Section: Features

‘Gotta Get Down to It’ extras on the art of the background

Past the bright lights and the big cameras, between the sea of crew members and the dazzling movie stars, you’ll find the little-known and oft-overlooked heroes of movie sets: the extras. Often speaking nonsense to each other, whispering “peas and carrots” to themselves or simply standing around, extras, or “background actors,” constitute the core of a movie set.  In Thomas S. Turgeon Professor of Drama Jonathan Tazewell’s ’84 feature film, “Gotta Get Down to It,” many Kenyon students took on a variety of roles as extras — as college students, as protestors and as advocates for free speech.

Brent Matheny ’19, a philosophy major, played a “free speech advocate” in one of the movie’s most tumultuous moments. While holding a Confederate flag, his job was to make grunting noises and shout chants while demanding to get into Rosse Hall.  Being from the South, Matheny found the situation jarring. “It was kind of weird,” he said. “I had to shout things like ‘civil discourse,’ and ‘white rights,’ which was interesting, since I’m from North Florida.”

This was not Matheny’s first stint as an extra, however. He played the illustrious role of “Partygoer” in a short film by Eva Neuwirth ’19 called “Cherry Pop.” In that short film, he held a conversation with another actor in the background of a party scene. Meanwhile, the main action of the film’s plot took place in the foreground.

Brennan Steele ’19 was another background actor in “Gotta Get Down to It” — however, he was on the other side of the protest. He was cast as a protestor blocking people from entering Rosse. Steele decided on a whim that he would be a background actor after he found out that some of his friends were involved in the film’s production, even though he had never acted before. Mostly, he had to “chant, block people from entering and follow [the main actor’s] lead.”

Steele was surprised by how difficult it was to be an extra. Unlike an actor in a lead role, background actors are unspecific and generic, and it can be hard to know exactly how to portray that. “It was hard to act natural,” he said.

Matheny says the secret to being a good background actor  is “being ready to stand around a lot.” But, more importantly, he says that the best extras are the ones who are comfortable having meaningless conversations. The truly excellent extra, according to Matheny, is the one who can make up conversations about people who don’t exist. As “Partygoer,” for example, he had to “make up stories about people in the party, stories about why they were at the party and things like ‘I can’t believe she’s at the party’ or ‘Why is she sleeping with him?’”

In other words, the greatest extras need to have their own backstories; they need to consider themselves as part of the movie’s plot.

Matheny never made it into the final cut of “Gotta Get Down to It.”  Nevertheless, he was happy he was involved in the film’s production. “I think everyone should try to be an extra sometime in their lives,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge you’re not always the main character.” Clearly, being an extra is its own work of art.

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