says. "But when your scene is set in a supermarket, a bar or just people walking by on the street, you can't do that with CGI."

However, according to David Conley, executive producer at Weta Digital, visual effects can convincingly place virtual actors into scenes — even in close-up — as has been done in features including King Kong (2005), which featured a crowded Times Square in the 1930s. "[We are] able to create bespoke, realistic characters at any scale and at any level of detail," he says. "You would always prefer to have the actor in frame, but in extraordinary circumstances like we are in now, moving to CG or compositing them in from another stage could be the thing that allows a production to start up again."

Before the pandemic, background work wasn't making anyone rich, but it did provide steady paychecks to thousands of Los Angeles-based actors, in Alessi's estimation. (She also runs busy offices out of Hawaii and New Mexico.) Extras work is subject to its own set of union rules: The first 21 background jobs on any TV set — that goes up to 57 on a feature film — go to SAG background actors, who earn $174 for an eight-hour day plus overtime. (Nonunion extras earn between $90 and $110 a day plus overtime.)

Starr is one such SAG member. Under normal circumstances, he was averaging 12 to 15 workdays a month — enough to qualify him for SAG health insurance and enough to cover his rent and expenses. "I'd even get pay bumps for special stuff — like when they'd buy my artwork as a prop," he says. Now he's not working at all. He won't be eligible for unemployment insurance for several months — "calling in is near impossible," he says with a sigh — and his SAG pension "is a joke: one day's pay per month." He said he was forced to drop his SAG health insurance and has switched to Medicare. He recently reached out to The Actors Fund for assistance and "got some money from them," he says.

"All those old [SAG-required] numbers are null and void," says Boiko, who fears extras are an endangered species, one that can only be saved by an effective vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus pandemic. "It's people's livelihood — it's their insurance, their pension, their bills. That's their future."

Carolyn Giardina contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.