With The Crown recently winning the Golden Globe award for best TV Drama, I couldn’t help but start a dialogue with my friend Suzy who was an extra in Netflix’s popular new series. I admit I devoured the 10 episodes in about a week. Grabbing the interest of history enthusiasts and anglophiles everywhere, The Crown dramatizes the early reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
As you will see, Suzy has worked on film sets with other famous actors as well. But first, let’s start off with The Crown…
What was it like to be a part of The Crown?
The filming was done over a year ago, so it’s fun to see it all come together now. While the filming was happening, I had no way of knowing what the outcome of the show would be. I think the filming is exceptional and really captures the moment. I’m so happy to have been a minuscule part of the show.
The settings seem so real. Do they film The Crown at Buckingham Palace, or is it a set? Did the actors stay in character when the cameras were off?
My scenes were filmed at a production studio outside London. The set was designed to look like Downing Street in the 1940s. On the studio grounds, I saw the gates of Buckingham Palace, so the scenes where the cars drive up to the Palace must have been filmed there. I’m not sure about the other scenes.
I didn’t film with the actors who played the Queen or Prince Philip. But John Lithgow didn’t stay in character as Winston Churchill during the breaks. It was funny to hear him slip back into his American accent when the cameras were off. The other actors came out of character during breaks as well.
What can you tell us about your costumes and makeup?
Two maid costumes were made just for me! The attention to detail was outstanding. It was impressive how much care went into a costume which appeared on camera for a matter of seconds.
Costume designers created clothing based on measurements received from the casting agency. To be completely authentic, I even wore a petticoat slip under the dresses as women would have done in that time period. They even checked my bra because bras were different in the 1940s. Luckily, I convinced them to allow me to wear my own, but they had a selection of bras just in case.
The makeup artists work as freelancers and supply their own cosmetics. They carried huge bags or holsters with the essentials. The makeup was as thickly applied as it would have been in a theater production.
For The Crown, a makeup artist applied red lipstick on me. The supervisor requested she remove it because a maid would never have had such red lips.
How did you initially become an extra?
Several years ago while living in London, I heard that a film production company was looking for Americans to be in a movie. It sounded fun and interesting, so I signed up with the casting agency. They took photos and measurements. Although I was entered into their database, I didn’t hear from them until two years later for the film The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.
Typically, the production company asks the casting agency to fill a certain number of roles. Then the agency scans portfolios on file to see who fits the description. They need people of all shapes, sizes, ages, and talents. I had no experience whatsoever.
For me, the selection process has been simple. I receive an email from the agency asking if I’m available on certain dates. You must commit to a 12-hour day.
Does it pay well?
Unfortunately, no. Extras without lines or direction from the Director are paid a minimum hourly rate and receive a travel stipend. With some lines or direction, the rate is a bit higher. Extras are paid for costume fittings and time on the set.
The agency takes a cut on what you earn, and of course, you pay taxes on earnings as well. To be honest, I often paid my babysitter more than what I took home. One perk, however, was a terrific lunch and plenty of tea while waiting around. There’s a lot of waiting around.
I don’t think one could make a career out of being an extra but for some extra cash and a good learning experience, it’s great. I loved chatting to the other extras and finding out how they got there. Some were retired or worked part-time, which filled their spare time nicely. I had worked with several of them on different films, so there is a friendly camaraderie on sets.
What does a typical day look like?
I appear for a costume fitting a few weeks before filming.
On filming days, I typically arrive by 7-7:30 am and check in with an assistant. Then I enter a large trailer or room for hair and makeup. They often have inspirational photos displayed of makeup and hairstyles typical of the era. Directors are very specific on how the cast looks, even the extras.
I’m in costume by 10:30 am. For my costume in The Iron Lady, they fussed for an hour finding the right bonnet for me. Filming begins in the afternoon. Makeup artists constantly touch up, brush and spray actors during every break in filming (which is often). We finish around 7 pm or later – depending on when the director calls it a day.
For Diana, I arrived at 6 pm for filming on a cold October night. I went home at 4 am. The scene was filmed outside, and I was scantily dressed as a prostitute. I won’t soon forget that cold and tiring day.
Being an extra isn’t glamorous, and conditions on the set are typically uncomfortable. Often there is no place for extras to sit; studios can be unheated or filming is done outside. Extras may be last to eat lunch as the crew has the right to cut the line. To pass the time, I have access to a book or phone hidden in a costume pocket. And I bring a pair of comfy shoes that I wear while waiting on the set.
What are your most memorable moments?
I’m probably the only person who can claim that Meryl Streep served her ice cream! She was playing Margaret Thatcher and handed me a soft serve ice cream while drumming up political support in the factory. She stayed in character the entire time – the way she moved and spoke never changed even when the cameras were off.
Another funny story is when I was dressed as a prostitute for Diana, I had to stand somewhat alone on a street corner in London where we were filming. A local resident walked by and looked horrified as he thought I was actually “working” on his street. When he turned the corner, he saw the camera crew and clearly felt relieved his street hadn’t turned into “that kind of neighborhood”. It was hysterical.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be an extra?
There are lots of casting agencies with different specialties. Contact them to learn how to register. If you want to work often, sign up with a few agencies. You will need professional photos, which must be updated every 2 years. Visible tattoos are not allowed. Hair cannot have highlights, harsh red or black dyes, or dark roots with bleached hair. Lastly, be patient, cooperative and on time.
What is your takeaway from the whole experience as an extra?
I’m fascinated by the production of films. The number of people required to do a 5-second scene is unbelievable. Everything in a production studio has to be sourced and placed just so.
Each bowl on a counter and every light fixture on the wall are strategic in creating the scene the director wants to film. There’s so much behind all the coordination, preparation, planning, writing, staging, prop making, costume design, actors, and extras.
I find it so interesting to see how it all comes together for public consumption. There’s no way to know if a film will be a hit (The Iron Lady, The Crown) or a flop (Diana). The amount of work is the same.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Suzy!
(Photos 2-6 provided by Suzy)
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