For the past five years I’ve been moonlighting as a film extra in Paris. The first time I responded to an ad I saw somewhere, perhaps the billboard at the American Church, specifically looking for American extras for a vernissage scene of the film L’Un Reste, L’Autre Part (the logic being that Americans buy art, they wanted our voices in the background).
We stood around for two days in a gallery on the Quai Malaquai drinking Canada Dry (they don’t give extras real Champagne, of course) for a five second scene. After that, the same casting director calls whenever he needs someone who fits my “profile” which they keep on file.
Being a freelancer, I tend to be available when most other people have to be at work. The pay is low (usually €100 for a full day), the job mostly requires standing around waiting to be called on set, and the food at the table for “figuration” (extras) usually consists of cookies, Pringles, soda and coffee. But you meet some really interesting people and get to see the behind-the-scenes of the film industry. And it gives me an excuse to go watch French films. 😉
My Illustrious Career as a Movie Extra in Paris
I’ve been a White House journalist in a convincingly recreated set of the White House Press Room out in the Parisian suburbs (ironically, my original career plan was to be a White House correspondent, before Paris distracted me), one of the party-goers in a Jaguar commercial set in a château just outside Paris (the same one used for Teabing’s house in Da Vinci Code), and part of the audience in a theatre scene in the Audrey Tautou film L’Ensemble, C’est Tout (I was actually standing next to her in the bar scene at Harry’s, too, but you can only see my elbow).
The most embarrassing part as an extra was in a teaser/trailer for American show, The Bachelor (the season set in Paris…I was one of the ladies in white standing at Trocadero as the sun rose behind the Eiffel Tower…all of the French extras were so happy it would only be shown in the US….I was trying to hide behind the others). One of my favorites was last winter where I got to walk past the lead characters of Trésor with my doggies, Pedro & Lena (the movie was not that good; unfortunately it was director Claude Berri’s last).
A Typical Day as an Extra
This time it was a film directed by Kad Merad (one of the stars of the French hit film, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis). We were only told that it was a restaurant scene at Tokyo Eat, in the Palais de Tokyo. We were told to bring two summer outfits and two winter outfits, along with our paperwork and ID (you have to have French working papers and prove you pay taxes here to work as an extra). Extras in France, at least in the movies I’ve done, don’t get any hair or make-up assistance, we do it ourselves. The smart ones bring books, magazines, or other things to serve as quiet distraction.
After being registered and getting dressed (with a wardrobe woman telling us which outfits she prefers), we’re all herded into the restaurant and choose our table. I’m with Philippe, a classical musician in his real life. We’re served “molecular cuisine” dishes from the Tokyo Eat menu (and instructed not to touch them), along with glasses of what looks like red wine, but is in fact grape juice.
And Sometimes it Feels Like Work
We have to pretend we’re eating and talking without actually making any sounds or touching the food. We can drink the juice, which we do until we start feeling ill four hours later. Then we break for dinner. When we go back, the same food is sitting there, and this time, because they can actually see us in the shot, they tell us to eat it. Philippe wisely asks for a fresh plate. My cold lentil dish doesn’t need heating, so I try and eat it. Anything is better than more grape juice! Then we change into our winter outfits and move to other tables. Since I’m now in the back far from the camera, I start dozing off between takes (there are huge pauses between them as the director chats with the actors, one who is a young boy who seems amazingly calm despite the hours of repetition).
We wrap at midnight and everyone packs up and heads out. When Monsieur Papa (the working title) comes out, look for me at the table behind the kid in the restaurant scene. 😉