A cast of thousands, each dreaming of stardom

In his three-year career as a movie and television actor, Antonio Sclafani has never spoken a word on camera.

He performed a dozen times as an American Bandstand dancer on TV's "American Dreams," bumped elbows with Jamie Lee Curtis in a crowd scene in "Freaky Friday," and played one half of a beachside kissing couple on "The O.C."

So he's not the star. But he has a résumé that would make many Hollywood wannabes salivate.

Mr. Sclafani belongs to an essential yet often stigmatized sector of Hollywood: the thousands of bit players who work long hours and accept low wages for the chance to appear in the background of commercials, movies, and TV shows. Now their work is the focus of a new comedy, "Extras," which premièred Sunday on HBO. Ricky Gervais of the BBC's "The Office" plays Andy Millman, a frustrated actor who is convinced that his work as an extra will someday land him on Hollywood's A-list alongside stars like Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller (who play themselves in appearances on the show).

Like Mr. Gervais's character, Sclafani has big dreams. A couple of years ago, he brought his own Halloween costume for a high school dance scene in 2004's "A Cinderella Story," starring Hilary Duff. He ended up with a coup many of his peers only dream of: a couple of featured shots that earned him eligibility to join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). "That was my big break," the aspiring actor recalls with pride. "I had lots of good face time."

A film major with one more year until graduation, Sclafani sees the work as an opportunity to learn the business. The actor wears his hair slightly long so it can be styled into any type of look. He chats up crew members with the hope that they'll remember him when he starts hitting the audition circuit after scraping up $1,440 to join SAG. His casting profile boasts that he can fluctuate his weight between 175 and 220 pounds to fit the part, just like one of his idols, Robert DeNiro.

"I treat it as a serious job," he says. When a scene in "A Cinderella Story" called for extras playing high schoolers to laugh at the film's star, Sclafani channeled his inner bully. "I approached it as getting into that character," he says.

The extra has been around since such epic films as "The Ten Commandments" needed thousands of people to fill out crowd scenes. Director D.W. Griffith was known for sending his assistants out to Skid Row to recruit bodies for big scenes.

While the use of computer-generated graphics to make crowds look bigger has reduced demand, the extras business is still thriving. More than 20,000 people are registered with Central Casting, which supplies background actors for 90 percent of TV shows shot in Los Angeles. While most Central Casting extras are aspiring actors, others are simply unemployed or retired folks who don't mind waiting around for hours to be a face in the crowd.

"The vast majority don't make it," says Carl Joy, Central Casting's senior vice president. "A lot of them have stars in their eyes, and it can be very disillusioning."

On a recent Wednesday morning, more than 200 people crammed Central Casting's front lobby in an industrial area of downtown Burbank. They included a heavyset middle-aged man in a powder-blue three-piece suit, a 20-something man with a shaved head and a nose ring, and dozens of men and women who could pass for hip teenagers at a rock concert.

The agency holds registration sessions three times a week: for a $25 photo fee, it will add anyone to its database and provide access to a daily work hotline. A recent sampling of jobs included "character-y looking people" for a county fair scene for TV's "Arrested Development"; and Caucasian, African-American, and Hispanic women to play spectators in Clint Eastwood's film, "Flags of Our Fathers."

Dan O'Donnell started doing extra work for Central Casting five years ago and wound up with a regular nonspeaking role as a civil adviser to the president on "The West Wing." "Every time they had a War Room scene, they called me," he says. As a member of SAG, Mr. O'Donnell makes $291.80 for eight hours of work, plus overtime. Nonunion extras like Sclafani earn considerably less, between $54 and $150 a day, depending on the work.

Sclafani, however, says the wages don't bother him. "It's definitely not something I plan on doing for the rest of my life," he says. "If stuff doesn't work out with my acting career in five years, I'll probably pursue something behind the camera."

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