I was an extra on Bram Stoker's Dracula
By Thomas M. Sipos
This year is the 30th Anniversary of the release of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula. I spent some of the 1990s working as a film and TV extra, and that film was my first gig. It being my first time, I fondly recall the experience. Despite very long hours, it didn't feel like work at all.
I had been working in a producer's office, two rooms on the third floor of a building in Hollywood. The floor below included a casting director's office. Shortly after my boss was evicted for non-payment of rent, I saw a casting notice in Daily Variety seeking "English, Turkish, and East European types" for Coppola's new Dracula film. The notice mentioned the casting office on the second floor.
I'd never done any acting before, but my parents are Hungarian (my father Transylvanian). When I so informed the casting office, they were eager to see me.
They didn't call me into the Hollywood building. Instead, I was called to the Sony lot and asked to audition in Romanian, improvising as a frightened man. I explained that I spoke Hungarian, not Romanian. The casting director (C.D.) said that was fine. So I acted frightened in Hungarian.
The C.D. said that all audition tapes would be reviewed by Coppola himself. I can affirm the rumors that Coppola was a perfectionist on that film. The C.D.'s walls at Sony were covered with old photos and sketches of late 1800s scenes from England and Romania. Coppola seemed determined to capture the look and feel of that time and place with accuracy.
(The DVD's special features indicates that he took some creative leeway, but he certainly began his journey with extensive research.)
I didn't get a speaking role, but I was phoned a few weeks later and invited to be an extra, because of my "East European look." I was later told, on the set, that another reason for casting me was that I had longish hair, which was true of Englishmen in 1897. That's right, despite my "East European look," I was cast as an Englishman. Men with longish hair were in short supply just then, in December 1991. A lot of military films had recently been shot, resulting in lots of male extras with military crewcuts.
I was called in for a wardrobe fitting. They gave me a long black coat.
My first scene was with Anthony Hopkins. I was one of his medical students. Hopkins was friendly, chatting with us between takes, asking if we all wanted to be actors.
There must have been a still photographer wandering about, because I ended up (uncredited) on page 87 of James Hart's lavishly illustrated published screenplay. Curiously, I'm standing on the first tier, just above Hopkins, in the photo in the book (right), yet I'm standing on the second tier in the film.
The assistant director (A.D.) had moved us medical students around, determining the best setup, and I suppose the still photographer did his work at one point in the day, while the scene itself was shot by the cinematographer at some other time.
Us medical students kept wandering about the stage during breaks, upsetting the production assistant (P.A.). She said, "I swear, you're the antsiest bunch of extras I've ever seen." Antsiest. Her exact word. I never forgot that.
Some of the extras endured additional makeup, with mustaches and sideburns glued to their faces. I had a natural beard at the time (still do), so I escaped that ordeal. They did spray some plastic on my hair, to set in place the late 19th century hair style they'd given me.
After the scene was wrapped, I overheard some A.D. or P.A. discussing the need for another extra for that night's chapel scene. They were shooting round the clock.
Remember the chapel scene at the start of the film, when Gary Oldman weeps over his dead bride? That was shot over two nights. And apparently, one of the monks who'd stood behind the priest on the first night of shooting had fallen sick and was unavailable for the second night. I came forward and volunteered to fill in for the monk. They accepted my offer.
So in that scene, sometimes one of those two silent monks is me, sometimes not.
Neither Anthony Hopkins nor Winona Ryder was on the set that night. Gary Oldman was the only star present, hunched over and crying. I knew he'd been in Sid and Nancy, a film that I'd liked, but I didn't recognize him on set. I was impressed with his work in the chapel scene. After the scene wrapped, I said something to him like, "Very impressive work. Very good." He smiled and thanked me, tears still staining his face.
I didn't know at the time that extras weren't supposed to speak to the actors, but Oldman seemed not to mind.
The A.D. gave me a separate voucher for the chapel scene, apart from my previous voucher for the medical school scene. Thus was I paid for two full days, though I'd worked the scenes back-to-back.
Maybe the production saved money by clocking me for two days. If they'd treated the medical school and chapel scenes as the same day, I might have earned some serious overtime. But I was nonunion back then, so the work rules were flexible as applied to me. And I didn't care about the money. Not then. It was my first time on a Hollywood film set, and I just wanted the experience to last. I'd have done it for free.
The A.D. did approve a "translation bump" for me, about $20 as I recall. This was because Oldman had been seeking some Romanian phrase or remark, not to speak, but just to internalize, to help him assume character. So I'd told the A.D. some Hungarian phrases, which he'd passed on to Oldman, who was quite the Method Actor. He was impressive to watch on set, and the results of his Method work remain evident on film.
I came in for two other days. I was one of some 400 extras in the London street scenes shot on Universal's backlot. Both the daytime scenes and night time scenes.
The extras were kept in large tents. One tent served as a dressing room for men. Another tent was for the women. One woman gasped upon seeing other women undressing in the tent. "You can't be shy in this business," commented the woman who related this incident to me.
An even larger tent was a coed holding pen, where both men and women waited while not working on set, chatting and reading and snoozing. It had rained and the grass was moist. One middle-aged woman sketched her fellow extras. She sketched me in my costume, and gave it to me when done. I still have her work, framed and on my wall.
We were well fed. I was told that wasn't always the case, especially with crowd scenes. One extra described working on Steven Spielberg's Hook, adding, "Lunch was some popcorn."
Back on the set, I asked an extra if there were any stars present. "Winona Ryder," I was told. It was the first I'd ever heard the name.
"What's Winona Ryder look like?" I asked, hoping for a glimpse of a star.
"She's a little thing," I was told.
After they wrapped the daytime scene, they brought in a second unit crew, and a new group of extras. They also asked if any of us wanted to stay for a second "day" that night. I naturally volunteered.
I didn't make it into the daytime scenes in the final cut. Maybe they didn't film me. Maybe I ended up on the cutting room floor. I am in a night time scene; the one outside the railroad station, when Johnathan Harker returns from the Continent and sees Dracula "young again." I'm crossing the street, carrying a piece of luggage. I do my cross right after a horse-drawn carriage crosses my path.
A P.A. had wanted to give my luggage it to another extra. I was hesitant, because I'd signed for the suitcase with the Props Dept, so I was responsible for its return. I asked the P.A. if we could notify the Props Dept. "Never mind!" the P.A. snapped.
"I don't mind," I said, not wanting to be difficult. "It's just that I'm responsible."
The P.A. was testy, but replied, "Don't worry, it's not your fault."
I also had a scene with the white wolf. Or rather, I was called in, then taken out before anything was shot. They were trying different set ups. I stood facing the wolf, from eight or ten feet away, the wolf looking happy, yet unleashed. I was told it was only part wolf, and well fed. There were crew around me, and I was told it was safe, but not to make any sudden moves. "Because if you do," said a big, burly crewman, standing right behind me, "he'll bite your balls off!"
I worked on over 60 productions in the 1990s, on and off. Some I worked for three weeks, some only a day. Movies, sitcoms, infomercials, even a Japanese TV commercial shot in California. Many days were long and grueling, 14 to 16 hours. Work conditions got cushier, and the pay better, after I was admitted into SAG in 1994. Even so, the novelty of being on a set wore off. I grew to dislike extra work and stopped about 1997 or '98.
My record for the longest day working as an extra remains my time on Bram Stoker's Dracula, about 23 hours on set in one day. But that day didn't feel long. It was a fun adventure that I never wanted to end.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.