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Lucky me? Maybe not: A day in the life of a Vegas extra, Pt. 3

Michael T. Toole

Lucky me? Maybe not: A day in the life of a Vegas extra, Pt. 3

Rich King Casting, an agency based in Hollywood, made the mistake, at least in my humble opinion, of putting their information out to any general public outlet regarding this gig. Newspapers ads, fliers on the UNLV campus, craiglist.org, you name it, they did it.

Granted, a move like that in L.A., where people are a little more geared to the rules and rituals of a film set, would be more productive, but Vegas is a different animal. With productions simply being less frequent here, and the very transient nature of the city -- where people will answer an ad to collect some money while they’re still in the process of resettling -- made this method of acquiring extras much more of a crapshoot. Too many of the people I observed on the set simply weren’t prepared to wait for hours on end and endure the mind-numbing tedium.

In sharp contrast to the newbies, you could tell the extras who belonged to the “been there, done that” society: They bring books, pocket video games, or knitting projects to be finished. In my case, I brought my laptop to do some scribbling (gotta scribe the details, you never know when you might have a good story).

It was now approaching 2 p.m., and I was chatting with some people I had met on previous productions when a young, attractive Filipina wearing a stunning, lacy white dress approached me:

Girl: Excuse me, can I ask you something?

Me: Sure.

Girl: How much are we getting paid on the set.

Me: That depends, are you union.

Girl: Union?  Do you mean culinary?

Me: No, as in SAG.

Girl: What’s that?

Me: It’s stands for the Screen Actors Guild. The fact that you’re asking me what that stands for probably means you’re not union. Let’s take a look at your voucher.

She has it crumpled in her hand. It’s crushed so tightly, that the carbon copies on the back had a series of lines running through it. Still, I flatten out the copy and I show her the box that lists her wages.

Me: It says here you’re getting $54 for eight hours.

Girl: Where does it say that?

Me: Right there, that’s what 8/54 means

Girl: That’s it?

Me: I’m afraid so.

Girl: I used a sick day from my job at El Pollo for just that!

Me: It comes out to $6.75 an hour, but it is time-and-a-half for over eight hours, and double time for over 12.

She ignores my last comments and just stares at the voucher with a very frustrated look. I feel embarrassed for her, and I feel a little uncomfortable. The awkward silence is relieved when a PA comes in and announces:

PA: Okay people, we’re breaking for lunch!  Let’s head back to base camp, and be sure to put down 2:12 to

3:12 for lunch on your vouchers!

After chow time was over, it was back to the holding area upstairs at Binions. I won’t go into detail as to what was served, but I will say that the item that best approached edibility was the vegetarian lasagna with skim milk cheese.

After waiting a bit longer, we get called, around 5 p.m., to head to the set. Freedom at last!  We race downstairs, and are placed at various poker tables.

The five or six people at my table start to discuss the movie we’re making. Although we know little of the plot details for the film, we all generally agree that it couldn’t be as original as the producers wanted us to believe it would be. Whether it’s big budget caper film (Ocean’s Eleven); broad, low-key comedy (Miss Congeniality 2); harsh neo-realism drama (Leaving Las Vegas); or offbeat romantic fare (The Cooler, which, for the record, was shot in Reno); it’s all been pretty much done to varying degrees.

The appeal of shooting in Las Vegas has been consistent for years: ready-made set pieces complete with slot machines, card tables, the faded carpets, cocktail waitresses and the neon lights, save the producers getting a set designer because you simply rent a casino for a few weeks. Also, the very nature of Las Vegas as a backdrop preps the audience a bit for the story -- people yearning for wealth and recognition only to find disillusionment in the process -- taking the onus off the screenwriter to put emphasis on character depth.

The funny part is, for all the anticipation we, the extras, had for going onto the set, actually being here is really anti-climactic. When the director yells “background, ” we just go through repetitive motions for a few hours (dealer passes out the cards, we raise, we call, we fold, we rake in) and really, that’s all there is to it. Before we know it, it’s 7:42 p.m., and we call it a day (“That’s a wrap”), and we all head back to base camp to sign out on our vouchers.

As we enter the parking lot, the lighting is very dim and I connect on the eeriest sound in the dark. Our foot pacing is so sluggish that it just scrapes along the loose gravel on the asphalt, as if we’ve been so drained by boredom that we behave like zombies in a bad horror movie on late night cable.

In time, we line up in front of two tables that are fronted by four PAs who are checking us out as we prepare to turn in our vouchers. After 15-20 minutes, it’s my turn to sign out. As luck would have it, I get the unpleasant PA from this morning, the one with the bad Ace Frehely perm tucked under a baseball cap and who is in desperate need of instruction on reading a watch accurately.

Ace says nothing to me, and as he approves my paperwork he hands me back my copy of the voucher without any eye contact, and shouts to the person behind me -- NEXT!  That suits me fine, I’ll just go to the garage, get my car, and head home. Personally, I felt the production of “Lucky You,” had all the smooth coordination of a Hal Needham action comedy.  Will I do background work again?  More than likely. I’ve worked on several other films before and believe me, they aren’t all as joyless as “Lucky You,” so budding background actors, take heart.

I’m not more than three miles away from the set when my mobile phone rings. The number has a 323 area code, that’s right, L.A. I let my voice mail pick it up. I listen to the message after I get home. Sure enough, it’s Rich King Casting.

Rich King Rep: Michael, I’ve got your call time if you’d like to come back next week.

I don’t hear much after that, my battery is really low and the remainder of the message is very inaudible. I guess this means I’ll just have to get a new battery … eventually.

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