Another busy day at Central Casting

March 10, 1992|By Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos,Los Angeles Times

AKRON, OHIO — HOLLYWOOD Helen Shelley of Los Angeles arrives with color photographs showing her holding a can of Pedigree dog food. "Darling, I know nothing about acting," says the retired schoolteacher. But her dream, she explains, is to one day perform in a commercial.

Janet Nicholson of Calabasas, Calif., arrives in a sequined evening gown. She walks slowly around the room, turning this way and that, giving the casting directors the opportunity to see how she looks in formal attire. "You get known for your wardrobe," she says.

Welcome to visiting day at Central Casting.

Yes, there really is a Central Casting. Located on the fifth floor of a Burbank office building, the company provides up to 1,000 extras a day to films, television shows and commercials.

Founded by the major studios in 1925 to supply their movies with background players or "atmosphere," the company has been privately owned since 1976. Although there are several dozen such companies in town, none has a more legendary name.

And it is here that twice each week a little-known Hollywood ritual is played out. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, dozens of union extras drop by "Central," as they call it, to work the room. Non-union extras visit Central's sister company, Cenex, next door during different hours.

At Central, the extras stop to talk with each of the 11 casting directors to show off their latest look and keep the casting directors up-to-date on their wardrobes. In the world of extras, how you dress is often as important as what you look like.

"People come up here to say hello and try to be remembered," said senior casting director Franklyn Warren. "You don't just remember a face. You have to put something with it. ... Either they have a certain look, a certain skill or they're from a certain place. It's an association that helps you remember who they are."

In Mr. Warren's mind swirl the names and appearances of some 2,000 extras. After 11 years, he said he has come to know most of the union extras who work regularly in town. "I know bikers, I know cowboys, I know gorgeous ladies, I know big hulking guys, I know motorcycle specialists, I know a guy who walks on stilts," Mr. Warren said. "I know all of that in my head."

Some actors resent having to parade in such fashion, but believe it is the only way they can get the casting directors to notice them. "The chances are you won't get consideration until they associate your name with a face," said one male extra, who asked not to be identified. "You go up and it's mostly male. They all look up and if it's not a pretty woman walking through the door, they usually look back down at their desk. So, it's a little tough."

For extras, this is where the hustle begins. It is a daily grind far removed from the glamour of Hollywood. The lowest paid of the industry's actors, they recently were thrust into controversy when the Screen Actors Guild announced that it wanted to represent them in bargaining talks with studios next year. The studios, which oppose the move, have said that they will shut down new productions if the issue is not resolved soon.

Each day by 7 a.m., the extras have already phoned Central to see if there are any "rush" calls for parts that day. If not, they will call back by 10 and continue calling -- sometimes as often as every 20 minutes -- to see if there are any jobs for the following day. Some extras make the calls themselves, but many pay $50 a month to services that do the phoning for them.

The calls come in so fast and furious that an extra only has time to utter his name. The casting director knows instantly many who call and what they look like, but if the name does not ring a bell, the director can call up the actor's photographic image on a computer screen by typing in his or her Social Security number.

At times, Central resembles a trading floor with the casting directors shouting out the names of extras to other casting directors seated in the room. "Can anybody use Bill ...?" "Does anybody need Susan ...?"

If there is no response, the extras hang up and call back later -- if they can get through. There is a recording they can dial that is updated throughout the day. The casting directors use it when they need people for hard-to-fill parts or if producers need someone who has a specific prop.

One recent recording sought extras who had either "brand new Mercedeses or brand new Jags, Ferraris, Lamborghinis, DeLoreans, new 7-series BMWs" or other expensive cars. "Don't call me with older Mercedeses or Cadillacs, stuff like that," the casting director warned.

Another call went out for "Caucasian or Asian men in their 30s or very early 40s with long sideburns -- that means sideburns down toward the end of [your] ears -- who are very upscale."

Still another casting call went out for a "Caucasian lady, very upscale, Beverly Hills-type in her 40s, 50s or 60s with her own dog." The dog should be one that is typically found in Beverly Hills, the casting director said, such as a full-size poodle or a chow chow. He said a golden retriever just wouldn't do.

Extras who have the right car or right wardrobe can receive extra pay. Union extras earn a base salary of $86.32 a day, while non-union scale is only $40. But bonuses of $27 a day are paid for average cars and as much as $100 a day for luxury models.

"I have a '90 Cadillac and an '86 Oldsmobile," said Joyce Goldman, a charter member of the Screen Extras Guild, who has appeared as a courtroom sketch artist on the television series "L.A. Law." "I have a complete wardrobe, right down to the formals, furs, jewelry, everything," she added.

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