According to documentarian Jason Connell, there are over 45,000 background actors living in Los Angeles at any given time. Some are content to always be the hand you see in the back of the room, while others long for their moment in the spotlight.
After moving to Los Angeles from Oklahoma, aspiring moviemaker Connell became one of these extras for a month in an effort to understand the inner workings of a Hollywood movie set. Nevermind the A-listers that recited their lines front and center, Connell became fascinated with the sub-culture of background actors he was now a part of. “I couldn’t believe there were people who made their living doing this type of work and appearing in some of today’s greatest films. Then I began talking to these people and soon realized that they were as genuine and colorful as any characters I’d seen…I had to make a film about them.”
After an open casting call, Connell found 10 extras finally ready for their close-up. The result is Strictly Background, what the director calls “a behind the curtain look at the movie industry–which most everyone has an interest in, even if they don’t want to admit it.”
The extras featured in the documentary have resumes ranging from 1980s comedies like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure to Oscar-nominated fare like The Last Samurai. Their stories of set antics and encounters are endless and their genuine character jumps off the screen. “I’ve always been intrigued by documentaries that have incredibly dynamic characters, such as American Movie, Cinemania and Home Movie. The subjects in these films were just so captivating that it inspired me to actually do a documentary in the first place,” Connell explains. “I realized just how powerful a medium documentaries could be if you found the right people.” But are these 10 extras–actors so used to being a glimmer of a character in the background–ready to be front and center in a documentary about their real lives?
“Let’s just say I didn’t have a problem getting the cast members to open up and tell their stories. They’ve been in the background for so many years and here was an opportunity to be the focus of a film. If you asked them, I’m sure they’d say we didn’t focus on them enough.”