The line between extra and actor is sometimes a little bit blurry. Now and again, someone hired to stand around in the background will be pushed in the foreground to be featured prominently on screen or even to utter a single line of dialogue. Depending on circumstances, this can entitle the person to more money and perhaps even a share of royalties. Sometimes they’re told. Sometimes they’re not, and apparently, sometimes they sue over it almost two decades later.
Back in 1996, Vi Jay accepted a job to head to Mexico and work as an extra on Titanic in exchange for $60 a day. During filming, however, James Cameron reportedly asked Jay to work as a baggage handler in a scene opposite Kathy Bates. He’s shown briefly on screen when she arrives, uttering a little bit of dialogue, and in retrospect, he thinks that should entitle him to way more money than he was paid.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Jay filed a lawsuit recently against James Cameron and many of the various companies and studios that worked on Titanic. In it, he argues he should have been considered a "principal performer", and the Screen Actors Guild should have been notified of the change. That would have given him the chance to join, and it would have entitled him to a portion of foreign grosses and home video royalties.
Of course, that’s just Jay’s take on the matter. No one on the other side of the equation has yet to respond to the lawsuit, and one would imagine they have different views on the matter, whether they involve the almost two decades Jay waited to file his lawsuit, the walk-on nature of his role or some other mitigating factor.
People should get paid what they’re entitled to get paid, but this entire lawsuit just goes to show why studios are so opposed to ordinarily giving extras any kind of speaking roles. They can lead to greatly increased royalty packages for very little additional work or payoff. After all, it’s hard to imagine Titanic would have grossed a single dollar less had anyone else been given the same role or had their not been a porter at all.
If you want to read more about the process of being an extra, read Ken Levine’s account here. Or if you want a reminder of how visually stunning and awesome Titanic is, you can watch the film’s original trailer below…