Confessions of a Hollywood Extra in Metro Detroit

Located 2,300 miles away from the sets and stars of Hollywood, Detroit is making a name for itself in the movie business, recently hailed as “Movietown” and “the next Hollywood” by the Wall Street Journal. Two-thirds of the 32 movies that were filmed in Michigan in 2009 were shot in the Detroit Metro area, adding some Hollywood shine to the rust belt.

According to Michelle Begnoche of the Michigan Film Office, since the film incentive went into effect, the state has seen 117 projects shoot here, creating more than $600 million in local spending. Half of that amount came from 2009 productions. This year should be similarly robust, with four films in pre-production and another 10 currently filming. These include Transformers 3, This Must Be The Place (starring Sean Penn), and The Reasonable Bunch.

With nearly 4,000 jobs created for Detroit extras last year, many displaced workers have found their second scene in film. And although life as a movie extra isn’t all glitz and glamor, it does offer the chance for unemployed, underemployed, aspiring starlets and those who are just curious about the movie-making business to get a glimpse into what transpires behind the scenes.

Victor Pytko, a 64-year-old Birmingham resident with a background in astronomy, computer science, journalism, public relations and visual art is one budding star who has found his niche as an extra in local film productions.

“It’s the only promising work in the state for me,” says Pytko, who has been in about a dozen local films. “Our economy doesn’t support much but the brightest spots seem to be in motion pictures and support services.”

Most recently employed in automotive public relations, Pytko’s revenue sources dried up as the auto industry cooled down. With no formal acting training, the upstate New York native volunteered to help a friend by working without pay as an extra in a small local feature filmed in Royal Oak in 2006.

For the city known more for cars than stars, the 42 percent production tax rebate and other film incentives passed in 2008 opened the curtain for major productions to come to Detroit. Pytko found opportunities to act in larger studio films and registered with talent agency Real Style which has since provided most of his acting opportunities.

“I enjoy doing it and find it immensely rewarding,” says Pytko, though he hasn’t seen himself on the silver screen yet. “Sometimes you’re just cut out and don’t make it and it’s disappointing, but that’s the film business.”

The “Audition”

Southfield-based The I Group, began in 1995 by placing talent in advertisements, special events and commercial roles. Since the local industry’s explosion in 2008, The I Group has placed actors in every major film that has come to the state and now represents approximately 5,000 actors.

In order to register as an extra with The I Group, Real Style or any other local casting agency, an interested actor simply completes a form on the agency’s website and uploads a photo, with no audition or prior experience required. There is usually no fee to register with a casting agency, as the production companies pay them to source extras. “As an extra, all you are is background people,” says Pytko. “Just about anyone can do that. There often aren’t many requirements other than availability.”
When a producer or casting director needs extras — or “background” — they provide local casting agents with the number and physical description of the type of actors for which they are looking. “Then it’s our job to push the actors to the producers and casting directors,” says Tony DiMambro, talent agent for The I Group.

If an extra doesn’t work with a casting agent, it can be tricky to separate the legitimate opportunities from the scams, especially for someone just starting out. “If a local ad is tersely worded, you just have to be aware, especially if they don’t include what’s going to happen when,” says Pytko. “Those scams are mostly just to collect information from the Internet and not a real life situation… you’re not going to go somewhere unless you’re sure it’s real.”

Although Pytko says he hasn’t personally known anyone to fall victim to a scam, he says there was one instance when he was selected for a film that was not nearly as professional as he expected. “I was supposed be in a courtroom scene, and the set was a house in a remote area that was on the market for sale. The podiums were made of plywood and there wasn’t even a robe for the judge,” says Pytko. “I did one day of shooting and then had to walk away from that one. It’s easy to leave if you need to — especially if you’re not getting paid.”

Lights, Camera, Inaction
A typical day for a background actor can start three to four hours before any filming begins. Extras receive a voucher at check in, which functions as an on-set identification card and includes hours and rate. A non-speaking extra can expect to earn $10 an hour, with eight to 14-hour days.

“The biggest surprise was the amount of time spent waiting in holding,” says Pytko. “After nine hours of waiting, we’d have one hour of filming.”

“Holding” is the area where the extras are herded together like cattle, awaiting their turn to be called onto set. The main responsibility of an extra is to be as quiet as possible and follow instructions while waiting, and those who don’t play by the rules are often asked to leave.  

“In the movie Whip It with Drew Barrymore, there were people who thought they were going to be discovered and did everything they could to get in front of the camera,” says Pytko. “They’d inch their way up when told to pantomime, and then they wouldn’t get called back.”

“They tell you not to approach the actors, not to stare at them, not to initiate conversation, not to bring a camera or take photographs” says Pytko, referring to the principal actors. “Some of the actors are really uptight but most are more low-key.”

Part of the allure of working as an extra is the opportunity to see movie stars in a somewhat more natural habitat, where celebrities can be observed as real people rather than the characters they portray on the silver screen. “I was introduced to Hilary Swank and Minnie Driver on the set of Conviction after I was pulled out of holding and cast as an assistant DA in a short scene,” he says. “When her character’s brother was released from prison, I got to see Hilary go through an emotional state which took her 10 minutes to come down after every take.”

Hollywood Ending
Those beginning as extras range from people who want to try it out for fun, actors who want to “make it” and others who are looking for extra money to make ends meet while filling their time with something new and exciting. With 48 films approved for the incentives to date this year, it’s possible for a person to find constant work by jumping from set to set.  

“There are lots of positive stories about the economy benefiting from the incentive, and it does a lot for morale,” says Pytko. “We don’t have a lot to be happy about, but those who have taken advantage of the industry are making money and doing a lot better than they did without it.”

Although in its infancy as a film capital, DiMambro says the level of talent found in Metro Detroit is on par with any other major market. “The people in the major markets all came from somewhere,” he says. “Instead of moving to Los Angeles, New York or Chicago to find work, all this great talent that’s from Michigan can continue to stay because the work is here.”


Kelly Quintanilla also writes for Rapid Growth and lives the dream as the Microbrew Editor for Revue, among other assorted marketing and communication pursuits. This is her first article for Metromode. Read more at Metromode.com


All Photos by Dave Lewinski