Be a Star to Your Star-Struck Child
by Jo Kelly, Author of The Truth about Being an Extra
Proven Strategies to Help Your Kid (and You) Do Background Acting Right
"Lights! Camera! Action!"
The words many of us dream of hearing for our adorably charming and perfectly talented children. You think it's a long shot, but it's probably easier than you know to get yourself or your child onto the set of a movie, TV sitcom or commercial.
The world of background acting (or being a "movie extra") can deliver the opportunity you've dreamed of. It can be a one-time, one-production experience or your child can make it a full-time summer career or part-time job during the school term. And what fun for you to tell your friends, "Jimmy's going to be in the background in the XYZ movie. Be sure to see it!"
The background actor or extra is the person or people who bring a scene to life and make it realistic. Background actors make scenes in television's "Law and Order" and other current movies look like they're happening on actual city streets with honest-to-goodness tourists, business people and others walking by. Restaurant scenes appear to be shot spontaneously with real diners seated at the tables. Courtrooms appear to be filled with people who took the day off work to attend a real trial of someone they personally know. Playgrounds are filled with what appear to be children who really did come to the park to play on the day the scene was to be shot.
- Get a pad of paper or create a computer file to make some notes.
- Find potential casting agencies for children by networking with friends and asking for their best referrals. My book, The Truth about Being an Extra, is another excellent source for reputable agencies.
- Interview potential casting agencies for children. Find out how long they've been in business. Ask if they have a specialty (such as dancers, children from birth to age 8, teenagers, etc.). Check the agency's website to see if it's professionally presented and if it can offer additional information.
- Before you give the agency any personal information, book your child or make any arrangements, call the Better Business Bureau to see if the agency has a good rating.
- Talk to other parents. Find out what they like and don't like about working with the agency.
So what are you waiting for?
Many parents fear that exposing their children to the movie business will put them in danger, leave them in unsupervised situations or introduce a level of stress that the kids find hard to deal with in combination with school activities. In reality, reputable casting agencies always require (A) the parent or guardian's permission to sign up an underage child and, (B) the parent or guardian must be present when the child is working. Children are treated exceptionally well in filming environments.
I worked a pilot once where a lot of young children were included as background actors. Even the star of the show treated the kids with kid gloves. Most of the time, there will be a school teacher on the set to provide classroom instruction.
When it comes to clothing, instructions are always provided via a recorded telephone message (you'll call a specific phone number for time, location and wardrobe). Background actors sometimes purchase used clothing for jobs on films set in specific time periods or locales, which helps keep the cost low. If it is a period piece the studio will supply the clothes from the Wardrobe department.
Help your child have fun while doing a good job as a background actor.
It's really important, as you know, to tune in to how your child feels at every step of the background acting experience. The work has its boring moments as well as its frustrations. Background actors may sit in holding areas for hours before they are called. You may drive for hours before reaching the location of the set. Is your son or daughter miserable doing this? Are you so frustrated you'd rather stay home and iron? (Horrors!) If either of you is unhappy, presenting a child background actor who is agreeable and can go with the flow will be difficult. You're both on track and you have arrived at your first job. What key things can you do to assure your child's success? Try these:
- Prepare in advance. Take an extra set of clothing for your child. Fill up your car's gas tank the night before the job.
- On the morning of the job, leave extra time to allow for freeway delays.
- Always deliver your child to the set on time.
- Upon arriving, look for the Assistant Director. Just make sure the AD knows you and your child have arrived. In show biz, it's not "who you know" that matters but "who knows you."
- Never bring pets or friends along. They won't be permitted to work and will just become unnecessary baggage.
- Never take a camera along.
- Network with fellow background actors and parents. Many of them have been doing this for years. One good tip, contact or referral from an experienced parent or actor can accelerate your child's career. More background acting work could qualify your child to become a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which carries with it some great benefits, including doubles the pay rate and great medical, dental and vision benefits.
- Don't ask the movie stars for autographs. (It's a work environment, not a public appearance.)
- Bring a pen so you can complete your voucher at the end of the work day.
- Always complete your voucher before you and your child leave the set and make sure the AD or your contact person signs you out. (That's proof that you worked and verifies the your hours.)