What is an extra or background actor?
“Extra” and “background actor” mean the same exact thing and are used interchangeably. Production teams tends to call them “extras,” but some people, especially background workers, find it to be a disrespectful term due to how vital these people are to the production. These people are not “extra” fluff added into a production; they are imperative to the realism of the scene. Background actors are the people who fill in the scenery and add life in movies, television shows, and commercials. These are the crowds, the people walking on the sidewalk, the waiter at the restaurant, a passerby, the suspicious onlooker, etc. These uncredited characters usually don’t speak, or if speaking, their voices are indistinguishable among a crowd of voices (e.g. cheering at a football game).
What are the benefits of being a background actor?
Since you’re reading this guide, you probably already have reasons why you might like to pursue background acting. Here are some benefits I came up with:
- Food: Although the food varies from set to set, it is usually of good quality and is always present in large quantity. Regardless of what job I’m performing that day, I spend a lot of my time on set eating. Definitely my favorite perk.
- Experience: You get to see how movies are made. For those looking to work in the film industry beyond extra work, this is a great way to get acclimated to how stuff works on a set. For movie fans, you may get to see or even sometimes meet some of your favorite directors, production people, and actors. Plus it is quite interesting to see how it all works.
- Income: Extraing is a great way to earn some extra money. For non-union it is usually minimum wage for the first eight hours, 1.5x from eight to twelve hours, and 2.0x beyond twelve hours. My experiences put me on set an average of twelve hours at a time. This could really add up — especially for longer scenes that take a week of filming — and you can easily arrange it around your work hours to supplement your income. There are even union workers (primarily in Los Angeles or New York) who are “career extras” making a full-time living through background work.
- Base rate: You are paid a base rate, meaning you receive a set amount of money for eight hours of work. In my state it is $58 for eight hours. What that means is if you show up to the set and they don’t need you, you will get still paid for eight hours of work. Only work for three hours? You still get paid for eight hours of work. I’ve had this happen to me once and it was awesome.
- It’s easy and enjoyable. It is nice getting paid to sit around listening to audio books, eating free food, and meeting interesting people.
What are the requirements for being a movie extra?
While being a movie extra isn’t the most difficult of tasks, there are definitely a few things to keep in mind:
- No acting experience or training is required because you are usually portraying yourself in a variety of situations. Examples: Guy Staring at Sidewalk #4, Woman Dressed As Avocado, Male Fireman #6, Ridiculously Photogenic Extra #2, Woman Who Stares at Camera for an Awkwardly Long Amount of Time #3, etc.
- What you look like does not matter because extras casting directors need all types of people. Whether you are a knockout 21-year old brunette or a 65-year old bearded obese hitchhiker, you can absolutely find extra work. Unlike the unfortunate reality of real life, being attractive won’t give you much of an advantage in this line of work.
- You need patience because you will be spending a lot of time waiting on set.
- Be a relatively nice person, at least nice enough to not get blacklisted from working again (i.e. don’t act like a douchebag).
- Have a reliable form of transportation. This varies from place to place. For example, if you live in a large city with reliable public transportation 24/7, you may be able to get away with not having access to a car. However, many sets are in very random locations outside of the range of public transportation, and call times may be really early in the morning. I strongly recommend having access to a dependable car.
What can I expect as a background actor?
Here is a
quick walk-through of your day and what the production team expects of you as a background actor:
- After attending a casting call or giving your information to a casting company, you will receive a phone call from an extras casting director or assistant asking if you’re available for a particular shoot. For example, they may say “Are you available on November 5th all day?” or “are you available between the dates of November 5th and November 10th?” You say yes. They will either give you instructions on the phone or tell you to expect instructions at a later date.
- These instructions will lay out when you’re supposed to be on set (call time), what you’re supposed to wear on set, if you’re expected to report to wardrobe (if you’re going to be a police officer or other specialty role), what changes of clothing to bring, and other relevant information.
What To Bring
- Usually you will be told to wear something particular and bring extra sets of clothing. I pack all my clothing changes into a gym bag the night before.
- Make sure you bring two forms of identification OR a passport.
- It may be a good idea to bring something to do during downtime like a book, a deck of cards, a portable music device, etc. I don’t recommend bringing anything valuable and bulky like a laptop, which can be stolen from extras holding while you’re on set. I usually listen to audiobooks on my iPod during downtime.
The Commute and Check-In
- Although call times greatly vary, for day shoots you usually will have to wake up extraordinarily early.
- Travel to the location specified in the instructions they gave you. This is where having a car is very handy; depending on where you’re located it might not be possible to use public transportation or other methods to get to the set, which may be many miles away from civilization. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I did background work, having access to a reliable car is mandatory.
- Sometimes you park near set, and sometimes you park in a separate location and they shuttle you to set. Either way just follow the instructions that they give you.
