At a Glance…

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An Extra in a Land of Zs

Photo Courtesy of Susan Whitman

November 7, 2015

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be on set while they are filming a television series?  Even more, wondered what it would be like to be in front of the camera?  Recently I sat down to talk with one of my long time friends about her experience of filming background for the Syfy network series, Z Nation.

Susan Whitman and I met back when we were teenagers.  Marriage, work, kids, even grand kids for Susan, have kept us busy.  Susan even served a term on our city council.  But now it seems we have more “us” time, and are taking advantage to pursue things that we might have never imagined would be possible for us to do.  One of those things for Susan has been to become a background actor or more commonly referred to as an extra.  Susan is just starting out pursing this interest and I thought it would be fun to chat with her to see how she got started and what it was like during her first television series experience.  Susan previously did a small location segment for the feature film, The Shack, which was an extras only segment while the crew shot scenes of the beautiful Multnomah Falls.  But her work with Z Nation was her first time to be with full crew, actors and principles.

Before we get started,  maybe it would be best to give a little background on Z Nation.  The television series is a post zombie apocalypse story where the zombies are refereed to as Zs.  The summary listed on IMDB states… Three years after the zombie virus has gutted the country, a team of everyday heroes must transport the only known survivor of the plague from New York to California, where the last functioning viral lab waits for his blood. 

Photo Courtesy of Z Nation Syfy Networks

Deciding it is always best to chat over coffee, Susan and I met at our favorite cafe where she shared about her experiences.

Thanks for meeting with me today Susan!  You know how interested I am in all of this!  Let’s start off with what inspired you to want to get into the acting industry and how did you get involved in becoming an extra?

I enjoyed high school drama classes and always felt comfortable speaking in front of people.  For what probably sparked my interest in acting… years ago I heard about the Yakima Firing Center looking for background actors to participate in exercises for the Army.  I thought it sounded interesting so I applied and was selected to portray an Iraqi woman.  They told us what we could say and do as far as interaction as well as the scenario.  The experience was a lot of fun.  I was in costume and had my face covered, so I didn’t have to focus being able to respond with facial expressions to things going on, which made it easier for my first time.

Then more recently, I heard online about Flannel Background and Extras Only (casting agencies that manage extras) and thought I’d like to give it a try.  I applied through those companies by submitting my photo and sizes.  The companies have lots of paid as well as non-paid positions, but I don’t look at it as an income, particularly since I have to travel a distance to most all of the locations. I see it just more as an experience for myself.

So once you have submitted your info, what happens next?

Producers/Casting Departments will go to whatever casting companies they choose to use and say they are looking for a person who fits a certain criteria.  Then the casting company will go through the photos from their database and make suggestions.  Once someone is found who seems to fit the bill, an email will be sent out to the individual saying this is the role and the pay, and are you available for these dates/times.

Are you a then considered a client of the Casting Company?  Do you have to become a member or pay a fee for their services?

When I am cast in a role, I pay the company a percentage for the placement.  With these particular companies, you do not have to be a client such as one who would pay a fee for their services upfront.  Not a lot of them are this way, but this worked very well for me.

This seems to be a great way to go then if you are looking to get into the business and don’t want to put out a chunk of money upfront to find out if you really like it, are just really budget restricted, or are looking to do it less as a career and more for the experience, I would think.

Yes!

So it’s good to know that even if you don’t live in a big city where more opportunities for this type of work are available, you still can accept work if you are able to accommodate traveling time and lodging (if needed) into your schedule and finances.  As for the most part, your expenses are on your own, is that right?

The more you do and the bigger the production, sometimes they will cover travel expenses.  For extras being used just one day, probably not.  But yet, if you are an extra where they might need you all week, that might be different.  But so definitely, if you are not able to financially afford a hotel and spend the night to complete the shoot if the costs are on you, don’t say you are available and then back out because you can’t stay to finish or have to cancel because of it beforehand.

We already shared a little about your previous experience and education/training in this field, but anything else that would have been helpful before you began?

When you are an extra, your role is so different from other acting roles.  Usually there is no speaking involved.  They tell you, ok, you are standing in this spot or you are doing this maneuver like raising your arms or whatever.  And that’s all you do.

So I suppose you just probably need to be a good listener and take direction well!

That’s about it!

