It's 7am and still very black outside. In the darkness, the outline of white rectangles can be seen. Approaching someone – anyone, I ask for my contact “Sarah” and I'm pointed to a red double decker bus parked beyond the trailers. Inside it is decked out with chairs and tables, all lit-up and a generator runs a large portable heater. I'm grateful for its presence. Today is going to involve a lot of waiting around and it's cold out there.
I've been an “extra” once before in Mumbai, purposefully milling around a spot I'd heard casting agents often recruit from. Being in a Bollywood film seemed the perfect way to round-off my days in Mumbai and almost like one of the city's must-do activities. Today I'm no longer an extra, I'm an “SA” (Supporting Actor) and part of a soon to be released TV series, rather than a low-budget film. Like in Mumbai, my day begins with a hearty breakfast provided by the company. Us lowly SAs are permitted to be served once all other cast members and crew are tucking in.
Back in the bus with a plateful of cooked breakfast, the SAs huddle together, bonding in preparation for the long day ahead. We're a mixed bunch, including a professional self-employed singer, a cheerleader for Rhinos, an entrepreneur with three businesses and a mother with her aspiring actress daughter. I'm looking out for some of the characters I've been told about by the friend who recommended the casting agency to me – the ex-comedian who is now retired and fires out one liners, the two elderly gossiping women who decided to do TV extra work rather than paying for the meal they'd meet up for once a week...
Few are here for the money (for a twelve hour day once the agency has taken their cut, the pay works out at below minimum wage) and some have travelled far. Knowing how little remuneration I can expect, I'm amazed the first talking point is where people have travelled from. I assume everyone is local to Leeds but this isn't the case and I'm soon hearing about people who travel across the country to be in different productions as a kind of hobby.
After breakfast, we're briefly in make-up and costume where I'm chastised for bringing too baggy spare trousers and my hair is made to look worse. The addition of a scarf apparently transforms me and I'm ready to roll, soon sitting in a mini bus bound for our first nearby location.
It's sweltering inside Tropical World but I'm grateful I've never been one for makes and logos. One of my fellow SAs is told to keep his chunky cardigan on to conceal the name on his t-shirt underneath. We're in the butterfly room for what seems like hours repeatedly filming the same tiny scene from slightly different angles.
Finally outside, the cold air initially feels like a treat but as the next scene goes through the same rigorous process as the first, I start to change my mind. I feel most sorry for the SA who appears in this scene as a jogger so is wearing tiny shorts and a fleece, standing around waiting for the “reset”.
After a two course lunch with a choice of four cooked mains, we're back out by the pond, completing the same scene. A scene that my involvement in has now come to an end. I'm standing around chatting to other unused SAs insulating myself with the many layers I brought with me – I have three bags full of spare “costume” changes I was advised to bring.
One of the principal actors is finished for the day and indeed the rest of the series so there are cheers and claps before we're back at the bus again waiting for costume and makeup. Transformed into a police officer, as the last one kitted out, I'm chauffeur driven down to the final location on the other side of Leeds. Here, I meet a few of the regular SAs who are given the same rate of pay for appearing in scenes at the end of the day.
It's dark again and nearly time to go home. I exchange phone numbers with a few of the other SAs, agreeing we might share travel on future projects. It has been a long day but when I evaluate it, I realise it's been pretty fast-moving and reflect on all the interesting people I've met who are doing this bizarre work in order to earn some extra taxable pocket money. I look forward to declaring this pitiful sum on my tax return next year and await the next phone call.