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Streets from Wabash Avenue to Lake Shore Drive were closed off for NBC’s “Chicago Fire” Oct. 7–9. “ Chicago Fire” is one of many shows that take place and film scenes in Chicago, providing jobs for city residents on set and on camera.

By Arts & Culture Reporter

The first time sophomore theatre major Will Bruce was on set as an extra on NBC’s “Chicago PD,” he was approached by principal actor Jason Beghe, who struck up an unexpected conversation with him, which included compliments about Bruce’s hair.

A stint on a medical drama set in Chicago earned him a nickname.

“When I did the ‘Chicago Fire’ [and] ‘Chicago Med’ crossover, I played an orderly, and I had to push a gurney with a person on it and turn a corner,” Bruce said. “The [gurney] would never turn correctly, and it kept slamming into the wall. They had to keep stopping [the shoot] all because of me. They started calling me ‘Hot Rod.’”

Since enrolling at Columbia in the Fall 2014, Bruce has appeared in a number of hit shows filmed in Chicago, including FOX’s “Empire,” NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago PD” and a crossover episode between “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago Med.”

As a cinematic locale, Chicago has long been almost literally on fire. From the 1984 film “When Harry Met Sally,” which begins in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood; the Dark Knight series, which was filmed in and largely believed to be based on Chicago; some of the classic John Hughes’ movies like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone;” past TV hits like NBC’s “ER” and FOX’s “Prison Break;” to current hit TV shows like “Empire,” “Chicago Fire” and Showtime’s “Shameless,” the City of Chicago has been the backdrop to many of America’s most popular films and TV shows.

Television and film are widely accepted as two of the most difficult industries to break into, but there are more opportunities for college students to start making a name for themselves in Chicago now than in previous years. One way is through extra work.

Eddie Seitz, a sophomore cinema art + science major, said the best way to find extra work is to register with casting companies in Chicago and check the Facebook pages of the different companies because they update frequently with casting calls for multiple shows.

Bruce agreed with Seitz and said, “You have to keep looking for updates. I get notifications any time the [casting] companies post about looking for [extras].”

As a result of the many movies and shows filmed in the city, there are numerous extras casting companies in Chicago like Joan Philo Casting, 4 Star Casting, Extraordinary Casting and Atmosphere Casting.

Seitz said he registered with 4 Star Casting by sending in some general information, including his measurements, ethnicity and a recent photo, and then he applied for roles that he fit.

Casting companies post calls for extras of every ethnicity, age and body type, so the opportunity to be cast is open to anyone.

“They look through all the data and people, and if they see that you’re a fit for the role, they email you,” said Khloe Richardson, a sophomore theatre major.

If being seen on national TV was not enough, being an extra also pays. Different casting calls have different pay rates, but they tend to be about $80 for eight hours and around twice that for more specialized roles, as seen in casting calls posted to Facebook.

Seitz has been cast as an extra in multiple shows filmed in Chicago, starting as an extra in a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” parody video for The Onion in July 2014. On its website, 4 Star Casting said it regularly casts roles in videos for The Onion. Seitz said he was paid $50 for the two-hour shoot.

Cristina Granados, a sophomore theatre major, gained the opportunity to play an extra through her mother, who also does extra work. Granados and her mother were both cast as extras for the same scene on “Shameless.”

For their scene, Granados and her mother were seated on a train as bystanders while William H. Macy, one of the show’s main cast members, acted out a scene in which his character was publicly drunk.

“They had rented out one of the trains, so it was just us on a three-car train,” Granados said. “We just had to stand there and watch him act a fool.”

When Seitz was cast as an extra on an episode of USA Network’s “Sirens,” he said he did not realize the prom scene they were filming would take 10 hours. Seitz said they played the extras a few seconds of music to get them dancing to the right beat but then turned it off, and they had to dance for hours without music.

At the shoot, Seitz said he wore a gold suit and was almost bumped up to a feature role—one for which he would be sure to get into a few background shots—because he caught the director’s eye.

Granados said extras have to bring their own clothes, and it’s recommended to bring more than one outfit because all the extras’ clothes have to be approved.

According to Granados, filming sometimes takes longer than one would expect because there’s a lot of waiting around before an extra is needed for a scene.

