I’ve had several different jobs in many different fields throughout the years, but none of them were quite as fascinating as when I worked as an extra. An extra, for those of you now scratching your heads, is show business lingo for people who appear as part of the background in training videos, commercials, television, and movies. You might be wondering why I got involved in the entertainment industry to begin with because it’s not as though I had ever volunteered to participate in any school plays, during my youth, or had ever yearned to be involved with the local community theater as I grew older. I certainly did not have any dreams of becoming an actor or a movie star, and I did not have a passion, or even a healthy respect, for the craft itself as so many of those working in the performing arts industry have. The truth is I am generally not even that much of a people person, and I definitely don’t fancy the thought of having everyone’s attention solely focused on me. The thought of a birthday party thrown in my honor makes me cringe every time since it’s one of the most uncomfortable settings I am often forced to endure. Unfortunately, my “special day” seems to come around about once a year like clockwork.
I had absolutely no desire for being the main attraction, but the thought of earning some easy money by blending in with the background intrigued me; therefore, working as an extra seemed like the proper solution. After contemplating the idea for awhile I finally made the decision to enter the unusual field especially after noticing so many of my peers were either fat, bald, or both. I was at a place in my life (age thirty-something) where I had attained almost a set of six-pack abs, and I didn’t want them to go to waste. I had never been that fit before, and I knew it wouldn’t last forever because I absolutely enjoy eating way too much (both figuratively and literally). I’m very well-known in my family for unbuttoning my pants, after visiting an all-you-can-eat buffet, and having to lay down in the back of either a van or a station wagon to get some relief. I also thought I was pretty decent looking, at least by Iowa standards, so I found myself asking the question, “why not me?” I could not come up with a legitimate reason for not pursuing a job as an extra, so I began searching out a path to make it happen.
I soon found the entertainment industry to be flooded with talent agencies offering substantial promises, aimed at the gullible, for becoming a star. Most of the agencies demanded money upfront and insisted their clients use only their photographers, for the industry’s mandatory headshots, before they were willing to promote you. I wasn’t born yesterday (I was born on February 24th – presumably the best day of my parents’ lives), so I wasn’t about to pay a fee to an agency beforehand when I was the one wishing to earn a paycheck. I eventually found an agent in Des Moines, the state’s capitol, who said she definitely could use someone my age and with my looks. Deb made no hollow promises like the few other potential agents I had spoken with, and she allowed me to choose my own photographer for the required headshots as well. My agent’s terms were quite simple. She would negotiate a deal on my behalf, seek my approval, and then fax me the precise details of the job including the location of where the shoot was to be held. Deb was entitled to a 15% commission of whatever I made in the industry.
The photo shoot for acquiring the mandatory headshots was a unique experience in itself. I chose one of our small town photographers who had several years of experience snapping pictures of graduating high school seniors. I had also obtained a community theater make-up artist, as was suggested by Deb, to touch up any blemishes and to punctuate my eyes for the shoot. I wasn’t too comfortable with that situation because I hadn’t worn make-up since my sisters use to have fun with me while the folks were away, and besides I thought I was a natural beauty. I wanted to give my agent a variance of my looks, so the photographer was gracious enough to capture me wearing a full-beard, during the first round of pictures, and then he featured me with a clean-shaven, baby face in the second round. My agent ultimately selected one of the baby-faced photos for my promotional headshot. Deb then requested that I use my legal name in the entertainment industry because it would sound more professional. That was perfectly fine with me considering I had been encouraging people to call me James instead of Jimmy for several years. I have always felt a bit awkward, as a grown man, being called what I perceive as a child’s name, but it obviously worked out well for Jimmy Stewart. The stage was now set for me to begin my career as an extra. To Be Continued.