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Extas! Extras! Read all about it!

Ever dreamt of a walk-on part in a blockbuster movie? Amazingly, 10,000 people have signed with a Belfast agency ... and are waiting on that call from Hollywood

By Gail Bell

As a doorway to the film industry, it is a curiously unimaginative one. I am staring up at a plain, painted black door of a rather pedestrian-looking house in a row of similarly nondescript buildings in a street in east Belfast and wondering if I have the wrong address.

And then I spot it – a barely-there notice above a buzzer bearing the small, handwritten words 'Extras NI'.

There are no striking graphics, no neon lights, but yes, this is the unassuming entrance to what has become the nerve centre of a huge and vital part of Northern Ireland's flourishing film industry.

Behind the funereal facade and up a narrow flight of stairs, the contrast could scarcely be greater: a wall of shocking pink casts its rosy shimmer over a huge gleaming white table, seated around which are three real-life fairy godmothers who, while yet unable to make you a star, can certainly bring you up close and personal to those who have already risen high in the celebrity firmament.

Dreams are bought and sold here and fantasy worlds come dazzlingly to life. In the counter-reality of film 'extras', non-actors from the banausic belts of banking to business can transcend from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the blink of an eye – for a few hours at least.

Making all this happen are Belfast women Carla Stronge and Siobhan Allan, co-founders of Extras NI, who, along with their now full-time manager Emma Sweeney, have been pinching themselves of late at the runaway success of something which started life at a 'virtual' office in the city centre. (They couldn't afford the rent for the real thing).

They have now been waving their magic wands over the lives of thousands of ordinary citizens for the past seven years, while still keeping smiles firmly fixed on the faces of those that matter – the 'big name' producers and directors who may demand a crowd of sword-swinging rioters, costumed up and ready for action anywhere in Northern Ireland within a matter of hours.

Thanks to ongoing tax breaks and Northern Ireland's picture-postcard collection of remote yet accessible, unique locations – even the quality of our daylight is second-to-none, apparently – producers of everything from Hollywood blockbusters to hit international dramas like Games of Thrones are happy to keep the cameras rolling.

In addition, according to Siobhan – an erstwhile desk jockey in the less glamorous field of IT – the reliable professionalism of our home-grown extras has been a massive pull.

There are now 10,000 people – aged two to 90 – and from all walks of life on the books of Extras NI, with another 20,000 mid-way through the application process.

Seemingly, the appeal, has less to do with the pay — around £76 per day — and more to do with “the experience”.

It is also clear that those who have already found themselves on set as a seven-feet giant, a beleaguered amputee or charging praetorian guard are taking their role on the fringes exceptionally seriously.

A committed group calling themselves the ‘Extras Family’ has recently formed, with core enthusiasts organising their own training on useful ‘extra’ skills such as horse riding and even making their own film.

Back at base, Carla is not surprised at the dedication and proudly points to a letter the agency received from no less than the creators of Game of Thrones themselves, David Benioff and DB Weiss, who refer to the Northern Ireland extras as “the best on the planet”.

Not just the world, but the planet! High praise indeed from the writers of the medieval fantasy drama which continues to be the anchor in Northern Ireland’s thriving creative industries supported by Northern Ireland Screen.

The latter’s latest strategy, Driving Global Growth (2010-2014), shows it invested £27.8m in the screen industries here, while spin-off expenditure on local goods and services amounted to a staggering £120m.

With Extras NI, the number-crunching is likewise impressive. Carla, who herself has worked as an assistant director after training in film studies in London, points out that the agency last year provided 13,500 working days — the equivalent of 35 people working full-time for a year.

“Last year was our biggest yet and as well as providing extras for film and television work, we have been involved in quite a number of high-end commercials,” she says. “Some of the most recent major movies have included Dracula Untold and we have just finished High Rise starring Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller.

“Everyone knows about Game of Thrones and The Fall with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan, but we have also sent people to work on the sets of BBC television drama Line of Duty and BAFTA award-winning documentary Occupation, as well as on the films Killing Bono and Your Highness.

“Others, or course, never make it to the big screen and end up on the cutting room floor. It is the nature of the business.”

