The first half of Law & Order: SVU’s two-part season finale airs tonight (9/8c, NBC), and if you look very closely, you might see me in the background. That’s because about a month ago, I was selected to be an extra—or, in more flattering terms, a “background performer”—on the show. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be an extra on a big-budget network TV show, let me tell you: It was a long, fun, boring, frustrating, tiring, painful, enlightening, hot-and-cold day. And one particular part about it left me pretty pissed off. But more on that in a bit. Here are the main takeaways.
It’s actually a pretty easy job to get.
A week earlier, I showed up at Central Casting’s midtown Manhattan office on their weekly orientation day for men (there’s a separate day for women) and signed up for free, along with about 25 other guys. A staffer took our pictures and showed us how to submit ourselves for roles on TV shows and movies, either by phone or via their Facebook page.
A couple days later, I saw on Facebook that Law & Order: SVU needed guys around my age to play cops and other law enforcement types. I submitted myself and soon heard back from them. They said I would need to shave. They wanted guys who were either totally clean-shaven or clean-shaven except for a moustache. I told them I would do one of the two and boom, I was hired.
Loitering in that church, the extras really did resemble a bunch of cops. So much so that my heart started to race a little when I looked at them.
Production days start early.
My call time was 8 a.m. the next morning in Whitestone, New York, way the hell out in Queens somewhere. I have no car but could catch a ride on a bus leaving Manhattan at 7 a.m. I was told to wear a dress shirt and tie and suit pants and bring other clothing options. I would be playing someone from NYPD’s Hostage Negotiation Team (HNT). To really embrace the law-enforcement role, I opted for the moustache look. Then I left my apartment in Brooklyn at 6 a.m. It was the earliest I’d been up in months.
It’s amazing how many people work on a TV show.
When I arrived at a church in Whitestone along with about 60 other extras (roughly 50 men and 10 women), I had to check in with wardrobe. I was wearing a light blue dress shirt and a green-and-blue Repp tie. (I only own three ties.) The wardrobe woman told me to change into my white dress shirt and to try my other tie, a skinnier black-and-blue one. She also tossed me a Hostage Negotiation Team windbreaker. I changed into this, returned to her and got the OK sign. There were only three other guys on the HNT. Most of the extras were dressed as police officers. Loitering in that church, they really did resemble a bunch of cops. So much so that my heart started to race a little when I looked at them.
After a while, three production assistants gave us some ground rules and read the pages of the scenes we were going to shoot. The script pages were filled with dramatic action and emotion, so it was funny to hear these PAs read without much emotion or inflection. It also sounded like a lot to shoot. I figured it was going to be a long day.
Eventually, we all got back on the bus and they drove us closer to the set. We waited in line to get our badges and fake guns. (We had to give them our driver’s licenses as collateral.) We weren’t supposed to take pictures of ourselves because they didn’t want us sharing anything on social media, but I snuck in a couple of selfies. In groups of five, a young female PA walked us to the set so we could get some snacks at the craft services table.
Some neighbors approached Ice-T for pictures and autographs, and he signed every piece of paper and took every picture, as far as I could tell. He probably knows he’s super lucky to have landed on a show that’s run for 17 years.
The crew and some of the cast were already there, shooting another scene. There were probably 40 people in the crew—camera operators, prop guys, more PAs, the director and assistant director and second assistant director, a script person, hair and makeup people, catering people and cooks, electricians and more. It was quite an army. They were situated at the intersection of a couple of residential streets, mainly focusing on a few houses.
I pretty much stayed with my three other HNT members. We weren’t needed yet so we just stood around. It was very sunny and hot out. I’m a pretty pale dude, so eventually someone from wardrobe gave me an NYPD hat to wear. We also found some shade in another house’s driveway. I spent much of my time that day talking to two of the other hostage negotiators. They both happened to be recovering alcoholics. Good guys. Funny and honest. One of them really had a temper though. He got very angry back on the bus when one of the other extras took a stinky shit in the bus’s bathroom, after the bus driver had specifically told us that it was only to be used for peeing.
