Thrilled to be an extra for a blockbuster new film, Guy Pewsey soon discovered that silver screen Oxford is not as quaint as it seems…
When last term finally ended and the summer holidays at last arrived, most students packed their gowns and escaped the city as soon as the last jug of Pimms was drained. Like many, I had daydreams of putting on my suntan lotion whilst lying on a tropical beach somewhere a thousand miles from Oxford. Instead, I found myself at the town hall at five o clock in the morning, having my hair pulled out to make a rather dashing, yet terribly painful, side parting. One could ask why I was spending my free time in such conditions, and I was beginning to wonder myself, until I was brought back to reality as a few more hairs were plucked from my scalp.
It had started perhaps a week before, when my unhealthy addiction to Facebook finally paid off, and I discovered an advertisement for work as an extra on the set of ‘Brideshead Revisited’, the film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel, made even more famous by the much loved 1981 mini-series. This film had it all: a big budget, big stars like Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon along with up-and-coming actors Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw as Charles and Sebastian. Never one to shy from the limelight, I was instantly enthralled, and when further reading informed me that the job paid ninety pounds a day, it took me approximately two seconds to e-mail the casting company for more information. With the application came a request for a photograph to check that I could pass for a first year Oxford student (hardly a taxing performance) and a severely off-putting checklist. ‘Can you row?’ No. ‘Can you ride a horse?’ No. Answering these questions, which essentially amounted to ‘Are you a rich boy from the 1920s?’, was a little depressing, so I took to embellishment. ‘Can you play rugby?’ Yes. I could almost hear my Year 11 P.E. teacher chuckling as I ticked the box. ‘Can you punt?’ Yes. Again, memories of last term’s attempts at messing about on the river had certainly proven otherwise. With a few more fabrications the form was complete, and I was imagining the ninety pounds a day nestled nicely in my dwindling bank account. My hopes were fulfilled, and I was asked to come for a costume fitting in Oxford a few days later, for which I would be paid thirty pounds for about half an hour. Now I was almost giddy with the thought of so much money for what I was sure would be the easiest job ever. I promptly called in sick at work for the next fortnight and booked my coach to Oxford. I was trading in serving grease-topped pizza to be a ‘background artiste’ in a big budget film, and I couldn’t help but tell everyone I knew about this glamorous new opportunity, made all the more exciting by my visit to the costume department where I was kitted out in a navy 1920s three piece suit and trilby, complete with vintage cuff-links and braces. I was already contemplating how I could get away with stealing something expensive.
And yet the allure of the silver screen lost a little of its sparkle almost immediately as I awaited the information concerning times and locations for the next day’s start. Instead came a rather blunt text message telling me that I was no longer required for this week’s scenes, but that I would be contacted if this changed. By my calculations I was already down two hundred and seventy pounds, half the earnings I had hoped for from the six day shoot. After toying with polite acceptance, my control went out the window and I e-mailed the company with my grievances, citing loss of earnings and whatever else I could complain about. To my surprise, my efforts were not in vain, and I soon received a call that night requesting my presence the next day. I instantly agreed. "What time?"; "Five ‘o clock for a seven o clock shoot"; "Great, see you tomorrow evening then"; "Tomorrow morning", she corrected. I almost collapsed with the idea of such an early morning after a month of midday lie-ins, and went to get some beauty sleep before my big screen debut.
Which brings me back to the most painful haircut of my life. As I sat in hair and make-up, reflected in the typical lit mirror, talking to one of the many stylists who ran around the room searching for the Brylcreem, I discovered just how passionate she was about her work. She knew the business back to front, had cut the hair of some of the most famous actors in Britain, and, perhaps most refreshingly, was ecstatic to be playing a role in transferring her favourite novel of all time to the big screen. Her banter distracted me sufficiently from the horror I felt at what she was doing to my hair, but even the extra thirteen pounds added to my pay for ‘loss of assets’ was little comfort after I was left with a haircut reminiscent of an eight year old WWII evacuee.
After hours of waiting, I was in costume and ready to go, and that’s where the world of ‘background artistry’ started to rear its ugly head. The production assistant arrived to take a dozen of us to the first site, meaning another dozen would remain behind inactive and, most importantly, off camera. As we were picked randomly to be taken down to Christchurch, the unlucky leftovers, watching as we were led away, glared bitterly, like Veruca Salt when Gene Wilder denies her a golden egg. This is when I realised that for these wannabe actors, the chance to be on screen for a second or two was worth fighting for, especially when they’re competing with a couple of clueless students too naive to realise that for some people, walking back and forth in the background counts as acting.