Photo Courtesy of Z Nation Syfy Network

Was there an audition and what was the process like?

There was an audition process.  I auditioned for both seasons of Z Nation, and was picked for both, but the first season they ended up not using me.  Even if you end up being cast during the first season, you still had to audition for the second season.  Basically for this part, it was how do you walk as a zombie?  Of course there are different ways. Are you doing Frankenstein with your arms out… that’s not what a zombie looks like.

At least not for this show!

No!  And then it was can you grunt and scream and follow directions… go from one person to another.

So this is interesting.  The audition isn’t for one particular episode, it’s for the whole season.  And it sounds like they want to be sure that all of the extras are able to perform as a zombie, whether they are cast in that role or not, as evidenced from your casting where you portrayed a Harvester (a human character.)

Yes, and they know ahead of time what different types of characters they are going to be needing so they are looking to cast for those roles as well.  For those portraying non-zombie roles, they usually only have one appearance, but then may be cast as zombies too, even multiple times, as most are not as easily recognizable under the makeup.  I may recognize the actor by knowing them personally, and be able to tell it’s them in makeup, but it wouldn’t be as evident onscreen, for the most part.

Photo Courtesy of Susan Whitman

What about costumes and fittings?

That is one thing that is very important when applying, making sure you are very accurate with your sizes.  Put them down correctly.  Don’t say if I suck it in, I can be a size smaller. It makes a big difference! They had two big semis for costumes but they still need you to be able to fit what they have assigned you to wear.  They always take a photo front and back, in case for some reason they had to re-do a scene, they know exactly what you had on and what you looked like.  Those are not usually flattering pictures, but oh well!

Well, I suppose they are just for the crew, although on occasion we see an actor who has posted a pic on social media showcasing themselves in various angles of their costumes, which can be quite humorous at times!  So once the costume is fitted, what about makeup?  

Once everyone has their costume on, we all head over for makeup.  They have a trailer set up and we each take a turn.  They usually ask what are you doing in this scene, to make sure they are applying the correct look.  In the pictures I have of myself, I look filthy dirty.. they call it clean dirt. I could actually go in and wash my hands, and the dirt wouldn’t come off.  So it was really weird eating lunch, with my hands all dirty!  In fact, I scared myself once, with hair and makeup and costume all on… I’m watching in the mirror, so I see what I look like.  I go into the bathroom and as soon as I get in through the door, there is a great big mirror to the left, and I startled myself and said “Oh, I’m sorry.”  I didn’t realize it was me!  I didn’t recognize myself and it startled me!

So, your makeup depends on what you’re doing, whether you are a zombie up close or a zombie in the third, fourth or fifth row.  I haven’t seen any of the zombie makeup applied, but I’ve seen it up-close when it was finished.  One gal that was eating lunch with us had a stick, sticking out of her forehead, as that was the episode where they were all plant-based zombies.  All of the extras who weren’t zombies wanted to come over and touch the stick!  She asked me if I wanted to feel it, and I was like, no.. I’m good.  Haha!

Speaking of lunch, Craft Services then…

They fed us very well.  Which I think is wonderful. And then they fed the main characters even better than us!  All of the food I’ve had is amazing!  They have catering trucks, but we do eat in our own area separate from the main cast.  Some of the cast did come over though, and ask how we’re doing and where are we from.  Especially Russell Hodgkinson, the guy who plays Doc.  He was very social.  We do stay professional and don’t ask for photos or anything.  If the other actors suggest it, it’s fine though.  We do have to be careful of anything that could be a spoiler, so have to watch costume, etc.  Can’t really share anything until after the episode airs.

Are you kept fairly separate most of the time then, from all of the cast and crew?

We are kind of secluded, where we stay in our own area.  We need to stay quiet so they can get other things done.  We have to be ready because they may say it will be a half an hour and it may only be five minutes.

Or two hours!

Exactly!  You never quite know!  We do have access to accommodations.  If I need to go to the bathroom, I check with the wrangler (the person assigned to manage the extras), because she may have info that our call may be sooner than previously thought.  For any of us to be gone when they are ready to do a scene is not a good thing. Them having to wait is totally not good!  So you are able to go, they just have to know where you are and not be gone long!

