Working as a Background Actor

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An aspiring actor might consider working as a background actor, also known as an extra, to gain valuable on-set experience, meet new people and to receive a paycheck. But what should one expect while doing background work?

Looking for work

You don’t need to have an agent or belong to SAG-AFTRA to be a background actor. It’s a job that’s open to anyone. That includes people of any age, body type or ethnicity. However, opportunities to do background work are concentrated in large cities like Los Angeles and New York, so you’ll want to live close to production. Extras are most often booked based on their headshots and full-body shots featuring their current look. It’s important to know the age range and the types you can realistically pull off.

The night before a shoot

Typically, the night before a shoot, background actors are notified via email detailing the location, call time as well as information about where to park and what to bring.

Arriving on location

It’s good practice to arrive 15 minutes prior to call time in case of traffic or parking complications. In fact, due to the size of the cast and crew and all the cars they drive, you might want to count on parking complications. Sign in when you arrive. You’ll probably be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), agreeing not to take photos or videos of the production or reveal pertinent information about the project via social media. In fact, production might put a sticker over your cell phone’s camera lens for good measure.

Wardrop

If no wardrobe information is provided, call ahead of time to see what is expected. Background actors are usually required to bring their own wardrobe. Generally speaking, avoiding patterns, logos, bright colors or wearing all black. Bring your clothing on hangers; It’s wise to use a garment bag to keep your items neat and all in one place. You’ll likely be asked to come hair- and makeup-ready. When wardrobe is provided, such as for period pieces, know your measurements — height, shoe size, size for tops and bottoms, hat size and ring size.

Hours on set

Let’s say the agreement is that you’ll receive $250 dollars for eight hours of background work. Although your work may indeed wrap up in eight hours on one shoot, oftentimes there are delays that can tack several hours onto your workday. After all, you may be one of five extras on a small, contained shoot, or one of 300 extras on an epic shoot. Therefore, it’s important for background actors to have flexible schedules.

Food

While food is provided, it may be served late in the day, or there may not be a whole lot left on crowded days. Just in case, bring water and a snack.

The actual work

It’s part of an extra’s job to be quiet and respectful between takes and during takes. Turn off phones so no rings or notifications sound during takes. The crew will call “Background!” when it’s time for extras to take their places on set. Each job is different — one day you’ll be asked to simply stroll down the boardwalk, while on other days you’ll be asked to pantomime like you’re having a terrific time while feigning speaking. Be cordial and respectful to the director and assistant director.

Bring a backpack

Make sure you have ways to entertain yourself during the long hours on set. Consider bringing a portable charger for your cell phone, a laptop or perhaps some headphones if you want to listen to music or an audiobook. But keep in mind, some sets have no Wi-Fi, so be prepared with items like a good book or deck of cards. Also, be prepared for rain or shine by packing sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses or an umbrella.

Payment information

Make sure to have your social security card with you and identification, such as your driver’s license or passport. Also, make sure to learn about the overtime rate when working background especially on smaller sets. If they don’t provide you with written payment information, get an email confirmation of the agreed-upon rate.

Manage expectations

A set isn’t always a place of peace and harmony. With time constraints, all the personalities on set, technical complications, and both money and reputations on the line, the environment has its stressful moments to be sure. Don’t take this personally. By following protocol, you can make a point to not add to the stress. Also, when the film or TV production is released to the public, expect to not be seen or be recognizable on screen. And don’t expect to catch the eye of an agent or casting director while working background, as they rarely come to a shoot unless visiting a client, producer, or director. However, sometimes the director or assistant director will take note of an extra’s professionalism or ability to take a direction, and will thus request them for other work.

Does working as an extra serve as a stepping stone to becoming a working actor?

While Matt Damon, Renée Zellweger, Megan Fox and Kevin Costner all worked background before becoming stars, it wasn’t their background work that got them there. Being an extra will not bring clout to your actor’s resume the way your training will or your performances in theater, TV, film, or online. To develop as an actor, it’s your dedication to the craft that matters.

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