Making Movies: My First Year as an Extra

Making Movies: My First Year as an Extra

In June 2014, Kat suggested I join her in applying to be a movie extra. She instructed me to submit, or respond as instructed to the casting call. This meant providing the casting company with an array of photos and rather personal tidbits, including my age, height, weight, bra size, and location of any tattoos. 

Here we are, a few weeks later, primping before our scene in the HBO biopic "Bessie" starring Queen Latifah. We're both wearing our own clothes, although most everyone else did not. My cream satin floral gown is a 1930s original. 

Kat and Liza (rt), before filming Bessie at the Fabulous Fox.

We spent 18 hours on that unusually beautiful set. I returned to different locations for 2 more days of filming, dressed in an original 30s ensemble from wardrobe. Below, I'm outside a more typically unglamorous venue. The hair and makeup professionals were incredible. This may have been the most fabulous hairstyle I've ever had. 

On day 2 or 3 at Bessie shoot.
Hairstyle on day 2 of Bessie shoot.   

Alas, it was never seen. We many extras were on screen for maybe 3 seconds. Below is a screen grab. The three red arrows all point to me (get out your magnifying glass). Through the magic of movies, they turned 300 extras into 3,000 theater-goers.

Yours truly in a screenshot from the movie "Bessie."

Referred to on set as background (BG), extras are living props. We're furniture that moves on its own. We mustn't pull attention from the foreground. So we pantomime our talking, eating, and drinking. We dance without music. We clap silently and walk softly as possible. A tickle in your throat when the director calls "picture's up" (on your mark), "rolling" (get set), "background" (go!) is a panic-inducing horror. Don't even think about sneezing.

We do the same thing again and again, trying to be as enthusiastic and natural on the tenth or twentieth take as we were on the first. As acquaintance Sarah said last week, while we cooled our heels in holding, being an extra is much like being on a long-haul flight. It's very exciting and very boring. It's exhilarating and exhausting. It's a lot of hard work and a lot of mindless waiting around. It's often wildly uncomfortable despite lavish surroundings. Get up at 4am to fake dance in real heels, and after 6 or 12 hours your feet (and head and back and hair) are going to hurt. There are far less grueling ways to earn minimum wage. So why do we always look forward to doing it again? 

Here's why:

In my red 1950s Gigi Young dress.

I've never aspired to a career in acting. Nope. I'm in it for the clothes! And whenever possible, the dancing. Above I'm working on a Madmen-era party scene in a TV series set in modern day. That's my own original 50s Gigi Young dress. [edit 8/24/17: "Satisfaction" season 2, episode 6]

And here I am with Sarah on a still-in-production period film, wearing my other Gigi Young [edit 8/24/17: "The Founder"]: 

Although I wear all of my vintage clothes IRL, I rarely get a chance to wear them fully accessorized, made up and coiffed in period style. Head to toe vintage, unless you're a performance artist, works best for theme parties and in the movies [edit 8/24/17: "The Founder"]:

In my late 50s/early 60s ensemble at a recent shoot.

Although Atlanta's burgeoning film industry is rife with opportunities to portray zombies, vampires, prison guards, and business types, I have no desire to be anything resembling my real-life self (and yes, all of those ring true, depending on the time of day and month). So I only submit for historic or formal scenes. 

Sometimes it's a dream-come-true scenario. How about four days of one-stepping to a live ragtime band in a pastoral setting, wearing original Edwardian clothing? Been there, done that, wore my own corset! That movie isn't out yet, so no names or on-set photos [edit 9/13/19 - "Bolden!"]. But here's a glimpse of my hairstyle, makeup (check out those turn-of-the-century brows), and antique ensemble.

In turn-of-the-20th-century costume.

It was hot, it was painful (dancing for hours in granny boots and corset in Atlanta's summer heat is no picnic, even if you're pretending to attend one), it went on forever. The food was awful and the facilities minimal. But OMG, to wear those clothes, and dance! I was in heaven. I didn't want it to end. And when I returned the dress to wardrobe for the last time, I pinned a little note inside asking Western Costume to please consider selling it to me. No reply. But at least I tried.

In the past year I've been in an assortment of scenes depicting dressy events. They're often referred to in casting calls as a "gala." But more often than not, what they're really talking about is a cocktail party. Nowadays, apparently, anything beyond polyester fleece and denim counts as formal wear.

