Extra for a Day
By Clare Allcard published in the Inter-Comm October 1999
Clare tells us of her experience as an ‘extra’ in “Entre el Torb i el Gestapo” about Andorra’s part in helping Catalan exiles escape to France at the beginning of the second World War.
‘It’s OK for you’, I said ruefully as we were led across La Massana’s busy high street. ‘You don’t live here.’ My companion, a young, slightly improbable blonde, giggled. We both had our hair baled up in large, Day-Glopink rollers, I for the first time in about 20 years. But there, they so say one must suffer for one’s art.
I’d always fancied being in films and here was my big chance. You know the sort of thing: Extra walks across room. In blinding flash Director realises she’s perfect for female lead in horror movie opposite Boris Karloff – well, I have been dreaming this dream for some time now.
‘Our’ film, “the Blizzard and the Gestapo’, is set in Andorra in the 1940s. At least I think it is. No one actually explained the plot. They don’t. Not to extras.
A quick glance round the hotel and I knew why they’d chosen it. It must have been the only one in Andorra untouched since World War II. Wooden stairs led up to a corridor whose walls were covered in thick, regency-stripe paper and dotted with faded black and white photographs showing flocks of sheep in remote mountain pastures. Someone had bitten large chunks out of the floor tiles. My companion, Margarida, looked round anxiously and whispered. ‘ I need to pee. I’m so nervous!’ As she wandered off down the gloomy corridor in search of the facilities, it occurred to me that I wasn’t nervous at all. Was I too old or could it be that Margarida took the ‘instant fame’ myth seriously? I found the loo, an antique job with a cistern touching the ceiling and a bit of frayed string for a chain.
Next, they herded us into one of the bedrooms; quite spacious actually compared with the loose boxes hotels stable their guests in nowadays. It was stacked with 1940’s clothes. All dark. I must say I was most impressed by the Wardrobe. They took one look at each of us, glanced at the rail, and then swooped unerringly on something that fitted. Mind you, casting had been firm. ‘No fat extras. We only have clothes for slim ones’ I’d been a wee bit anxious myself on tat score. How to tell Edward my road to fame had been blocked because I couldn’t fit into any of the clothes? Shoes were no problem. They had a great sack full. Mine were so comfortable I thought of walking off in them: nice low heeled, leather lace-ups with a soft quilted lining. Next, a pair of thick black tights was waved in my direction swiftly followed by a calf-length, black and white flecked, genuine 1940s frock (later I found a genuine 1940s hole in it), then a black cardigan and a black coat with a false-fur collar. A black handbag completed my ensemble.
Coat buttoned, I turned to weigh up the competition. Margarida looked smarter than I. Her dark brown outfit included rather handsome brown shoes and a little brownout with netting dangling from it. They hadn’t given me a hat. But of course she couldn’t wear hers, not till they’d taken the rollers out. Then there was Elia. They’d dressed her up as a maid. She’d got a wicker carpet beater as a prop. Elia had huge, dark, smudgy eyes and a teasing smile. Still, poor dear, she couldn’t be considered real competition, not dressed as a maid.
At the very last moment, as we were being bundled back downstairs, I remembered to grab my book and reading glasses. I might be a novice but I did know one thing: being an extra involves lots of waiting around.
Dressed in our 1940s finery, we trooped back across the high street and down to the hair trailer stationed at the bottom of the La Massana car park. Ushered in, I made myself comfy and was just imagining my name in lights above the makeup mirror and wondering idly whether perhaps I should adopt a pseudonym, when I was ordered out again. A Star approaching ! Unfamiliar with Catalan television (or any television come to that as we don’t have one), I don’t know whether the bloke was a big star or a little one, but he made the most peculiar noises; as if he was practising for the part of a Pyrenean bear. He kept growling. No one seemed to notice so I just looked the other way. After all, if the chap felt better for a good growl, why not?
Outside, I paced up and down, glad of the coat and the thick tights. Nearby, another woman in rollers paced in the opposite direction. I noted her stylish suit with envy. How come I hadn’t got one like that? Then I saw her shoes, New. The real give-away, though, was her stockings: sheer and with a very straight seam up the back. No thick peasant jobs for her. And no way did she find that outfit slung on a rail in the first floor bedroom. Despite an unpromising profile, not helped by her hair being in rollers, this too must be a Star.
Once The Bear was done. I was called back. Unfortunately Hair possessed a strong sense of hierarchy. If the Star was a Pyrenean bear then, she made it quite plain. I was a Pyrenean flea. She even removed my curlers with contempt. Then the Star of the seamed stockings appeared at the door. Back out in the cold for me; awfully good for inflated egos, being an extra. Next time a much more friendlier hairdresser asked me in. By the time she’d finished I looked just like photos of my mother during the war; a couple of tortoiseshell combs holding the hair tight at the temples and then bundles of curls frothing behind the ears. She tried sweeping my fringe up and back in a fashionable quiff; then took one look at my large, bony forehead and thought better of it. Hiding the forehead under a strategic cluster of curls, she grabbed a make-up tray and painted my lips vermilion. I was done.
Alone and incognito – there was no way any friend I met on street would recognise me now – I drifted back to the hotel’s dining room. This had been set aside for the cast. All of us. Very egalitarian. Here we extras received a pep talk from Sergi, a young lad in a baseball cap.
‘NEVER look at the camera. Keep ABSOLUTELY quiet during takes. When a take is over return to your original positions. Finally, be careful with your clothes. They are valuable antiques.’ At least that’s what I think he said. Trouble is my Catalan isn’t that good. At the outset Sergi had asked me, ‘Do you understand Catalan?’ I’d replied ‘ Provided you don’t speak too fast.’ He proceeded to mow me down with a Kalashnikov spay of words. Still, he had a sweet smile.
