Paul W Franklin writes weekly for Bleeding Cool about the life of an Extra.
I know it makes me sound like a bit of a cock, but it's always rather fun to get a phonecall from one of your casting agencies and to say to any accompanying friends (and frankly whoever else is within earshot): 'Just a sec, it's my agent'.
Even more so if you then turn to those around you and announce that you're going to be in the finale of Harry Potter.
A month or so after Gulliver's ended, having paid my board and lodging meantime with the odd gig on Holby City or some other BBC drama trying desperately hard to be decent, I got the call I'd been eagerly awaiting. In fact, it wasn't just the opportunity to be a 'Deatheater' in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part II, but a 'Special Deatheater'. If you're imagining a black-clad guy in a wheelchair, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, waving a wand with all the conviction of a female second-violinist and shouting 'TIMMYYYY!' then you'd be mistaken (although frankly I'd pay to see that film). The makers were auditioning not just for ordinary bad guys for the final sequences of the film, but co-ordinated, convincing wand-wavers who looked like they were genuine harbingers of doom, rather than baddies who were the other kind of 'special'.
Not something you often get in the sub-human world of Extras. Something more familiar to proper actors, genuine thespians. Okay there were no words to be learnt, no emotive soliloquies to be rehearsed in front of the mirror, but still, it was quite a big deal. And I was nervous.
The agent had put forward a bunch of 'suitable' representatives to apply for the available roles, and I imagined these to be fit, agile, martial-arts-trained candidates who'd be practising backflips beforehand. Turns out they'd just chosen any old random people. Probably just those with a 'W' in their name. For example, my friend who's a trainee stuntman and a Commonwealth gold-medal trampolinist (and not as much of a nonce as he sounds) didn't get put forward, yet several non-gold-medal-winning citizens did.
That's like if your company was hired to send a contract team to work on an I.T. project, and rather than deliver your best computer-loving nerds the company sent a random collective – a handful of tech geeks mixed with some guys from finance, a couple of admins, a receptionist or two, a cleaner, and the fire safety officer. That's basically what they did.
And one of those guys was Steven Seagal's brother.
Not literally. But if you saw this man, you'd be like 'Is that Steven Seagal's lesser-known, out of shape, less-coordinated older brother?!' Cos he bloody was. Ponytail and all. And when I saw that guy, and a bunch of other out-of-shape folks looking just as anxious as me, I relaxed. This'd be a doddle, I thought. This is what that single Ju Jitsu belt, achieved at Uni between periods of extreme wastedness, was all for.
They dished out sticks of wood (wands), taught us a few basic attacks and defences, and then paired us up for 'combat'. Imagine fencing, but done 20ft apart, with no contact. Which means you have to make your actions look all the more convincing. And so, two hours later, after much lunging, stick-waving, sweating, thrusting (calm down, ladies), leaping, tumbling, somersaulting, pretending-to-die-on-crashmats and the hilarious sight of Steven Seagal's brother turning beetroot as he attempted his 4th press-up, we went home.
The next day, I got the part.
Fast-forward a few weeks, Autumn 2009, and I found myself at the world-famous Pinewood Studios dressed in by far the coolest costume I'd worn so far, in fact the coolest I've ever worn. Imagine Darth Vadar's fencing outfit: black top that zips up at the back, embossed with some kind of other-worldly pattern, butt-hugging trousers that tuck into leather gaiters, over pointy boots, leather cuffs from wrist to elbow, a cape with an unnecessarily deep hood, and a scabbard. I felt like I should've had a Squire to help me put it on, and when I walked out the dressing room everything went slo-mo.
The anti-climax was that the wand itself was a lot like a seven-year-old whipping out his willy at a porno shoot.
Other than that, I haven't walked with as much swagger since I was the first guy in my year at school to get a hand-job. Yes, I loved that costume.
After breakfast, a lot of us started practising our moves, going through the actions we'd been taught (The Matador, The Tommy Cooper… you can probably envisage the accompanying hand gestures) and generally readying for battle. The battle – the one many of us had been excitedly preparing ourselves for for weeks – was not in fact one of good versus evil, of wand versus skilled wand, but more a battle of keeping a straight face while the Big Names around us over-acted for their lives. Or it was for the next few weeks anyway. The first few days were spent inside the 007 Stage in an impressively-realistic-looking wood, with roots so convincing that if you tried hard enough you could actually trip over them (I never did that, no, not in my cool costume, no…). This is the scene where Voldemort and his posse are waiting – like weasels in The Wild Wood – for Harry to turn up. And when he does, we did our best 'Oh my God it's Harry Potter, I'm going to tiptoe warily towards him' actions, wands en garde, until Big V zapped him with some laughably-pronounced spell that sounded like he was struggling with a particularly stubborn bowel movement.
And that was that. Not a massively thrilling start to filming of the most anticipated film of all time (Part 2), the highlight of the week being Helena Bonham-Carter's burping (strangely sexy it was too), but it got better. The next week, I'd get to wave my wand at schoolchildren. Without the resulting knock on the door from the Authorities.
Yep, only in the film world…
Next time: The battle for Hogwarts, and Hermione's pillow talk. Paul W Franklin is a pseudonym.