Hitchcock once said that actors are merely cattle. Then an extra must be the cow dung of cattle. Long hours, little pay, you’d think these people would rather live the life of a circus carney than work as walking scenery. Optimistically speaking, it’s not a bad gig. You make your own hours, get a free meal at every job, and have the privilege of working in the entertainment industry. Looking at the glass-half-empty side, the pay sucks, you never know when the next gig is, and the chances of having a meal that’s more nutritious than a Krispy Kreame is pretty low. Yet these people believe that someday they’ll stop being a walking prop and see their name on the silver screen. According to “Extra: In the Background of a Dream,” there is hope for the starry eyed.
To start as an extra, one must sign up at a extra casting agency. This vision is best reminiscent of the hundreds of drones waiting in a line for an unemployment check. Even still, these Hollywood hopefuls keep a positive approach to this rat race. With a quick application, headshot, and Polaroid snap, their next step is sitting by the phone waiting for that call from the casting God’s.
If working, a typical morning for an extra begins at the crack of dawn, packing an arsenal of creature comforts to pass the time while on set: a folding chair, paperback, sketch pad, anything to make life easier on the job. More than half of the day consists of sitting on your a*s while waiting for your ten seconds of background screen time. To these chosen few, this job is an art form rather than a colossal waste of time. It can be depressing, but they seem to build a think skin for this call of duty, hoping it will lead them to the big time.
Spread throughout the doc are various interviews with casting agents telling their tales of extras that have gone on to better things (Pam Anderson being one of them), to stealing food from craft service, to more personal moments of what happens after the gig. One of the most intriguing is that of “Catfish Bates,” a Background Artist veteran who has made an honest living playing the part of a walking prop and is proud of his accomplishments.
This documentary gives us an objective view inside the world of an extra without taking sides. The audience is left with making the decision on their own if this is really worth the effort for the Hollywood hopeful. Its one setback is that there is no serious conflict within the story. We never see the true risk of chasing ones dream. Only occasionally do we fall into the world of the hard luck extra. “Extra: In the Background of a Dream” has a generalized tension that works from time to time, but to see a week’s worth of their highs and lows would have made this a more focused piece. Watching what little behind-the-scenes footage we have really shows one’s determination for their own personal American dream. “Extra: In the Background of a Dream” gives that to us, but only in small doses.