An extra opinion: behind-the-scenes to find out what goes into being an extra on a big budget film

Being an extra sounds like a great job – you get to mingle with the stars, appear on screen and get paid for dressing up in wacky costumes, but how is it really for those who are chosen to work around the big names on sets?

Adnan Kusybi
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With a steady stream of Hollywood and Bollywood movies choosing to shoot in the UAE in recent years, there has been a growing need for extras to populate scenes, man military bases or play the alien crowds milling around a distant space station.

It sounds like a great job – you get to mingle with the stars, appear on screen and get paid for dressing up in wacky costumes, but how is it really for those who are chosen to work around the big names on set on films like War Machine, Star Trek, Mission Impossible and most recently Twisted Blues.

Abdul Whahab was cast as an Afghan translator in the recently released Brad Pitt flick War Machine – ironic as he hadn't initially even planned on auditioning and was actually working as a translator at the auditions for casting company Miranda Davidson Studios when the casting director decided he was the man for the job.

Whahab, a first-time actor, and one of the 2,000 extras cast, was clearly sold on the glitz of the occasion.

“I can’t thank Miranda Davidson Studios enough for making one of my dreams come true, for being in a Hollywood movie,” he says.

“Brad Pitt was an amazing guy. You’d never know he was a big star, he just acts like a normal person and treats you the same way. He was really funny and friendly. I feel famous now - ever since the trailer came out, I’ve had people coming up to me saying ‘is that you?’ It’s totally like a dream, because nobody ever thought I would be in a Hollywood movie.”

Despite the perceived glamour of it, it wasn't all fun and games on the War Machine set.

"The shoot was a lot more than I expected in terms of how much work goes into a production," says Tony Pequeno, a former American marine who plays a soldier in the Netflix satire. He spent five days on set, and made it into the movie's trailer.

"You just don't realise when you watch a movie, just how many people are there on set involved in putting a scene together . I came out with a whole new appreciation for just how much work goes into making a film."

Both Pequeno and Whahab were acting debutants when filming began, but how do more experienced local actors find the extras scene?

Dubai resident Adnan Kusybi has worked on television commercials for the likes of Honda and Vimto, and was also one of the 1,000 extras to take part in 2015’s Star Trek shoot in the city.

He has been taking extra work since 2006, and more recently, began diversifying, adding speaking and larger roles to his acting CV.

"I get emails every day, there's plenty of work out there, so if it's something you want to do, I'd definitely say go for it," he says. "Sure Dubai isn't up there with LA, but there is a lot going on, a lot of movies coming in, and plenty of commercials and work for events or promotions."

Kusybi admits there are pros and cons to the job, so it is important for contenders to be realistic.

“On one side, I love it because there’s no routine. It’s always something different. One day you’re a father, the next a son, the next a racing driver, and you're always meeting new people. On the downside, there’s the 6 am call times, then camera and lights have to be set up and they do screen tests and adjust all these small details. There’s an awful lot of waiting time.”

Jamal H Iqbal will be familiar to fans of locally produced cinema – he's appeared in several of the UAE's highest profile productions including Sea Shadow, The Journey and Abood Kandaishan.

“I’d say there isn’t really an extras scene, more just ad hoc call-outs when a big production comes in,” he notes.

He also points out a perceived lack of professionalism that often goes along with the job.

“There’s only really three or four casting agencies that I would really consider genuine, but there’s probably 4,000 ‘casting agents’,” he says. “Too many don’t even know what casting really is. You’ll get ‘I need five European girls' or 'two Mediterranean looking men’. That’s not casting. If a director wants an extra on a set, unless it’s just some big crowd scene, there’s a very specific need for them to be there.”

Iqbal has a stoically honest approach to the whole notion of extra work: "Don't tell me I'm going to achieve fame and dance with Shah Rukh Khan and the world will know my name, I've been through that. Just tell me here's a chance to make a buck for a day's work and that day's work is being an extra, like they do in the rest of the world."

Iqbal's position is shared by acting coach and casting agent Alex Broun.

"Get the stars out of your eyes and be realistic about how a film set works. No one will turn up on set and whisk you off to Hollywood."

Broun also has some helpful tips for aspiring actors embarking on the extras route.

"Get in touch with casting agencies and production companies, by all means, but do it professionally – ‘Hello, here’s my photo, measurements, experience'. Don’t bombard them with phone calls and emails. Enthusiasm alone isn’t enough. You need professionalism, and not to come across as a nutcase who they don’t want on set or at auditions."