Ice-T was there on set. Sitting in a director’s chair and eating pizza from a box that someone had brought him. I didn’t have any interaction with him all day but he seemed cool. Other extras talked to him and said he was friendly. Some of the actual neighbors in the area had come out of their houses to see what was going on. We heard some of the neighbor kids were actually taken out of school so they could watch the show tape in their neighborhood. That seemed like a bit much. As one person in the crew pointed out, “They could’ve gone to school, come home and we’d still be here.”
Anyway, some neighbors approached Ice-T for pictures and autographs, and he signed every piece of paper and took every picture, as far as I could tell. Seemed happy to do it. Or at least smiled through it anyway. He probably knows he’s super lucky to have landed on a show that’s run for 17 years.
One thing that amazes me about a TV show set is how many people are barely employed. One person’s entire job was to hold a large umbrella over Mariska Hargitay so she didn’t get hit with too much sun.
One thing that amazes me about a TV show set is how many people are barely employed. Like, they have one job, and they do this one job all day, but 90 percent of the time they’re not needed.
Like the props people. They’re there all day but they’re really only busy at the beginning and end of the shoot. Or the drivers. They drive at the beginning, then they have like 10 hours to do nothing, then they drive at the end. There was one guy, and it seemed like his whole responsibility was spraying the lights on top of the cop cars with some substance (to get rid of glare?) before they appeared on camera. Another person’s entire job was to hold a large umbrella over Mariska Hargitay so she didn’t get hit with too much sun.
And the extras? Most of the time, you’re not working. You’re standing around and waiting. It makes for a very long day. I remember reading this essay once about this writer for Roseanne who ended up being homeless for a while. He said the thing about being homeless is how terribly long each day feels, because you’re not doing anything. I was reminded of this on the SVU set. I felt a little homeless. Plus it hurts my back when I have to stand around for more than about 10 minutes. That day I had to stand around for about six hours. Oof.
The meals and snacks are good.
I missed breakfast, but I still had a gyro with chicken and shrimp around 11:30am. Then for lunch I had a couple of chicken breasts and mahi-mahi and Caesar salad and pasta salad. And then for snacks I had a couple of apples and a couple of pears and some mango juice. When we did start to get used, I even tucked one apple in my windbreaker pocket and took bites of it between shots.
One of the guys on the HNT with me ate the entire day. Every time you turned around he was eating something else. And he was a skinny guy in his fifties! “We don’t get paid much, so you might as well eat as much as you can,” he said. “I don’t eat the rest of the night when I get home from these shoots.” Based on how much he was inhaling, it seemed like he wouldn’t need to eat for the rest of the week.
Peter Gallagher is shorter than I imagined.
I’m a big fan of his work in American Beauty and The Player. I didn’t realize he was even on SVU, but there he was shooting a scene with Hargitay. And Hargitay, in her heels, was taller than him! I’m guessing he’s probably 5’10”. I thought he was taller than that. (The eyebrows, if you’re wondering, are just as big in real life.)
A man in full (hostage negotiator costume).
I’m not sure I’m cut out for background work.
For one thing, I’m sane. (That was a joke. Kind of.) For another thing, my back started hurting a lot, with all of the standing around. And I was getting burnt to a crisp, even with the hat. Then I put on sunscreen and ended up getting some in my eyes. So if you do see me on the show, I’ll probably be squinting.
Then toward the end of the day, we were told to demonstrate “random chaos” in the background. So at one point during a long take, I sorta ran-walked to hustle across the street after an ambulance passed me. After the scene was over, a small female PA, who looked to me all of 24, yelled at me for running. Later, when she was instructing extras to do different things in a scene, she looked at me and said, “You’re not going to run this time, are you?” Sheesh.
You gotta watch your stuff.
So here’s what you might call the tragic climax of my SVU experience. Around 8 p.m., when it got dark and we couldn’t shoot anymore, the show wrapped for the day and all the extras headed back to the bus, which would take us back to the church so that we could sign out and head home. On the way back to the bus, I stopped for a quick bathroom break in the basement of one of the houses the show was using. By the time I got back to the bus area, I was the last extra in line to return my props and get my driver’s license.