Leaving these ‘professionals’ in the holding area at the town hall, we were transported down the street and given our props and first actions. When instructed to walk from beneath an archway out towards the middle of the quad, I was delighted to discover that this meant that I would definitely be in shot. Within five minutes, I had turned into one of them, a background artist desperate for screen time, hiding my trilby so that my face would be visible, practicing my 1920s walk in between shots. Evelyn Waugh had unwittingly created a monster, as I argued for the most distinctive props, insisting that my costume was that of a studious individual who would surely have had a gown and a stack of books. I knew that at this rate, it wouldn’t be long before I was disregarding the director’s instructions to stay in the background. And yet, by the tenth take, the fifteenth take, the twentieth take, the glamour was fading and the books were getting heavy.
I could tell that while some of the extras were here for the exposure, some were here to see the stars. Most had their eyes peeled for Emma Thompson or Michael Gambon, to such an extent that they didn’t realise that the real stars, those playing Charles and Sebastian, were walking amongst them. But it soon became clear who was getting paid the big salary. As I was assigned the action of pinning 1920s notices on boards, Ben Wishaw, star of 2006 film ‘Perfume’, drew attention to himself by spinning around dizzily on his toes. The extras wondered who on earth this nutjob was, and it took everyone about five shots to realise that he was just getting into Sebastian’s drunken demeanour. Once it had been made clear that Ben was actually not a freak, but the star of the film, a completely different atmosphere descended on the group. With a named character in shot, the chance of getting on camera increased, and so did the eagerness to have a decent action. When the production assistant asked if anyone smoked, so that they could have a shot of a student sneaking a cigarette in the cloisters, several non smokers fell over each other to answer him. Moments later, one of these boys was taking his first puff with a mix of disgust and pride imprinted on his face.
And so the day went by, filming the same scene twenty times before the director decided to move on to the next one. In between takes, I was given new props to make me appear as if I was a different character, although a new set of books and a hat was about as effective a transformation as Clark Kent’s spectacles. After eight hours of paid work, we were finally given lunch, but not before the rules were established. Extras must wait until all others have received food before they do, so the cast, the crew, the stylists, the prop masters, the head painter, the mini bus driver, even the work experience boy, got to eat before us. All day I had wanted an opportunity to discover if there was any truth in Ricky Gervais’ successful comedy series, where he chats casually with stars such as Kate Winslet and Samuel L. Jackson on the tea break. Here was my chance to rub shoulders with the stars, but it quickly became clear that this aspect of ‘Extras’ lies in fiction. Everyone ate in the same room, and yet it was as if there was a barrier, an invisible force field of ego and salary preventing us lowly background artists from venturing beyond a six feet radius of anyone important.
As lunch ended and the sun came out, the tourists crowded around in their masses, creating a new problem as we posed for photos with the Japanese schoolchildren who, ignorant of the crew, assumed that we students still wear 1920s suits and hideous side partings. The day passed by, and we were elated to realise we’d gone into overtime at ten pounds an hour. Despite this, I was relieved beyond belief when we were sent home after the twelve hour day, and I did what I could to reshape the mass of Brylcreem which had now solidified to an alabaster-like hardness around my scalp.
The next day, to my relief, was to start at two o clock in the afternoon. Surprisingly though, there were only five of us, as the others had been called the night before to be told that their presence was not required. But at four the schedule changed, and we were sent home without ever setting foot in hair and make-up. I left in the knowledge that I was receiving ninety pounds for two hours of sitting in the town hall, although I had been looking forward to putting my suit back on.
The rest of the time I spent filming was a wildly unpredictable and uneventful two days; sometimes I would move from left to right whilst on a bike in Radcliffe Square, or move from left to right in Magdalen’s cloisters, or move from left to right at Christchurch meadows. The idea of money was all that kept me and my fellow ‘actors’ going, so it was with great annoyance that I discovered from a seasoned extra dressed as a priest that wages take six to eight weeks to process, and include a large commission charge. Even worse, when some of the others discovered that I had been one of the lucky few to be requested for the two hours of work a few days previously, I could tell that they resented the fact that I was randomly chosen above them, the seasoned professionals. Similarly, when one extra was promoted to ‘handsome boy’ and asked to punt Charles and Sebastian down the river, we could tell that several of our ‘colleagues’ had their fingers firmly crossed for him to fall in.With fatigue setting in and money a far-off promise, suddenly filming a movie got a little old, and although I’d had some fun and met some great people, I was bored of listening to ‘boy on bike number 4’ talking about his commercial experience. The career of a background artist is an erratic one; sure, you can tell your friends that you’ve worked with Nicole Kidman, that you’ve been in the same room as Johnny Depp, but to be a professional extra is to admit to yourself that you’re not quite good enough to be the star, or for that matter to be worthy of a name. It’s definitely worth a go, if only for the chance to say you’ve done it, but I won’t be jacking in my degree anytime soon. That is, of course, unless Spielberg happens to notice the lanky boy in the navy suit erratically cycling in the background, grinning like a maniac and trying to get in shot. One can only hope.