From hot tea to hospital sets: My experience being a film extra in Sam Mendes’ new film, Empire of Light

May 4th is known to many as International Star Wars day (‘May the 4th be with you’). I could never have imagined that I would be spending Star Wars day reading an article about The Empire Strikes Back in a 1980s-hospital ward. On May 4th 2022, I lay in a hospital bed with an intravenous drip taped to my arm reading an original magazine from the film’s release year in 1980. Before you wonder whether I had stumbled into some sort of Tardis, I was in fact on a film set, which to me is quite possibly the next best thing to time-travel. Everything from the 1980s style Cadbury’s Roses box on my bedside table, to the doctor and patient costumes worn by my fellow extras, the film-makers had considered every detail in setting of the scene.

The film was James Bond director Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light, a romantic story drawing on the director’s childhood experiences of cinema and starring Olivia Colman and Micheal Ward. I was called in at the crack of dawn for the hospital scene, but cameras didn’t roll until around 2 pm. I kept myself occupied by reading books, catching up with uni work, and chatting to fellow extras. It was a rewarding way to meet people who share an interest in film, and make contacts for potential future projects. Hanging out with like-minded people for long periods waiting for a call to the set forges friendships surprisingly quickly. Sitting around in 1980s attire with 21st century iPhones and overcoats provided a curious juxtaposition of different eras. The large team of extras were well looked after. I was pleasantly surprised by the food served by the on-set catering team too. The menu differed each day, and provided a variety of different dishes along with a plethora of beverages, desserts and cheese and biscuits (on my filming day I went for spinach and feta cheese quesadillas which were delicious). I also found myself drinking excessive amounts of tea; whether it was to maintain the caffeine boost from the early starts or simply pass the time – not even I could be sure.

In the two places I had my fitting and shot the scene there were plenty of noticeable indicators of the film’s setting. There were rows of late 70s and 80s Fords and Vauxhalls, and even some police cars and ambulances from the same time period. When I was on set the day before filming, there was a close-up scene being filmed in the back of an ambulance – indicated by the 1980 model with its back doors open surrounded by black screens, lights and crew members. Then of course, there were the costumes. At the fitting, there were rows and rows of 70s/80s fashion, in addition to various different patient, nurse and doctor’s outfits. My patient attire consisted of one of the more basic outfits, simply being a light green button-up shirt and bottoms over some white tights; which I could best describe as some fancy retro pyjamas. The walls were adorned with pictures of real photos of 70/80s outfits and haircuts, clearly a reference guide for those working in the costume, hair and make-up department. In fact, I was required to get my long hair trimmed as part of the role. A lovely Welsh hairdresser gave me a bob of sorts – utilising my inherited curls. At first I thought it looked like the Beatles‘ signature haircut from the early 60s, but when it was ruffled up for the role it was more akin to David Naughton’s hair in American Werewolf in London (a film released in 1981; the same year Empire of Light is set in). It wasn’t until I was actually on the hospital set for the film that the detail devoted to the set really sank in. As I sat ‘ill’ in my bed, I admired the work put in by the set designers, costume team, and the props guys who had put together a very authentic looking ward. At one point I was required to silently ‘mime’ a conversation with a doctor in the background of one of the takes. It was fascinating to see the cinematographers and mic operators in their element, adjusting every position and angle so they got each take just right. Sam Mendes himself even approached my bed at one point to adjust a table lamp. There were many people running and back and forth on the set; people shouting ‘rolling’ and ‘action’ every 5 minutes, designers adjusting extra’s hair and makeup, stand-ins for the main actors, and of course, the main actors themselves. It’s a surreal experience working alongside well-known actors who are so greatly admired. As much as you’re aware they are regular people doing a job, it is impossible not to become star-struck when they walk on set. I did however get a smile or two from Olivia Coleman.

The hospital scene was filmed on a set built at Ramsgate airport, but there was a couple of other scenes I was called for that were filmed in Margate. The first was in a cinema on the seafront built to capture the 80s aesthetic. It was classic art deco, with impressive Grecian pillars and marbled stairways, and the red curtains that were typical of theatres of the day. Many of us extras were paired up as couples going on a date night to the cinema, others were grouped into friends, and there were some older extras who sat alone. The props team even handed us the classic popcorn buckets, which were refilled with Sainsbury’s popcorn after every take. The scene we watched was a scene from the 1980 comedy film Stir Crazy starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. By the time we wrapped, we all knew every detail of that scene start to finish. Needless to say, watching a film in a cinema as an extra for a film was probably one of the most meta things I’ve ever done.

The other scene was shot right in the heart of Margate’s Dreamland; a recently reopened fairground with rides, arcades, and a roller disco. This was the most enjoyable scene I participated in. The scene they were filming was a living, breathing fairground. There were extras on rides, running fairground stalls, and real ice cream and candy floss stalls. It was a busy scene with a lot of extras present; from groups of intimidating skinheads smoking to families and school children on a day out (At my extra ‘interview’ I was asked if I would be willing to have my head shaved and smoke – I politely declined both!). Despite the large scale of the set, it was the closest I’d been to the main actors. One scene even involved Olivia Coleman and Micheal Ward going around a spinning ride, which made me think acting must be one of the best jobs ever. I was assigned to run a coconut shy in the background of one scene; with an army of 80s school kids ruthlessly smashing coconuts in between takes. At one point one of the youngest extras got upset because he didn’t win a prize on a stall as it wasn’t real: the wonderful Olivia Colman stepped and picked out a prize for him herself. There was such a positive energy on set that day. The sun was shining, the rides were rolling, and I don’t think I’ll ever get through so much candy floss in one day.

Being an extra on such a major movie was a unique and exciting experience. If the opportunity arises, I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in filmmaking or films in general. The job requires a lot of patience, as you spend long days waiting around to be called, or even wondering if you’ll be called at all. Regardless of whether your scene is in the final cut, being able to observe the film-making process first hand is a valuable and rewarding experience, and one that has only expanded my passion for cinema. It has forever changed my perspective on the process of movie production, and I would certainly be up for getting paid for lying in a fake hospital bed again reading a Star Wars magazine in the future (and yes, you can spot me in the final cut!).

Watch Empire of Light in cinemas from 9th January.

The fictitious cinema ‘Empire’ created at Dreamland on the Margate seafront, taken when I went for a costume fitting