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Hitting the Small Time
Why Extras Wait -- and Wait -- for Fleeting Film Fame

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Overcome by the irony of having nothing to read in the world's biggest library, I stare at the ceiling and take mental notes on the absurdity of my existence.

Throat dry.

Is lying here actually journalism?

Stupid to sacrifice weekend to dumb Nicolas Cage movie.

I am flat on my back in one of the oak-paneled rooms in the Library of Congress, where the sequel to 2004's "National Treasure" is filming. The crew is setting up a shot in the grand reading room, and we extras (or "background actors," if you will) are consigned to this smaller holding area. Cattle in a pen. Twelve-thirty to 3:30 a.m., there on the floor. Heaps of tired meat.

This is the "wait" part of "hurry up and wait."

The fun part of being an extra, though, is truly fun, especially if you love movies. Fast forward to my second night of shooting. Two nimble, attractive people sprint down the center aisle of the reading room. They zoom behind me, duck into the librarian's console and slip down a stairwell as I continue, puzzled, toward the stacks to reshelve a book.

That's when the SWAT team hustles in. A flood of D.C. police and FBI agents follows. Guns are drawn. I freeze mid-walk, ready to drop my book.

"Cut!"

The tension in the cavernous room evaporates. The law enforcement officials let their paunches back out. They waddle wearily out of the reading room for another go. I rewind myself back around the console to my desk.

The room's big gold clock says 1:45 a.m. It's hour 17 of the 20 hours I and two dozen other extras spent on the library set earlier this month.

The result? Maybe30 seconds of film.

In those 30 seconds, maybe you'll see us -- a torso or a profile in the background, out of focus, as Cage strides by, looking for Abraham Lincoln's pants, or whatever. When the film is released, I'll no doubt take friends to see it, wait for the library sequence and, as a white blob passes the camera in the extreme foreground, whisper "That's me!" and not be convinced that it is.

One of my background colleagues, Montgomery Village resident K.C. Bahry, knows how to articulate the glorious folly of being an extra.

"I used to have a business card that said: 'K.C. Bahry, professional blur,' " she says.

The term "extra" connotes superfluity, but extras are not superfluous. They provide the texture, the cinematic reality, for a film. Before a director calls "action," he calls "background." That's when extras start doing their thing: walking down the street, having a fake drink at a bar or, in my case on "National Treasure: Book of Secrets," returning a book to the stacks just before Harvey Keitel bursts in with the law.

"Background is the bottom, and it's a lot of work," says Williamsburg resident Tamara Johnson, a mid-40s (people are cagey about their exact ages in this business) author and actor who's playing a librarian in the sequence. "But it really legitimizes a movie. If you don't have us, your scene is flat."

Absolutely right, says Maryellen Aviano, the extras casting coordinator for the "National Treasure" sequel and a veteran of 35 feature films.

"We can't make the movie without you," says Aviano, whose job it is to accurately populate scenes and sequences. "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" shot in Washington for two weeks, using locals and out-of-towners to play dignitaries, pedestrians and, of course, readers at the Library of Congress.

"The plan was to come out to beautiful D.C. at cherry blossom time and have lovely spring weather," Aviano says ruefully.

That didn't happen, as you know. The Library of Congress sequence was fine. It was indoors. The scene at Mount Vernon was written as a balmy outdoor reception for the president's birthday, but the cold and persistent rain the second week of April made its own edits to the script.

Ashburn resident Brian Reynolds, 40, played a Mount Vernon police officer during that shoot. Reynolds, a private sales consultant with no previous acting experience, put his head shot and résumé on ExtrasNow.com about six months ago and found himself escorting Cage during one scene.

"There were lots of people in evening gowns and tuxedos, and we had to work out in the pouring rain, so the glamorous part went right out the window," says Reynolds, who put in 26 hours of work over two days. "But I absolutely loved it. The atmosphere is very contagious."

If you're going to be an extra on a major motion picture, expect a long, hard workday. As far as managing the tedium, the trick is to bring something to do (or read, for Pete's sake) and be open to meeting your fellow actors, who often have fascinating stories to tell.

The next night, I wised up. During downtime, I found extra Karen Beriss, a late-20s New York actor and magician, and made her do sleight-of-hand card tricks for a good hour or two.

Many people make their living doing background work, but this bit of extra work is a bonus for movie fans like me. And if I and some of my fellow extras don't make the final cut of "National Treasure 2," maybe it's for the best, reputation-wise. I mean, did you see the first one?

Read More ...

In the Spotlight: Meet five actors with lengthy resumes as extras, and see clips of their on-camera moments.

How to Get on a Set: Want to be an extra? Here's how.

A Weekend in the Life: Reporter Dan Zak chronicles his experience as an extra, hour-by-hour.

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