- The first thing you should do is find the check-in area. There should be big “CHECK IN” signs posted. If there aren’t any, look for “EXTRAS” or “HOLDING” signs. If there aren’t any of those either, then ask somebody who has a walkie where to go. Portable radio devices indicate a person is a member of the crew.
- Whoever checks you in will probably look at your photo ID and mark your name off of the list. You will probably have to sign a photo release and nondisclosure agreement.
- They will have you fill out a voucher which you must hang on to until you leave. Think of it as your set pass: keep it on you at all times. Do not lose your voucher; you probably won’t get paid.
- At the conclusion of check-in they will give you instructions on what to do next. Usually you will proceed through hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Sometimes you may wait in extras holding until they are ready for you to proceed.
Hair, Makeup, and Wardrobe
- Sometimes they will just wave you through the stations. Other times you actually have to get your hair and makeup done. It varies based on how visible you will be and how how they want you to look. Most of the time my friends and I don’t get any hair styling or makeup.
- If you are a specialty role, you will have to change into the items wardrobe gives you.
- If you were told to bring clothing, wardrobe will probably want to look through all the clothing choices you brought and choose outfits. Do what they say and then proceed back to the extras holding area (unless if told to do otherwise).
- You are going to spend a lot of time in extras holding. Consider this your home while you’re working. You will typically be expected to be within earshot of this area because crew members come here to announce when it is time for you to go to set.
- Usually there will be a lot of food available here throughout the shoot. Don’t be shy — eat as much of it as you want! This food is to hold you off in between meals.
- Feel free to socialize with other extras. I’ve met some really cool people in extras holding.
- A member of the crew will announce when they need you on set. When they do this, follow their instructions.
Being on Set
- After you are led to the set, you will be given specific instructions by a crew member on what they want you to do.
- You will do something different for every production. Sometimes you will be a fan at a sports game, a police officer, a pedestrian etc. Regardless of what you’re doing, you can expect to do it many, many times over for at least a couple hours while the director gets all the shots and angles they need.
- Sometimes you will just be sitting there. Sometimes you be given an action to perform. You may be given marks, which are specific locations to be at or walk to during the scene.
- When the director or assistant director announces “background!”, that means that the cameras are rolling and this is your cue to start performing your action in the scene. Sometimes you will start at the same time as the actors and in this case just go at “action!”.
- When they are done filming that particular take they will shout “cut!”. Usually after this they will shout “back to ones!” which means to go back to where you’re supposed to be at when the scene begins. If you were told to walk across the street, cross back over to where you started.
- Continuity is important. If your shirt was untucked during the first take, it should remain untucked for every shot during that scene. Same goes for if you scratch your nose or something like that (probably not imporant unless if you’re highly visible).
- After some time on set, usually about six hours, everyone will break for “lunch.” I put lunch in quotes because unlike real life, it can occur at any time of the day. That’s just what production calls the first meal, even if it takes place in the middle of the night.
- Meals are usually buffet style. Sometimes — especially when there are a large amount of extras — it may be pre-packaged food. One time on The Perks of Being a Wallflower we received pre-packaged food from Panera.
- If you were given wardrobe or a prop, make sure to bring it back to where you got it from.
- You will have to get your voucher signed by a production assistant to verify that all of your information is correct so that you can get paid. This is equivalent to “clocking out” at other jobs. Usually this occurs in extras holding.
- Return home. More than likely you will want to sleep as these are usually long days.
How do I become a background actor?
Gather Recent Photographs
- The first thing you need is a recent photograph of yourself. For extra work, these absolutely do not have to be super professional. Please do not feel the need to spend money on headshots; there really is no need for extraing! If you have a ton of extra money, acting aspiration, or want to make a career out of extra work, then go for it, but otherwise I would suggest utilizing a point-and-shoot digital camera and recruiting the help of a friend or family member.
- It is best to have these photos be as “honest” and clear as possible. For example, moles, freckles, acne, etc. should not be edited out; the extras casting director and assistants need to have an accurate image of you.
- Simple is best. Face the camera and have someone take your photograph from the shoulders up. Also get a full body shot. Don’t put too much thought into this.
- Have the .jpg file on your computer prepared for e-mailing to casting people. Also, it may be helpful to get some copies printed out at a Rite Aid or something for ~19-30 cents per printout.
Figure Out Your Measurements
- It is best to have accurate measurements ready to go at all times. Even if you’re insecure about your body, never lie about your measurements.
- Know your height and weight.
- For men: pants waist and length, neck, sleeve, suit size, hat size, and shoe size
- For ladies: dress size, hips, pants, waist, bust, and shoe size
- Here is a decent guide on obtaining accurate body measurements
- Be on the lookout for local casting calls. These events may be for a specific production or a casting director establishing a portfolio for multiple future productions.
