I’m always on the hunt for corset wearing tips on behalf of my tomboy heroine Laurette. Or rather stays, given she lives in 1653. So who better to ask than an experienced period drama extra?
I was lucky enough to pin down my friend model, TV and film extra Deborah Hirzel for a chat. Deborah’s worked on many period dramas including Victoria, Gentleman Jack, the Downton Abbey film and The ABC Murders.
How did you become an extra?
I saw an online advert saying they were looking for TV extras for Dark Angel with Joanne Froggatt about the Victorian poisoner Mary Ann Cotton. I went on a fitting but when the filming dates were set, I was on holiday so couldn’t go. However this meant I was on the books of the casting agent, so I was contacted about more opportunities after that.
Why do you love being a TV extra?
If you put me in a costume, I’m living it. You don’t know the context of the scene but when I am listening, I get all emotional.
What type of person are you normally cast as?
I’ve been told I’ve got a “posh face” which means I get typecast as a wedding or party guest. On Victoria there’s a group of us who are known as The Posh Party Pack!
A big departure from this was acting as a Belgian peasant in the flashback scene in The ABC Murders, with John Malkovich playing Poirot. We were told to look terrified and upset as soldiers were attacking our village.
I looked terrible as I had really bad hay fever. I’m sure it’s why I ended up being seen on screen.
What’s the longest time you’ve spent in a corset?
In Gentleman Jack I spent 15 and a half hours in a corset. But the most challenging time was spending four days in a row in a corset in Victoria.
What’s it like to wear a corset for days on end?
It’s the equivalent of going to the gym. You feel faint and unwell. Everything is difficult to do. The heat of wearing the costumes is stifling. Your back aches, you feel uncomfortable and it’s impossible to eat a full meal. You can’t slouch as the corset digs in and restricts you. You drink less as you don’t want to have to go to the toilet because it’s so complicated with such huge skirts. So you feel more tired from the dehydration.
Every year someone faints and the first thing they do is loosen their corsets. One of my top corset wearing tips is to try to get to the front of the undressing queue. At the end of the day there’s almost a competition as to who can get out of their corset first! However after a few days I did notice that my waist went in more.
Eating less, drinking less… it makes you miserable. At the end of the day you feel bruised and achy. I can really understand why Victorian women were often described as ‘hysterical’. Being so restricted every day could definitely send you mad.
Do you manage to eat anything at all?
Well yes, there are dining buses set up for the extras. For lunch we sit with plastic covers over our costumes to protect them but you’re still in your corset. You have to eat very slowly, as it feels like food is getting stuck in your throat.
[Helen: Given my gluttonous nature, at this point any inclination to become an extra waned – see What would Elizabeth Bennet have eaten? to see how much I like my food!]
What are your top corset wearing tips?
I’ve learnt to expand my lungs when they pull the corset in to give a bit more room. A costume designer said my diaphragm was larger than most so I must be an opera singer or a runner. I’m the latter, which puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to corsets.
I also wear nude compression socks under skirts to help with standing for long periods.
When it’s getting really uncomfortable, it helps to remind yourself that you’ll soon be back in modern clothing and underwear!
How do they dress you for the role?
The dressers help you. You put the corset on first and then the outfit. For Victoria I had the same dress for all three seasons, but they changed the sleeve fashion each time.
In the third series I wore another dress originally meant for a shorter extra which needed to be let down to cover my feet. This meant my décolletage was far too low so I spent the day wrapped in a shawl!
Did you have hoops under the skirts in Victoria?
No we had three or four underskirts rather than hoops.
Do extras ever have any accessories?
In Victoria we always wore gloves. Occasionally we were given fans and a dance card. In Downton Abbey I had a clutch bag which was very exciting!
Do they ever apply makeup?
Not usually as it means you blend better into the background. The exception to this was the Downton Abbey movie but I was in a railway station about half a mile from the camera, so you wouldn’t be able to notice anyway! I also have to remember to come to set with natural nails, without any nail polish.
What about hair?
I’m known as “the lady with all the hair”. [Helen: Deborah has beautiful, long, brunette hair.] Often the hairstylists think it’s clip-ons and hairpieces. Sometimes they tug and yank it to get the hairpins out, thinking I won’t be able to feel it!
What’s the etiquette about talking to the actors?
If they talk to you, you can reply but you’re not allowed to approach them. This isn’t a hierarchy thing. Some actors want to stay in character between takes, and you could ruin that by going over and saying “Hi, I’m a huge fan!”
What are your highlights?
It wasn’t a period piece but National Treasure was really fun to film. Robbie Coltrane was flirting and made me blush!
It was wonderful to meet Alex Jennings (King Leopold in Victoria) during filming. He asked “Do you come here often?” and “How are you doing Duchess?” between takes. I also managed to get ‘that’ smile from Rufus Sewell…
[Helen: Interview was then paused as we collectively gushed about Rufus Sewell. In the 1990s I was at a cashpoint in London. I turned around to see Rufus walking down the street towards me, coat billowing behind him, and also got ‘that’ smile!]
Oh, and I was in the first episode of Gentleman Jack, when Anne Lister goes to the wedding of her ex. They were filming a close-up so there were only three of us in the room. Suranne Jones asked “Who am I brushing shoulders with?” When I piped up it was me, she took one look at my puffed sleeves and said “Well they are rather large!”
What’s a typical filming day like?
You’re usually paid for 10 hours with a one-hour lunch. If filming overruns, you’re paid overtime. The longest day I’ve done is 12 hours. My earliest call time was 5am.
Where do you film?
Costume fittings sometimes take place in London. However the success of Screen Yorkshire means I’m often filming near my home in York, such as Church Fenton Studios where there are dedicated sets for Victoria.
How do you get jobs as an extra?
I’m on Pop Platform. My profile includes photos and measurements. Casting agents look at you and then get in contact. It helps if you don’t have obviously dyed hair as it makes it easier to find hairpieces and wigs to match your hair.
What have you learnt about the filming process?
You see how much is edited out. There’s a lot of standing around. Once a scene took an hour to set up the lighting and then they cut it. One day’s work may translate to only a couple of seconds on screen.
If you could go back in time, which historical period would you choose?
That’s really difficult to answer. Probably one without corsets! Although I do have a ball dressing up and meeting other people.
About the author
H.J. Reynolds has written an historical action adventure about Royalist spies in Oliver Cromwell’s England. Can fledgling agent Lady Laurette Miles stop a traitor who could bring down the cause of the exiled King, and her own fragile hopes, forever?
Contact her at helen[at]hjreynolds.co.uk