Some Fun Facts About Background Acting
by Jo Kelly, Author of The Truth About Being an Extra
Being a background actor has supplemented my income, opened career doors, and allowed me meet fascinating people.
The fun I'm having as a "background actor" (aka "movie extra") beats everything else I've ever done in the way of work. My eight years of background acting have challenged me to always look my best. They have supplemented my income, opened career doors, brought me new friends and allowed me to rub shoulders with some of the world's most interesting and fascinating people. Since the late 1990s, I've walked across the sets of dozens of television sitcoms, commercials and movies.
I am one of the background actors (extras) who bring reality to a film scene. Background actors make shots in television's "Medium," "Law and Order" and current movies look like they're happening on actual city streets with real tourists, business people and the public walking by. They look like honest-to-goodness real patrons eating real lunches in restaurant scenes. They're the "real" people who take the day off work to attend the trial of someone they personally know in a courtroom scene. They're the children who play in the park scene. They make the scene look like real life.
Answering to the call of "Background!" during the filming of a scene, movie extras/background actors need no special acting talent and they are not given any lines to memorize. They just have to follow a few common sense rules in order to do their jobs well and get asked back for more assignments.
I began my background acting career in the late 1990s. I'd been married to a celebrity actor, had a successful career in real estate, raised a beautiful daughter and I was blessed with a lot of wonderful friends. But I wanted to try something different. I needed a new challenge. When my sister handed me a flier advertising for movie extras, I decided to try spread my wings and give it a try.
- Network with friends in the business and ask for their best referrals and tips.
- As you contact casting agencies, interview them. Ask how long they've been in business. Ask if they have a specialty (such as dancers, children, mature adults, etc.). Check the agency's web site to see if it's professionally presented and if it can offer additional information.
- Ask other actors what they like and don't like about working with a particular agency.
- Before you give the agency any personal information, book yourself or make any arrangements, call the Better Business Bureau to see if the agency has a good rating.
- ALL background agencies charge a small fee to register you, take your photo and include you in their database. Take some cash or a check, along with a small note pad for notes, when you first visit an agency.
The first job, the first day: The fun part.
Before you leave your home for your first assignment, banish the butterflies with these tried and proven tips.
- Call the hotline. After signing on with a good casting agency and getting booked, you will be given a special phone number to call for your time, location and wardrobe.
- Follow the wardrobe instructions and requirements, as you will be checked by the wardrobe department when you arrive on the set. Bring an extra jacket (even if it's summertime). It's always cold on a sound stage, where you might be working. Ladies, take a pair of flats to wear when not on the set (your feet will thank you).
- Prepare the day before. Fill up your car's gas tank. Look up the address and driving directions on your favorite Internet map site.
- Always arrive on time.
- Upon arriving, look for the Assistant Director, or your contact person, to assure that they know you arrived on time. (In show biz, sometimes it's not "who you know" but "who knows you" that matters.)
- Never bring friends, pets or cameras along. Friends will not be permitted to work unless they are registered and have been booked.
- Take a book, crossword puzzle or something to occupy you during the long waits in the holding area.
- Network with other background actors. If you obtain one good tip or referral, it could lead to a lot more background acting jobs. More work gives you more opportunities to get the necessary vouchers (three) to qualify to join SAG (Screen Actors Guild). Being a member of SAG gives you benefits you would not have as a non-union extra, e.g. double your pay and medical, dental and vision benefits.
- Don't ask the stars for autographs. (It's a work environment, not a pubic appearance.)
- Bring a pen with you to complete your voucher and be sure to get the voucher signed when you are wrapped for the day. Keep your voucher until you are paid, as it is your only proof that you worked.
Happy background acting!