- Google “WhereYouLive Casting” (replace “WhereYouLive” with your location) and check out your local casting companies. Periodically check their websites and social networking pages (if they have them) for casting announcements. Also feel free to give them a call and ask if they have any projects coming up.
- Casting calls are often announced in the entertainment section of your local news station’s website, newspapers, and televised news.
- Many locations have film offices. Google “WhereYouLive Film” (replace “WhereYouLive” with your location) and check out the websites for their film offices as they often list upcoming casting events.
- Find friends who periodically do extra work. Word of mouth is probably the best way to discover upcoming casting events.
- When the casting call is announced there will be information about where to go, when to go, and what to bring. Follow those instructions.
- Generally you should bring your photograph, your measurements, and a pen.
- Expect to possibly be there for a while. I’ve seen lines longer than two hours.
- You will likely have to fill out a form detailing basic stuff about yourself, contact information, your experience, availability throughout the shooting dates, and measurements.
- They may ask you if you have a car. Production often needs extras to fill in scenes with their cars or even drive, which results in a slight increase in pay.
- Other questions may be asked depending on what they need for that particular production.
- The casting assistant(s) will probably take a photograph of you. Come looking how you would normally look. They will probably staple the photo you brought to the form you fill out.
- Go home and hope you get a phone call from production. If you don’t hear anything and you know the movie has been filming for a while, it doesn’t hurt to call and ask what’s up but don’t be too persistent.
- Never pay for anything. There are thousands of people and companies out there trying to make a buck off of people aspiring to work in this industry. There really should be no reason to shell out money for anything. If you’re in doubt, feel free to ask me, and I’ll let you know if it’s legit or not.
- This is something you can do today without waiting for a casting event.
- Google “WhereYouLive Casting” and go to the websites of your local casting companies. Sometimes they won’t have websites but their contact information should be listed somewhere.
- Look for instructions on how to get “on file” with them. Usually there will be an address posted with a registration form. Fill out the form, attach photographs, and mail it in.
- If there are no instructions feel free to give them a phone call and ask if they are accepting new extras.
- Some casting companies have online registration. This is self explanatory. Simply register and upload your photographs and information. Just make sure you never pay to be on file for extra work. Some online systems offer premium memberships for added perks such as more photos, a demo reel, etc… casting directors do not care if you have a premium membership and I highly suggest not paying unless if you’re swimming in cash.
- Wait and hope you get a phone call. Again, if you don’t hear anything for a while, feel free to call and ask but don’t be too persistent.
What are some downfalls of being an extra?
Some people try out extra work and hate it. After posting this on Reddit, a couple people gave me some fair constructive criticism by saying that this article was written through rose colored glasses. I agree so adding in this section on the potential bad things about being a movie extra and how to deal with them.
- You are at the bottom of the food chain and there may be bad days where you feel unappreciated and disrespected – basically just like at almost every other job. In the eyes of the production you are not that important and easily replaceable. You may feel like you’re being herded around like sheep. If this is something that would find personally insulting or bother you, extra work may not be for you. My advise is to just go in with a positive, carefree attitude and have low expectations. The good days will hopefully outweigh the bad days.
- You will be waiting in extras holding for long periods of time. Hours. To avoid getting annoyed by this, bring something that you enjoy doing. As mentioned before, I listen to audio books which results in me actually looking forward to waiting around.
- You don’t get paid very much. But this is relative based on your life situation. As a college student, I thought it was really decent extra money especially with multiple-day 12+ hour shoots. Also, I would hardly call this difficult work.
- While on set you will be repeating the same thing over and over and over and over. This can last for many hours.
- Sometimes you won’t be happy with the food choices (never happened to me, but I’ve heard complaints).
- Some people become too hopeful from hearing stories of extras getting “discovered” while on set. There is less than a one percent chance (much less than a one percent chance) of spontaneously getting a credited role as an extra. Even minor credits like Ferret Wrangler #2 or Suspicious Onlooker are very rare. This only happens very, very rarely it’s like winning the background actor lottery.
- Some think they will be hanging out with famous actors. In reality, most of the time you will not be able to talk to famous actors and if you obnoxiously tried to, you would get scolded and possibly removed from set. If you do extra work on a consistent basis, chances are you will get to meet some cool people but this definitely doesn’t happen every time you’re on set.
Will working as an extra help me in my path to becoming a stand-in, actor, or crew member?
The long answer:
- If you’re an aspiring actor, please keep in mind that many professionals and people in charge seem to look down on extra work. Be aware of this! However, I personally do not understand this attitude. If you would like to have a future in any production job, you could probably benefit from being an extra at least a couple times.
- If you’re looking to eventually work as a member of the crew or act, I would avoid listing extra work on your resume. It reeks of desperation for credits (which is totally true as we are often desperate for credits in the beginning). However, if you would like to stand-in or continue doing extra work (or be a career extra), absolutely list extra work on your resume.
