They are the unsung heroes of soaps and films but spend hours hanging around, bored, earn only a very modest income and are never in the spotlight.
So what is it like to be an extra on one of this country’s best loved soaps, Emmerdale? Michael O’Brien reveals all.
Life as a film and soap extra may not seem the most glamorous of occupations but Michael O’Brien has made something of a career out of it over the years.
The first time he did it was over 19 years ago in the south of France filming the 1997 American action comedy film Double Team starring Jean Claude Van Damme.
More recently he has appeared in non-speaking roles on Emmerdale, one of the country’s most-watched soaps with an audience of millions. And he’s got some excellent practical advice for anyone wanting to follow in his footsteps.
But getting started didn’t go to plan when the agency he applied to failed to reply for six months.
He asked a friend of the agency’s boss to ask why and was told the photograph he had enclosed was “unusable”.
It was of such poor quality it had been thrown straight in the bin.
Fortunately, one of his pals is news photographer, Asadour Guzelian, who immediately marched him up to Bradford Cathedral and gave him a rather more professional introduction.
But even when he gets parts the joy is not always long lasting.
Michael told me about the time his agent rang triumphantly with news that he had a role in Emmerdale for him.
“What is it?” he asked. “Oh, they want you to play a resident in a care home” she replied. “What?!” he expostulated, “how old did the Emmerdale casting directors think I looked on the photographs I’d provided for them?”
“In fairness”, the agent added, in mitigation, “they did say they wanted a younger-looking resident of a care home”. As Michael said: “As backhanded compliments go, it was up there with the best of them.”
His storyline involved Ashley Thomas, the much-loved vicar of St. Mary’s church in Emmerdale, who is slipping into dementia. The shoot was taking place in a Harrogate care home.
He was given precise instructions and told to take two changes of clothing with him, nothing too garish or woolly, and after a brief examination, the costume director gave him the nod.
Tucking into his full English breakfast, he had to stuff his black pudding, sausages and bacon into a slice of bread to eat later as a clipboard carrying woman shouted: “three minutes, guys,” before being corralled to the care home 100 yards away from the catering van.
Inside the building he and the other actors were ushered into a tiny side-room where he was quizzed on his singing abilities.
Michael said: “I told her ‘very badly’. I replied truthfully yet before I knew it she was leading three of us to a large room where a pianist was poised at a piano. She handed us a song sheet containing a Debbie Harry song.
“‘Just sing-along guys - and try to follow the music’ she said. Ashley appeared, the pianist struck up a chord and the director shouted action.
“Before we knew it we were singing along as the wild-eyed, dementia-ridden vicar bounced deliriously along in rhythm to us. As he dances his screen wife appears at the door, he sees her approach, we fade down the song and they embrace.
“‘Cut’ shouted the director ‘well done everybody’ he then looked our way and said: ‘great singing’.
“Of course it wasn’t quite that simple, extra work never is. In fact the scene took all day to film but that’s what an extra does, hang around all day in poky rooms before being plucked into action at a moment’s notice.
“But I wasn’t complaining. As well as a good breakfast we had a fine lunch too, and I earned £100 for the day’s work."
Other classic episodes he has appeared in include one memorable occasion with one of the soap’s best-known characters, Jack Sugden, the ruddy faced stalwart of Emmerdale for over 25 years.
Michael said: “The episode was to be filmed in a low security prison outside Leeds where Jack had been sent for the usual soap reasons (false imprisonment, industrial espionage, etc), and he was having a torrid time of it after coming under the unwelcome attention of the prison bully.
“All we had to do as extras was to stand in the background as Jack sent him sprawling with a perfectly executed right hook.”
So, what’s his advice for anyone wanting to become an extra? “Colossal amounts of patience, availability at short notice, a sense of humour and the ability not to take yourself too seriously.
“And try to get speaking parts even if it’s only the odd line. Your pay goes up twice the amount for that.”