Look Ma! I'm on TV! Life as a Background Actor

By Lynn Truong on 10 May 2007 16 comments
Photo: iStockphoto

Like most jobs low on the totem pole in entertainment, TV/movie extra work (or "Background Acting") pays practically nothing. But it (can be) fun, it's (mostly) easy, you get fed, and the amount of time you actually spend "working" is minimal. If you're unemployed in LA, like meeting new people, have a car to get around, and want to get an arm, the back of your head, or a shoulder on your favorite TV show or the next blockbuster movie, this might be the job for you!

Central Casting
Central Casting is the largest Background Actor supplier in LA, though there are a few others worth looking into. Some of the smaller ones may have exclusive contracts with certain companies and might offer more pay. But Central Casting is the biggest and easiest place to go to get started. There are specific dates and time during the week for you to go into the office to register. You'll fill out some employment forms, listen to a short orientation where they go over rules and procedures, take a picture, pay them a one-time fee, and you're done. You'll be able to go home and start calling their job line. Visit their website for specific details and instructions.

Getting Jobs
You'll need to call everyday, most likely several times a day. It's basically a message center where casting directors leave messages on what jobs are available. If you match their description (Caucasian, 20s, to be wedding guests), call the specific casting director. They'll ask for your information, check your picture, and tell you if you're in or not. If you're in, you'll get instructions on where to be, when to be there, and what to wear/bring (most likely, this will be another phone number for another message with all the details). Once you've been on a few jobs, you'll understand that some shows are better to work than others. For example, I heard Scrubs was the most rockin' place to be an extra. Unfortunately, the few times I managed to match their requirement, I could never get through before the spots filled.

Available Services
You can also sign up with companies to find work for you. You pay them a fee every month; they call you with assignments. There are many companies that do this, and fees can range from $25-$75 and up. I'd recommend going through Central Casting first, and then chatting up the people you meet on set to get suggestions on where the best places to sign up with are. I did try out one company I found on Craigslist that offered the first month free, and they got me a gig for a two-day commercial shoot starring my favorite hottie, Kiefer Sutherland, for $150 a day. That assignment rocked. Be sure your schedule is open to most assignments you're called for. If you're too choosy or are constantly unavailable, they'll stop calling, regardless if you're paying them or not. There's no shortage of people to fill any job, and you're just wasting their time.

On Location
Be prepared, be very prepared. Bring a book or a few magazines. Bring snacks, water, iPod, and an extra sweater or jacket. Many people will even bring one of those comfy camping chairs. You never know if you'll even have a chair to sit on.

There are two rules you can't break. One is you have to be there on time. Casting directors get a lot of heat if their extras show up late, so they'll be sure to make a note and the next time you call, no one will give you a job. I usually got there about 10-15 minutes early and most of them were already there. That's how serious everyone knows being on time is. And don't even think about asking to leave early. They can give you an approximate time they think the shoot will end, but it doesn't end until you hear "check the gate." The one cool thing about the pay is that you get paid for 8 hours even if it ends early. If you're lucky, the shoot lasts for 3-4 hours, and you go home having made more than minimum wage for the time you spent there. Sometimes you have to stay more than 8 hours, in which case you get paid heavy duty overtime, which is nice too, since by then you're more likely to want to stay and milk as much money as possible for a whole day's work. The worse though, is when they let you go right at 8 hours. Those days sucked.

The second rule is don't bother the actors. Don't think you can start collecting autographs. The worse thing you can do, besides showing up late, is to bother the actors. No pictures. No autographs.

The whole day mostly consists of all the extras sitting around somewhere out of the way, until they call everyone in for the scene. You'll be asked to walk around in the background or sit and pretend to be chatting with a fellow extra. You'd never notice but many times it's the same people walking back and forth in the background during the same scene. I counted four of my own passes on one particular scene in 7th Heaven. Sometimes you're dancing to no music. Sometimes you're sitting in the waiting room of ER with a face mask on. Sometimes you're asked to look sad and solemn because you're at a funeral. Although there usually aren't a lot of details about the scene you'll be in, infer what you can by the information you do get. "College student" or "patron at a club" or "Santa Monica Pier background" gives you a good enough idea. I was at two movie shoots where I was just a part of a huge audience (one outdoor at a football stadium, one indoor at a theater). If it's the middle of summer, know that it's going to hot and boring sitting on the stands of a college football field all day.

