A Day in the Life of Haddonfield Movie Extra Bill Brown
From a Russian diplomat to a background actor in the Collingswood-set movie, "The Silver Linings Playbook," Bill Brown is a character.
It usually starts with a morning phone call.
Haddonfield's Bill Brown said the call to be a movie extra can come at any hour from Heery Casting Co., in Philadelphia. Immediately, Brown has to be ready, willing and able to drop what he’s doing and get to the shoot looking the part, whatever that part is. Brown said he was once called very early in the morning and asked if he could be in central New Jersey within two hours.
“Sure,” he said.
His most recent notable appearance is as a Russian diplomat in USA's cable show Political Animals, starring Sigourney Weaver. In Brown’s scene, Weaver (who plays a U.S. secretary of state) stands before a podium making a speech. Brown stands behind her. During that speech, another “Russian diplomat” slyly reaches over and gives Weaver an inappropriate squeeze.
Brown said his directions were to look on in disgust while the action took place. But Brown never knows which portion of his face time will make it to the big (or small) screen. Brown’s frown could end up on the cutting room floor.
To date, Brown has appeared next to (or behind or passing on a street or sitting near) stars such as Weaver, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Aniston, Ellen Burstyn, Bradley Cooper, Jamie Foxx and Reese Witherspoon.
Just as his parts vary, so do the coworkers. Brown has worked with the actor who is a commanding presence, the one who’s “as nice and down home as can be” and the one who is, for lack of a better word, dumb. Brown, though, does not name names. He adheres to a code of professional conduct as an extra that’s part his own making and part of the standard “Movie Extra Rules to Live By.”
“Extras are just human props,” he says. “But there are very specific rules for extras. There’s no speaking to the stars, no asking for autographs, no photos allowed. The actors have a great focus and we have to respect that.” All of this may account for Brown’s relative success as a movie extra—he does not overreach.
An extra’s days can stretch from 8 a.m. until 1 a.m. the following morning. Bring a book; bring some work, but leave the ego at home, Brown advises. It’s not easy being extra. Although Brown was cast as a Russian diplomat, he was not called back for a “blue collar, salt-of-the-earth” type. In meeting Bill Brown, you can understand why. Definitely a suit and tie character, Brown’s worked as a realtor in Haddonfield for many years, but is best known for his coordination of the Haddonfield Japanese Exchange program.
“Actually, I’m new in Haddonfield. I’ve only been here for 40 years,” Brown jokes.
He learned about working as an extra several years ago on a trip to the 30th Street train station in Philadelphia. “They were shooting a movie and someone asked me if I was an extra. When I told them I wasn’t, they told me I should be. So I checked it out," he recalls.
And in case it appears an easy way to make money, beware the deeper realities to extra work. First is the very nature of on-call employment. An extra must be ready to grab the cloak and dagger, or pinstripe suit, or chef’s hat and drive to wherever filming takes place. Then there’s the cost consideration. In order to maximize the paycheck, one must seriously consider joining the Screen Actors Guild, a union shop for actors. It's not cheap—with a four-figure application fee and annual dues.
But when you’re a SAG member, days like the one that went from 8 a.m. one morning until 1 a.m. the next also meant overtime. Non-SAG extras are not paid overtime.
There’s no shortage of production filming in the South Jersey-Philadelphia area at any given time, Brown says, so the work, though not steady, is there. And the nice thing about working as an extra? That other little extra—the not-to-be-sneezed-at paycheck which comes in the mail two weeks after a hard day’s work alongside the rich and famous.