Northern Ireland extras were called up for the 2007 film Miss Conception, starring Heather Graham, and more recently 100 were needed for an intense two weeks of filming for the critically acclaimed Philomena, starring Judi Dench.

“It’s definitely an exciting time for the film industry in Northern Ireland and the ordinary people across Northern Ireland are contributing to it on a regular basis,” says Carla.

After seven years catering to the sundry whims of casting, nothing much fazes these girls but occasionally even they can be lost for words.

“The most bizarre request we ever got was for a naked 80-year-old needed for season one of Game of Thrones and we were also asked to provide a real virgin called Mary for a BBC game show,” Emma reveals.

The virgin, it turns out, was for Lee Nelson’s Well Good show on BBC3 (no, I’ve never heard of it either) and sadly, in this instance, Extras NI had to admit defeat. An Irish virgin called Mary seemingly could not be found among its exhaustive list of extras and, if indeed there was one, this quality/skill was understandably absent from any biography details listed on the agency’s website.

“You never really know what you will be asked for in terms of extras, but we always tell people you have to leave any shyness at the door,” says Emma, also a former assistant director who got “roped into” the business by her brothers.

“You may get to meet your idol, you may even have a speaking part or be involved in some of the stunt training we provide, but there is a lot of waiting around and extras need buckets of patience.

“There is very little glamour at times. You have to be prepared to drink a lot of tea and hang around a lot in the wet and cold.”

Like many good stories, of course, serendipity often comes into play and, just as an extra can be picked out from the crowd for simply ‘looking the part’, the creation of the agency itself was also very much a matter of luck and chance.

As Siobhan recalls, it is almost always all about the timing. “Extras NI basically came about after I received a desperate call for extras for the 2007 film How About You, based on a short story by Irish novelist Maeve Binchy,” she explains.

“My daughter, Sam, was working as an assistant director on the film and needed to find around 250 extras very quickly for filming in Rostrevor in less than a week’s time.

“It was in the days of open casting and I put flyers through doors, posters on lamp posts, anything I could think of to get people interested. It was absolutely mad and it got me wondering why there wasn’t a proper agency to deal with that sort of thing. You shouldn’t have to round people up off the streets.”

With Carla, a friend of Sam's also working in the film industry (as well as being assistant director on TV’s much loved The Bill, she was an extras co-ordinator and involved in the Belfast-based film Closing the Ring with Holywood legend Shirley MacLaine), the pair decided the time was ripe to fill the gap.

In 2007 they set up their professional agency for extras and soon found the work began to flood in from both sides: film-makers who needed people

and people who needed to be someone else for a day or two.

Three years ago Emma, who has been “best friends” with Carla since childhood, joined up. Three ‘extras co-ordinators’ and an administrative member of staff now complete the team.

The dream is not quite realised, though, and there are a few script changes yet before the final frame is in place on the Extras NI storyboard.

“We have been here in Albertbridge Road for four years and although it is a big move up from where we started, our own dream is to be in the Titanic Quarter beside the film studios and in the heart of it all,” Siobhan confides. “We are looking at office property in that area and we have an 18 month plan, but it is very expensive to rent in that location — around £24,000 a year, excluding rates. There needs to be more incentives for small businesses to relocate there.” For now, though, Carla, Siobhan and Emma are happy to bask in a little reflected glory from the starry world in which they work — although while most of us might zoom in on the main leads while relaxing on the sofa with a good film, it is the extras who will be scrutinised most by this discerning trio.

“We always make a point of watching our productions,” Emma says, “and often we will get together and do so with a few glasses of wine.

“It gives us a great idea of how people look on screen and also sometimes makes certain extras stand out to us, people who wouldn’t necessarily have stood out from the crowd before.

“Often, our regular 10am meetings end up with a conversation about what we have watched recently and what we thought about the casting of the extras. Working in this business, you never watch TV the same way again.”

For details on the work of Extras NI, visit www.extrasni.com

James Edlin: aspiring actor

Aspiring actor James Edlin (35), from Carrickfergus, is currently working on the set of the fifth season of Game of Thrones at a secret location in Northern Ireland. Originally from Windsor, he is the father of a six-month-old baby boy and works in media production. As well as being a dedicated extra, his hobbies include vehicle restoration and surfing. He says:

My sister prompted me to join extras in Northern Ireland when I moved here six years ago. She had registered with them when they were just starting out and said it was fun, so I gave it a shot.

