Waiting in the wings
They are the man in the casket, the woman weeping at a wake, the jeepney driver, the household help in the background, the taong bayan (townfolk), the passers-by in a crowd, the anonymous faces in a mob scene.
They perform small but crucial roles in different films and teleseryes, yet only a few would remember or even bother to know their names. Worse, their on-cam exposure can be too short for viewers to even take notice.
In a world where the big stars shine too bright, very little light is left for the bit players, the “extras”—the unnamed, unsung “talents,” those faceless men and women who provide the textured and necessary background to the star-studded screen.
Bella Mercado knows this only too well.
An extra who has played a hundred minor roles since she started in the 1980s when she was 25, Mercado has found her place among other star hopefuls in the local movie and TV industry.
As an extra, Mercado has quite a portfolio: She’s been cast as a mere passer-by but has also taken on roles as a Korean and a Vietnamese woman, and exchanged a few lines with megastar Sharon Cuneta, her neighbor in the movie “Kahit Konting Pagtingin.” From being a regular in ABS-CBN’s “Scene Of the Crime Operatives (SOCO)” TV series as the victim shouting for help, Aling Bella has graduated to grandmother roles. She has become the go-to person for casting agents every time they need a middle-aged woman.
On Independence Day this year, for instance, after weeks without a project, Mercado got a text message from a casting agent asking if she could make it to the movie “Four Sisters and a Wedding.” Her role? A woman attending a wake at La Funeraria Paz in Sucat, Parañaque.
She accepted the offer right away and immediately ransacked her closet for the right wardrobe.
Like other bit players in local showbiz, Mercado has learned to abide by a few unwritten rules:
Rule #1: Never outshine the real star.
Unlike big stars who are always forgiven their dramatic entrance, Mercado makes sure to be on the set on time by sleeping early the night before the shoot. With fellow talent Erlinda Tiangco, she goes to the meeting place at Panay Avenue, Quezon City at 2 p.m., where a service van brings them and other extras to the movie set.
At around 8 p.m. on the set, some six hours since Mercado’s pick-up time, the casting director arrives and the wardrobe staff starts checking the extras’ outfits.
In Mercado’s capacious bag are two to three outfits and accessories, clothes that would pass muster with the wardrobe staff.
There are instances when a talent is rejected because of inappropriate outfit, ABS-CBN casting director Gerry Brisenio reveals. One lesson that extras have taken to heart: Never overdress lest they outshine the stars, says this former bit player.
Rule #2: Get dressed and be ready to mingle.
Seated inside a tent at La Funeraria Paz are about 30 to 40 dressed-up talents of various ages and from different casting agencies. Mercado expects to wait for her scene from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., and uses the time to mingle with other talents whom she had met in previous shoots.
Here she had met Mang Johnny, Johnny Barnes in real life, another veteran extra and her usual partner in the movies. This time, however, Barnes is playing the dead man, and is now preparing for his casket scene with the movie’s lead star.
Rule #3: Expect to wait.
And wait some more.
Being an extra means spending a lot of time waiting.
“In fact, they get paid for it,” according to Brisenio who handpicks and casts talents for a specific shoot.
Sometimes extras are given scripts, depending on their roles. Most of the time, there are no scripts at all, he says.
At 8:30 p.m. (six and a half hours since pick-up time), the talents and the production crew start lining up for food provided by a catering service.
Raymond Riñoza, another talent, describes the food as “good,” though markedly different from what the stars are served.
“Usually the main cast eats separately from the extras. We extras eat food that are ‘pang-masa,’ though I can’t complain. Most of the time, the food is good and I’m not picky. The main cast usually gets fruits and dessert and we don’t.”
A typical meal for extras would include scrambled eggs, tuyo (dried fish) with tomatoes, or longganiza (local sausage) with rice for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, it could be pork sinigang (sour stew), fried milkfish, fried chicken, chopsuey, or beef tapa with rice and soup.
Extras usually bring their own mugs to get water from the water dispenser or for coffee, Riñoza adds.
