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'It was really tough at the start, but after Game of Thrones, things just kept on getting bigger'

 

By Donna Deeney

Extras Dept co-founder Siobhan Allan thought she had a nice sideline job... then HBO came calling.

Q. You founded The Extras Dept, formerly called Extras NI, 10 years ago, before Northern Ireland was a popular film and TV location. Why did you think it was a good business opportunity?

A. I didn't know anything about the industry. My daughter, Emma, did her degree in film and media and had just got a job working on a Maeve Binchy adaptation. She came home one Friday night at the end of December 2006 and said, "I have to find 250 extras".

I said, "Surely there must be an agency?", but she said there wasn't, so I thought I would set one up because I was looking for something new to do.

Emma said that if I was going to do so, I must meet this girl, Carla Stronge, who did a degree in film and media. She became my business partner.

When we opened in March 2007, we had our first production. Then that big production with Bill Murray - City of Ember - came and it just has never stopped to this day.

Q. Building up contacts in the industry must have been essential. How did you do that?

A. The first thing we did was set up open castings in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast, so we could start building up our database.

At the end of our first year I think we had around 900 people. With those 900 people we were able to go to production companies and introduce ourselves as an extras agency and find out what was coming.

Northern Ireland Screen were a great help to us. If a production approached them about work, they were very good about flying the flag for us.

Q. And what was it like back in those early days?

A. It was really, really tough. A production would come and say, for example, that they needed big bulky guys over six foot, so we would go out to all the gyms and ask the managers if we could find out about people who were interested in being extras.

Carla would be out on the streets of Belfast with a camera, taking people's photographs, getting their phone numbers and getting these into files so that when someone was looking for something like a street scene of old and young people, she would go through the files and ring the people.

There wasn't a massive demand at that stage, but it was starting to grow.

Carla and I were on our own, working around 15 hours a day, preparing people for set, making sure they knew the protocol, and how to behave and then making sure they were looked after.

A. few times in those early days I thought, "This isn't what I thought it was going to be". I thought I could have done it as a wee part-time job, but the whole thing just kept growing and growing.

Q. Was there one specific project that really set you on your way?

A. The pilot for Games of Thrones was big. They asked us to do that in our second year. It was pretty big that HBO, one of the biggest production firms in America, was leaving the US for the first time and coming to Northern Ireland, and we got that opportunity. Over those 14 weeks, we had to make sure we did everything well. If they asked us for six dwarfs and one amputee, we always managed to get what they were looking for, even if it seemed impossible.

Q. You have supplied extras to all the major TV and film productions filmed here. Can you tell me a little more about that?

A. The logistics of supplying extras now is very different from what it was in the early days. Last year, we had seven productions all running at the one time, for example, Game of Thrones series seven, Let It Ride, Line of Duty, Millie Inbetween and My Mother and Other Strangers.

We also work on children's productions and commercials, but we have an amazing team now working for us.

We have five permanent staff and another seven who come in on a temporary basis, which could be anything from a couple of months to six months or longer.

Being an extras co-ordinator is not an easy job - it takes quite a bit of training. We have been working with Northern Ireland Screen on their training programme for the past three years, and we have employed someone from their training programme for each of those three years.

Q. What about you? Do have a background in the arts?

A. Absolutely not. When I came up with the idea of Extras NI, I never could have done it without Carla, and she couldn't have done it without me. We both recognise that.

I have learned a lot during the past 10 years, but I have no background in the arts.

I didn't enjoy school at all. I went to Foyle (College) and I remembering sitting in my physics and chemistry classes thinking, "Why am I here? I am never going to do this." Eventually, I was allowed to leave and go to Clondermot, which was a secondary school, because I wanted to do secretarial work, which is what I did end up doing initially. But then I didn't like that either.

When I left, I left with just the bare minimum and started working in administration for a local company.

I always knew from an early age that I wanted to work for myself. I wasn't very good at doing what I was told, so I thought that if I worked for myself, I wouldn't have to do what I was told - I could do what I wanted.

