As some of you may know, I recently entered into the burgeoning Louisiana film industry. One of the first people I met on a New Orleans set was Susie Labry, or as I like to call her, “Susie Sunshine” . An amazing ambassador for Hollywood South she was quick to offer a welcome, a smile and a crash course on Extras 101. When it comes to mentoring in the biz, Susie is the Yoda of the background extra galaxy. A recently written article about Susie was something I wanted to share. Heres to you Susie Sunshine!
Sharon Denise Talbot
The extra mile
Friday, October 1, 2010
Susie Labry has appeared as an extra in nearly 250 movies and TV shows and is getting more work now than ever.
The closet is a tiny time machine. Inside, vintage dresses, hats, purses, eyeglasses and shoes document familiar fashion trends going back 75 years. The cat-eye glasses and pillbox hats—these are not just Susie Labry’s clothes. This is her wardrobe.
In 2004, the 56-year-old reached into her historical collection and dressed in mid-century threads her mother probably wore. She arrived an hour before call time on the New Orleans set of Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles biopic, Ray, looking for work. Luckily, the production was in the middle of a major wardrobe shortage, and Labry was whisked swiftly to a production assistant and prepped for the cameras.
“That’s my job,” Labry says, her Yat accent bread-pudding thick. “Got to be ready-ready.”
From actors and crew technicians to legislators, a lot of people are taking the Louisiana film industry more seriously of late, but few have taken it more seriously—and for as long—as Susie Labry. Since her first appearance on the steps of the State Capitol to mourn Huey Long in 1975’s The Life and Assassination of the Kingfish, Labry has worked as an extra in nearly 250 movies and TV shows. What once was a passion—before it became trendy—she has now turned into her profession.
The life of an extra can mean long hours and little recognition for precious seconds of screen time. But the day is structured, the meals are hot and the paychecks arrive two to three weeks later like clockwork. Extras can earn $56 for every eight-hour shift, even if they aren’t needed the full eight hours. They earn $10.50 for every hour after the eighth. Lunch is 30 minutes, catered and free.
The rules are simple. Quiet on the set. No autographs or photos with the stars. No red, white or black clothes unless instructed. Basically, Labry says, follow the casting director’s instructions exactly.
Patient and even-keeled, Labry makes a dependable extra, says Brinkley Maginnis, a local casting director. Labry has met Paul Newman, Dolly Parton, Farrah Fawcett and others, but has never once been star-struck. “Stars are like co-workers to me,” Labry says.
Above all, being an extra gives her the chance to be someone, somewhere, sometime else. And it all starts with her character’s clothes. “It’s like going on a trip when you know you’re on the road and out of Louisiana,” she says. “But that’s a horizontal thing. Putting on a new wardrobe is vertical.”
Labry grew up in New Orleans daydreaming of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the high-stakes dramas in other politically-themed movies of the silver screen era of Hollywood. In 1973 she was elected as a delegate to the state Democratic Convention, and four years later she graduated from LSU with a political science degree. After LSU, she drifted a bit, she says, taking odd job after odd job. Labry wanted to run for office, or at the very least, remake herself into a political insider with real pull. But with a quirky personality and little means, she wasn’t sure exactly where she fit. “I’m a conservative Jeffersonian Democrat,” she says. “I don’t ride with ideologues. I take one issue at a time.”
Labry remains politically active and is seen here at a rally for U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Labry is, admittedly, no policy wonk. What attracted her to politics was the same thing that had drawn her to acting: the glitz and glamour, the pageantry of it all.
“I don’t care for the debates and controversy and all that,” she says. “I like the promotional aspects of it. It’s the people I like. I’m a people person.”
In the early 1980s, she worked as an extra when she could, though the industry was not nearly as active as it is today. To pay the bills, she worked as a typist for the state. It was an easy job that allowed her plenty of time to do movies and to throw herself into politics as a campaign volunteer in dozens of races, including campaigns for Mayor David Treen, Lt. Governor Fox McKeithen and earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy.
Labry became an enthusiastic extra in the political arena, too. Catch news footage from campaign rallies and victory speeches throughout the years, and chances are Labry will be there, somewhere in the background, her pinched smile and large eyes angling to the camera.
“I’ve always liked being in front of cameras and on TV,” Labry says. “I like the vibe of it. Being connected with history in some way always appealed to me.”
Steady work in Everybody’s All-American, Blaze and The Pistol in the late 1980s was a turning point for Labry’s filmography, and she began thinking of it as a career.
By 2004, Labry was making more money from her roles as an extra than she was working the cash register at Calandro’s. Less than two years after the state’s film incentives program passed the Legislature, Labry took a chance on the movie industry and left the grocery store for good. She didn’t leave just to put her passion for acting into practice, but she used her political bent to lobby for the film industry. Soon she was campaigning again—this time for her fellow actors. Taking a cue from a similar industry network based in New Orleans, Labry began developing and organizing a grassroots, web-based group of extras; ordinary people like her who wanted to make a decent wage in background roles. Part workshop, part social networking group, Labry’s “Baton Rouge Meetup” group disseminates news of casting calls, film screenings and professional development opportunities to locals in the industry.
“Susie is more than just your typical extra,” says Wayne Douglas Morgan, a New Orleans-based actor and producer. “She is quick to help people wanting to get involved into the industry, and her hard work and sheer dedication are infectious.”
Labry with former governor Jimmie Davis in 1982.
In July, Labry shot scenes in Jason Lee’s new detective series Memphis Beat. That followed her appearances in HBO’s post-Katrina hit Treme, the upcoming alien invasion flick Battle: Los Angeles and the Jennifer Garner and Hugh Jackman comedy Butter. Meanwhile, she has a battalion of actors in her group getting work and gaining experience in one of Louisiana’s fastest-growing industries. “Right now at my fingertips I have 100 extras ready to work tomorrow,” Labry says, snapping her fingers.
More significantly, Labry’s long-sought-after political influence finally blossomed last year when her group joined hundreds of other industry professionals and made enough noise to prove to the state Legislature that an indigenous industry, now supported by the state’s film incentives program, was growing. In the face of picket signs and rallies of actors and crew members on the Capitol steps where Labry had made her first TV appearance 25 years earlier, legislators voted to expand the state’s tax credits for film production from 25% to 30% and erased the law’s sunset clause.
It was a huge political win not lost on Labry. She sees the effects of the state’s incentives every day when she slips into character and goes to work on productions across Louisiana. “This is my vacation,” she says. “I’d rather spend it on a film set than laid out on a sun-baked beach.”