How You Can Break Into Show Business as a Film TV Extra, aka Background Actor

Big Bang Theory - On the Set

Big Bang Theory - On the Set
Big Bang Theory - On the Set | Source

The Basics of Background Acting

Well, the good news is that anyone can be a background actor - someone who is paid to provide atmosphere for a film or television show. Often, it is a chance to see and possibly work with your favorite stars upfront. Never mind the "Extras" section of DVD where you learn a bit about how they make a movie come to life, for some this means a front row seat to be part of the magic.

Ok, now the bad news - you get paid minimum wage, you're considered the lowest class in the Hollywood caste system, ("you're background, wait 'til the crew eats..," "no, you can't come in here..") call-time is often before sunrise, days are often 12-14 hours long, conditions may be miserable - waiting in the rain for food that's gone cold or standing in the dark and trying to see what's for breakfast with a flashlight..

Yours Truly Playing One of Chicago's Finest

Background Acting - Fun and Realities

But, if you're willing to put up with a whole lot / have a sense of humor and cheerful attitude under the most challenging circumstances, there are some really fun times as well. I've played various roles already - ranging from paramedic to news reporter to policeman. It's fun to try out a persona just for a day - something that we rarely get to do in "real"life. Occasionally, you'll be amazed at being paid to do; on one show they needed Asian businessmen golfing at lunch. Believe me, I didn't mind being paid to work on my swing!

Also, since most of the film / TV production is done in Los Angeles, there are much fewer opportunities to do this work unless you're willing to relocate.

Extras - Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter

Extras - Complete Series

So, How DO You Get Started in Background Acting?

While there are many casting agencies, Central Casting is still the 600-lb gorilla. It's said that 90-95% of the extras casting is handled through their office. This organization was started in 1925 by an alliance of the major Hollywood producers called the Association of Motion Picture Producers to help meet the growing needs of film production, while curbing some of the rampant exploitation of Hollywood hopefuls.

More than likely, you're a movie buff or fan of TV shows like Lost or Heroes or Friday Night Lights, and just as likely you'll meet others who are passionate about film / television as well. I've met at least a few folks who enjoy the same shows AND sharing our love of these.

If you haven't seen it yet, the HBO series Extras by Ricky Gervais is a great satire that offers some insights into both the entertainment industry and what goes on in film / television production. This is a video clip of an episode with Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.

Essential Guide to What Happens On-Set

Success Tips for the New Background Actor

  • Be on-time PERIOD - plan your route the night before and try to get to set 20-30 minutes before your call-time; if nothing else, this built-in buffer will save your neck!
  • Listen carefully to the instructions given and take good notes. Often, you'll be given specifics for wardrobe to meet the needs of the day's shoot. Sometimes this involves a change of clothes mid-day.
  • Bring a small notepad and pen - you'll need to fill out a "voucher," which is essentially your time card for each gig.
  • Once on-set, report to the AD (Assistant Director) or PA (Production Assistant) who will give you a lot of your directions for the day - including where to wait (background holding,) what each scene will require you to do (most basic include: starting points for each take - referred to as "back to one" and "crosses" - walking from point A to point B); when / where to eat (each production will its own protocol but food is often provided for you - an added bonus on top of your paycheck). PAY ATTENTION to his / her instructions, and you'll save everyone a lot of grief.
  • Bring a good book or some other activity. There is often considerable downtime, as the crew sets up the camera and other equipment such as lighting.
  • Keep your head on a swivel - there is often some pretty dangerous activity, not even counting special effects like Jerry Bruckheimer explosions. Dollies running on tracks that are trip hazards, cable and wires with live electricity, vehicles are racing to be in place, crew moving heavy props.. these are only a few examples.
  • Ever notice how strange a scene looks without people or how you feel transported to an exotic country when there is the right background? Most of all, remember to have a positive attitude and to have fun - you're helping to make the scenes come alive.
  • Once you get serious about this field, join a reputable calling service. I personally use Joeys List. They're known as the Cadillac of calling services. Other services have varying reputations; I've heard one person say that one works great for them, right after someone talks about how awful it is. Bottomline: see what works for you. If you're a unique type, aka "category," (for example, young Asian professional male,) one service may fewer clients that fit that profile so they would submit you for more jobs. Fees are typically $60-70 per month right now.

For More Information - Here's a Highly Recommended Book

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Comments 2 comments

BeatsFromDaStreet 6 years ago

Great post - and anybody interested in being an extra should definitely check out Ricky Gervais' HBO show "Extras." Pure brilliance.

Definitely bring a book or a full iPod. Also keep clothes for unpleasant weather handy - there's not always room in the EZ-Up Tents!


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jycmba 6 years ago from Los Angeles CA Author

Yes, definitely! "Be prepared" is the motto of Boy Scouts & extras - although food is often provided, it can be a long time 'til the crew is done eating, never mind breaking from shooting so it's a good idea to eat ahead or bring some munchies.

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