Calling All Extras!
With Northern Ireland's film industry experiencing a boom, Matthew Coyle meets the faces in the background
Long days. Endless delays. Funny costumes – such is the life of an extra on a film set. Yet for many the opportunity to work on large international productions is often too good to pass up.
In recent years, Northern Ireland has become a relative hotbed for film and television output. Its small size and varied landscapes make it a convenient location from which the likes of HBO, Universal and the BBC can produce their projects. Also in place is a pool of willing people, keen to get their faces – or legs, or arms – on screen as background actors.
As the number of productions has increased, so too has the demand for extras. As long as HBO continues to green light its towering fantasy saga Game of Thrones, there will always be an opportunity for beardsmen and beautiful women to achieve their 15 minutes of fame.
Other significant, locally-based titles include Universal’s upcoming blockbuster Dracula and the critically acclaimed BBC drama The Fall, newly commissioned for a second series. With a budget exceeding $70 million per season, Game of Thrones alone represents a considerable annual event for the Northern Irish film industry.
It was in this climate that Carla Stronge decided to establish Extras NI six years ago. Having worked in film and television casting in London, Stronge 'gradually became known as the “extras girl”'. Noticing a gap in the market back home in Northern Ireland, Stronge and her business partner founded Extras NI. She now oversees the country’s largest extras agency.
‘I set it up to make doing my job easier,' comments Stronge, 'and to provide a better service for the productions coming here, which would be more similar to what they were used to in the rest of the UK or in America.'
The existence of a company dedicated to providing personnel for large-scale film and television productions has given rise to a sizeable workforce of ‘2 – 3,000 people’, Stronge estimates, all of whom earn at least one day’s work over the course of a year. At the other end of the scale, it is not unusual for some extras to work up to 30 days.
According to Stronge the sector is thriving, with this year being ‘the busiest yet'. Perhaps inevitably, she points to Game of Thrones as a major reason for this upsurge – it is integral to the current Extras NI slate. ‘It has made a massive difference in what we’re trying to do as a company and the level of service we’re trying to provide.’
Game of Thrones is, however, not the only grand project with which Extras NI is associated. The producers of Dracula, for example, urgently require male background artists of varying ethnicities. In particular, those with olive and swarthy skin could yet be part of an ‘Ottoman Army’ involved in a number of action and battle sequences.
For all the excitement of such opportunities, Stronge warns that there is a daily grind for which any prospective extra should be prepared. Hours spent waiting around for direction are to be expected, along with a certain level of ignorance when it comes to reasons for delay.
The bigger the set, the less likely one is going to be kept abreast of the decision-making process. The scale of the filming may well also influence the rates of pay – the more people there are to fill the screen, the less money there is to go around.
These experiences are reinforced by Eamonn O’Reilly, whose most notable extras work was in the Belfast-shot, Dublin-based comedy film Killing Bono. O’Reilly is happy with the screen time garnered in the latter. ‘I was an old fashioned bouncer,’ he says of his role. ‘I got into it through word of mouth, a friend of a friend. It was something really different.’
O'Reilly points out, however, that there is little glamour in extras work. ‘I don’t know how long you could do it for. It’s a long day for all that you’re paid. It can be pretty boring, but part of doing it is for the novelty. You could be standing around for five hours and end up with less that three seconds of screen time.’
Bobby Kane has appeared in a number of high profile films including stoner comedy Your Highness and the Teri Hooley biopic Good Vibrations, starring Richard Dormer. Kane also secured employment through personal contacts, and his experiences – in spite of the often interminable waiting around – are wholly positive. ‘I haven’t a bad thing to say about it,' he admits. 'It is definitely an experience I would tell most to try at least once.'
Kane’s most extensive stint was on Game of Thrones, and he recalls one scene in particular: ‘It gets so real when you are standing there in full heavy armor, with a sword covered in fake blood and a giant of a man is screaming that he is going to rape bloody corpses. Where else would you get that opportunity?’
Besides the novelty factor and easy cash, the extras industry in Northern Ireland provides those behind the scenes with ample opportunities for career advancement. As Carla Stronge emphasises, the scale of HBO’s operation, for example, has allowed many tradesmen to hone and utilise skills in their chosen field.
Steven Murphy started out as a Game of Thrones background-filler, but as a fully-qualified artist blacksmith, his talents had been put to better use by the beginning of the third season.
‘I met the head of the armoury department, Tommy Dunne, on set in season one and got chatting to him about what I do. He was interested and any time after that I made a point of showing him images of my work and even made up some knives and spears to show what I could do in relation to weapons. I contacted Tommy before the start of season three to see if he would be interested in taking me on. Luckily he said yes. Since then I've never looked back.’
In Murphy’s view, the opening afforded by his originally humble position has been invaluable. ‘This opportunity would never have come up without doing work as an extra in the first place. You just never know what it can lead to.’
For more information on how to apply for extras work in Northern Ireland, visit the Extras NI website.