In the Robin Williams comedy The Birdcage, shot in Miami Beach, O'Neil passes by a bakery while, inside, costar Nathan Lane's character buys chocolate treats. O'Neil was also a stand-in for Lane. A stand-in does the grunt work of "standing" on an actor's mark until the director is ready to start filming. O'Neil once sat in a convertible with another stand-in for three hours while the crew adjusted the lighting. Lucky for them Robin Williams moseyed by, asked if they were thirsty, and soon returned with bottles of spring water. It's a good thing Williams asked, because movie extras aren't supposed to speak to the stars unless spoken to first.
Next time you're at the movies munching on popcorn, glance around the screen and take notice of the bit players in the background. That blonde at the bar might be your neighbor. Many filmmakers are now choosing South Florida as a backdrop for their films, and locals, like O'Neil, are getting in on the action.
He's appeared in about ten movies. "It's exciting. It's neat," says the easygoing 39-year-old. "When you see yourself -- even if it's the back of your head -- [you say] 'That's me.'"
Assuming that his scenes don't end up on the cutting-room floor, O'Neil will soon be seen in a few movies. He'll be the delivery guy with a package who dashes past George Clooney in Out of Sight; a bored home-shopping-channel operator in The Holy Man, starring Eddie Murphy; and one of two people chatting in the background as Cameron Diaz and Matt Dillon walk by in Something About Mary.
For many extras, getting a taste of show-biz glitz is a one-time thrill. Then it's back to the grind, where you share your story with coworkers around the coffee machine. But O'Neil sees his movie-extra work as a step toward full-time acting. He appeared in TV commercials and print ads as a youngster, and in his mid-30s he decided to give acting another shot. So he signed up with a talent agent and took classes at the Actors' Conservatory in Hollywood, Florida.
O'Neil did the right thing, according to Linda Fionte, executive director of the conservatory. Anyone interested in work as a movie extra should first send a snapshot to a talent agent or casting director and include name, phone number, height, weight, and hair color. You shouldn't have to pay to be added to a list of potential extras, says Fionte, who provides information on choosing agents in one of the conservatory's classes, How to Succeed in the Biz.
But before jumping in, be warned: Being an extra involves lots of standing around and waiting. O'Neil remembers sitting under a tent with about 200 extras and not being called to the set until the second day. You don't always get to hang with the celebs, either, and the pay isn't phenomenal, usually about $65 to $75 a day for up to twelve hours.
But O'Neil says it's worthwhile. He's watching and learning. And maybe he'll catch that big break -- like actually uttering a line in a major motion picture.
Until then he's enjoying the perks. Like seeing Robin Williams and Nathan Lane do serious takes for The Birdcage, then allowing themselves to go wild for a silly, ad-libbed version.
After O'Neil drank from the bottle that Williams gave him, he saved the plastic green container as a souvenir. He still has it, along with plenty of snapshots of himself with the stars and a plastic glass Demi Moore left behind after throwing a champagne-and-pizza party for the Striptease crew.
-- Patti Roth
The Actors' Conservatory in Hollywood (Florida) offers a class for beginning actors and extras. For information on the class or the school's list of recommended talent agents, call 954-925-1380.