By now it was 7pm and our male counterparts had appeared. Margarida’s brothe, Pere, looked magnificent as a contrabandist; black beret perched rakishly above thick black brows, crooked, hawk nose and piercing grey-blue eyes. A five-day growth of beard skilled ruffian like around his jowls. Had he grown it specially? Another chap, very 1940s Dapper Gentleman, complained his hair felt as if it was glued down with honey. He was to be Margarida’s husband and had to carry an empty suitcase. Why, oh why, do they insist on using empty suitcases? No one seems to know how to carry them as if they’re full, and it’s so irritating when they’re wafted about like fly whisks. By now I was feeling a bit peckish and I will say this for the acting life, there’s a not-stop supply of food. Bags of croissants and pastries kept arriving along with bars of chocolate. Coffee and tea were on constant taps plus hot chocolate and fruit juice. Later, we were served an excellent, hot, à la carte dinner. For now I chose a croissant – and then spent anxious moments trying to brush the crumbs out of my fake fur. I noticed the Stars only toyed with the occasional infusion. Probably worried about their figures, poor loves.
Elia had disappeared with Miguel who was playing the hotel’s general dog’s body. Unfortunate man. Was it the excitement or were his hormones playing him up? Certainly, he had a wretched complexion. Elia had the carpet beater.
7.10pm. Time to get out my book. Will my reading glasses mark the bridge on my nose?
8.05pm. The rest of men start a game of cards.
10pm. We all break for supper.
Back in the common room I am well dug into Alaska.circa 19.30, when Sergi returns. They’re ready for my first take. I am to sit at a table in the bar and order a coffee from Miguel.
Alarmed. I asked ‘Do I have to speak?’
I received a pitying glance. ‘ Of course not.’ Silly me. I wouldn’t be an extra if I spoke. The bar has been transformed. 1940s adverts hang behind the counter. A large wireless set squats on the floor. In the far corner, the Stars prepare themselves for shooting. Two pretty young women sit in large armchairs, their feet demurely crossed at the ankle. But oh dear, they are sitting far to far back. Surely everyone knows ladies never leant back in their chairs; it was considered slouching.
The camera is on rails. Pere is at the bar holding a glass of something red and vile, presumably imitation wine. Sergi places me at a table by the door from where I have an excellent view of the proceedings.
Then, the Assistant Director himself comes over! My moment has come. I give him my most dazzling smile. That does it! For a split second he looks at me – then taps the chair opposite and tells me to change places. He prefers that I sit with my back to the camera. Never mind. No doubt one can ooze character just as successfully through a well-focused back. I contemplate my role; a lone woman of a certain age gracing an Andorran café during the war. Not two feet behind me sits a smuggler. I will clutch my handbag to my bosom and sit very, very upright. The Assistant Director comes over again. He smiles. My heart leaps. ‘Put your handbag on the table there’ ‘ Do you think I should?’ I ask doubtfully. Misguided young man. He clearly knows nothing about history. Does he really imagine a lone woman would have exposed her handbag on the table? In those days? Besides it looks untidy.
Sergi now approaches with a 1954 copy of Life magazine, in Spanish. He searches through it till he comes to a page with an advertisement for sewing machines. ‘There’ he says, ‘You can read that page.’ And smiles his Puckish smile. ‘I hate to tell you, but in the Forties it was thought very mal educado to read at table.’ He looks at mess if I’m quite mad and moves off. Someone brings me a cup and saucer, a china jug and a sugar bowl with no sugar int it. They’ve put a tea bag in the cup, the nasty string bit dangling outside. The Assistant Director comes back to tell someone to put sugar in the bowl.
‘Perdón.’ I say ‘ but they didn’t have tea bags in 1940.’ I proceed to stuff the little tag and string into the bottom of the cup. Maybe I can get a job in Continuity, or Research. Though, from the looks of it, the budget for Research has already run out.
Suddenly, I’m startled by a roar stage left. My head whips round and I stare straight into the affronted gaze of The Bear. Clearly his idiosyncrasies are not supposed to be queried by mere extras. Behind me tension mounts. A man appears at the door with one of those clapper boards. I’m furious. So much going on and I can’t see a thing. Not to worry. I’m sitting very straight and will pour my tea with great character.
‘Silence! Roll! Action!’
I pick up my jug and gracefully dribble a little water into the cup. Behind me the saloon doors swing open and a chap carrying a rucksack and snowshoes barges in. I can’t see his face but he has a gorgeous voice.
For some unknown reason The Bear greets him in heavily accented English, then switches to Catalan then, again in English, calls to Miguel, ‘Champagne!’ The Best!’ Then we cut.
We did that take six times, occasionally getting as far as the two female Stars also speaking in heavily accented English, Why, I hadn’t a clue, but I was dying to offer some elocution lessons.
The shooting of my scene being over, we extras were sent back to the waiting room. Elia had disappeared and Margarida was still waiting to do her bit. Then Sergi told us we could go home. It was almost midnight. We had to return our costumes to Wardrobe, our hair combs to Hair and then collect our pay. Margarita and I went upstairs; only to find Elia, the maid, totally transformed. She was now wearing a rather dashing low cut silk dress, a jet necklace and new shoes! It was those smouldering eyes that did it. She’d been spotted by the Director. Her next part was as a coquette chatting up the barman. Some people have all the luck.
So, to the big question. Are you going to see me on television? Well, probably not, at least not if Pere, the contrabandista’s to be believed. From where he sat he could see the film monitor. As the man pushed through the saloon doors and the camera slid silently towards us, there was a split second when you could just see half of Pere’s face. For less than a split second you could also see a few locks of my hair. Ah well, at least they paid me 6000 pesetas – and I got to be an extra for a day.
Published Inter-Comm October 1999