I will never look at extras in a movie or TV series in the same way again after being cast to work for a day as an extra on an episode of “Hawaii Five-0.”
I now know how much hard work goes into a single scene and how important the stalwart but silent extras are to filling out any story on screen to make it come alive.
My assignment on Hawaii Five-0 was to be an office worker extra, one of about a dozen. We were background players in a crowd scene, selected not to stand out in any individual way, and of course not to speak a single line. Our job was to be what experienced extra Karelin James calls “walking props.”
My salary for eight hours of work that day probably will end up being about $65. When I laughed about the pay, saying I could make more money working at McDonald’s, James said “yes, but you wouldn’t have as much fun.”
That is true. It was incredibly fun, but also very hard work. The extras on set that day were playing everything from cops to emergency medical technicians. We were asked to show up at exactly 5:18 a.m., driving our own cars through pitch black streets to a base camp temporarily set up in a lonesome corner of Sand Island Beach Park.
After we were signed in for the day at a folding table in front of a line of trailers, wardrobe staffers checked out the clothes we were asked to wear from home for our parts. My long-sleeved, bright pink shirt and gray skirt were deemed fine for my office worker role, but my open-toe slippers were not right. I was loaned a pair of tight-fitting, very high-heeled black leather pumps. A few of the male office worker extras were given aloha shirts to wear instead of their own dress shirts. Our hair was smoothed and sprayed in place by the hairdresser before we ate breakfast: lots and lots of food from steam trays piled high with link sausages, Portuguese sausage slices, bacon, Spam, boiled beef, baked beans, rice, scrambled eggs, and plates of fruit and urns of coffee.
Punahou alumna Ellie Halevi, who is home on vacation from the University of Arizona, says the food is one of the main reasons she keeps signing up to be an extra. “Free food, free money, and acting. It’s wonderful,” says Halevi.
After breakfast, a van ferried us to the set for the day’s shooting located on a military base. We were escorted to a shaded pavilion, which would become our hangout for the day as we waited between filming sessions.
We didn’t have to wait long. Soon, we were standing at our assigned places for the scene, which I am not at liberty to describe for fear of giving away the show.
All the key “Hawaii Five-0″ actors were there: Alex O’Loughlin, Scott Caan, Grace Park, and Daniel Dae Kim. Our instructions on paper from casting agent Rachel Sutton were firm. “NO CAMERAS ON THE SET. NO SOCIAL MEDIA!!! If you are found taking photos you will be asked to go home!”
We also were cautioned to respect the actors, to “ … not approach them under any circumstances.”
As the director shouted “quiet on the set. Settle down. Rolling, Rolling. Background. Action,” it was incredible to be practically within touching distance of O’Loughlin, Caan, Park and Dae Kim as they went quietly about their work, repeating the same scene many times as the cameras filmed them from different angles.
As they day progressed, the sun was getting hotter and hotter and my feet were starting to burn from being squeezed into the tight, borrowed shoes. When the director finally called for a break, I kicked off the high heels and hobbled barefoot across the cool, soft grass to the extras’ pavilion. Large coolers of iced sodas and bottled water awaited us as well as a table full of chips, energy bars, candy and fruit.
Packaged snacks were available all day as well as special treats such as cups of chopped, fresh pineapple flavored with li hing mui powder, delivered to us on a tray that a staffer politely passed around to each of us.
I initially planned to enjoy the day without doing the additional work it would take to write a column about the experience, but as we sat around on plastic folding chairs, waiting to be called back to the set, some people reading books, others listening to iPods, I decided to make the time pass by interviewing a few of the extras about the work.
Tory Laitila said he’s been in 10 “Hawaii Five-0″ episodes. Laitila was taking a day off from his real job with the Honolulu Mayor’s Office of Culture and Arts, where he is the registrar for the city’s collection of 1,150 artworks. Laitila says being an extra is “just like a vacation. I don’t have to think too much. I just go where they tell me to go.” He also likes hanging out with extras he’s met on different shows.
Karelin James, who I mentioned earlier, is a Kailua mother whose main job has been home-schooling her four children. James says she enjoys life of an extra “just for the fun of it, for the bragging rights.”
James also says she’s intrigued by what she describes as “the elaborate lengths the production team goes through to tell a story. The pains they take to make a tale real. We all love stories.”
Of course, the humble extras milling around in the background are a critical part of the reality of any story. If the scenes featured only the main actors and nobody else, they would seem more like stage sets than real life.
James was my mentor during the day. She generously shared tips, such as cautioning me not to look directly at the camera. She told me “you need to have a lot of patience. You should come to work wearing comfortable shoes. (I learned that lesson the painful way). You need to know when to be quiet, when to keep your head down. They get upset when people make noise on the set.”
James also told me that as an extra you don’t want your face to be seen too clearly, that it is better to be part of a faceless crowd. That way you will get called back more often as an extra because directors don’t want to see the same faces in every episode.
Background extra Pamela Brown passed the time between shootings playing Sudoku. Brown is a house cleaner from Nanakuli. She told me that the work is appealing because she meets different people and gets to go places she would never go to as a house cleaner.
Francis Rienzi, who works at a downtown law firm, says working as an extra gets him out of the office and away from some of his more boring chores such as making pots of coffee for a bunch of lawyers. “It is exciting. You are doing something you don’t normally get to do.”
Rienzi has been cast in extra roles playing everything from a construction worker to a Naval officer. Once he was hired as a background extra to be a man having dinner with his wife at a yacht club.
Ashley Demoville, a drama professor at Leeward Community College, says her work as an extra helps her do a better job of answering her students’ questions about what it’s like to work in a TV production. “I also am hoping it someday turns into a speaking role for me,” says Demoville.
John Williams, who was playing a police officer in our episode, is a welder at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Williams says “it is just fun to pretend to be someone else for a little while, to get away from the daily grind.” He says his relatives on the mainland get a kick out of seeing him on TV.
But as an extra you must be prepared for the reality that you might never be seen on the screen. Realtor Tina Burgos says she has been in about a dozen episodes but has seen herself on TV only once.
“And it was a tiny self, just a fast-moving blur,” said Burgos. “It was like ‘ Where’s Waldo?’”
When the van drove us back to the base camp after work, I felt a surge of satisfaction. One of the best parts of the day was working with a group of strangers who were now my fellow background actors, seemingly ego-free people, mainly in it for the fun and the joy of playing a small but important part in something wonderful, larger than any of us as individuals.