Kaitlyn Coholan

Who are film extras? What makes them experts at blending in? Are they future celebrities? Film fanatics? Regular people with spare time?

Michael Grieco, a communications student at York University in Toronto, says he decided to try being an extra after seeing a flyer on campus.

“I just thought it would be cool,” says Grieco. “I enjoy watching movies.”

He was an extra only once, in American Pie 5: The Naked Mile. He said his time on the set went pretty well, despite some conflicts between performers.

“Some extras in ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists) thought they were above us,” says Grieco. “They get more — better drinks, meals, that sort of thing.”

Camille Harrison, who worked as a background performer while studying English and film at the University of Toronto, says she wanted to have access to a film set to observe the director.

“Some people go for the fun of it and others want to become actors,” she explains.

Harrison remembers talking to a dentist who was close to retirement and wanted to see some glamour.

“It turns out it’s not all that glamorous,” she laughs. “We’re lowest on the totem pole as extras and basically treated like cattle.”

Albert Vella, a retired high school teacher, has been working as a background performer on and off for the past few years.

Vella originally answered a newspaper ad calling for actors, but gave up on the idea because he lacked experience and confidence. He later applied to be an extra because it seemed much less threatening.

“If you had me in a group and said, ‘Which one of these do you think is going to go into acting?’ I’d be one of the last ones, if not the last one,” he says.

A lifelong interest in acting drew him to apply. “It’s always been something I wanted to try,” he says. “Not acting in a real serious sense, but little bit parts.”

“I said ‘Oh, I can do that, how hard can that be?’” he says. “It is a lot harder than it looks.”

Vella was a background performer for several films, including The Man, Cinderella Man and The Sentinel, as well as the upcoming film Lars and the Real Girl.

He says one highlight of the experience is getting close to the stars.

“I ended up sitting beside Ron Howard’s wife,” he says. “I was sitting beside her talking to her and I didn’t realize who it was at first.” Director Ron Howard often uses family members as extras in his films, Vella says.

Being seated beside the director’s wife, Vella thought he would surely appear on screen. Unfortunately, he was cut from the clip.  

Vella was also intrigued by the background performers he met between takes.

“It was remarkable the cross-section of humanity that was there,” he says. “A Jewish cantor, retired U of T professor, and college and university students.”

“Some guys honestly looked like homeless people,” he laughs.

Some background performers may be waiting for their big break. This hasn’t quite been the case for Vella, but his work as an extra has led him to land roles in commercials.

Vella has appeared in commercials for the World Wildlife Fund, MuchMusic and Grey Power. He’s had fun doing them, but he says they certainly offer challenges.

“Probably the worst part is the actual auditions,” he says. “I’d describe them as almost sheer terror.”

“One of the reasons I find it interesting is no experience is exactly the same.”