“You have to be willing to wait until they tell you to do something; sometimes it takes a few minutes or 30 minutes where you’re just waiting around to go on set,” Granados said.

Along with submitting measurements, casting companies require hopefuls to submit their availability, Granados said.

“If you commit to work, you must be free the entire day and night,” Extraordinary Casting’s website states. “We never know how long the shoots will go, so you have to be prepared to stay until wrap.”

Richardson said she was surprised by how nice everyone was, and the amount of food they had on set for the extras, actors and other crewmembers.

“The people who are on set are really nice,” Richardson said. “I thought it was going to be like, ‘OK, action! Go!,’ but the director was really nice and took a picture with all of [the extras].”

Bruce said he thinks attending Columbia makes students more aware of Chicago’s opportunities. Bruce got into extra work because one of his professors, Scott Olsen, told his class about the chance to get cast in background roles in TV shows in the city.

Jeff Ginsberg, an associate professor in the Theatre Department and coordinator of the acting program, said the Theatre Department’s faculty offers time and advice to students pursuing roles, and that their doors are always open.

Seitz said one of the most important parts of doing extra work is networking. He said while he was on set, he met another extra whose mother worked on “Chicago PD.”

“I posted on Facebook that I submitted for ‘[Chicago] PD,’ and she gave me a call and said, ‘I’m on the set of ‘[Chicago] PD’ right now, I’ll put in a good word,” Seitz said.

Extras have a lot of rules they have to follow on set, like not taking photos, not using their phones, not talking to any of the actors and following directions as to where they are supposed to be.

“We can’t tell anyone about the scene or the episode, or else we’d give it away,” Richardson said.

Seitz said a lot of the extras on set try to act “over-the-top” to bring attention to themselves, but they are supposed to act naturally.

“There [are] always a few people trying to get in the shot, and that’s not what you want to do when you’re an extra,” Seitz said.

Andrew Gallant, co-founder of acting school Green Shirt Studio, said he has seen a more than 25 percent increase in student enrollment recently.

Gallant said his classes help those students who want to move from an extra role to a speaking one.

“A lot of our new students are coming from working on set—many of them as background [roles], some of them not even in a performance element at all,” Gallant said.

A lucky few enter extra work with no ambitions beyond a day’s work and then find themselves progressing to bit parts.

Alumna Erica Watson said she had not planned on acting in school, and instead got her bachelor’s degree in film and TV production in 1998 and her master’s degree in art, entertainment and media management   in 2005 from Columbia.

“At first, [acting] was something I was doing for fun,” Watson said. “I had never planned on being in front of the camera at all.”

Watson has played smaller roles in TV shows like “Empire” and “Chicago Fire,” but she was also in the movie “Precious” directed by Lee Daniels and played a principal role in the upcoming movie “Chi-raq,” directed by Spike Lee.

Watson said students should take acting seriously and be prepared when going to an audition, because as a director she said it is frustrating when she wants someone to be good because they fit the role, but they are not prepared.

“You don’t have to major in acting, but you have to have a respect for the craft and an appreciation for what it entails to take on a character,” Watson said.

The influx of productions Chicago has seen is likely due to tax breaks. To promote growth of the Illinois film industry and attract union leaders and filmmakers, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Film Production Tax Credit December 2008, which offers a 30 percent tax credit to films produced in the state. Since then, more than 250 films, TV shows and commercials have been filmed here.

Illinois is the only state that includes a further incentive for jobs and salaries given to Chicago residents who live in disadvantaged areas with at least a 13.8 percent unemployment rate, which is why some shows do not take place in Chicago but are filmed here, such as “Empire,” which is set in New York City.

However, Governor Bruce Rauner put a freeze on new applications for film tax credits in June when balancing the state’s budget. This freeze does not affect shows and movies continuing to film in Chicago, but affects new shows or movies that could bring jobs to Chicago residents and students, according to a June 2 press release from the Office of the Governor.

The freeze has not put a stop to students pursuing roles on the shows sticking it out in Chicago. Seitz and Richardson both said they are in the process of submitting applications for shows. Richardson going as far as auditioning for a speaking role on “Chicago PD.”

“People get discouraged because it’s difficult as an actress or actor, but if you keep working hard and trying to find little gigs, then you will eventually get [roles],” Richardson said. “[Roles are] not going to come at you; you have to go out there and search for them.”