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Last Updated: Friday, 4 August 2006, 07:38 GMT 08:38 UK
Joining Hollywood's extras queue
By David Willis
Los Angeles

Journalist David Willis is taking six months off from the BBC to try to make it as an actor in Hollywood. In his latest diary entry he contemplates the world of the extra.

David Willis
Straight out of Central Casting: David Willis
They don't call them "extras" any more - "background artists" if you don't mind - but otherwise little has changed for the men and women who form the human wallpaper of TV shows and feature films.

They remain the bottom rung of the Hollywood food chain, paid to melt into the background, to be anonymous and forgettable, and never to make eye contact with the stars.

Yet for those who - like me - are long on enthusiasm but short on experience (talent too, come to that), it really is the only way to get a foot in Hollywood's door.

This is why last week I found myself joining a long queue to register for work at the offices of Central Casting.

Yes, there really is a company called Central Casting - for years I had assumed it was a joke. The world's most famous talent agency is tucked away on a sprawling suburban industrial estate, sandwiched between a wastepaper recycling plant and a steelworks.

Metaphorically it is as close to the heart of Hollywood as it is possible to get, geographically it is miles away - yet that doesn't stop legions of young wannabes from making the pilgrimage to this sweaty corner of the San Fernando Valley in hope it will provide them with a passport to fame and fortune.

Stifling optimism

I arrived there a couple of minutes after the doors had opened and already the place was heaving. Outside it was as hot as Hades, inside the optimism was stifling.

Ron Di Cenzo
Ron Di Cenzo is now a full-time "background actor"
Unlike the English, Americans seem to have optimism grafted into their DNA, which is why even the most tenuous shot at stardom is enough to render them as giddy as toddlers at a tea party.

There were punks and pensioners, businessmen and bodybuilders, gangsters, transients, models and tramps - as rich a tableau of human life as you could imagine, and everyone seemed to be talking at once.

Ron Di Cenzo personifies that positive spirit. Now in his mid 40s he has the physique of a man who spends every spare second in the gym, a perfect smile and pale blue eyes which shimmer with intensity.

Precarious living

After landing a part as an extra in the Martin Scorsese film Casino and rubbing shoulders with Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, Ron moved to Los Angeles, and now earns his living as a background artist.

Even though it can be a precarious living, with a lot of waiting around on set, he said he feels like the luckiest man alive. The only thing that would make his life better, he told me, is one day having lines to deliver, a trailer of his own and be earning a little more than the union minimum of $126 (70) a day.

As we talked the room was filling up. The great thing about Central Casting is that nobody is turned away. They don't ask you for references, or inquire about where you went to school, nobody worries what you look like or how you speak because in the anonymous world of the background artist there is work for all.

In its own way Central Casting personifies the egalitarian notion of the American Dream - a dream which thousands of people in this city share.

Whilst Ron spends the next few days on the set of Georgia Rules - a comedy starring Felicity Huffman, Jane Fonda and Lindsay Lohan - I shall be at home, willing the phone to ring.




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