Be a Movie Extra

There are a lot of rabid fans of The X Files. They’re probably called X-Files-philes.

Jill Gardiner isn’t one of them. Okay, she wouldn’t kick David Duchovny off the pick-up soccer team for removing his shirt. But neither the show nor its star was the big draw on this particular day in September. Jill was just curious about that other world that hums quietly away beneath the real world here in Hollywood North, this dodge where grown adults get to play dress-up as their actual jobs. As “extras” in film and TV shoots, people who aren’t even actors get to waltz onto a set and become a moving part in a collaborative fiction, then return home to the dogs and the dishes piling up, without so much as an end-credit to prove it wasn’t all a dream.

Turned out Jill had an “in.” Her sister-in-law, Moe, a choreographer, was working on The X-Files’ tenth season — a six-episode revival the 1990s cult-classic series. A bunch of the extras Moe had hired weren’t working out. She needed some warm bodies, stat. She approached some of her family and friends: “You wanna do it?”

In the episode, Moe explained, David Duchovny’s character has a dream sequence in a country bar. First he’s out there on the dance floor with the line dancers. “And then there’s a second sequence with sexy dancers.” Jill had taught Jill a few moves in the past. She reckoned she could manage some simple choreography for line-dancing part. The extras would just be doing their thing in the background anyway. “I knew it didn’t require too much skill.”

And so, having booked off work for the day, Jill hopped in the car at 8am and drove to nearby Pitt Meadows, home of Rooster’s Country Cabaret: dark wood and mechanical bull rides and five-cent hot wings. But first, the paperwork. She signed a contract. “They had a different pay rate for those of us who weren’t in the union,” she says. “But we were extras with a ‘special talent,’ so we got a bit more than the regular extras who were just milling around.”

The Western wear she’s showed up in didn’t quite pass muster. So in the wardrobe trailer Jill received an upgrade: a kerchief and a skirt and a ten-gallon hat.

The route to Roosters zigged through the catering tent, where a buffet lunch had been laid out. The extras were going to need those calories. Film work is a marathon – albeit one with no predictable finish line. It takes as long as it takes.

On the dance floor, finally, Jill’s group ran through the routine. In silence, at first. Then the music started up.

“I thought it was gonna be ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,’ but I learned that was the song the sexy dancers got,” Jill says. “We got Billy Ray Cyrus. We heard ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ about a million times that day.”

In his dream, Duchovny does an intimate little dance with a woman in the bar, while the extras are moving wallpaper in behind. Everyone ran through the sequence a few times with another actor standing in for Duchovny.

Then the star himself appeared. He was taller than Jill expected. Skinnier. He said a few words to a couple of extras that Jill couldn’t hear. It all felt a bit surreal. But the novelty slowly gave way to fatigue as the afternoon dragged on.

It took five hours to film what would amount to less than a minute of film time. “We just kind of did it again and again. We probably did it fifty times.” At first Jill worried that the extras were screwing up, that’s why they kept re-shooting. But she came to understand that that’s what a film shoot is. It’s a whole bunch of do-overs. The director wants to be absolutely sure she has Robin Hood in a can here. You really don’t want to bring everyone back again tomorrow. Cameras shot the scene from every conceivable angle. Under the hot lights, under her cowboy hat, Jill could feel the sweat pooling. Assistants swanned in to mop the dancers’ brows and pass out bottled water.

Then someone mercifully pulled the plug on “Achy Breaky Heart.” And over the loudspeakers came the Stones. This was Duchovny’s cue to rock out. At one point, swept up in his fantasy, his character does a back flip. The move is beyond the talents of the actual Duchovny, “so they freeze and David kind of runs out of the frame, and his stand-in runs in and completes it.”

Around suppertime, an assistant director approached the extras. “Okay, you guys are done. We think we have what we need.”

But everyone was told to hang around, just in case.

An hour passed. Two. Three. Now they were into “overtime,” a higher pay grade. Four hours. Five. What was going on?

Like war correspondents in a hotel bar, they traded in the scraps of news that filtered in. “We heard there was some issue with the sexy dancers’ costumes, and somebody had to drive back to wardrobe.”

The veteran extras were revealing their experience. Some had brought their knitting. Many had books. Jill had nothing, so she spent her time making small talk.

At around 11pm — just when double-overtime was about to kick in—everyone was “released.” A bus shuttled the extras back to the drop-off point. They turned in their costumes and got in their cars.

Jill arrived home around midnight. Door to door: 16 hours. For which she received a not-so-bad four hundred bucks.

And her performance? How’d she look out there in that episode, in her one minute of fame? Jill shrugs.

“I never watched it,” she says. “We don’t have cable.”

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