Food is almost always served -- the union has strict rules about feeding their members every certain number of hours, although once they didn't anticipate the shoot running so long so they didn't have food ordered. It's a hit or miss whether it's good, ok, or really bad. But it's always exciting to find out!

Union Politics
This is actually what made me leave and never go back, not that I was very satisfied with the minimum wage I was being paid in the first place. But I thought it was fun, it wasn't much work, and gave me some cash to pay the bills. Once I found out that "union" (SAG member) background actors got paid DOUBLE for the doing the SAME work, I stopped calling in for work. The whole situation with union versus nonunion actors is screwed up. In order to become eligible to join SAG as a background actor, you need to get three SAG vouchers. And to get those vouchers, you basically get lucky or you kiss a lot of ass. From how I understood it, SAG requires a certain number of union background actors to be hired each day. If a SAG extra cancels at the last minute or just doesn't show up, they still need to give that SAG voucher away. They can either try to get their casting director to scrounge up a SAG extra to come on set, or they will just give it to a nonunion extra to stand in for the SAG person. If you can get that three times, you are then eligible to pay about $2,000 to join SAG, and each year after you pay a fee + a portion of your earnings.

The double pay wasn't all there was to it. They got treated differently. They had a different line for lunch. They had silverware and real plates. They had first dibs on food. Why? Because they were lucky (or flirtatious) enough to grab three SAG vouchers as a nonunion extra. They didn't necessarily work longer or harder than any other nonunion extra. They just got the vouchers. But boy do they act like they're better because they're getting paid more.

Set Your DVR
Gather your friends and family to watch your performance! Find out when the episode will air and set your DVR to record (you're going to have to because more often than not you'll have to rewind, slow mo it, and then pause to point at your hand caught in the background. You might want to save the big gathering viewing for something more substantial. You might get called for a cooler gig, like a background waitress. I had to manuever around dancing couples at a nightclub w/a tray of (real!) drinks dressed in a short skirt, fishnet stockings and high heels. No, I didn't get paid extra (or get a SAG voucher for that), so it would have been more advantageous to be one of the dancing couples instead. But I was on TV!

Last Thoughts
It was fun. I'm glad I did it. But I wouldn't do it again. Not as nonunion anyway.

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Maly's picture
Maly

wow! Great post! Thanks for all the details. I was always curious about how it all worked. I wonder if there are any calls for extra work in the Seattle area? I'm sure Vancouver has lots.

Lynn Truong's picture

it's probably hard to find if you're not in hollywood, new york, or select cities in canada, but maybe not impossible.  in fact, maybe the pay rate is much better since there isn't so many "actors" trying to break into hollywood.

Guest's picture

I read your post and I like it alot. I run a website called NewMexicoActors.com and I have been a background actor since 1988 my first show was Bull Durham. We try to make a living at it here since New Mexico is up and coming with many features. One thing we are working on is representation for the SAG and Non-SAG Background Actors since SAG doesn't represent their own people here in our state. I often get questions on how it works in other states and these posts I will defiantly share with those that ask. Remember a movie doesn't look real without us being in the scene :) Check out the website if you get the chance we are also on myspace.com/newmexicoactors as well. Keep up the great work.
J. Nathan Simmons

Andrea Karim's picture

I was an extra in a Chinese historical drama that was shooting in Beijing in 1998. I think I was White Devil #11. I never did learn the name of the film, though, so I've never seen myself in it.

I'm afraid, Maly, that most of the extras on Craigslist Seattle are either not paid (indie films), or paid really well (naked).

Will Chen's picture

"I counted four of my own passes on one particular scene in 7th Heaven."

