- Jun 13, 2018
I have a great conversation-starter: I used to work as a background actor in TV and movies. It was one of the most enjoyable times in my life. I did it full-time for a couple of years, then decided to become a work from home mom.
I figured some of the people in the Earn That Buck Community may be interested in working as an extra. If you’re one of those people, you’re in luck - here’s my extensive guide to working as a background actor!
Why Work as a Background Actor?
Background actors are at the bottom of the entertainment pecking order. But that doesn’t mean the job isn’t fun, fulfilling, and lucrative. I’ve met people who did this full-time, and they’re having the time of their lives!
Here are a few reasons why you should consider working as a background actor:
The pay is good - You can make over a hundred dollars a day, with the potential to make more in overtime.
It’s not your usual job - I have friends who sit at their desk all day doing spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. That has to be pretty soul-crushing. But as a background actor, I got to spend my work days at cool sets and exotic locales.
You get to see how the film industry works - If you’ve always been curious about what happens behind the scenes during a movie shoot, this is the job for you.
Some Misconceptions About Being a Background Actor
Being a background actor also comes with a few misconceptions. Here they are:
This is a great way to become a “real” actor - I’ve met a lot of newbie background actors, and their heads are filled with dreams of getting discovered and becoming the lead in a summer blockbuster. While it’s certainly possible, it’s unlikely that you will get discovered on the set.
Think of it this way: if you’re not part of a large group in a crowded scene, you’ll be pretending to do something really ordinary like crossing the street or buying a carton of milk in a convenience store - not exactly the best scenarios for showcasing your Academy Award-level acting skills.
That isn’t to say there aren’t background actors who are looking to break into the industry. There are, but they look at background acting as a way to earn a living. For their “real” acting aspirations, they have agents and attend auditions. And that’s a whole different ball game.
Background Actors are Treated Badly - Whenever people learn that I used to be a background actor, one of the first things they ask me (in addition to “Do you have Chris Evans’ home phone number?”) is whether we were treated badly by the director. I can sort of see why: we’re at the bottom of the acting food chain.
But in all the productions I was part of, we were all treated pretty well. The food was excellent, and we all had enough space to rest in between takes. I even worked for a director who was pretty notorious for having meltdowns on set. But in those situations, the rest of the crew more than made of for it.
Think of it this way: movies - even small indie movies - are pretty professional. And taking care of the entire cast and crew is always paramount.
The Hours are Grueling All the Time - This is partly true, but not all the time. I’ve certainly had long days, but those are usually the exception. What we got often were “odd” hours. For example, I would sometimes get 10pm call times. Those were obviously for nighttime scenes. Sometimes, the scene would be at the crack of dawn. That would mean I would have to be on set for a couple of hours before sunrise. But the hours were always manageable.
The Lead Actors are Spoiled Primadonnas - Well, maybe they are, but not to us. The worst I could say about some of the bigger stars we’ve worked with is that they were aloof. Most of them would show up, deliver a killer performance, then head back to their trailers. And that’s okay.
But I once worked for an extra in a major TV show, and the lead actress was so awesome. She regularly mingled with us background peeps - so much so that she was almost mistaken for an extra (we were all wearing the same uniform). She wasn’t on the set when her birthday came, but she asked one of the production assistants to buy pizzas for the entire cast and crew!
Earning Potential as a Background Actor
Earning potential as a background actor is actually pretty good. It’s obviously nowhere near the amount major stars make, but it’s enough to be comfortable. (Of course, this also depends on your own lifestyle and standard of living)
There are several factors that determine your earning potential as a background actor. There are two ways to go about this: a union extra, and as a non-union extra. When you start, you will be considered a non-union extra by default. Here’s the difference between the two:
Union actors are part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). If you’re a union background actor, your minimum daily rate is $148 for 8 hours. You can also earn overtime, which usually happens.
Non-union actors are only hired when the prescribed number of union actors are already hired. If you’re a non-union background actor, you will get paid $96 per day. That’s a flat fee for the entire day, and it doesn’t matter whether you worked 1 hour or 8 hours. You’re still getting that $96. You can also earn a bit more on top of that amount if you wear your own clothes, are a bit more prominent in the scene, or act as a stand-in. This added pay is called a “bump.” With bumps, my daily earnings sometimes reached $120!
Where to Get Jobs
The entertainment industry is full of creeps and smooth-talking scam artists. The main rule of the film industry is the same as that of boxing: protect yourself at all times. As a beginner, I would recommend sticking to well-known casting agencies. If someone seems to be the slightest bit shady, avoid them.
Stick with the well-known agencies, and you should be good. Here are the five companies you should check out:
1. Batherson Casting
2. Caballero Casting
3. Coulon Casting
4. Glorioso Casting
Requirements and Qualifications
Now that I’ve given you a list of sites to look for jobs at, here are some of the requirements and qualifications you need to have. Save for a few unique requirements (like headshots) some of these are the same as with regular jobs.
Proper identification, social security, and tax information - Pretty self-explanatory. The movie industry runs a pretty tight ship, and every member of the cast and crew need to have complete paperwork.
8 x 10 headshots - Even if you’re applying for “just” a background gig, you’ll still need some headshots. These are photos given to agents and casting directors, and help them decide on who to hire. Make sure your photos are 8 x 10 not 8.5 x 11 or any other size. 8 x 10 is the industry standard, and you need to stick to that.
Don’t worry if you’re not as attractive as most movie stars. When it comes to background actors, casting directors are usually looking for people who look average, and can blend into the background of a scene.
And below are a few qualifications. There aren’t any formal qualifications, really; this list is based on my own experience working with various directors and other actors.
Must know how to follow directions - This is also self-explanatory.
Must be willing to stand around for hours at a time - As fun as this job is, there are times when the cast just sort of stood around doing nothing. These idle times happened due to a variety of reasons: sometimes, the director of photography had to adjust the lighting, or the cinematographer had to properly line up a shot.
Must have a flexible schedule - You should be willing to work during the hours required by the scene. Sometimes your call time will be at 4am; sometimes it’ll be late in the evening. You need to be ready to be at the time specified in the call sheet.
Knows how to be discreet - You will see the inner working of a movie production. Just because you see something tabloid-worthy, that doesn’t mean you should email TMZ. In fact, giving sensitive information could cost you future jobs. Did you notice that I didn’t name names in any of my stories above? You should do the same, if you get a foot in the industry.
So that’s my advice on how to get work as a background actor. Now it’s your turn to share! Have you worked as an extra on film and TV?
Let’s hear your stories!