I was quite nervous on my first day on set, but as with all jobs, you listen, you learn, and then you ‘do’. Soon I was hooked and loved it.

I used to run nightclubs for a living and was looking for a career change. I hadn’t found anything that interested me until I saw the lights and cameras.

The industry offered me many diverse challenges and opportunities and the people are great. The results give your real job satisfaction.

There are too many productions to mention, but let’s say Dracula, Game of Thrones and High Rise stand out.

The experience on Game of Thrones even led to me working as an assistant director on High Rise.

People say being an extra can be boring, but if you are placed in a room for 12 hours with 30 other people, you will start a conversation with them.

You meet so many diverse and interesting people, some more entertaining than others. I recommend not bringing a book with you, as you will only alienate yourself.

There are days when you’re not wearing that much and it’s cold and wet and there are others where the set lights are blistering hot.

No two days are the same and I enjoy every minute. I don’t really have any celebrity heroes; I admire all the actors for what they do.”

Sarah MacKeever: artistic director

Belfast woman Sarah MacKeever (45) is mother to a teenage daughter and holds a Masters degree from the Bauhaus University in Weimer, Germany, where she received a First in Public Art and New Artistic Strategies. She is currently working on establishing herself as an artistic director of public art through vertical dance (above) and is due to start a work placement with the Strand Arts Centre in Belfast. She says:

I train regularly in my studio in Belfast on my aerial equipment as I would very much like to work in aerial and flying harness stunts in the film industry.

As an extra, the most recent production I have been involved in was Dracula Untold and I am looking forward to the charity screening in the Odyssey in October. I had been cast for a part which involved prosthetics which was great as I love being asked to to something different.

In one scene I was a corpse lying face-down on a stretcher so it’s not always glamorous work, but Luke Evans, who plays Dracula, came on set during breaks and asked the extras if they were enjoying themselves. It is little things like this which make the long days feel worthwhile.

One of the most challenging things I ever had to do was make a scream sound just right. I know it sounds simple, but the director wanted a certain pitch, tone and facial expression. There is a lot more to a scream than you would

think. Hair and make-up also take on entirely new meanings. Your hair can get volumised, greased down, coloured or extended and often in make-up, you can end up with bags under your eyes or a lady moustache.

Definitely one of the best moments in filming is when you hear ‘It’s a wrap!’ A working day can be up to 12 hours long and you need to be consistently attentive.

I have been on set where the whole production crew and extras all clap and cheer knowing a good day’s work on schedule has been completed. The fact it was a team effort is very rewarding.”

Laurence Doherty: IT worker

Laurence Doherty (44) is from Greenisland, near Carrickfergus, and is married with three children. He works part-time from home for software development company Fujitsu and has been an extra since 2002. He was one of the first people to join Extras NI when it formed in 2007 and to date has taken part in around 20 films and 40 television programmes. He says:

I first became interested in getting involved in the film industry after watching a special feature on Planet of the Apes on a DVD. It showed extras being trained how to walk like apes. They had to practise by walking like that all day around the town; I was fascinated.

My first job was for a BBC trailer for the World Indoor Bowling Championships which led to an appearance on Give My Head Peace, which was pretty cool.

I have been lucky to get a few speaking parts and I have appeared in Miss Conception and Closing the Ring.

When I joined Extras NI, I became involved in Game of Thrones and I have been an extra on BBC dramas Line of Duty and The Fall. Just recently I worked on the set of Dracula Untold, which is being released next month.

One of the strangest things I ever had to do was try to dance an Irish jig in temperatures of minus-10 in a car park outside a pub in Ballynahinch. It was for sci-fi movie The Grabbers, with the singer and actress Bronagh Gallagher, and it was a lot of fun.

The story revolved around an attack on a small Irish village by aliens believed to be allergic to alcohol and my role consisted of looking drunk during a pub ‘lock-in’.

Nice work if you can get it!

As an extra you need to be reliable, punctual and available. You also need to be able to listen and take direction.

I think it is a very exciting time for extras because more filmmakers now want to use real people and utilise the skills they already have so the action on screen looks real.”

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