There are many people in the entertainment industry who will never be recognized on the street by an adoring public, but the work of Tona Dahlquist is evident in scene after scene in major film and television productions.
Dahlquist is a casting agent who has earned the Behind the Scenes Award, which will be presented during the 16th annual Beaufort International Film Festival later this month.
The award was established to recognize a person whose work is most often unseen and unheralded yet contributes enormously to the overall success of a television or motion picture production.
“I’m very honored to be the first casting agent to receive (the award),” Dahlquist said. “At the same time, it’s not just me. I couldn’t do this without the thousands of people that help in filming. It takes so many people. They give their time for not substantial money. To me, they’re not really honoring me, we’re honoring all of those people. I’m nothing if they don’t show up.”
Casting extras, also known as background actors, is Dahlquist’s specialty. Extras generally have non-speaking roles and appear on screen to add a dimension of authenticity to a scene. An extra may play the part of a fan in a football stadium, a nurse in an operating room or a soldier charging across a battlefield. The roles that are performed by a background actor are usually uncredited.
“We do big projects and little projects,” Dahlquist said. “It’s a wide variety of projects that have some normal needs and some unusual needs. When we were in Beaufort last spring with “The Righteous Gemstones” we needed a lot of people, but we also needed fire eaters. There’s always random things that we need to find.”
Among Dahlquist’s more well-known projects are: “Forrest Gump,” “Iron Man 3,” “The Hunger Games,” “The Conspirator” and “Homeland.”
The process of getting a film from a screenwriter’s computer screen to the big screen is staggering. The featured actors, the faces everyone knows, represent just a small portion of the legions of people contributing to that effort.
“Everybody has their niche, and it all comes together,” Dahlquist said. “What you see on screen is what everybody created. It’s a team effort for sure.”
After getting a start in a modeling career out of high school, Dahlquist discovered that she didn’t love being in front of the camera. A fluke opportunity to assist with casting came while her son was cast with a speaking role in a film. She chipped in to help the extras casting agent, who seemed to be struggling with the role. That agent later landed an acting role on a film and recommended Dahlquist to serve as the casting agent. From there, her reputation and career began to grow.
“I just kind of fell into it, really,” Dahlquist explained. “I didn’t go to film school. It always kind of fascinated me, but it wasn’t something I studied for. But I will say that I have a good eye for it.”
Dahlquist relayed a story about casting extras to play the role of hospital patients for the film “Chattahoochee” that was shooting in an actual hospital. After getting her actors into costume, she gave them direction in preparation for filming. During rehearsal, some of the feature actors believed real patients were being used in the scene, leading Dahlquist to conclude that she had found her calling.
In the early days of her career, finding extras usually meant posting a notice in local newspapers and in places like malls. Schedules were communicated by phone, or even by letter. The labor intensive process of managing large groups of extras meant that production teams rigidly adhered to shooting schedules. Today, easier communication options mean that schedules can, and often do, change with very little notice.
Extras sign on to productions for a variety of reasons, Dahlquist offered. Some are professionals that take every available opportunity. Others want to be part of a particular production or work around certain actors or directors. Some show up to cover a gap between jobs. She also discussed what makes a good extra.
“Showing up on time,” Dahlquist said. “Following instructions. There’s a lot of hurry up and wait. There’s days when people get there, and they work the entire time. Then there’s other times when they sit in holding for five or six hours to work for 30 minutes. I always tell people not to judge it by one bad experience. Every show is different. Every day is different. You’ve just got to be patient.”
Beyond her work as a casting agent, Dahlquist founded the Extra Hands Group to make charitable donations to a wide range of causes. The group has collected food, coats and clothing. They have donated to a food bank; given clothing to homeless shelters and granted two wishes through the Make A Wish Foundation.
“I started saying that I want to give back to every area that we film in,” Dahlquist said. “We just started doing it. We had huge numbers (of extras) on “The Hunger Games.” I said, ‘If you’re filming, if you can bring a can of food for the food bank we’ll have a spot where you can leave it.’ When they came to work, they left it, and we donated it.”
A resident of Columbia, Dahlquist’s four children are all in the entertainment industry, as are their spouses. Two sons work with her in the casting office, while one daughter is an actor and the other is a makeup artist. Today’s fun fact is that one Dahlquist son-in-law is actor Sean Patrick Flannery. Her other son-in-law is a writer and a producer.
“That’s kind of neat,” she said. “Everybody understands it, the long hours. Even when they were growing up they knew I was going to be busy for three months, but then I was going to be off. They all just grew up in it.”
Tona Dahlquist will receive the Behind The Scenes Award at the 16th Annual Beaufort International Film Festival. For more information visit www.uscbcenterforthearts.com