In this particular movie, the shoot starts around 9 p.m. but the extras are prepared to wait some more. From previous experience, they know that they can’t predict when the shoot would be over. It would depend on the number of takes, and perhaps on the mood and temperament of the lead stars.
At the end of the shoot, Mercado would get her talent fee, usually a gross of P1,000-P2,000, depending on the film’s budget. The waiting game would resume a day after.
She doesn’t mind, says Mercado. “I’m used to waiting,” she says, her kindly face a testament to her stress-coping capacity.
Necessity is behind all that forbearance.
“I will do whatever the director tells me, maka-extra lang. I need the income,” says Mercado, who once posed half-naked for a recently-shot Cinemalaya film.
Outlived big stars
A veteran bit player, Mercado has been in the local movie industry long enough to outlive most of the big stars of her time, including Fernando Poe Jr. (FPJ), Nida Blanca, Rudy Fernandez, and her ultimate crush, Mario Montenegro, who would have been at least 80, had he been around today.
In fact, the stars often recognize Mercado from their previous shoots and throw her a few remarks that this extra remembers so well:
“Bata pa ako, artista na; ngayon director na ako, extra ka pa rin (I’ve been an actor since I was a child. I’m a director now, and you’re still an extra)?”
“O, Aling Bella, you’re still here?”
But some stars are much kinder, including her favorite, FPJ.
“I was a regular in FPJ films,” says Mercado. “FPJ is really kind and would always tell me and all the other extras: ‘Hindi kayo extra sa akin (You’re not just bit players to me).’”
One of her most memorable stints was in “Little Champ,” where lead actor (now senator) Lito Lapid figured in a fight scene with a duplicitous tricycle driver. Mercado says she was amazed at Lapid’s fighting skills.
But despite meeting big stars and interacting with them, her job is not all glamor, says this talent. There are times when she has to skip meals especially if the shoot takes longer than expected. There are also instances when her requests for a picture with the movie’s big stars are refused.
Like her contemporary, Lilia Cuntapay, who got her biggest break in a lead role only recently after decades of toiling in the background, Mercado still nurses hopes that she would make it to bigger roles. When that time comes, she wants to play a character role like that of her idol, the late Bella Flores.
Barnes, 75, might as well be the male counterpart of Lilia Cuntapay when it comes to meatier bit roles. Gifted with good looks, he has played various roles—a judge in “Sa Dulo ng Walang Hanggan,” a beggar and a ghost in “Okatokat” and “Spooky Nights,” and in his latest shoot, a dead grandfather, the third time he has done so.
When there are enough shoots, he can earn as much as P20,000 a month, although there are lean times when his take is only P700 to P1,000 in a month.
But he enjoys his job, Barnes says, and would encourage even his kith and kin to get into the same business.
Not for fame
While most talents consider their job as their main livelihood and a possible gateway to stardom, Riñoza looks at acting as a means to express his creativity.
But Riñoza, who’s into his forties, is luckier than most talents; he has a day job.
An electrical and computer engineering graduate of De La Salle University-Manila, Riñoza is a section manager at a prestigious aviation company and finds a good balance between his technical responsibilities at work and his acting career which, he says, serves as his “creative outlet.”
“There is abundant fulfillment in being able to portray the various roles assigned to me, as well as in meeting thespians well-honed in the craft,” he adds.
Unlike other talents aspiring to become movie stars themselves, Riñoza says his end goal is to become a good and convincing actor.
“I am basically a quiet person. I don’t like too much drama in my life. I savor peace and tranquility,” adds this bit player and engineer who also writes feature stories for the company newsletter.
He could go into full-time acting when he retires, Riñoza says, but for now, he splits his time between his day job, his acting and his other interests that include running, travel, photography and languages.
Ironically, Riñoza recalls being a shy guy who didn’t enjoy talking or performing in front of people.
But his perspective changed after attending a Creative Futures Acting Workshop headed by Direk Rahyan Carlos in 2007. Working with such actors as Coco Martin, Jenny Jamora, Lynn Sherman and Avi Siwa, among others, was quite an experience, he says.