Really, that and a little bit of luck, which I am a great believer in, was the background to how Carla and I got together.

Q. For anyone who is wondering, how do you become an extra, and can anyone do it?

A. At this stage, I would say go to our website at theextrasdept.com, where you can put in all your details.

The main thing I would say to people is be honest and tell us the truth about your height and size, because quite often we will be fitting people into uniforms that are given to us.

It will only backfire on the person if they are not honest.

These days, it is also necessary to attach photographic ID and then send everything to us.

A good clear photograph from the knee up is needed. So long as everything is in order, that's it.

Q. What would you say are the key qualities needed to be an extra?

A. For a start, anyone can be an extra so long as they are between two and 90 years of age.

The key qualities are being reliable and flexible and being able to keep to the rules.

We always remind people of the golden rules of not taking your phone onto set and not approaching the actors. If they approach you, that's fine.

With regards to availability, if people can't do a specific job, it's not a black mark against them because, of course, we realise people may not be free at short notice.

We have a lot of self-employed and retired people on our books, and they are flexible and reliable.

Q. Is there a living to be made that would pay the mortgage?

A. No. We always tell people, "Don't give up your full-time job", but some of our extras also get paid very well. It depends on continuity.

Last year, our average was £94 per day, and some people did quite a lot of days. We never guarantee work, but it isn't going to pay the mortgage. It might pay it for one month, but it won't pay it for the next three.

Q. Do extras ever go on to get speaking or starring roles? And is this a good way into the industry?

A. Again, it is a very small minority that will happen to, but I always tell people to remember that Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger and Ben Affleck were all extras. The first time that any of them walked onto a film set was as an extra, so it can happen, but the chances are very small.

We have had extras that have been upgraded to feature roles. We also have an extra that was cast in Line of Duty and took part in a big shoot-out scene, so it can happen.

It is a great opportunity for people who are interested in working in the industry as crew to get a good insight into the different departments and how it all works.

Q. You have just marked the 10th anniversary of The Extras Dept. What are your plans for the company the next 10 years? Do you think you will set up another business?

A. I would like to think that I will still be involved with extras. Our biggest step as a company, which is now under way, is to move into Dublin. We already have 2,000 extras on our books in the city, but we would still like to get some more.

Q. Have you ever been in front of the camera yourself?

A. No, never. I like to stay on my side of the camera and I have no inclination at all to go in front of it, although my family have been.

My husband was in Game of Thrones because it is something he loves to be able to say.

He decided he wanted to be a cop too, but I had to tell him that he couldn't because the girls in the office said he was too old.

Q. Your late mother, Marlene Jefferson, who passed away just two years ago, has her own claim to fame since she was the first female mayor of Derry. What was it like for you growing up in the city with a famous mother?

A. I have to say that so much of it just went over my head. I didn't appreciate what my mother really did until I looked back.

In 1972, she made BBC headline news - it was actually reported all over the world that she had topped the poll in the Bogside.

Catholics and Protestants voted her in, but a big vote that took her into council was the Catholic vote, and that in itself in those days was amazing.

I grew up in the heart of the town with my best friend, who was also called Siobhan, and we planned how I was going to go to Mass with her and she would come to Sunday School with me. This was at the height of the Troubles.

I probably didn't appreciate how amazing my mum was until I started to mature and do things, but she was always there with good advice. She was pretty inspirational. Growing up with her, people would say to me, "Oh, is Marlene your mum?"

Q. What did she think of you setting up The Extras Dept? Was she proud of you?

A. This is my third business. The first business I set up was in retail when I was 25. I did that until I was 33, and then I set up my IT business, which I did for 10 years.

When I said to my mum I was fed up doing the IT and was setting up the extras business, she just asked me how I was going to go about it. I told her, "Oh it is going to be really easy, I am going to get all these people on my books and it is going to be wonderful" - in ignorance of the reality.

My mum was very supportive, as she was to all of her children. She never would knock you or put you down for anything.

She was very proud, but she would always tell me you should be telling your story, that more people should know what you are doing. She would be delighted with this.

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