Last autumn I attended an open casting for background (extra) appearances in the upcoming film Anna Karenina and was picked for one of the roles.
Why did I apply in the first place?
As a writer I always like to broaden my experience in the areas outside of my professional scope. I have always been a film fan, and I follow the work of great directors and writers. When I heard that Joe Wright (who directed Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) was making a film based on Leo Tolstoy’s timeless novel – you get the idea, I just couldn’t miss it. Add to that an amazing cast of film stars headlined by Keira Knightley and Jude Law. Even better. Then I learned that Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay and my favorite film composer Dario Marianelli was working on the score. There was no end to my excitement. In addition to that, I was interested in the technical side of it: how a film with an eight figure budget was made.
The shock of waking up 5am for three days in a row (sorry, I’m not a parent yet) and doing a 15 h ‘extra’ day will be remembered for long. Not that I ever thought the filming process was easy, but I never realized it could be so demanding even if you are just an extra.
The initial fun or torture, depends on your taste, is wardrobe and makeup. My first role was a footman, a door servant. The outfit was quite heavy and it wasn’t easy to stand still with this extra weight for hours, but luckily I was entertained by what was happening during the shooting, so I mostly ignored the wardrobe-imposed inconvenience. The second torture was a starched wig I wore, yes I look a bit like a barrister on the photo, this vile thing had to be firmly attached to my scalp with multiple pins and glue, and I thought that’s how a facelift must be felt like.
I was placed by the maestro Joe Wright himself at the door through which Kitty Shcherbatskaya eventually enters the ball room, so I really hope I’ m in that close up in the edited version. Kitty was pretty as it’s expected from the book; a Swedish actress Alicia Virkander was selected to portray her.
Later that day and the following days I have been relocated to other doors, so I was lucky to see all those dancing scenes featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen and Aaron Johnson as Russian high society members. Keira as Anna Karenina is unparalleled, though many Russians ridiculed her selection for the role, as she is too skinny for Anna. I’m sure she’s compensated it with charisma and brilliant acting.
Two months after my extra debut I played a different role of an office worker in the same film. Luckily, this time there was no make up and wigs involved, just my freshly grown facial hair. I had to pretend to sign and stamp piles of documents. The entire office had to do this in unison (as you may see in the movie trailer), it was quite a curious idea to choreograph the office work like that.
Most of the time an extra doesn’t do anything, I’ve spent hours just eating, chatting and reading books. Others managed to relax enough to sleep, or to work on exam preparations, etc.
Being a nosy chap, I was always watching how the sound and light people worked, how the scene was prepared, what the director said, how the camera-crew did various takes. The whole thing is very complex; there are lots of specialists contributing to the process. After a while I realized that it’s not much fun for most of the people involved, it’s a lot of work requiring concentration. I guess it’s more fun for the star actors who do the most interesting things, and of course for the director who orchestrates the entire process. If I wanted to go into film business, I’d have chosen to become a film composer and a screenwriter. I’m not sure I’d have enough patience to become a director, plus I’d be crushed under a weight of responsibilities. And definitely I wouldn’t be fit to become a makeup artist unless it’s a film about zombies.
So what did I learn from my experience? Making a film is an expensive and time consuming team effort, so film is better be based on the solid ground, i.e. screenplay. I’m sure Anna Karenina will be a success. Despite the fact the book had many film adaptations in the past, this one promises to be the most creative and original, because Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright know how to make a classic text work in a visual mode. In case you wonder, no, I’m not going to continue on the path of extra. As a scientist and a writer, I always need to find something new to explore.
As for the Anna Karenina film, it is out in the cinemas worldwide this autumn: next week, on the 7th of September 2012, in the UK, in November in the US and in January in Russia. It’s certainly not to miss!
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