“When we did an indie film, ‘Ang Parol Sa Aking Burol’ as the output of an acting workshop, I knew that this is what I want to do,” recounts Riñoza.
Extras usually land acting roles through referrals, online recommendations, on-site auditions and good workshop output, like Riñoza did in his indie movie.
Since then, this erstwhile reluctant talent has appeared in 18 movies and four TV series, and has played a variety of roles, among them a driver, a barangay tanod (village watchman), a caregiver, a party guest, a company boss, a bit player, a paparazzi, a lawyer, a mourner and a school principal.
He particularly recalls playing a party guest once, dancing to upbeat music and drinking wine, until the director yelled “Cut!”
Well, after all, what would a party be without extras playing the role of guests? Actors, for sure, cannot take all the roles.
Like other talents, Riñoza says he cannot choose his roles.
“I don’t mind doing unglamorous roles. In fact, I embrace them. It gives me a chance to experience what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence, and away from my comfort zone,” he says.
So far, the biggest role he was given credit for was in “Layang Bilanggo,” which is in the list of Cinema One 2010 Best Pictures. Directed by Mike Dagnalan, the movie is memorable for Riñoza because for the first time, his name appeared in a movie poster. The end credits also prominently displayed his name with his corresponding image.
But momentary fame isn’t all there is to being an extra, he adds. Being one is both fun and exhausting. You get to meet people from all walks of life who are united by a common passion, and there’s less pressure than if you are playing a lead role.
“You also get to go to places you normally wouldn’t be able to visit, like a remote farm, a home for the aged, a congressman’s house,” he says.
Riñoza used to do talent jobs pro bono, but now gets a talent fee ranging from P500 to P2,000 per shooting day, depending on the role and the casting agent.
Dream come true
While money and fame are not his job’s biggest attractions, Riñoza recalls how working with Vilma Santos, one of his favorite stars, was “a dream come true.”
“I had the chance to be in the same scene with an acting legend,” he says of his meaty role in “Ekstra” where Santos starred as, what else, an extra herself.
“Out of 12 shooting days, I was called in for nine,” he says. “We got to shoot in different locations like this farm in Calatagan, Batangas and a nearby seaside resort,” says Riñoza, who also looks up to local showbiz stars Nora Aunor, Joel Torre and Pen Medina.
Brisenio says extras are asked to come back if directors and the crew remember them for their good qualities. A good extra, says this casting director, gets instructions quickly, gives more than what is required and respects the director.
His counsel for talents who aspire for bigger roles?
“Ask yourself questions like: Is (my character) rich or poor? How old is he? Know where he is coming from, and how the character is developed throughout the story. Study how the (lead) relates to the other characters. Dress like your character. Be in character even before the camera starts to roll.”
To that, Riñoza adds that mastery of material is very important. “If you have a script, read it. Memorize your lines. Understand the story. Understand your character. Do a thorough review of it.”
For “Ekstra,” he says the talents are given a peg on which to base the costumes they should bring, complete with color and pattern swatches. “From (that information), I was able to dig up some items from my dad’s wardrobe. The rest I bought at the ukay-ukay (second-hand clothing shops).”
Rule #4: Learn and learn and learn.
One thing that perhaps separates Riñoza from other acting hopefuls is his passion for the craft. He takes acting seriously and sees it not as just a job, but a means to an end. He also sees it as a never-ending learning experience.
Some of the technical lessons he’s learned: “Take acting workshops. Don’t stop at just one. Learn different techniques from different workshops. Equip yourself with knowledge and skills. Persevere at auditions. Be prepared for your role. Don’t have an attitude, and apply what you have learned.”
But over and beyond the technical lessons, Riñoza believes that becoming a team player is just as important. Everything would be useless if one does not know how to work with colleagues.
“Never take anyone for granted,” he says. “Who knows? That person you looked down on might become successful later and help you instead.”
For Riñoza and Mercado, learning to prioritize and to focus are key to attaining greater heights. To reach that star, be your own star first, they counsel. Love who you are and what you do. •