My (not-so) brilliant career (as a film extra)

March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

We all have lists of things we’d like to do once in a lifetime, and one of the more unusual items on mine is being an extra in a period film. Why? Well, I have a serious weakness for period films (and, let’s be honest, period costume), and as I haven’t a shred of acting ability (oh… wait, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people) it is the only way I’m ever likely to be part of the making of one.

So when, last week, I stumbled across a call for extras for a banquet scene to be filmed in Ely Cathedral for the upcoming version of Macbeth, I was pinching myself with delighted disbelief. Here was a film that ticked every conceivable box on my wish list.Ely_Cathedral_down_the_Nave

Set in one of the most awe-inspiring Gothic edifices on this fair isle? Check.


Shakespeare (and one of my favourite plays at that)? Check.

medieval costume

Medieval setting (important for practical as well as aesthetic reasons – no corsetry or towering wigs)? Check.


…oh yes, and the small matter of Macbeth being played by none other than Michael Fassbender? Check!

(In fairness I should also note that Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth, but… sorry Marion, you do happen to be one of my absolute favourite actresses, but I don’t have a massive crush on you.)

So without further ado, I clicked the link to the casting company’s website and that’s where things started to go downhill, fast. They wanted Caucasian men and women between the ages of 16-80 (okay, so far so good), and then I came to the fatal words: ‘Women should have very long hair as it will be worn in plaits.’

My hair, no matter how you look at it, could never be considered ‘very long’. In its natural state (curly) it’s shoulder-length. Straighten it and it falls to the middle of my back. I occasionally wear it in a single plait that only just makes it round my head. In short, about as far as imaginable from those dramatic knee-length tresses Ellen Terry sports in Sargent’s portrait of her as Lady Macbeth. Ellen_Terry_as_Lady_Macbeth

I weighed up my options. A wig? (Expensive, hideous and after all, the casting agents were asking for a headshot with the application, so unlikely to fool them.) Pouring Miracle-Grow on my head and waiting ten seconds for luxuriant Rapunzel-like growth? (Only works in cartoons.) Sitting in a corner and railing at the injustice of the casting requirements, as men are merely required to have full beards, which even a clean-shaven one can generally achieve in a few weeks? (Pointless.) Or…

What about extensions? They worked for David Tennant, after all (albeit not very flatteringly) so why not me?

I checked the website of my hairdresser’s salon. They didn’t do them. Nor did the posh salon round the corner from work, nor any of the more upmarket chains. Even Charles Worthington, which proudly proclaimed its status as the official salon of the BAFTAs, didn’t do them. Clearly it was a job for a specialist.

One Google search later I landed on Hair Extensions by Tatiana. This was when I began to realise that the world of hair extensions is a very alarming place indeed. Apparently the most desirable type of extension is ‘Russian Virgin’. Tatiana boasted of ‘personally sourcing’ the hair from a number of villages in deepest rural Russia. I had visions of a place on the steppes where the world of The Rite of Spring still exists, where every year the village elders sacrifice a chosen maiden by making her dance herself to death and then… sell her hair to the mysterious Tatiana.

The Rite of Spring

Do I really want that on my head? I think you can guess the answer to that.

Even putting my overactive imagination aside (the other, cheaper, option was ‘European Virgin’, which, sans the Rite of Spring associations, somehow sounded slightly less gruesome), there was also the matter of the cost. All right, it’s an incredibly laborious and finicky undertaking – you are, after all, asking someone to glue a strand of hair to each of yours, one at a time – but the least expensive option for a full head of extensions was nearly £700.

I found myself imagining the conversation I would have with my landlord.


Me: I’m very sorry sir, but I can’t pay my rent this month. I had to put the money toward getting hair extensions so that I could be an extra in Macbeth.

Him: ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.* Don’t worry about the money. Your devotion to our national poet is far more important.

More likely:

Him: Out, damned tenant! Out, I say! (Aside) Now I can finally raise the rent…

…Right, back to the drawing board. How about DIY hair extensions? I could ring up my hairdresser, ask him to save all his cuttings, and then attempt to stick them on myself. That sounds like a fine plan. I might end up looking like something the cat dragged in, but given that most people in the UK associate the Middle Ages with plague, rain, mud and potatoes** I should look period-appropriate.

This hurdle cleared, the only other caveat is that, as shooting starts at 6 am, you should either live in Ely or have your own transport. I don’t live in Ely, I don’t have a car (more to the point, I belong to that bizarre and extremely rare subspecies, the American who doesn’t know how to drive) and the first train from London to Ely would get me there too late.

I suppose I could… I don’t know, get there the night before and sleep in the cathedral? That would be fine as long as the caretaker or a member of the film crew didn’t stumble across me, curled up in a corner under my coat, with my homemade hair extensions, looking, no doubt, even madder than Lady Macbeth. (Or maybe I’d be mistaken for one of the witches.)

At this point I have to admit that I’m insane to be considering doing any of the above, especially given that 1. I’m not even guaranteed to be selected and 2. even then, chances are that the shots I’d be in wouldn’t make the final cut.

My career as a film extra is over before it even began. And I’m okay with that. I’m sure I’ll feel a little wistful when I eventually watch Macbeth, but as its protagonist learns (the very hard way), sometimes what you want isn’t worth the sacrifice it requires.

I’ll still keep an eye out for period films in need of extras, though… ones that take place after 1800!

*Yes, I know that’s Hamlet!

**The results of a survey conducted by the V&A during the planning stages of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Let’s not dwell too long on the fact that potatoes were unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages…


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