Movie Extra

For actors like Michael Grubb, tiny roles might be a way to stardom


» “There is a definite undercurrent of excitement that can’t be matched by any other job I can think of.”

 » Grubb, who is 45, has been an extra, also known as a background actor, on and off since 1981. He is not in movie credits, and he speaks no lines. If extras are given even a single word of dialogue, they are upgraded to actors.

» He gets jobs through Central Casting, the largest of the four major Hollywood agencies for extras. “We are at the bottom of the pecking order, but I’d rather wake up at 3 a.m. to work 14 hours as a pinpoint in the backdrop of a movie than get up at seven o’clock and spend an eight-hour day in an office.”

» Because extras work intermittently and only some are in the Screen Actors Guild, nobody has a precise count of how many there are in L.A. Add together active clients of the big-four agencies, subtract 30 percent for overlap, and you get an estimate of 73,000. The prize for the film with the most extras goes to Gandhi, which used 300,000 in India and paid each of them 78 cents a day.

» Extras who are members of the Screen Actors Guild earn $139 a day. “I’m not in SAG, and I make minimum wage, which comes to $64 a day, plus meals. Union work pays better, but there are fewer SAG jobs because they are more expensive for production companies.”

» Grubb grew up in Glendale. “Starting in junior high, I was the lead in several plays. A drama teacher at Glendale High School got some of us our first jobs as extras in the TV movie Who Wants to Be a Hero! When I was a student at Cal State L.A., I needed some income, and a friend reminded me about being an extra and advised me to register at Central Casting.”

» He has appeared in The Heidi Chronicles, Hotel for Dogs, and Semi-Pro. Between takes of The Heidi Chronicles Grubb took out one of his notebooks to do homework for a community college class. “Jamie Lee Curtis interrupted the director and screamed at
me, ‘Are you a reporter from the National Enquirer?’ ”

» Grubb has had other jobs. He has worked as a photo agent, a product manager for a software company, a freelance computer
technician, and a salesperson at a vitamin store. Those positions often have brought in more money than his various
onscreen gigs. “But they have been a diversion from my real passion, which is acting.”

» Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bruce Willis, and Megan Fox began their careers as extras. “It would be really nice to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild because that would help me pursue more serious acting roles. But it costs a lot of money to maintain your membership in SAG.”

 » “In Apollo 13 I did the very thing they tell extras never to do: look into the camera. It was when they lose contact with the astronauts. I was a news media person, and I had this expression of sincere concern. I’ll always be thankful to Ron Howard because they ended up using that shot in the movie.” 

» “I’ve heard stories of people on the set getting bored between takes and running off to have sex in the back lot or going off and smoking pot. I’ve never done any of that. I’ve always been kind of a Goody Two-shoes about things like that.”

 » “I would have liked to have been a background actor in A Clockwork Orange. Stanley Kubrick was one of my favorite directors. Or in the original Star Wars. It was a paradigm-shifting moment in film.” 

Photograph by Dustin Snipes

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