It’s easy to notice the leads. They’re the faces you see along billboards, the names you often read about, and, if it strikes your fancy, they’re the same faces you root for in the movies. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets her back—they’re the ones who live the theater-filling happily-ever-after. The credits roll, and the cinema light goes back up as several names of the characters flash onscreen. Minutes later, names in small, white letters continue to dance against the black background, but only a few, if any, stay to read them. More people flock to the cinema exit and the list continues, but soon enough, the theater goes completely silent and empty. The names flash still, this time, without an audience.
These are the names of people from the crowd when the leading man made the grand gesture. They acted as friends of the lead actress, as officemates of the lead actor. They were the ones who were passing by when the two characters first met.
But these are only some of the ways we see them. If not as one of the passing names when the credits roll, then as a passing face in a busy crowd. Ekstras or bit players, they are usually called, but the roles they play are anything but insignificant, their parts anything but minor. They are the faces we see for no more than ten minutes in front of the camera, but they are the names that help a film stand out. They’re the names casting their own light, significant even from the background.
From the crowd
It began one fair afternoon in 1995. Strata 100 Building, Ortigas Center, the hustle of mid-90s Metro Manila—the combination of the three made up for what was seemingly an ordinary backdrop. But for the characters of Jerry and Agnes, played by Aga Muhlach and Lea Salonga, respectively, in the movie Sana Maulit Muli, it was the culmination of their story, the climactic finale that ends with the promising note of a chance encounter and serendipity.
Jerry cuts through the thick Metro Manila crowd after work, following a straight path, and, as if by sudden instinct, by some intuitive nudge, he stops midway and turns back around. Retracing his steps back, the next moments unfold in slow-mo, like it often does in romance movies. As if on cue, the crowd parts and thins, revealing an Agnes who stands meekly in the middle, waiting for him. The music soars as the two characters lock gazes, walking towards each other in surprised bliss.
The camera then focuses on the faces of Agnes and Jerry as the crowd continues to walk past the two of them. It’s only for a fleeting few seconds, but amid the finale of a love story unfolding, so does the dream of one person from the crowd.
Albert Chan Paran, one of the ekstras from that scene, recounts his first acting experience as a dreamer from the province. “It was my first ekstra for a film in a mainstream film. I was skinny and dark-skinned back then, fresh from the province when I was 21 years old.”
Albert recounts from his experience how starting out as an ekstra didn’t leave him with much to save. “From my very own experience as an ekstra when I first started, I didn’t earn much because I wasn’t given talent fees. But what matters most to me is my passion,” he says. “I have high respect [for ekstras] because they sacrifice a lot, and I wouldn’t reach this status in my life now if I didn’t start from there.They [also] deserve respect.”
Often overlooked as minor elements of the scene, bit players live far from the glamour and ease associated with the industry. Being a bit player was a hard and thankless job that most don’t fully appreciate. “[Extras are] overworked, but underpaid. All of them are placed on one side, but not given enough exposure. They’re not usually taken care of,” Albert enumerates what happens on a typical day in the life of a bit player. “I have to study my character and memorize my lines from the script. Most of the time, I have to be patient because there are times that you’re required for an early morning call time but they will shoot your scenes in the afternoon, in the evening, late evening, or even the next day.” For Albert, it wasn’t all about the glamour, fame, and prestige. It’s hard work, all day and night.
Behind the scenes
If there was something Suzanne Ison considers to be the most memorable experience she had on set while playing a role as an ekstra, she doesn’t deliver a happy recollection of a fond memory. Instead, she replies with the unexpected.
“‘Yung moment na I was scolded by an assistant director sa harap ng lahat. Nung sinigawan ako habang nagre-rehearse kami ng eksena, ginagawa iyong blockings. Kasi I mistakenly memorized the wrong lines.” (The moment that I was scolded by an assistant director in front of everyone. I was shouted at while rehearsing a scene, doing the blockings, because I mistakenly memorized the wrong lines.)
What seems like an easy 15 minutes of watching them on the television screen was the equivalent of a long process of rehearsing and self-discipline. What seems like an easy take was the result of meticulous planning and enduring harsh criticisms. Oftentimes, bit players take and retake scenes multiple times, just to find that ever elusive “perfect shot”. Being an extra is like having all the responsibilities of the big stars, but without the fame and accolades that usually accompany it.
“Kahit na people say it’s just a small role, it’s still a challenge for me kasi you have to do a role na hindi ikaw in reality. It always has the pressure of memorizing lines, iyong pag-manage not to get nervous in front of the camera,” Suzanne confesses. “How you can put up with an adlib? Sometimes it’s difficult to cry when you feel like ‘di ka talaga makaiyak. It’s a lot of pressure kasi everyone on set is watching and expecting from you and you don’t want to disappoint them.”
Life as an ekstra isn’t easy, but it’s definitely rewarding. Ultimately, the difficult job of being a bit player is merely a stepping stone for many aspiring young artists seeking for their own five minutes in the spotlight. “Today’s big stars are yesterday’s ekstras,” Albert helpfully supplied. “There will be no film and no lead actors if there are no ekstras. They’re an important component of the storytelling of the film.” For Albert, this statement may hopefully ring true. He has already won numerous awards for his many roles, in both the local and international stage. He has also gone on to star in leading roles in his career. It’s a testament to how these bit players can truly shine when given the chance to be in the spotlight.
Suzanne also felt the same way. “If people will try to understand and learn how ekstras work in the set, I know they will see our hard work. Like in theater plays, people never see much of the ensemble, but I don’t think that there are small roles,” she imparts. “Koros and ekstras are the ones who give life and colors to the show. Ekstras are not just bit players, they are talented actors. They’re just as important to the scene.” Without any of these talented and skillful people populating the background of every TV show or film, the medium quickly falls apart into a jumbled mess with no story to tell.
Yet these ekstras see a light at the end of the tunnel. “The pressure, the heavy scenes with lots of takes, the lines they make you memorize before take, it makes you scared to make mistakes kasi ayaw mong mapagalitan ng director, pero that’s just the challenge,” she says, hinting at her optimism.
Whether you notice them or not these bit players are here to stay. They are as integral to any story as the main characters who often take up much of the screen time and the audience’s attention, yet they do not get close to the amount of credit that they should be getting. For these people, it’s enough that they’re up there on the stage, or in front of the camera, doing what they love to do. When asked why she endures the difficulties that go along with the job, Suzanne replies simply, “It’s a fulfilling career for me.”