By the time I got back to the bus, a PA told me the bus was full and she’d take me and a few other stragglers back with her in a van. I said I had my jacket on the bus (a green army jacket that I really liked because it looked good and fit me perfectly—and had in its pockets an iPhone charger cube and cord). She smiled and reassured me that I could get it off the bus back at the church, and that the bus wasn’t going anywhere until all the extras were signed out. So I said OK and left with her and a few others to get into this van.
Only the van wasn’t where she thought it was. There was no van. And now we were just standing on some random Whitestone street corner like idiots while the bus was taking 50-plus extras back to the church. And now it was cold and I had returned my HNT windbreaker so I was freezing in my thin white dress shirt. I didn’t even have the HNT hat anymore to keep my head warm, or facial hair—outside of the moustache—to keep my face warm. And we stood there for a good 15 minutes waiting for some van to magically show up. There was some chatter on a walkie-talkie but it didn’t produce any van.
Finally a van did show up, but we weren’t allowed to get into it because it was headed for a different location, to the honey wagons (the trailers where the actors and production people hang out and work) or something. So we had to wait some more.
Then finally another van showed up and we got in, but then we had to wait for some other crewmembers to show up before we could leave. Then finally we left, but we had to drop off these other crewmembers at some other place before we could go back to the church.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: Never leave a jacket you like on a bus full of fake cops.
Finally we got back to the church and I got on the bus and my jacket wasn’t where I’d left it. Some shithead extra said he had grabbed the jacket and taken it inside the church and made an announcement, asking if it was anybody’s. Then he put it on a table.
I did not ask this shithead extra why the fuck would you move somebody else’s stuff, like I was thinking. Instead, I went back inside the church and there was no jacket. I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. I was tired and cold and jacket-less. I told the PA who had instructed me to catch a ride in the “van” what had happened. She helped me look some more. We went back on the bus and asked people if they’d seen it—the bus was now ready to head back to Manhattan—and no one had. I’m pretty sure the jacket was in the bag of someone on that bus, but how do you prove such a thing?
By this point I was pretty irritated. I asked the PA if the show could just pay me for the lost jacket. She said it didn’t work like that. I had to fill out a form. I could either go to the honey wagons and fill it out now, or I could go to Chelsea Piers sometime in the future and fill it out. I said let’s do it now. She said I could wait for a van (!) to take me over by the honey wagons. Another PA took me out to the church parking lot to wait for this van.
We waited for 15 minutes. It didn’t arrive. Finally the first PA told me that the van got held up and that we could come back inside and wait. Then she said that she got word that I didn’t need to fill out that form, that it was now the responsibility of the bus or something, so she took down my info and said she’d check with the bus people the next day to see if the jacket “turned up.”
By now the bus had left so I needed to wait for another van (!) to get back to the city. Eventually, around 9:30 p.m., I caught a ride back to Manhattan with a couple of the PAs. These two guys were actually pretty cool. One was a young Asian dude named O.J. who lived with his parents in Westchester. Another was a white guy in his mid-30s who said he often worked on movies as the personal assistant of an A-list actor (I won’t say which one, but I will say that he had worked with this actor on the set of The Intern). This guy also called O.J. “Bro-J,” which I thought was funny.
When we got back to Manhattan, I ended up having a couple of beers and a shot of whiskey with these guys at a bar. I thought maybe they’d buy my drinks since I had lost my jacket, but they did not. (Apparently the assistants for movie stars don’t break the bank.) The drinks cost me $30. I’d bought the jacket for around $75. The trains cost me $5.50. My payment for the day, including time-and-a-half for overtime, was $110. So I pretty much broke even. But I learned a valuable lesson that day: Never leave a jacket you like on a bus full of fake cops.
I never did hear from Law & Order: SVU about my jacket.
But a week later I worked as an extra on The Jim Gaffigan Show. I got to sit inside most of the day in a comfortable booth in a fancy restaurant in Soho. And nobody stole any of my stuff. And even though my call-time was 5:30 a.m., I was out by 3 p.m. And I didn’t have to take a bus to Queens. It was a better day.