They'd pick me over Dame Judi
Andrew was late arriving at the evening's rehearsal for the Player's production of "Present Laughter." He had been rushing. It had been a long day. He had spent it in a policeman's uniform, dredging bodies out of a river.
Not that they were genuine bodies. And not that Andrew is a genuine policeman. But he does supplement his income - it's one of his many part-time jobs - by being a film extra.
"There's endless waiting around, of course," he told me, "but it's good fun. And you can earn £100 a day. If you get something to say, you can earn much more. One guy I know..."
And he launches into one of those tales of an extra who made good - even if it did only happen once - that I suspect pepper the whispered conversations of the Extra Fraternity during the many intervals and pauses that are integral to their work. What extras do not have secret dreams of stardom?
To my surprise (since now Andrew has given me the number of his agent and I have sent her some mugshots, paid her a modest fee, and promised her to honor and obey), there are some extras who'd be horrified if they were asked to do anything more prominent than lurk in the background as all good extras should and mostly do.
There were, for instance, the two youngish women positioned at the top of the double flight of wide stone steps that descend into Buchanan Street from Glasgow's Concert Hall. My wife-for-the-day and I were a few steps down. She and I (we had first met an hour earlier) were coming up, the two women down. Our function was to block the way for the main character, who, (though I mustn't give away the plot) had just spotted a skateboarder bumping into a woman pushing a perambulator. Our hero was about to perform a heroic rescue. But for the moment we were all frozen in position, ready for another take. At "Action!" we would all spring to life like the statue of Hermione in "The Winter's Tale."
Waiting, I looked down to the street busy with real shoppers (we were supposed to look like shoppers), and a real crowd was forming now, gazing at the filming on the steps. We could hardly have been in a more prominent place. One of the two women just above me said "Isn't it awful? I really don't enjoy being seen in public like this!"
Why did she want to do "extra" work, then? Not for the money, surely. "You don't do amateur dramatics?" I asked.
"Oh, no!" she said, horrified.
My "wife" informed us that she wasn't into acting either. But she had no qualms about being noticeable in public. A teacher by profession, she had been an extra quite a few times before. It didn't disconcert her. I had the impression that she was not the disconcertible type.
There were 40 of us "called" to this, my first (and so far, last) day as an extra. We were needed for a couple of scenes in an episode of a long-running TV series, "Monarch of the Glen." Generally, the action takes place in the rural Scottish Highlands. But this was a happening in Glasgow.
Shoppers in the morning, we were to be university people, students, and lecturers in the afternoon. All it took, apparently, was a change of clothes for the future TV audience not to notice that the same group of extras had been used in both scenes.
Not to be noticed is, of course, what extras are all about. Yet I do find myself, now that I have an interest in the business, turning my attention away from the main action while watching TV dramas or movies, to observe the extras for a while. Their effectiveness depends on the way they are directed. Professionalism is not what is required, and yet behaving with complete naturalness, unconscious of being filmed, is arguably one of the trickier tasks an actor may be faced with. To extras, it is taken for granted.
One of our afternoon jobs was to walk along a corridor. The cameras were outside in a courtyard and we, as if fired sporadically out of a pea-shooter, strode or strolled along the passage, filmed through its glass wall. "Go!" whispered a woman in charge. I (typical amateur actor) felt I'd like to know who I was and where I was going. She decided I was a lecturer heading for my office. I decided I was in a hurry to get there.
The really strange thing, I concluded, about being an extra, is the feeling of not knowing if you will appear in the final cut or not. And if you do, whether you will be a blurry shadow, or actually visible. Lead actors must assume they will. Yet I gathered that in Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," the director did not always tell his actors - many of them stars - whether, at a given time, they were actually going to be filmed. In ensemble scenes, they were to be in their roles at all times. These actors, in effect, might be stars one minute and extras the next. Interviewed later, they raised no objections to such treatment.
Here's a thought. Might not an actor of great repute sometimes, in a passing fantasy, wonder what if might be like to be as unnoticeable as an ordinary person - extra material, in fact?
A nice story appeared the other day in Britain's Radio Times. It seems that the much lionized grande dame of British theater, Judi Dench - who is also known to be an incorrigibly mischievous practical joker - "on a recent trip [to Scotland] stopped off at the set of BBC1's Monarch of the Glen...." A "junior member of the Monarch team" asked if he could help her.
" 'I was wondering if you had any role for an extra,' replied the Oscar winner."
Not knowing who she was, the junior member said he'd find out, and asked for her name.
In other words, you can fool one young person once, but to be an acceptable extra, having a famous face - not to mention actually knowing supremely the art of acting - means you will be quite unable to fool most of the people any of the time.
It is unlikely to worry Dame Judi, but the fact is that she will never be able to land a job as an extra.
It still comes as a surprise, perhaps, that visitors to contemporary art galleries and museums are as likely to encounter photography, video, or film these days as they are to be confronted with paintings and sculpture.
Considerable doubt is being cast on the relevance of traditional art materials. But the doubters themselves believe they are artists. They place their works in an art context, as if denying and acknowledging simultaneously the significance of art and its history.
I saw Mark Lewis's four-minute looped 35mm color film "The Pitch" three years ago in London's Tate Britain. Not in a movie theater. Its very brevity makes it an impossible candidate for mainstream or even "art house" cinema.
Although it has a timespan, it probably lasts about as long as most people are prepared to spend in front of a painting. And it repeats and repeats, until it becomes almost as familiar as a stationary image.
All the same, it is a kind of narrative. Its theme is film extras. Mark Lewis, standing in an anonymously public space, talks determinedly to the camera about his wish to make a film in which the extras replace the stars. The scene gradually widens until Lewis himself is virtually lost in the crowd. They are all "extras" - and so, in the end, is he.
The point is quietly made that the film industry has things inside out. A film without stars could still be a great film. Without extras, it would barely exist.