All Guts, No Glamour: How to be a Film Extra
Ah, to be on the big screen with the big stars! To learn the mysteries of film-making. To see the inner workings of the film industry. To experience the process of visualizing a story.
And...get fed a lot and make a little money on the side.
This is the world of being a film extra. Shooting goes on just about everywhere so if the next Hollywood blockbuster or unknown indie comes to your town, you could get a chance to be a face in the crowd. Just go into it knowing you’re there for the experience and, hopefully, a little fun.
First, to put your mind at rest, you do not need to be drop dead gorgeous, thin as a toothpick, or have a smile full of big, white teeth. Film extras should look like everyday people. According to Director of Casting for Hollywood East Casting DavidSchifter it's not about looking like any certain type. "Forget about the Hollywood look. It doesn't exist anymore. It doesn't matter if you're tall, short, skinny, fat, it doesn't matter."
All you need is a photo or two: a headshot and a full body shot. It doesn’t even have to be professionally done, your cell phone camera is good enough. Fill in any information the casting director asks for, usually height, weight, hair color, and clothing sizes. They may also ask you about the kind of clothes you already own, such as a tuxedo or evening gown or any period clothing.
Are you hoping to do this on a regular basis? It may be worth it to have the shots professionally done. Get a headshot and full body shot done with a digital camera or professional photographer and package it with your resume. If you want and can afford it, go ahead and get photos with different looks such as one in casual dress, one in business dress, and one in formal dress.
Just don’t have the photos touched up. The casting agency wants to know what you really look like.
If you are fortunate to live where there is an ongoing need for film extras, you can include a variety of looks in your photos to give the local casting office an idea of where you could be used if you are not applying for a specific film. Just contact the local film commission or keep an eye on the papers to find out who may be coming to your neck of the woods.
While You Are There
The number one rule is Be Professional. be punctual, reliable, and able to take direction. And no photos! Even if there is nothing explicit forbidding it, always, always ask before taking pictures. And do not post them on the internet unless you have permission. To do otherwise can get you into legal hot water and “never work in this town again.” At least as a film extra.
Being an autograph hound isn’t welcome either. If one is offered, great. If not, don’t bother the actors; they are there to do a job, too.
Be aware (or maybe that should be Beware)...you will have a lot of down time. Getting a set ready for a shoot can take long hours. Then only a couple of minutes of film may be taken and the whole place reset. Not much glamour there. Take something with you to pass the time like a book or some knitting. You can also do a little networking with the other extras. You may receive a tip about getting more work or hear some interesting stories about other people’s experiences.
As mentioned earlier, go into this with the idea of having a fun experience because the pay is very low. Most production companies will offer plenty of food and a place to sit but as far as a living wage, it would be a challenge. In general you can expect $50 to $75 for one day’s work. And that day could extend from 8 to 12 hours or more. If you are asked to speak a line you may get a bit more. If you have an extra talent related to the picture such as social dancing you may net a bit more.
A caveat: many want to be in film and that spurs the scammers. If the casting agency asks you for money up front, leave immediately and look for someone more reliable.
Contact Extras Casting Agencies
Like a temp agency, there are casting agencies that either specialize in extras or have an office that does. Look up “casting office” and “extras” along with the name a major city to find those nearest you. They will have a list of upcoming projects and possibly the number and type of extras needed.
Some other possibilities include the local film school and the local news sources.
Get Your Details Together
Having this list of details available can mark you as a very helpful and prepared extra:
- Full name and contact information, especially a phone that is promptly answered.
- Your birth date (with the year) and a range of ages you could realistically portray.
- Your hair color and ethnicity or skin tone.
- The year, make, model, and color of car you drive.
- Height, weight and all clothing sizes from shoes and gloves to bust, neck, and inseam.
- Your availability.
- Anything else the casting office wants.
One professional film extra maintained a closet of costumes that he could raid as needed, making him extremely versatile. Also list any special skills you have for those times the director needs the extras to do something other than stand or walk; if you play tennis, sing, dance, or otherwise do something well that would fit into the film, make it known to the agency.
The truth is that you probably won’t get any. When the call comes it is usually for the next day. The agency may not have any details at all about what you will be doing aside from a hint of what type of clothes to wear. Take two or three outfits of the type requested and let the film production decide.
Once you arrive report to the assistant director or whomever you are told to find. Then be ready to take direction, blend in, and perform on a moment’s notice. Otherwise bring things to keep you from being too bored. You will probably be there for several hours with only a few minutes of actual work.
A Final Word
Take the opportunity to network with your fellow extras who may have tips or referrals for more work. You won’t earn a lot as an extra but new experiences as always good and, like any other business, if you make a good impression and become a familiar and reliable presence, you will be remembered for next time.
You are unlikely to make a living being an extra but in the power brokered entertainment business, getting to know people is the best first step into the industry, no matter what role you play.
Have you been a film extra? What was your experience? What would you add? And, if you followed any of the advice in this article, what worked and what didn't? Leave a comment so we can all learn from you.