Ha ha, are you serious Lynn?  Do you actually think you can get away with posting that without telling me which episode it was (email me if you don't want to share with the public).

 

 

Lynn Truong's picture

it was my first show, so i remember it better than the others. Leaps of Faith (season 9). i don't mind telling ya cuz it's hard to see me anyway. especially the times when it's just my leg or arm in the background.

it's the scene where the father character is speaking to a guy, seated at a table, in what looks like an outdoor shopping center. think The Grove or 3rd Street.

the better one is the "You Are Here" episode of ER. there's a scene where they bust through the ER doors with someone on a stretcher. i think it's a lady and she may be screaming. right when they bust through the doors, you can see me sitting in the front row of chairs, next to a lady holding an oxygen tank. i'm wearing a face mask. this was just a year or two after the huge SARS scare.

i was sitting in the back row all comfy w/my book when one of the guys (assistant directors?) saw me and told me to switch seats with someone in the front. it wasn't cuz he had the hots for me and wanted to give me "premium" seating for th shot. he thought it'd be great to give me a face mask to wear.

Andrea Karim's picture

That's awesome. Were those the days of George Clooney on ER?

Will Chen's picture

Forget George Clooney, what about Linda Cardellini!

Lynn Truong's picture

ah unfortunately it was after clooney's time.  i only got to see mekhi phifer and noah wyle, not bad eye candy at all. 

wilson, i don't think linda cardellini was in that shot...

Guest's picture

I read your post and I like it alot. I run a website called NewMexicoActors.com and I have been a background actor since 1988 my first show was Bull Durham. We try to make a living at it here since New Mexico is up and coming with many features. One thing we are working on is representation for the SAG and Non-SAG Background Actors since SAG doesn't represent their own people here in our state. I often get questions on how it works in other states and these posts I will defiantly share with those that ask. Remember a movie doesn't look real without us being in the scene :) Check out the website if you get the chance we are also on myspace.com/newmexicoactors as well. Keep up the great work.
J. Nathan Simmons

Guest's picture

Hello Lynn
My name is J. Nathan Simmons and I founded and operate NewMexicoActors.com. I would like to ask your permission to repost this on the special announcements area of the site. Please contact me at my email address. Thanks J. Nathan Simmons

Guest's picture

If you want to learn about being an extra in Hollywood THE site for and by background actors is http://www.backgroundbeat.com with all the info you need!

Guest's picture
Guest

Greetings from a background actor out on the East Coast. I cut my teeth on local visits by the tv show The West Wing, and take the opportunity to work on projects filming in Philadelphia and DC, with an occasional excursion to NY. The DC/Philly area is a little less crowded for SAG memebers then NY or LA, and it is covered under SAG jurisdiction. To those trying to earn their SAG vouchers: if you're patient, it will happen for you, just be sure it's what you want before you join, because there's no going back to non-union jobs. Break a leg!

Guest's picture
j03L G

yep - for two days I was dressed in a "turn of the century" costume with hat and fluffy tie.

I was in The Prestige with Christian Bale.

$250 for two days. Not so bad.

Guest's picture
Guest

Actually its not always luck. The old fashioned and most respected way to get into SAG is by booking a part in something with a SAG contract which means you need to get out there and audition, waiting for vouchers is not the only way and what does it prove if all you did is get 3 slips of paper anyway. Good luck.

Guest's picture
Background in Burbank

Ooooo! Sour grapes all around, Lynn! You only stopped doing background (aka "bg") cuz you felt cheated with your pay?...? Nah, you quit doing it cuz you had enuff info for your article.

SAG get paid more, but non-SAG people WORK a lot more. Did you not discover that while on set, chatting with your fellow bg? A *tiny* number of bg on tv shows and films are SAG: all the rest are non-SAG. Like that stadium scene you were in: there were probably 20 SAG bg, while HUNDREDS of non-SAG.

So it's a choice: be SAG and barely work, or be non-SAG and have the opportunity to work *oodles*.