“Hey, do you want to be a movie star in Cairo?” My attention was instantly taken away from the game of chess being played. Turning around to look through all the smoke in the cafe, surrounded by Egyptian men sipping mint tea, reading newspapers, and chatting loudly, a man was smiling in my direction. “Sorry, what?” I recall saying.
“Just what I said, would you like to be in an Egyptian movie?”
The year was 1997, and I was two days into my first solo backpacking trip, at the age of twenty. Having left England with only a limited amount of cash, the plan was to spend a few months in Egypt and Israel, then see what the hell happened next.
I was already enjoying it in Cairo,staying at an apartment block only ten minutes walk to the central square, with several hostels operating on each floor within the building. The place was in a bad state, with the elevator broken and cobwebs everywhere. It was all fascinating and new.
Below this old colonial style behemoth was a large cafe always packed with locals, and smelling of sweet sheesha smoke of various flavours, apple being the favourite. This is where myself and the other travellers would hang out, playing chess and backgammon, while chatting about what we had all seen that day.
It was also the perfect environment for directors to get film extras for their movies. An area full of budget travellers who would appreciate a bit of extra cash, have the time too spare for it, and enjoy the fun experience of being in a movie. An exotic foreign one at that.
“Would you like to be in a movie?” The man said again. Looking at each other we all smiled. “Sure, sit down and have a smoke!” Explaining that he was a scout for a film company needing foreign looking people, and that we would be paid around $15 for the day with food included, we all agreed to do it. It didn’t sound like much money for a days work, but Egypt was cheap, so the cash would go a long way. Besides, it would be an adventure!
And that’s how I came to stay in Cairo as a film extra for a while. I ended up doing many movies there, and also learnt something very important for a young adventurer;
I could help fund my journey while travelling.
This was a message for many saving to go backpacking, that you had the possibilities to make money while on the road. Some people say that they could never afford to go abroad for a long time, but the fact is there are so many options for you in order to live abroad, many off which you wouldn’t know about until you started travelling, and stumbled upon them.
The time spent there is some of my fondest travel memories. I got into some intriguing situations at times. I met some young locals in the cafe who invited me to their village in the suburbs for the night. It turned out they had a marijuana plantation on their land, and I ended up riding around the countryside on a donkey, high on hashish, and giggling myself silly.
Fun Times As A Film Extra In Cairo.
I played multiple roles as my time working as an extra. A normal day would involve getting dressed into the costume, sit around for a few while with fellow travellers playing cards or reading, then spend a few more hours doing the film shoot. It was interesting to see some famous Egyptian actors, and be involved in some huge productions.
You normally wouldn’t get speaking roles, spending the time quiet in the background. There were so many films going on, the Egyptian movie industry is quite big, and always film extra jobs needed, and thus I worked almost everyday. They needed foreign looking people, white and Asian being the preferred choice. I remember there was a traveller from Turkey who was annoyed he couldn’t do it because of apparently looking too much like an Egyptian.
Anyway, without further ado these are some of the scenes that I acted in.
The British Army Sergeant.
Several of us got dressed in army clothes and were given some rather crappy looking guns that were basically a piece of wood with a metal bar attached. Not the best film of the lot that’s for sure, but it was my first ever role.
Our job was to march into an office and arrest the Egyptian president. Obviously not the real one! We barged through the door and shouted; “British army, you’re under arrest!’ For some reason it took two hours to film twenty seconds of footage. We must have repeated that scene ten times over.
It was quite funny too see some of the extras in uniform. Some had travelled hard across Africa, and just the day before had big beards going on and a rather rough appearance. But they had to be cleaned up for the movie and so appeared freshly shaved. You almost couldn’t recognise some of them; “What the fuck, Dave is that you?”
The Foreign Doctor.
Ah, one of my favourite characters. I played a British doctor with a full surgeon outfit on, consisting of a face-mask and doctors robes (or whatever they’re called.) I was surrounded by three local Egyptian women dressed as nurses, and I had to pretend to operate on a patient lying on a hospital bed.
It was one of the rare times where I was actually the centre of the cameras attention, and also happened to be the only extra working on the set that day. I think because I was always available for work I got some better roles, as many of the travellers would do it just once for the experience.
This gig was the best as far as grandeur goes. They had hired out a five star hotels lobby, and there must have been around one-hundred actors and extras in total. I would say there was around ten of us foreigners, all dressed up in pristine looking suits, and although I was apparently a British diplomat, I had to wear a traditional Moroccan hat. I never did figure that one out. Everyone else had grand costumes on.
There was some famous Egyptian actors, and all the people had to stand around the lobby as they entered, and watch them walk into the dining room. I remember all us travellers stood at the staircase, each one on a different step. That day was the most I felt like being on a proper big movie set, with lots of hustle and bustle as everyone got prepared.
The funniest day by far. Again in an expensive hotel, this time the dining room. There were multiple tables set up with four people at each, two comprising us foreign extras, one with more well know actors, and the rest locals. The theme was a business dinner, and we had to sit around drinking apple juice pretending it was wine (I wished it was), and acting like we were having an animated conversation together.
There was a stage with a rather flamboyantly dressed fat middle aged singer, and for some unknown reason the director chose our table for her (she actually looked more like a guy, so you never know) to come over and sing to. My fellow giggling travellers were a Canadian girl and an American guy sitting opposite, with a Japanese dude next too me who I swear must have smoked a big fat joint of hash before going to the set.
It took an hour to film the scene with us, simply because everyone couldn’t stop giggling. Whenever the woman(?) came over, myself and the Japanese guy could see her come, but the American and Canadian couldn’t and frequently giggled when they had to turn around and act like we were enjoying the up close table show.
The Japanese man was the best though, he started crying due to laughing so much, and the director and singer couldn’t figure out why. In the end I had to give a facial signal at the two sitting opposite me, that she had almost reached the table from the stage, so they could keep a straight face when turning around.
I still smile now when writing this and thinking back. Afterwords we all went out and got proper drunk, and laughed our way late into the night.
It’s All Show-Business.
There was a whole bunch of other roles I did, but these are the four that stick out most in my head. Cairo is an awesome city, and having the opportunity to live there for a while as a film extra I will always be grateful for, especially as it was my first time backpacking.
I remember the first two backpackers I met and hung out with, Rob and Caroline. They told me something that was to ring true for my life up until now. They were experienced world travellers and said to me after a few days in Cairo; “You will catch the travel-bug if you keep going, and you may have trouble settling down anywhere for a long time!” Seventeen years later from that comment and I am still abroad and travelling…
Did you know you can get work as a film extra in some countries when travelling?
Cairo isn’ the only place that you can find film extra work. When I was in Mumbai a scout offered me a job as an extra in the bollywood movies. He found me sitting at a popular expats bar near the gateway to India monument,. Again it was for limited money, but India is cheap to travel and so would go a long way. I didn’t do it due to meeting up with others elsewhere in the country.
In South-East-Asia you can find work in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok apparently, but I was personally never offered when hanging out there, I heard this from other travellers.
If you want to find work in Cairo like I did, then your best bet is to head to the cheaper hotels recommended in guide books in the centre. That is where film scouts will go looking for extras, and if they don’t go to the hotel you are in, ask the staff and they should be able to point you in the right direction. Otherwise just try a different hotel.
I’m pretty sure that in any country needing a foreign looking person for a film extra, you will be able to find work. Given the opportunity do it, and you may have some of your best travel memories.
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