This is show business?
Background actors (also known as extras) don’t get paid much. And the hours can be brutal. Nine-to-five clock watchers need not apply because work begins and ends when the powers that be say it begins and ends. And no one is surprised when a “workday” turns into the next day.
On the plus side, the food is always free and usually good. And background acting can be a home away from home if you’re a cell phone addict, an avid reader or a small talk fan, since many hours of waiting may go by before you’re needed on the set.
All things considered, background actors have good reason to ask whether it’s worth the effort, or lack of it.
Eight years ago, when she first got into the business, Rochelle (Shelly) Flexer’s answer would have been an enthusiastic “absolutely.” Today it’s a conditional “yes but…”
So easy to love
“I love background acting because it gives me a chance to share the special excitement that goes with being part of the entertainment industry. And the people I work with are both interesting and fun—a great combination.
“The big problem is finding work. We’ve been faced with that one for quite a while. But for now at least, I’m going to ignore the situation and let my joy gene kick in.
“This means I’ll be able to make the best of things and be happy doing it. Joy genes run in my family,” she said, smiling.
Keeping things simple
After talking with this vivacious, positive-thinking grandmother of five, making the best of things doesn’t seem like such a chore after all. And joy genes sound almost plausible, even for background actors.
As you probably know, these people do exactly what the name implies. For the most part, they are briefly seen and never heard.
Without breaking the rule of anonymity, Shelly is seen in almost every episode of the hit TV series Rules of Engagement. She’s the cute smiling blonde server at the coffee shop where the show’s stars hang out. Remember?
Irony, what a pain
She’s also the object of an ironic twist of fate—one chapter of a career that, in itself, could be movie material.
The story revolves around a comic scene in a Rules episode that contained a speaking part written specifically for Shelly. A speaking part is the answer to every background actor’s prayer. Unfortunately for Shelly, the gods said “Ha.”
Adding the scene was a last minute decision and, in keeping with the shooting schedule and budget, Shelly, would have to be at the studio for filming no later than an hour after it was finalized. Fat chance.
Here comes heartbreak
Before all this happened, Shelly had five days off between episodes.
When reached by cell phone with the news, she was already four hours out of Los Angeles, driving to Phoenix to be with her mother who had fallen and seriously injured herself. The schedule could not be changed. The scene was cut. “And I was broken hearted,” Shelly recalled.
It looked as if the story would not have a happy Hollywood ending until Shelly saved the day. Smiling through her tears, with hope in her heart, she predicted that “better days are coming.” And she was right.
Movie maker madness
It happened on the set of the movie Monster In Law. She played a nurse in a non-speaking scene with Jennifer Lopez and performed so well in rehearsal she was given lines to speak, thereby earning the coveted title of principal actor. “I jumped from background actor to principal in seconds. I got a raise, too. How magical is all that,” she exclaimed.
This next chapter could be called True Grit, but that one’s taken. So let’s settle for Dedication to Her Craft.
The setting is a supermarket, where a commercial for a Sprint cell phone was being shot. Shelly was among the background actors booked for the commercial. The bad news was her broken right hand, the result of a fall.
What a trooper!
No way did that stop her from showing up and playing in pain. To pull it off, she had the doctor remove the regular cast she was wearing and replace it with a portable cast. The night of the shoot, when she arrived at the supermarket, off went that cast. And off to work went Shelly.
Shortly before shooting began—much to her surprise—auditions were held among the background actors for a featured role in the commercial. And bingo! She got the part.
The script called for her to hand out food samples to store customers—with her broken right hand—which she did on camera for the next four hours. To Shelly this was “a small price to pay for another principal actor credit and a fatter paycheck.”
A helping hand
What about the hand? “Because I was in the refrigerated section of the store all the time, it became numb. So it didn’t hurt too much. Numbness also made handling the food easier.
Best of all, no one on the set ever knew it was broken,” she explained. Is that professionalism or what?
Working long and hard with a broken hand no one knows about; rocketing from background actor to principal in seconds; missing out on a major speaking role that was hers for the taking. Shelly Flexer starred in each of those dramas. But that was then. Now The End might be near.
The realistic Shelly, minus joy gene, sees it this way: “When I first got into background acting in 2003, I had no trouble finding work. Sure we had slow periods, but we knew that things would pick up. They always did. These days jobs seem to be scarcer than ever. And the worst of it is there’s no turnaround on the horizon—at least not yet.”
The bright side, maybe
Meanwhile, out-of-work actors, who are also victims of the downturn, are taking background jobs out of desperation, and idle “name stars” are being hired for commercial work ahead of background actors.
Although she’s prepared to walk away from background acting if there is no change for the better, Shelly characteristically remains optimistic.
“There’s still a chance that Governor Brown will back up his encouraging statements with a plan to offer tax credits and write-offs generous enough to bring more film projects to California—instead of letting them go out of state.”
Let’s follow Shelly Flexer’s lead. Let’s hope.