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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Picture Yourself On Screen

MT
She was meant to dress like a poor provincial, and she'll only be on screen for a few seconds. But that didn't stop Yelena Maloshtanova straightening her hair to lustrous perfection and donning vertiginous heels.

Maloshtanova's tasks as an extra on the melodramatic Channel One television series "Love As It Is" were to eat a salad without crunching and mime a conversation. She doesn't watch the show, and didn't care about her character's motivations and desires -- she was just desperate to get noticed.

The 20-year-old acting student is one of thousands of Muscovites who've signed up with acting agencies as extras. With the number of series produced in Russia growing every year, there are more openings for foreigners -- though the process of getting picked is anything but transparent.

"I'm portraying gladness, euphoria, that it's kvas, the Russian national drink," muttered Pavel Sozinov, 44, as he mimed taking a swig for about the 30th time. There were five extras, mostly students, at tables in a roadside cafe mock-up, where a traumatized waitress discovered that a customer resembled her dead husband.

It was almost the 300th show of the serial, which is on for one hour, five days a week.

Extras were told by the assistant director to make silent toasts, sit up straight and not to smoke, because although alcohol consumption can be shown on Channel One, cigarettes cannot. The cafe itself was a spotless, sanitized version of the Russian provinces. It took four hours to film five short scenes; there were 12 takes plus rehearsals, and the extras barely moved from their seats.

Comparing an actor and an extra is "like comparing a lawyer and a trolleybus driver," offered one of the show's 49 main actors, while eating the tepid chicken used in a scene.

"If a troupe of horses appears on TV every day, they'll become famous," said Sozinov about the actors, after imitating a drunken toast for the cameras.


Vladimir Filonov / MT
Child actors ate chicken for the camera at "Love As It Is."
The extras didn't get outfits or their own dressing room, though the women were made up. They received 500 rubles. The titillation isn't only being on television -- it's being recognized on the street in a simulacrum of stardom.

"At the beginning it was a shock, and, of course, it was cool to be recognized and photographed," Maloshtanova said. "Now I'm more relaxed about it -- I say thank you and goodbye."

To get on the show, hopefuls had to be between 25 and 45, have "normal" looks fit for a provincial restaurant and no tattoos or unusual piercings. Alexander Kharlamov, a casting director at production company Amedia, picked them from the 5,000 extras on his books and called them the night before filming.

It works that way for most such work in Moscow. Wannabes should send a cover letter and photographs to production companies such as Amedia (www.amedia.ru), which claims to be the largest in the former Soviet Union. Acting agencies also receive portfolios -- it's free at the Obraz Theater School agency (www.casting.teatr-obraz.ru), while at Zolotaya Liga (www.telefilm.ru) and TopModel (www.actor-agency.ru) submission costs 1,000 rubles and 500 rubles, respectively. Searches on Google and Yandex turn up dozens more local agencies.

Television channel TNT (www.tnt-tv.ru) has a "casting" link on its site, and its press office says you can write to any show asking to be an extra.

Most casting directors say photos should show you emoting various moods and be professional, though Kharlamov, clutching an over-exposed shot of half a face, said the latter isn't important.

Castings are also advertised directly on acting agency sites, many on the Obraz school forum, so you might find work by just showing up. Openings are posted at the Mosfilm complex (1 Mosfilmovskaya Ul., www.mosfilm.ru).

Most work requires that you understand Russian, though in the Expat.ru forum, ads sometimes appear for speakers of foreign languages. Chris Karle, a Briton who has lived in Moscow for 12 years and appeared as an extra eight times, got a speaking role playing an British terrorist in a hammy action-romance movie. Independent film producer Andrei Vasilenko said he'd favor foreign extras over Russians because they were more worldly.

In demand right now are men who can play butch gangsters or policemen, said Irina Teverovskaya, an independent agent who has about 1,000 extras on her books, while women should simply be pretty, of medium height and with a good figure. Teverovskaya's specialization is big women. Anyone with dark skin can get paid two or three times more, she added, as they're often needed if a director wants to evoke a foreign city.

About 45 Russian-made serials have aired in the yearlong season that began June 2006, according to Amedia data. And from 100 to 150 movies were made in Russia last year, about one-third in Moscow, said Sergei Lavrov, statistics editor at Kinobiznes Segodnya film magazine.

As the "Love As It Is" filming drew to a close, the kvas had gone flat, and the spotlights by the fake windows were dimmed to evoke evening.

Sozinov said that although the show started at 4 p.m., when ratings are often low, he was confident at least one demographic would see his performance.

"For housewives, it's always prime time. They have a 24-hour prime time."