Work as an extra in Washington, the site of eight feature films this year and four in 1983, could mean:
* Going round and round inside revolving doors;
* Riding the Dupont Circle escalator 20 times;
* Wearing bumblebee wings in a rainstorm;
* Shaving your head.
The last -- and less frequent -- request was made of Ned Corrigan, an actor who got a special bit role in "Washington," the CBS mini-series partially shot at Mount Vernon in August 1983.
"By Christmas," says Corrigan, "I was starting to look like a semi-human being."
Shaving his head to get the part of an Indian got Corrigan more than just an extra $100 from the producers; it gave him the minimum three days work required for membership in the Washington-Baltimore local of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
For the most part, extra work is not as spontaneous as it was in the days when a free box lunch was offered in exchange for the filming of live bodies on the set. Switchboards at area casting agencies are flooded by callers hopeful they can be used every time a movie comes to Washington, says one receptionist. Hefty union fees (base fee, $637.50), auditions and face-to-face interviews are the reality.
Contracts are negotiated to cover both Washington actors and extras, according to Pat O'Donnell, whose job as the assistant executive secretary at the AFTRA/SAG local here is to ensure the fair treatment on movie sets of the 600 area union members. The first 125 extras used in movies must be SAG members, she says, and nonprofessionals may vie for spaces in a scene in "cattle-call" auditions.
"There are many members of SAG who won't work as extras," says O'Donnell. "It's very, very hard work, long and tedious. People spend 10-12 hours going over the same scene."
A successful extra in the Washington area, according to O'Donnell, would average $2,000-3,000 a year or, basically, $87 for an eight-hour day. Time-and-a-half is paid for the 9th and 10th hours of work and, after that, double time.
At least three categories are used to describe and determine the pay scale, depending on whether or not an extra performs an athletic feat, substitutes for an actor when lights are set and shots focused, or performs routine actions. If an extra speaks a line of dialogue, he or she becomes a "day player," the film business term for a speaking role.
After paying the initiation fee and dues, Washington-area union members can register for more standing, gesturing, cheering and chatting through casting agencies or directly with major motion films and television shows whose production companies abide by SAG regulations.
On the West Coast, where the Screen Extras Guild (SEG) represents about 5,000 members, it is possible to make a living as an extra, especially if someone has the appeal sought for such glamor series as "Dynasty," "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest."
"Sometimes there are 2,000 working a day," says Tom Cannan, a SEG business representative in Los Angeles. "It's the bottom of the ladder, but more people are trying to get in. In Hollywood, there are 500-700 people who make a fairly good living of it."
Extras, day players and those seeking bigger roles also try to get parts in industrial films -- educational training films produced by the government and private industry. In 1983, Washington ranked as the fourth largest city in the country for industrial actors, according to O'Donnell.
"It's easier to get day-player parts in industrials than in Hollywood films," says Fred Quinn Jr., of Quinn Casting in Silver Spring. Begun by Quinn's wife Ruth in 1955, the firm is this area's oldest casting agency and has provided talent for such movies as "The Exorcist," "All the President's Men," and "Washington Behind Closed Doors."
Do extras plan to become actors?
"I am an actor," replies Corrigan, who says he might go to New York or Hollywood for more work.
Although not everyone at a movie shoot in Washington wants to make it big in Tinseltown, most extras also perform on stage, narrate radio commercials and other audio tapes, or model in print or television advertisements.
Roxi Lamb, a singer and actress who appeared in scenes of "St. Elmo's Fire," a Columbia Pictures movie about college graduates adjusting to the outside world, took Snowy, a white French poodle owned by her boyfriend's Aunt Sadie, walked it up and down 18th Street in an Adams-Morgan street scene and made an additional $23 over the usual $87.
"You can't live on this," says Lamb, who seeks work as an extra to supplement her income. In May, she will sing the lead role in the musical "Mamara the Gypsy" at the Terrace Theater in the Kennedy Center. "The acting business does not offer a secure life," she says. "Unfortunately, it takes a long time for someone to believe in you."
Other extras on the October "St. Elmo's" shoot, who came from their jobs in real-estate offices, department stores and radio stations, only had to make sure that they threw their coats in the dryer to look like street people or that they brought different pairs of shoes, hats and scarves.
"You've got to have the clothing," says Dagmar Wittmer of Central Casting, a Washington agency that has supplied models and talent for more than 10 years. You've got to come like the part. That's part of our business . . . We have an incredible talent pool and we only want professional people."
"People feel it might be fun to get into a movie," says Carol Ness, Wittmer's partner at Central. "It's not. From our end it is a professional job and they extras are paid well but you cannot make a living in Washington as an extra."
This is part of the message Ness says she'll give at an Open University class Wednesday. "We'll probably tell people to submit re'sume's for the nonunion, large calls."
*The casual onlooker is "very rarely" pulled into the set by the movie's director, says Wittmer.
In general, Central Casting is looking for "the all-American male and female," she says. "That is the most identifiable, that's really what everybody wants. It could be a guy in his twenties, it could be a woman in her sixties. There's no age limit . But they really should fit into that square little box. They should be like you-and-me types. The guy-next-door types. No facial hair, no beard, no great unusual moustaches. Being too bizarre doesn't help; you may be used occasionally, but that's not the people who make the money."
But maybe the chance to scrutinize the final version in the theater or living room makes the long hours worth it?
"It's kind of a game to pick yourself out -- that's the fun," says one extra. "Watching the show, not quite sure when your scene or scenes are coming up, then suddenly seeing something familiar, and then there you are!"