Who wouldn’t want to win an Oscar? Or star in a box-office smash? Or argue with having their name in lights on the marquis? Not many of us! You know what you never see on that marquis though? The entire list of background extras that starred in that movie right alongside that box-office bombshell or leading man.
Ah, the life of the background extra. If youv’e worked as an extra before, or even seen any of Ricky Gervais’ hilarious look at the life of background actors on his show, Extras, you might know that the job of an extra is largely uncredited, with long days in varying degrees of comfort on crazy sets that are often mindlessly dull. So what’s the point? The point is, the film & television industry would be nothing without those essential, overwhelmingly important set of cast members: the extras.
Think about it. What would “Independence Day” have been without those screaming, terrified actors running through the streets as aliens blew up New York City? It would have been bleh. What about all of Season Two of “True Blood?” What about every single episode of “ER,” “CSI,” and “Law & Order?” There would have been no patients, no hospital staff, no crime victims, no police, no pedestrians, no excitement, no stakes. All of our favorite shows and movies would be boring, boring, and more boring. Extras supply all that energy! But there are other reasons as well to be an extra that can directly benefit you.
– EDUCATION: If you have already gone down the background route for supplemental employment, you might agree it is a fantastic way to see how a professional set moves & works from a low-stress vantage point. If you’re just starting out in the business, working background is an excellent way to meet other actors & industry professionals, get a sense of the immensity of work that goes into shooting just one scene in a movie, and earn some money to boot. (We’ll talk about that later.)
– CASTING COMPANIES: You’ll have to sign up with an extras casting company or office to be able to submit yourself. Casting Networks has an option for extras casting, which is based primarily right off your headshots. (Even better! You don’t have to audition.) I’ve personally worked with Casting Central & Virgo here in LA, Grant Wilfley in New York, and Mike Lemon in Philadelphia. They all cast extras in tons of big movies & locally produced tv shows; however, there are plenty more out there, so go do some good research if you want to get some extra work. If you have any special skills (ie karate, ballet, puppeteering) or own your own special prop (instruments, scooters, vintage cars, pets) you’ll often get preferential casting or a “bump” in your pay if they use you. Be forewarned, these companies can charge varying levels of standard fees or percentages; however, don’t let anybody scam you with promises of plenty of work if you pay them $300 a month. RIP-OFF.
–PAY: So let’s talk about money. If you’re non-union, the basic going rate is $64 for eight hours. They might pay you overtime, but, since you have no union or guild backing you up, they might not, or they might just pay you flat rate for the day. Any reputable production will always provide you with craft services, though, so at the very least you get food. If you are SAG the basic rate is $134 for eight hours and AFTRA is a little bit less; however, as Angela Bertolini & Carla Lewis say in their awesome book “Extra Work for Brain Surgeons,” the unions stipulate if you go into overtime you get paid time and a half for the next four hours, double time for the next four hours after that, and then after the sixteenth hour (or “the Golden Time”) you get paid your base rate every subsequent hour. Obviously, the production company will do everything they can to release you before then; I had a friend who made her living doing AFTRA background work in New York, and she said she’d been let go one minute before her sixteenth hour on set so they wouldn’t have to break their budget paying her after the Golden Hour. That’s a bummer after more than 15 hours on set…
-UNION STATUS: Another great perk of doing extra work! If you are a featured extra, have a line, or the production allows for SAG vouchers, if you collect three you are now elegible to join the Screen Actor’s Guild! Plenty of people gain union status this way. If you do work on any soap operas, which are all AFTRA, you have 30 days from your first taping until you become a must-join and you have to pay your AFTRA dues. And then they have to pay you a higher base rate! This is how I got my AFTRA status, and I had so much fun being on a soap set. They move very quickly and efficiently, and everyone is very focused. They also call back a lot of their extra actors, and a good friend of mine has moved up the ranks from extra to full-on cast member! Not too shabby!
–GOOD KARMA: You might also find yourself in a situation, whether it’s helping out a student director friend or because you’re bored on a Thursday night, where you are not being paid for your background services. There are so many countless productions in which there just isn’t any room in the budget to pay those hardworking extra actors what they’re worth. Don’t sweat it. You might be that director one day, begging his friends for a favor. Do it! It’ll be fun. And undoubtedly, you might get something else out of it that makes it worth your while: the opportunity to hang out with your friends, helping out someone you’d want to return the favor, getting free food, free drinks too, maybe? Or, if nothing else, good karma!
Besides all the fantastic opportunities background work offers, I won’t promise you that extra work isn’t hard, long, and tiring, because it is. Often, call times are very early, very late, very cold, very hot, or far away. You don’t often get the satisfaction of being able to see yourself very clearly in the finished product, and, while it isn’t totally uncommon to be bumped up and get a line or become featured, working as an extra isn’t the best way to move up in the business. It does, however, provide work; I met a girl at a background agency who told me she paid her rent by working four to five days a week on various shows in the LA area. Often, in background-heavy shows like “Mad Men,” the director will hand-pick the extras himself, use them repeatedly, and make them integral parts of the scene. And really, that’s the important part, right? You are an actor, and working as a background actor is another way to do what you love: act.
Besides, your mother will freak out with joy when you tell her you’re shooting a scene with Robert De Niro. Just don’t tell her you’re the one standing behind him.