Extra Credit

Megan Wennberg looks at the life of a background performer. looks at the life of a background performer.

In a vast white room lit by hundreds of metres of bright white fluorescent lights, Alvena Poole waits. She sits at one of ten folding tables set in the middle sixth of the room, closest to the door. Empty white walls, a towering white ceiling and floors tiled in dirty white linoleum surround her. The room has an other-worldly sense of emptiness. It would make a great background in a movie.

But until its big break, the room plays home to a number of background performers, like Poole, who are waiting for their turn in front of the camera. Poole, along with about 100 other background performers (don’t call them “extras” — “we prefer ‘background performer,’” says Poole), will appear in Afterdark productions’ first TV movie, A Bug and a Bag of Weed, currently shooting in the South Centre mall in Spryfield.

The film is a “fish out of water” comedy about three computer store salesmen and their attempt to sell a hockey bag full of weed. Poole plays a customer looking to buy a computer. Her role involves little more than walking, breathing and pretending to browse, and with 12 years experience as a background performer, Poole has perfected the art of realistically filling space without distracting from the main action.

Poole has also perfected the art of waiting. Most of a background performer’s day is spent off set, mingling with other performers and crew and nibbling from the craft table, while waiting to be called on set. “It’s hurry up and wait,” says Poole. “It’s like running to the airport.” But she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Wearing dark green stretch pants, thick mauve lipstick and a yellow fleece pull-over with a watering can and flowers on the front, Poole retired from the anatomical pathology department at the QEII several years ago, but says acting is her first love.

“You let it go when you’re raising your children,” says Poole, “and then after they’re gone and settled you think OK— it’s time — it’s like picking up your knitting needles that you don’t have time to do. And then you’ve got time on your hands, so you take your one desire that you’ve always had. I can’t think of a better thing to do than to be an extra, other than having one of the top roles.”

Poole’s onscreen husband Bill Mont shares her passion, and is eager to talk about his experiences on such productions as Titanic, The Hanging Garden, Love and Death on Long Island and Trailer Park Boys. As an extra, “you never know when you’re going to get done, what you’re going to get into, or how to dress,” says Mont. “It’s got to be a love of the business. It’s not big money. It’s the fun of it.”

When he’s not pretending to buy computers, Mont runs the local flea markets, and is involved in the auction and real estate businesses. His goal, however, is to be a writer and movie producer.

Big-screen aspirations are common among extras, whether it’s to speak (“hello, excuse me, no thanks, pass the salt”) or write, direct, shoot and produce. Dreams occasionally come true, and Bug and a Bag of Weed is home to a number of successful trajectories from extra to crew, including Kelly Bodorik (background casting) and Lisa Cail (key makeup), both of whom began their careers as background performers.

“I’d say you’re damn lucky to be able to get out around here rather than going to Hollywood and saying ‘here I am,’” says Mont. “It’s an excellent opportunity for somebody who wants to get into the television or movie business.”

The best way to break onto the extra scene is by becoming a member of Filmworks, the local background performers’ database (filmworks.ns.ca), which promises to put you “in the right place at the right time 24/7.”

“Keep calling them up,” says Mont. “And you’ll get out. Unless you’re an awful dog, and even then there’s a place for everybody — look-a-likes, real ugly people, whatever.”