Sheena Kamal was born in the Caribbean and immigrated to Canada as a child. She holds an HBA in political science from the University of Toronto, and was awarded a TD Canada Trust scholarship for community leadership and activism around the issue of homelessness. She is the author of The Lost Ones, which was just awarded the best debut novel title from the Strand Critic’s Awards, and It All Falls Down, which hit stands on July 3. Prior to writing novels, Kamal worked as a crime and investigative journalism researcher for the film and television industry — among other rather unsavory professions.
Below, she writes about her time as an extra in Hollywood in her own words.
The Invisible Woman: From Munchkin Extra to Author
The winter of 2016, I emailed my agent and said that I’m terribly sorry, but I’ve got a serious case of pink eye and I can’t be a munchkin extra on the Wizard of Oz dream sequence for that network TV show she’d booked me for. They were going to have to find another pint-sized woman to fit into my costume.
Obviously, the pink eye was a lie. Who gets conjunctivitis as an adult?
The truth was I couldn’t spend another day blending into the wallpaper, or the yellow brick road, or whatever. After a year and a half of being an extra in Hollywood North, work that I took to support myself while I wrote my debut thriller The Lost Ones, I was finally getting out. I had just gotten a book deal with HarperCollins in the US and Bonnier Zaffre in the UK. For three novels!
Let’s back up a bit. I had originally moved out to Vancouver from Toronto, after spontaneously quitting my job in television research, to write a novel. I had no job out west, no connections. I just knew I needed to write this book. Now. But I also needed a low-stakes job to earn a living while I did it.
Being too old to learn how to acquire a sugar daddy, I did the next best thing. I dusted off my actor’s union card and revisited the rules of being a professional extra:
- Arm yourself with a wardrobe appropriate to blend into the background (neutrals, no patterns, no whites).
- Bring clothes with pockets so you can hide snacks.
- Never shave your legs or else they will make you wear a skirt.
- Never bring heels to set or you’ll likely be teetering around for twelve-hours straight.
- Be prepared to feign religious outrage if they try to put you in something tight. Pretend you don’t speak English if necessary.
- Learn the hierarchy. You’re at the very bottom of it. And Beyoncé help you, don’t talk to the actors or the director. You are not worthy.
- Put your dignity away. You don’t get to have any in this job. People will shout at you, talk to you as though you are a child, treat you like a second-class citizen. Nobody will care about your degree in political science or that you once won the biggest scholarship in Canada. That was the old you. The new you is a smudge at the edge of a frame.
And the most important rule? Bring a book or, in my case, write one.
Because everyone on set assumed that as an extra I was some kind of idiot, I was able to ignore everyone around me and get to the business of writing while I worked. The upside is I was lucky enough to work a lot. People like me are the diversity productions use to mask the fact that there is no diversity in the leading roles. They color up the background.
The specific production didn’t matter to me, as long as I got paid. The 100, Once Upon A Time, The Flash, Arrow, 50 Shades, Star Trek — I wasn’t all that interested. There were many celebrity sightings but my favorite one was seeing Ryan Reynolds run out a few feet in front of me, covered in fake blood. That day I had no idea I was on Deadpool. When I saw Mr. Pool himself, I registered that it was very cool to be part of the Marvel Universe in some small way, then went back to plotting my book because that was the real reason I was doing this job.
Nobody noticed me there in the background, a tiny brown woman wearing pastels.
It seemed fitting. I was invisible in Vancouver while I wrote a Vancouver-set thriller about an invisible woman, someone that no one saw or took seriously. I put all my feelings about being overlooked into the book. Aside from small acting parts in commercials and a role opposite Tilda Swinton and Shirley Henderson in the Netflix feature Okja, my experience on set was largely of sitting in the background reading, researching, writing and watching life and art unfold in front of me.
It was hard swallowing my pride as often as I had to in that job, but it worked out. When I got the call from my literary agent that the book would be published, and that I was on the hook for two more… I can’t describe that feeling. All the sacrifices I made were suddenly worth it. But I knew I didn’t want to be an extra a second longer than I absolutely had to.
Do I regret lying about pink eye to get out of playing a munchkin? Yes and no. I’m sorry I lied. I should have been up front about the reason for turning down the work. But I’m not sorry I didn’t have to wear a munchkin costume and prance about in a fake Oz… wait, that sounds pretty fun, now that I think about it. I should have done it just for kicks.
You know what?
Being an extra wasn’t all bad. The food, while generally not good, was free. I got to travel to sets all over the region and see places I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise. I was in Deadpool and a slew of other interesting projects. And, like it or not, being invisible provided me an income while I wrote the book that changed my life forever.