Extra! Extra!

The recent boom in feature films being made around Boston has led to all kinds of action for people who want to act out their dreams

By Carol Beggy, Globe Staff | May 11, 2008

As soon as 23-year-old Becki Dennis got her theater degree at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, she moved back to the Boston area to work on films.
“I just got home from ‘This Side of the Truth,’ ” said Dennis recently, after a day of being an extra on the comedy written and directed by Ricky Gervais. The movie, which counts Tina Fey, Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, and Christopher Guest among its cast, was filming in Andover.
“That was my sixth day working on the film, and I’ve been working a lot in scenes,” she said.
Dennis has scored daywork on more than a dozen feature films since arriving in Boston a couple of years ago, and has earned her SAG card, the coveted membership in the Screen Actors Guild that brings increased pay and perks – like early notice on casting and the right to move to the front of the line at open calls.
Not that long ago, aspiring actors in Boston who wanted to break into the movie biz would have had to scramble to get a spot as an extra on the rare feature film shooting in the region. Getting a shot at a speaking role in a TV show or movie usually meant packing up and moving to New York or Los Angeles.
Then, in 2005, Massachusetts put in place tax incentives that gave filmmaker’s a financial lure for doing projects in the state. Those tax breaks brought an immediate increase in film and TV work. In 2006, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Game Plan” filmed in Boston, and 2007 brought “21,” “The Pink Panther 2,” “My Best Friend’s Girl” and “The Women.” Since the beginning of 2008, seven major films have set up shop here, including “Bride Wars,” “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” with Kevin James, and “The Proposal,” with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. Matthew McConaughey’s “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” just wrapped its several-month shoot, and “The Surrogates,” starring Bruce Willis, got rolling about two weeks ago.
All of those projects require extras. In the case of “Mall Cop,” Boston Casting’s Angela Peri has been signing up as many as 250 new extras a day to fill out scenes in food courts and stores. (Filming has moved from the Burlington Mall to the South Shore Plaza, so she’ll have to create a whole new pool to draw from. “You have to get up at 4:30 some days. It’s tough,” she said.)
In a way, Tinseltown has come to Beantown for those who are content with getting paid a small amount to play a small part in a film.
“I’ve had some of my savvy extras, as I call them, the regulars, turn me down because they are booked,” said Peri. “You could make a full-time job out of extras work now and it’s been a long time in coming.
“God bless the SAG actors, who for years had no work in this town – they are finally getting their due,” she said. “If they want to work as a day-player or a background actor or extra, they have their pick. [Movies] are even casting more speaking roles on location now.”
Calls often go out for people of varying ethnicities, with certain attributes or types of looks, and skills. (Oddly, the ability to act or experience on a movie set aren’t among the top selection criteria.) Boston’s casting crews are even scouring their rosters and e-mail databases to send out pleas for certain types of cars (“no luxury vehicles!”), boats (“fishermen who can handle their own boat”) and particular breeds of dogs (“BIG dogs . . . Alaskan huskies, German Shepherds, Saint Bernards, Chows.”) Nothing seems to be off the list of requests when it comes to the actors themselves or their skills: “perfect people” to play “surrogates,” “DJ with equipment,” “adult ballroom dance students” and “women willing to wear a bathing suit for a pool scene.”
And while most of us wouldn’t want to be identified as people who could pass for “MENTAL PATIENTS (including interesting, quirky or unusual character faces), the malnourished, and emaciated concentration camp prisoners (many of whom will HAVE THEIR HEADS SHAVED),” several thousand flocked to Boston University’s George Sherman Union in January to play extras in director Martin Scorsese’s “Ashecliffe,” the big-screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s “Shutter Island.” They showed up with heads shaved, dressed as nurses, or just proudly showing off their quirky character faces.
“Directors have needs and wants that fit their vision. They know some of those things months out but changes or rewrites mean things creep up at the last minute,” said Kevin Fennessy, a local casting agent who has been working for the last couple of weeks as an extra and day-player (a slot a step up from “extra,” with a guarantee of work on a given day). “Everyone here has their databases, we have a rich pool to draw from for everything from principal roles and extras. But now there’s a lot of wheeling and dealing going on.”
While working with Boston Casting last summer on “My Best Friend’s Girl,” Fennessy often used his personal phone list to fill out scenes. “We’d know which day [director] Diane English was going to need well-dressed Back Bay types for ‘The Women,’ so we’d call them to come work with us the next day.”
Such notices – even pleas – for roles come at a fast clip, sometimes several a day to fill a dozen opportunities. Sometimes they’re specific: An early-morning e-mail blast seeking an extra for next-day filming on “The Proposal” was in search of a Caucasian male, 5 feet 9 inches tall with light brown or dirty blond hair weighing 165 to 180 pounds, in his early 40s. Other times it’s a cattle call: Looking for men and women (age 18-plus) of all races and types.
Dona Sommers, executive director of the Boston office of the Screen Actors Guild, said the good news for her union and the industry is that opportunities grow from the bottom up. “More work for extras means more work for all actors,” she said. “We’ve seen the work grow exponentially both for background work and principal roles, I’m happy to say.”
Going into 2008, there were roughly 1,700 members of the local SAG wing, and that number has increased by about 10 percent in the last four months, Sommers estimated.
“Two films, ‘The Proposal’ and ‘This Side of the Truth’ have told us that our pool of background actors is the best they’ve worked with on either the East Coast or the West Coast,” she said.
That’s good news for those who want to work as an actor but don’t want to move. “I’ve worked more in the last year than in the previous five years,” said Richard DeAgazio, retired president of Boston Capital Securities, who has worked as an actor over the years. “But I don’t have to go to New York or really, even leave Boston. It’s a great new industry.”

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