Extra, Extra: A Day on Set of James Franco’s New Film, The Pretenders

Upstate, New York has become a crutch to the hollywood film industry. From Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper’s “A Place Beyond The Pines” to Angelina Jolie’s “Salt.” The Capital Region offers a legitimate variety of ideal locations at a price tag that has hollywood big-wigs sending their talent up north, project after project.

The latest to utilize the great upstate is James Franco, director of the new indie film, The Pretenders. There are remarkably few details about the movie in terms of cast or plot, but the film crew made its way upstate to spend the next couple of weeks filming scenes in Albany, Cohoes and Troy.

Naturally when an attractive male movie star and a bunch of cameras are in town, people want to be involved just to say they witnessed something semi-cool, including me. The Pretenders put a call-out for extras that had a 70s/80s vibe and fit the college aged profile, and I knew this was my chance at the hollywood background limelight.

Well, sort of.

I’m not an actor or a wannabe actor, so I went into the experience with no expectations. After walking into a gymnasium in the basement of Russell Sage College at 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon, I slowly started to absorb my physical surroundings and personalities on a real, live movie set. I was laughing to myself, cringing a little, excited and part of the action for a while and exhausted by the end of the 8-hour evening.

Some highlights and observations? Well, don’t mind if I do…

First, there’s the behind-the-scenes crew. The Production Assistants on a set try to keep everything moving. This usually involves cargo pants with lots of pockets, some reliable old school New Balances, a handful of walkie talkies clipped to said cargo pants, and a rolled-out-of-bed hairstyle that lasts throughout probably many sleepless nights on end. While unable to hide the appearance of being a total dork, what’s obvious is that the responsibility of the job is huge. From making sure all of the background actors are compensated for their time (which includes tons of paperwork), to overseeing that hair and makeup is done on time, yelling for everyone to be quiet and ensure everyone follows directions –they’re in charge of a lot of moving parts.

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Hair and makeup is where things got a little intimidating. Most people don’t prefer to rate themselves on the 1-10 scale or any scale for that matter, but the hair and makeup artists on a movie set are not shy about ranking you right in front of everyone. For The Pretenders, 50 extras were selected and stuffed into the basement gymnasium. All were styled by the fashion experts in ridiculously awesome 70s attire –from dramatic belts and bell bottoms to fur vests and neck scarves. But when it came to hair and makeup, the crew became a bit more selective. Myself and several others got the full treatment, including hair in curlers and 1/2 pound of rosy red blush, and other extras were pushed off to the side as-is. After all dressing up was complete, the makeup artists walked around pointing their fingers to distinguish all the good peeps from all the, well, not needed.

Later in the evening as our time to shine came closer, the top 20 extras were photographed mugshot style to make sure they remembered our look and could contact us for future work on set. The top 20 list became more obvious throughout the night as we were offered more prominent background roles that involved dancing with the main cast members at a rooftop party and crossing back and forth during dialogue.

For me, I felt comfortable with just going with the flow in my no expectations mindset, but it definitely felt decent to be picked for the top group and not stuck in the basement sitting idle for hours. I was so conflicted after being a full-time week of extra work during my pre-planned vacation getaway (If you keep reading, you’ll see why I picked the vacation).

Your peers, the extras, are an interesting crowd for sure. I had really no business being there, but in upstate NY they open the door to everyone since they’re aren’t as many SAG actors available compared to a place like NYC. So I figured it would be a lot of locals like me, but I quickly overheard in the basement (with no cell reception by the way, so you got to observe a lot down there), that these 20-somethings came from all over just to get paid ($20/hour for SAG union members, and $50 for the whole day for non-union).

Well, not just to get paid, some of these people are also struggling young actors just grinding away trying to catch a big break. I admired it and chuckled listening to the name-drops of “Oh, well when I was on Orange is the New Black…” and so on.

It does sound glamorous at first glance, if you get paid well (I was able to secure the SAG rate for a full 8-hour day) but there is A LOT of downtime. In those eight hours, I spent probably five in the basement and three on a freezing cold rooftop. Some kids did all of the for just fifty dollars!

The acting part on the rooftop was amazing  no doubt, and so cool to see a famous actor in a directing role watching him work and to see all of the things happening around the set. We were at a party scene in the 70s and got to dance around, drink some fake beer and smoke fake cigarettes, laughing and gesturing to complete strangers in fantastic clothes. But, I started to really feel for these kids who were just willing to post up for hours and hours and hours with no guarantee that you’ll be picked to be in a scene or show up in the final movie. The downtime could not be worth the benefits for someone like me who can’t stand still.

Those are just some major observations in a very short time period, but overall, I think it was an awesome experience that if you ever have the chance to do, you should. It gives you a little bit hometown pride knowing that some Hollywood A-lister saw a little sparkle in Troy, NY and it’s awesome to see a real movie set in action and all of the hard work that goes into a production of that scale.

I’m excited to see The Pretenders, whenever that may be. It’s a cool feeling being part of a project like that, even as a spontaneous extra from the 70’s.


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