“Reg, are you free on Monday?” my Italian friend asks me on Messenger. “Yes, I am, bella. Why?” I reply. “I am trying to help my friend find foreign-looking people to be extras in a teleserye.”
She tells me the talent fee I’ll receive for being in the background for a day (the fee for afams is reportedly P1,000 more than locals get, and because I’m not with an agency, no one gets a cut), and I figure to myself that it isn’t as though I’ll be doing anything anyway, so I may as well make a little pocket money by doing nothing somewhere that isn’t my bedroom. It’s more than I’d make writing a feature for a magazine, and the money is handed over in cold, hard cash immediately after the shoot.
That, and like many others I know, I’ve always had a not-so-secret fantasy about being an artista. (I used to seriously want to audition for Big Brother to see what would happen. “Don’t,” was the advice I received from a friend who was actually a Housemate in one of the Celebrity Editions. “As in, do not. It’s terrible.”) This would be my opportunity to see what that world is really like. For that alone, I just have to say yes.
Our call time is nine in the morning, and upon waking at exactly nine in the morning, I try to back out. “Don’t worry,” I’m told, “these things never start on time; you can still make it.” I arrive at the location — an events venue in Quezon City — at half past 10 and recognize some legitimately foreign friends lounging outside the Sbarro next door. “What’s happening?” I ask. “Nothing yet,” they say, although we have all already made ourselves up and dressed in black. The scene we’re shooting today is a formal-ish function, and we were instructed to dress for a black and white party. The small but air-conditioned changing room — like a glorified Portalet — is set up on the sidewalk by the road, next to the show’s catering service, housed under a rental canopy, and a tent that serves as a holding area for other extras’ things, but not the extras themselves.
At 11:30, we are all antsy. It’s an incredibly hot summer day, and we retreat into Sbarro to enjoy their air-conditioning under the guise of buying drinks. Some of us leave to grab a bite to eat. (They ultimately do not return.)
At 1:30, we find out that taping starts in half an hour, and that we will be expected to remain on set until taping for the day ends. “Sometimes it is just a few hours,” my friend tells me. “Sometimes, it is until early morning.” But one of the main actresses for this particular show has a clause in her contract stating that she will not tape past two in the morning, so at the very least, we know the worst case scenario. This is the point of no return — do I commit the next 12 hours to this endeavor, just to sate my curiosity about what life in showbiz is actually like?
Of course I do.
Taping begins at half past two, and our little group of friends sticks together to make sure we are seated at the same table. We hope to be placed in the back so that escapes are easier, but end up in front, next to the main table. No pictures, we are told, which is why I have none. No phones, we are also told, although everyone else seems to have a mobile with them, so we recover ours from a friend’s car.
Some of the extras are plucked to feature more prominently in some scenes. Others are given speaking lines. (You’re paid more if you have speaking lines.) We’re told that we’re meant to be taping 24 sequences in this setting.
It looks like we’ll be going home past two.
My friend is one of probably two people in the room who can speak Italian properly, so she’s tapped to be the host of the party. Then she is given a short paragraph of lines to say. Unfortunately, those lines include some really deep Filipino that she can’t make heads or tails of, but she says she’ll give them a shot. Another girl and I are pulled from our table to stand at the entrance of the function room and act like we’re having a conversation with two other Caucasian women. One is blonde, blue-eyed and in her 40s, and the other is a brunette, and younger than me. I think the blonde is from Russia, and I wonder where these foreigners go and what they do when they aren’t on sets like these, because from the looks of it, they’re always on sets like these.
“When the family arrives, you all turn and part so they can walk through. They’re an important family, like royalty. Everybody talks about them, everybody wants to be one of them,” the director says. We all note the instructions, and I overhear conversations between other extras as we’re blocked, as we rehearse the taping of the scene before the stars actually take part in it, and as we wait. Most of them appear to be veteran extras, talking about life as extras. I listen in on a British man in his late 50s as he weighs the pros and cons of accepting location work with another extra — transportation service isn’t that great, so if you shoot somewhere far and your scene ends early, you’re stuck in Baguio unless you’re willing to pay for your own transportation home. Two middle-aged men from the Middle East ask me where I’m from.
The day goes by slowly, and when we’re not in a shot, we take frequent breaks to buy water, coffee, and snacks, because those aren’t part of the deal you get as an extra. They aren’t even part of the deal you get as a star of the teleserye, because the main actor of the show, a young heartthrob, has a huge red Coleman of water with him. The other stars have their attendants, and the later the shoot runs and the less we manage to tape of the 24 scenes listed for the day, the more parts are scrapped from the script. My Italian friend’s speaking lines are cut; her American friend’s line (he is cast as the Ambassador of Iran, or some such) is cut, too. And many of the stars’ lines are condensed and rewritten on the spot.
In between takes, one of them, who I’ve known since he was 16 and I was 18, says hi to me with surprise. “What are you doing here?” he asks a little incredulously. “Being an extra, trying something new,” I answer. “I’ve known her since I was a teenager!” he tells some of his other castmates. Then the shoot resumes, and we all sit and pretend to eat the soup or salad that’s set down in front of us. Props, just like us.
“Is it actually edible?” someone at our table asks; it’s running late and we’re getting hungry. To our surprise, it is, but we’re not allowed to touch it because the waiters playing extras (or extras playing waiters) have to pick it all back up and do their choreographed service scene over and over.
We break for dinner at around nine, and the catering looks less edible than the prop food, so we return to Sbarro and pay for dinner out of our own pockets. Some of the actors are there buying their own food, too. I eat, but nothing restores my energy; I can feel my eyelids threatening to fall shut as we return to resume taping.
The stars’ scenes are prioritized, of course, so their day ends earlier than ours. “Thank you, everybody!” the young lead says graciously as he takes his leave from the set. We remain in our seats, and in a daze, until the day finally concludes at two.
Exhausted, we wait outside the venue to be handed our talent fees, but after a while, we decide to be more proactive about seeking out our payment. “Are you not with an agency? You should go back upstairs to production to ask for your fee, because everyone with an agency already got theirs,” advises a handler from one of the agencies. We do exactly that.
It’s only then that someone from production complains to my friend about another friend’s attire, coming off like she’s trying to get out of paying him. “He’s not wearing dress shoes,” she says of my German friend’s sneakers. “I wasn’t informed about the dress code, I was just told to dress in black for a party,” he says. “And I was sitting at the table the whole time, so you can’t even see my shoes,” he argues. She relents, and gives us all our money. It’s half past three in the morning. “There’s taping again tomorrow,” she reminds everybody. “Please be here for continuity.” I’m lying through my teeth when I promise that I will.
Screw continuity and screw showbiz. Sure, if I did work as an extra every weekday, I’d make more money than I would by putting words to Microsoft Word, but I’ll take my hard-earned freelance writing over being paid to sit there and do nothing any day. I try to imagine how much harder it must be for the celebrities who are paid much more, but at the price of personal time, personal space, and personal lives on top of doing this day in and day out, and it makes me shudder.
I collapse into my bed in relief as soon as I get home, glad that my artista dreams never got a chance to come true, and I don’t think I’ve ever slept so well in my life.
(Illustration: Igan D’Bayan)