There’s a drug deal taking place inside the library at N.C. State University, but Lauran Foster is minding her own business a dozen and a half feet away, completely oblivious to it.
Or, at least, she’s pretending to mind her own business. In fact, there’s a lot of pretending going on here.
It’s Thursday afternoon, and a production crew for Twentieth Century Fox has taken over the second floor of Johnson C. Smith University’s James B. Duke Memorial Library. This library is standing in for N.C. State’s, for the purposes of a scene in the upcoming TV drama “Shots Fired.”
As phony drugs and money change hands repeatedly, across multiple takes, Foster and a couple of other youthful-looking adults do the very important job of tying the scene together by completely fading into the background.
“It was just walking back and forth, over and over,” says Foster, a 29-year-old mother of two from Matthews, of her responsibilities on that particular scene. Tedious? Maybe a little. But: “I feel bad for all the people who are down there doing nothing the whole time.”
She’s referring to 20 or so folks who have been sitting around tables on the first floor fighting off boredom and looking at Snapchat for hours now, still hoping that – at some point – the director will need a fresh batch of background actors.
Ah, background actors. Also known as extras. Also known as the unsung heroes of TV shows and movies and music videos and commercials. Men, women and sometimes children who get paid $8-$12 an hour to make city streets look busy, hospitals look crowded, parties look fun, etc.
And in most cases, being an extra requires virtually no skill whatsoever: Each is selected not because of acting credentials, but because he or she has a certain look the director wants for the scene. Thursday’s scene, for instance, called for people who could pass for N.C. State students.
Otherwise, the only requirements – according to “Shots Fired” casting director Bill Marinella – are “that they’ve got good hygiene and that they’re not crazy. Because sometimes people are a little loopy, or they’re fans of some actor on the show. ... When you’re working on a show with a very popular actor or director, there’s always one guy that just can’t help himself.
“ ‘Mr. Spielberg, I wanted to meet you, here’s my script, I really would appreciate if you’d take a look at it’ – and immediately, they’re outta there.”
Start of a new trend?
“Shots Fired” is an anomaly in the Charlotte area these days.
After a few years of prosperity that saw North Carolina host dozens of productions, including Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games” and three seasons of HBO’s “Homeland,” Hollywood started pulling out in 2014, when state legislators ended its generous film tax rebate program.
Fox 2000 wrapped the movie “Paper Towns” in December 2014 after a shoot in the Charlotte region; in 2015, our area was used for exactly zero movie or TV productions of consequence.
But late last year, lawmakers expanded the state’s grant program to $30 million in possible incentives. In 2015, the cap was just $10 million.
So, leading the charge back into the Tar Heel State has been “Shots Fired.” It sports a somewhat-ripped-from-the-headlines story set in the aftermath of racially charged shootings in a small, fictional N.C. town. Academy Award winners Helen Hunt and Richard Dreyfuss lead the cast, and production (which started in March and has also been to Concord, Gastonia, Kannapolis and Mooresville) will run through the end of July.
This means more in-town work for lots of Charlotte-based extras – the most hardcore of whom headed south to more-Hollywood-friendly territory last year in order to get their fix.
Dillon Mann of Concord, for instance, went to Rock Hill to do background work for Cinemax’s upcoming horror series “Outcast” and to Charleston for HBO’s upcoming comedy series “Vice Principals.”
Though the 20-year-old videography student has been lucky enough to see himself on TV before, he knows that this line of part-time/on-again-off-again work can be thankless.
“Yeah, there are days where it’s ‘hurry up and wait,’ ” Mann says. “I’ve sat in a room for 12 hours straight not getting used at all, but there are also days I’ll remember for the rest of my life. ‘Vice Principals,’ for instance. I saw some of the craziest stuff – fighting scenes, explosions, people shooting guys ...”
Still, the real prize for most extras is either a) being able to spend a little time breathing the same air as a movie or TV star, or b) making the final cut, even if they’re way in the back of a scene, or out of focus, or it’s just the back of their head.
“It’s a lot of time and work – 12-14 hours days sometimes,” says Worthington Smith, 20, an aspiring Charlotte actor who has done background work in Atlanta for “The Walking Dead” and “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising.”
“But who knows? You could turn on the TV one day and suddenly see yourself in prime time.”