Being an extra in Louisiana’s thriving movie industry can mean a brush with glamour — working alongside stars or watching yourself on screen in a big budget blockbuster.
But sometimes background actors end up eating Cheetos for lunch or using the bathroom inside their own vans.
“I think the biggest misconception is that people come and they think it’s going to be glamorous, it’s going to be fun and exciting and you’re going to be with the stars,” said Carole Turner, a 46-year-old of Prairieville artist, who was forced to improvise a restroom while stuck in a van on a bridge for “21 Jump Street” in New Orleans. “They’re always really disappointed.”
Since Louisiana’s film industry tax credit began attracting film and television productions regularly in 2002, residents across the state have gotten into show business. Some use background work as a part-time job. Others just like to try something new.
“I like to enter this make-believe world,” Turner said. “You get to be a part of making this world, this movie. To me this process is really cool.”
In 2011 Turner tried her first background role for “Contraband,” starring Mark Wahlberg, an actor she had admired since his first name was “Marky Mark.” Dressed as an office worker, Turner appeared one-on-one with him in a scene. Wahlberg joked around and tried to distract her during the shoot.
“It’s all been downhill since then,” she said.
Most stars don’t interact with extras, she said, and the crew discourages background actors from talking with them.
“A lot of them won’t look you in the eye,” she said. Some actors don’t speak with extras during breaks because they want to stay in character. Others, she conceded, are just jerks.
Running into Gov. Edwin Edwards in a Baton Rouge restaurant led Tom Sheppard, of Lafayette, into his side job in the movies. A law firm case administrator, Sheppard, 45, introduced himself to Edwards in January and was asked if he wanted to appear in their reality show, “The Governor’s Wife.”
Through the reality show he connected with casting agents and production assistants for “Treme,” the HBO show based in the eponymous section of New Orleans. That led to an appearance as a security guard on “Grudge Match,” an upcoming film starring Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro, and work as a Great Depression-era policeman in a Bonnie and Clyde miniseries shot in several south Louisiana parishes.
“It’s extra work, but it’s fun,” Sheppard said. “You don’t do it for the money. Some people do, but it’s barely a minimum-wage job.”
To Turner, the best part of extra work is the food. On “Oblivion” with Tom Cruise, the extras ate steak for lunch, and Cruise paid for a complimentary coffee and smoothie stand.
Some days on set can become hard work.
Shooting a reality show called “Cajun Paranormal,” Sheppard and his wife were asked to make out in a historic Catholic graveyard in Grand Coteau.
“This is so sacrilegious,” Sheppard said he thought at the time.
Shooting a television pilot in the French Quarter, Sheppard stood with his arm crooked and holding a drink for 12 hours, his elbow stiffening by the minute.
“People may think it’s easy, but it’s not,” Sheppard said. “It’s not easy doing the same thing over and over.”
At his first shoot, for an upcoming film called “Escape Plan,” New Orleans photographer Barry Muniz was asked to walk across the back of the main shot. Muniz, who gives his age as “50 something” — “Some productions are ageist,” he said — asked the production assistant, “Do you want me to walk fast or slow?”
The assistant thought he was being too difficult and told him to get off the set.
“You’re kind of like moveable furniture,” Muniz said. “You do what they want you to do.”
Some extras, said Maria Stambaugh, invite poor treatment. They load up purses and backpacks with food from the catering tables, said the 48-year-old real estate agent from New Orleans.
“I noticed after a few of those productions the food for the extras got to be less and less fancy and less and less expensive,” she said.
A lot of extras won’t pay for a haircut, Sheppard said, knowing that the wardrobe department will cut it for them.
“Act professionally and do what you’re told, and they’ll ask you back,” he said.
For Sheppard, working on set has changed the way he watches television.
“When I watch TV, I don’t watch the front,” he said. “I watch the extras.”