Usually there is water and snacks available, but bring a couple of bottles of water and some snacks that you can eat quietly.  Bring a crossword puzzle or a word search.  Have a chair with you, and sunscreen just in case.  Check with makeup department about how you may be able to re-apply sunscreen if you need it, once you’ve been through makeup.  Be prepared to sit, wait and do nothing.  There were times that we could watch what was going on, but a lot of the time we couldn’t see what was happening.  You just wait for your turn.  Being an extra is about being seen and not heard.

Susan in the Hat – Screen Cap Courtesy of Z Nation Syfy Network

How much instruction do you receive?

You are there, you are quiet, you listen and you do exactly as they say, and nothing else.  And otherwise, you will know, as they will tell you.  In one scene, we were running… apparently I didn’t run far enough and they yelled at me to run farther!  They will tell you if they want anything corrected that you do, but otherwise, you do nothing extra.  They instruct you with exactly what they need.

Who did you actually take your cues from?

It depended on the scene.  Usually we (the extras) were all together in our area and when they were ready for us, the wrangler would come over and tell us, ok you are going to be in located here doing this, or standing watching this scene that the principal actors would be doing…describing the scene to us.  Basically saying what was happening and what we would be doing, together as a group as well as individually.  Then we would go to where the set was prepared and they would put us where they want us.  At that point, the director would be present and might do some adjusting, moving some of our positions and such, so we do receive cues from the director at times also.

Do the extras do a run-through with the crew before the primary cast joins?  Or are you all just kind of placed together, given your set up and action?

Run-throughs are kind of at the same time, but it does vary by which set you are on.  But run-throughs are done, definitely.  There are so many people around working on the set up.  There are the camera crews, the stunt people, lighting, sound, etc… and it’s not just a couple of people, it’s a LOT of people, so it takes some focus to make sure everyone is on the same page!

Susan in the Hat – Screen Cap Courtesy of Z Nation Syfy Network

One of the bigger scenes we were in, we were standing in one place for an hour.  You’re not reacting, you are just supposed to be watching the scene from where you are with no reaction.  The way they filmed it, it was from behind the characters and we were behind them, so they would film everything from the left hand side, then we’d shoot everything from the right hand side, then from behind.  When filming was completed on the left hand side, they would have to tear everything down re-set and then film from the right hand side.  To help the actors, they used pieces of metal in the form of a T as a marker on the ground.  They were all painted different colors, and when they did the first walk through, they would place them on the ground so then they would know exactly where their spot was once they started filming.  That way on each subsequent take from different angles, they were still at the same position so that it lined up.  There’s also no noise from props such as gunshots.  Often the person shooting the gun says bang so everyone has their cue.  In one scene they told us not to react at all.  Other times we are reacting to things that aren’t there.  So be prepared to stand a lot while they are taking multiple takes from various angles.  It doesn’t take a lot of acting experience, just know that you are seen and not heard.

Tell us a little about the tv series Z Nation – How would you say this show is different and unique from other zombie show and movies out there.

I was not a zombie fan.  I had no idea what to expect from Z Nation when I auditioned as it was before filming for the series ever began so there was nothing to go by.  When I auditioned the first time, they suggested there were three different episodes of The Walking Dead to watch.  I ended up watching the first three or four seasons, as I had not watched any of it before!  Now I’m all caught up and don’t miss an episode!  When filming Z Nation, I heard someone comment that they want you to laugh now, in each episode.  The Walking Dead is very serious.  They have their lighter moments now and then, but Z Nation has places where it wants you to laugh.  It’s different that way.

And that’s kinda the way I took it.  That it doesn’t take itself too seriously, to where it’s not really making fun of itself, but it’s pushing the boundaries.  It’s entertainment and almost has a cult following feel, which sets it apart from any of the other shows in the same genre.  One thing I do find it has in common though, is it’s love of killing off many of its main characters! Ugh!

True!  There was one guy that was in the episode I was in, he was killed on camera and turned into a zombie.  So, he had a couple of lines, he gets killed, comes back as a zombie and they kill him again… and then about a half an hour later, I see him working on the set as one of the crew.  So you just never know where the actors are going to turn up!

Is it hard for you, knowing what happens ahead of time, to see what others are saying as they watch the episodes, and you know the outcome?

