Between 2000 and 2004, I was living in Hollywood while working as an extra in film and TV. This is really easy to do, more so than people would think. You pretty much just need to live in the area, have reliable transportation, and be breathing.
Gender, age, looks, talent (or lack of), and training don’t matter. Just twenty-five bucks for the “photo-fee” at Central Casting and you’re in. (NOTE: That’s what it was then. I have no idea what it is now, so check their website if you’re interested).
As a Central Casting client, you’d check the hotline whenever you want to work to see if there’s anything that fits you. They put all the calls on there and if there’s a bit you want to do, you call up the agent in charge. This is how the call sounded on the hotline on that day in 2003:
BEEP.. “Hey guys, this is Allan and we’re casting for townsfolk for the final episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer that will be shooting on Wednesday. I need every ethnicity from black to white, Asian and so on, plus a variety of types from long-haired to buzzed military looks. This is a big call, guys, so ring me up at 6159 and book quickly, this one’s going to go fast.”
I hung up and dialed the line for agents, then hit 6-1-5-9. Then I did it again. And again. The hard part about getting these gigs was getting through to the agent because they only put the call on the hotline for the time they’re going to book it, then they’d take it off as soon as they had filled up the slots.
If one was serious about working as an extra and getting daily gigs, one had to sometimes check the hotline up to ten times a day, and then try for an hour or more to get through to the agent for the gig they wanted. If you managed that, it was a pretty sure bet you’d get it as long as you were responding to your type.
The Buffy call that day was a no-brainer since he needed all types, but often it would be very specific and, if you were calling on something that didn’t fit you, they’d just sort of laugh and hang-up. Not cool.
I got through to Allan and he booked me, then gave me the “info number” to call later for details. That’s right, a third phone call. At least at this stage, you’ve got the gig and you’re going to work; you’re just calling to find out exactly when and where.
I arrived at a little studio lot in Santa Monica on Wednesday morning that I hadn’t been to in several years of doing these gigs and running all over town. It turned out that’s because they only shot Buffy there, and I hadn’t worked on that show before. I was lucky to get booked for the last episode they shot.
Allan had needed all of those types because we were going to be townsfolk fleeing Sunnydale before it implodes and gets sucked down into “The Hellmouth.” Gosh, I hope I’m not spoiling this for anyone!
I followed the show at the time and had no idea that the entire town of Sunnydale was contained on a lot in Santa Monica, with bookstores, surf-shops, and condos right across the street on the other side of the large green fence. I bet those people never knew they were next to Sunnydale that whole time, with its vampires and monsters running amok at all hours.
The production assistant in charge of extras got me set-up along with the hundred or so others and told me that, when they started rolling, I’d be casually strolling down the middle of the street while carrying my suitcase which had been given to me earlier by a prop master.
They mixed it up and gave a lot of people bedrolls, backpacks, and bundles of household goods (I remember one girl who had a birdcage with fake parakeets in it) but I got a neatly packed suitcase. I guess I just looked orderly or something.
I’d been shown my “starting point” and told to wait there until they were rolling. It was about twenty feet from the director’s hutch, which is a temporary kiosk they always set-up on shoots that can be easily moved through the day, containing all the monitoring gear and a canopy overhead to keep the sun off. There was also a gaggle of actor’s and producer’s chairs, the canvas kind you see with the names on them.
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Anthony Head, Nicholas Brendon, and Alyson Hannigan all had name chairs in the area and the actors themselves started showing up after a while and cutting-up with each other and the crew. There was a palatable excitement with these people on that particular day that wasn’t normally present on TV shoots. They all knew it was the last day of a series they’d been working on for years, and for most of them, it had defined their career.
Actors, crew, and other extras milled all around me as I stood on that Sunnydale sidewalk and took it all in. I noticed that the guy standing next to me seemed to be feeling as I was, as he watched all of this with a little grin on his face while looking very glad to be there.
I turned to him and said, “Nice day to be shooting outdoors, huh? Of course, not unusual for LA, haha!”
I was making small-talk. I’d made quite a few friends on sets in my three years of doing extra work and there were as many as ten people I knew well at this particular shoot, but they’d all been assigned to stand in different areas. This guy was the only one in talking distance and I’d never seen him before.
“Yeah, that’s LA for ya!” he said. “This weather makes it really nice for shooting almost any time of the year.”
So, here we were, talking about the weather, and now it was time to move on to talking about “the biz.” Like I said, small-talk. If you didn’t know someone on a set you’d usually talk about the weather, the entertainment business, and your career.
“So, have you worked this show before?”
He looked at me and nodded. “Yeah, you could say that.” His semi-smile mixed with a knowing glance was a giveaway that I wasn’t talking to another extra, which the director confirmed a moment later when he looked over in our direction.
“Hey, Joss! We’re just about ready, good to see you!”
Joss Whedon turned to me and said, “Nice talking to you, uh…”
I forgot my name for a second. Oh yeah, I got it:
“Dave,” I stammered.
“Dave, right.. well, have fun today!”
“Thanks, man, you too.”
I ended up in that episode, but barely. A wistful-looking Buffy (Sarah-Michelle Gellar) walks against the crowd as they exodus and, at one point, I walk past her. That’s it. Just me and my neatly packed suitcase bidding Buffy adieu, for a split-second in time. Maybe a hundred frames of film at the most.
But I remember it well, and I remember Joss and his smile, both of which have gone on to lots of other cool, magical things. Me, I’m sitting here in a cheap hotel room in San Francisco, writing about it. Someday I’ll unpack that suitcase and make a life.
The evacuation of Sunnydale because of the widening Hellmouth takes place in episode #19 of the seventh season (Empty Places) and not the final episode, #22 (Chosen) as you’ve suggested. What do you have to say for yourself?
~ a Buffy fan
Dear Buffy fan,
I’ve forgotten what I had for breakfast this morning. I think it was pancakes. In my defense, they frequently shoot things out of sequence and that may have very well been the final scene shot for that entire series (although I’m guessing) because I do remember that being mentioned.
I saw the exodus scene sometime later but didn’t remember what episode it was in so I just assumed it was the final one.
The final lesson regarding human scenery is that they don’t tell extras anything.