In fact, only one of those gigs required an actual gown (I wore modern). For the others I wore my own vintage cocktail dresses. Here I am in 50s blue on MTV's "Finding Carter." I wore it again for TV One's "To Hell and Back," a retelling of the biblical Job story. 

 Screen shot from "To Hell and Back" on TV One.

I wore this raspberry satin for an upcoming episode of "Devious Maids" [edit 8/24/17: season 3, episode 7] and my peacock silk for an episode of "The Red Road."

In my raspberry cocktail dress for Devious Maids. 

I've worked without pay more than once for a chance to dress up and dance, or to help with hair, makeup, and especially costuming.

Here are Kat and I, working for the opportunity to work some more, on the set of a TV series pilot. She and I were two of just four featured dancers, doing a whole lot of Charleston. My fringed flapper dress is an 80s does 20s find with the gigantic shoulder pads removed.

On the set of "Confetti" with Kat.

And here I am in one of my mid-Victorian ensembles, volunteering for my friend Mickey Banyas's short film "Hearts of Dust" -- a gig that landed me (to my happy amusement) in the iMDb!

Filming "Hearts of Dust"

Yes, I've been in it for the clothes. But more and more, I'm an extra for the behind-the-scenes glimpse it offers into an industry that influences my daily life. Considering how much time I've invested watching TV and movies, and the impact they've had, it's hard not to be fascinated by their production and excited to be part of it.

I've had the opportunity to interact with directors, production assistants, boom operators (I've held the boom and yes, it's heavy), camera operators (one let me look through the eyepiece to better understand the image he was trying to capture), hair and makeup artists, and of course, wardrobe and costume experts. I've learned from each of them. And I've only just scratched the surface of what's involved. I'm hopeful that Atlanta's film industry will continue to flourish, and that I can become involved on a deeper level.

I'm also hopeful that our current obsession with supernatural creatures and prison inmates will give way to a fascination with historical dramas involving waltzing in bustle dresses. That's a wrap on zombies and vampires, picture's up on Edith Wharton novel adaptations. Have corset, will travel. That's me.

Left to right - 
"MacGyver," pilot
"Sleepy Hollow," season 3, episode 2
"Sleepy Hollow," season 4, episode 1


🎬  Want to see more about the various productions I've been a very small part of? Click to see a complete listing, with photos.  📽


Liza Dolensky

Wonderful, that’s quite the resume already Liza, after what just the one year?
I had my first taste of background work in London for a BBC production some 20 years ago.
I thought I had put that to bed, having no idea just how the industry would flourish in Atlanta.
Indeed background work can be the most uncomfortable, time consuming, exhausting and low paid work imaginable but it is also terribly exciting and addicting and I am so grateful that destiny had me land here in Atlanta with all these film opportunities.
The coworkers are rather fantastic too ;)

Liza Dolensky

I have always enjoyed all the pictures you share with us. The clothes are lovely, you always look so happy to be there ‘all dressed up.’

I’ve learned a lot. Thank you for taking the time to share and post.

Liza Dolensky

Well said, as always, and you look great in these. Brava!

Liza Dolensky

Fascinating! And you look wonderful in your vintage clothes.

Liza Dolensky

You really brought the hobby to life! I can just see you on the set (oh, wait — i CAN just see you, barely make you out, on the set) having fun and living in another century! Keep on extra-ing… who knows, you may be discovered (or given a line!!).

Liza Dolensky

Exciting to see you enjoying life and sharing your passion for vintage. Good stuff!

Liza Dolensky

Very nicely put. It’s a dress up party that’s hopefully captured on film.

Liza Dolensky

Nice to work with you recently. When I returned home my wife said “You mean you are getting paid to play dress up!”

Liza Dolensky

Oh Liza, you mesmerize me! Magnificent! I am so proud to know you even a teency texas bit <3

Liza Dolensky

Hi Liza~ You look stunning everytime I see you! I love wearing gently used clothing, too. In fact, it’s the only kind that I purchase for myself, anymore. (Although I don’t have gorgeous vintage pieces, like yours.) I would love to receive your newsletters. Hugs!

Liza Dolensky

Mother of the xtra is both fascinated and proud.

Liza Dolensky

What a great piece! I love that you can play dress up and be involved in movie making, and even earn a few dollars! Love the clothes!

Liza Dolensky

You are one fascinating friend. I enjoy these photos and your skill writing!

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