Actor DJ Qualls as Citizen Z ~ Photo Courtesy of Z Nation Syfy Network

It was funny because a couple of episodes before the one I was in, the character Doc was having some issues and looked like he might have been killed off, but I knew that he hadn’t been because he was in my episode later on.  So, it was interesting watching the comments online, but of course I couldn’t say anything.  That doesn’t always happen though, as sometimes they shoot the episode out of sequence, so you can never be sure what the story line is exactly.  When you do get to watch it, you’re like, oh.. that’s why they did this.  Since almost all of the main cast’s filming is location, and since the characters are on the move, the filming changes location areas regularly.  So most filming is completed before the next episode, although the scenes may be out of sequence.  I do know that when DJ Qualls, who plays Citizen Z, comes in and films his scenes, he’ll do four or five episodes at a time because he is in a controlled environment (sound stage set) and doesn’t really play off of any of the other regular characters in person.  I watched scenes being filmed when Addy, played by Anastasia Baranova, was supposedly talking to Citizen Z on the radio, and it was interesting to see her side of the scene, with his half being edited in later.

Is acting something you may continue to pursue and have you ever considered auditioning for more of a featured role?

One or two line type things, but not anything more.  I do this because it’s fun, but I’m not looking for a career or a paycheck. My career now is grandma.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become an extra in the industry?

Research online and find some of the casting companies.  There is a lot of down time where you do nothing, so be prepared.  It isn’t glamorous and chances are that you are not going to meet many, if any, of the main cast.  Don’t come in to it with big expectations.  You do get to meet a lot of good people though.

Any upcoming projects/events you can share?

Nothing right now, but I am open for whatever may come up.  I’ve been asked to do things in the past, and if I was available I said yes, but other times I have had to say no.  When they need say, 20 people, they will send the request out to 40 people, just to make sure they receive enough responses, and they will pare down from there.  But you have to be sure when you say yes.  If there is any possibility that you are not available to do it, you need to reply that you are not available.  It doesn’t bode well to have to cancel on a shoot.  So unfortunately I’ve had to respond as not available once in a while due to traveling issues or whatever.

This has been great chatting about your recent adventures!  I think it’s wonderful that opportunities are available for people to apply to take part in a production of this type!  After all of this, is there anything you could share about yourself that might surprise us?

I had a stroke at 27.  All it did was kill the balance center in my brain, which is why I use a service dog.  But depending on what I’m doing, you can’t tell.  I also have some visions problems so when working on The Shack, I used my white cane.  I don’t know if it will actually show up, as the filming was from at a distance.  I don’t usually try and use those things, but I do have them down on my extra’s profile.  Aside from aiding me, they also provide me with real life experience for roles that may need those assists.  I’ve played blind people, and I’ve played deaf as well.

Wow. You’ve certainly been able to move beyond some of these things that may have held you back.  This has been great.  Thanks for sharing and I look forward to hearing more of your future adventures.  Now, let’s have a go at the Fast Five!

Fast Five – Questions For Fun!

Favorite food indulgence?  Popcorn and Pepsi

If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be?  Robin Williams

Favorite guilty pleasure?  Yard Sales

What tv shows are *must see* and you DVR if not available to view live?  The Walking Dead and Z Nation

Define happiness in one word?  Family (family encompasses more than just blood)

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2 thoughts on “An Extra in a Land of Zs

  1. Mmmm…Seems like fun indeed. Fantasies ride through my mind Being an extra is a more plausible dream than being Robin Williams or Martin Scorsese. Where do i sign up? I met a guy singing at a local cafe-theater who sat at our table and told us he’s signed up as whatever he can get in movies shot in PR. His biggest deal was playing a Brit Diplomat in a Johnny Depp movie shot here. (He’s tall, blonde.not a Puerto Rican looking guy and got to say a few lines. He told me he could do a Brit accent. He went off to Hollywood to try his luck. At 30 something I don’t think he’s gonna be the next George Clooney. This wanting to be an extra ambition seems like the plausible dream. Great fun article.

  2. I agree Hector! It seems like a plausible way for those of us who would like to be involved in some way, to actually have an opportunity to participate. It’s all very exciting to me. I’ve been to a location set before, as well as a sound stage during filming and it was quite the experience. I would love to be able to be more of a participant and I thought it was fabulous that Susan was doing just that!

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