- The main reason why being an extra can help with other production career goals: the job is usually relatively easy with low responsibility, allowing you to sit back and observe exactly how a set works. Watch what other people are doing (people working the job that you eventually want to have) and take mental notes.
- Especially important if you want to start working as a production assistant (PAing): being on set allows you to meet people. Talk to crew members during down time, but make sure they are not busy or you will come off as annoying! Ask them what they do, and ask for advice on how to achieve your goals.
- For acting, acting in big-budget Studio Actors Guild (SAG) movies is very different than being on stage or working on student films. Extraing allows you to observe the actors, listen to the cues and prompts the director gives, etc. All of this allows for you to know exactly what to expect if you get on set as an actor.
Stuff that will help you excel as a background actor:
- Always be prompt and reliable. Arrive at least 15 minutes early for your call time and never be a no-show. Not showing up is a surefire way to burn a bridge with that particular casting director. On the other hand, always being reliable will earn you a great reputation, resulting in more jobs.
- Follow the instructions the extras casting director, assistants, etc. gave you. If they told you to wear something specific, make sure you arrive wearing it! Most of the time you’re supposed to bring three or so changes of clothing, so bring them! This is an area to go above and beyond on. Although you don’t want to bring an entire closet of clothing, it doesn’t hurt to pack a large duffel bag full of plenty of changes for wardrobe to choose from.
- Take direction well. Whenever the director or assistant director tells you to do something or perform in a certain way, do your best to do it!
- Be excited and optimistic. You’re on the set of a movie! Isn’t that awesome? But don’t overdo it so much that it is annoying.
- When the director calls “background!,” mentally place yourself within the situation to give your best performance possible. Forget your real life and get involved with the storyline and react or perform your action accordingly. Although you probably aren’t front and center, the authenticity of your action is important to the production.
Things NOT to do as a background actor:
- Please, for your own good, do not try to take pictures on set! It is strictly against the rules, and you will be immediately escorted off of the set by security. I’ve heard of extras getting hit with lawsuits just because they thought it would be cool to snap a picture with their phone. Don’t do this! They take this very seriously.
- Don’t complain. Yes, we know your butt hurts from sitting on that bench for eight hours, you’re tired of waiting around, you’re bored, etc. Openly complaining about it just annoys people.
- Don’t hound crew members. If they appear bored (not busy), feel free to initiate conversation. But if they are busy, please leave them be.
- On the other hand, even if an actor doesn’t appear to be busy, do not hound them for autographs or pictures. You’re both there to work, and just because they don’t look busy doesn’t mean they are available to talk — they could be getting into character, trying to memorize lines, etc. Unless they approach you, I’d advise not initiating conversation — let them initiate with you!
- As you have probably noticed, most of this stuff is self explanatory. Just be nice to people, follow instructions, don’t act like a douche, and have fun!
1. Brittany Forringer
My good friend Brittany Forringer has worked on countless films as an extra, was an additional extras casting assistant for Promised Land, and currently does production work for reality television. She is keeping her options open but aspires to work in the wardrobe department.
Why were you originally interested in extra work?
My friend’s mom suggested that we go down to the casting call for I Am Number Four. I thought it would be cool to be in a movie, so I went with it.
What are your top three favorite things about extraing?
The food, meeting people, and seeing myself on screen!
What was your favorite food on set?
That’s a hard one because the food is always awesome.
OK, how about the worst food ever on set?
Elixir (working title for a television show) wasn’t so great. Dry porkchops.
They fed you ONLY dry porkchops?
No haha, but that was the worst that I remember. Dance Moms had the best food but that’s not a film set. The Perks of Being a Wallflower had filet mignon one time and shrimp. And cheesecake.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about trying out background acting?
Go for it! It’s definitely a fun thing to do, and I have the most awesome memories… maybe even my favorite memories from being an extra. Plus, it helped me realize what I wanted to do with my life (wardrobe). And I met my current boyfriend on set also .
Do you have any advice on being an amazing extra?
Listen to directions. And don’t be annoying either. That’s it!
If you’re a 430 lb World of Warcraft addict can you still be an extra?
Yes if you can! Production is always looking for different types of people.
2. Doug Roberts
I met my friend Doug Roberts while interning for a casting director in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here is some advice he had to share:
Any tips for someone looking to work as an extra?
Honestly anybody can become an extra. The key is to show up when you’re asked and bring everything you need. Nothing makes casting directors more angry than extras who cancel at the last minute. This can ruin your extra career. Be yourself and do everything you are asked to do. And always put other people above yourself. Don’t be cocky regardless of your looks or social status; act like you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, because in this world, you are.
Are there any other casting pet peeves aside from canceling last minute? In other words, what can an extra do that would annoy casting people?
Calling the casting director or agency too frequently is a good way to get on a lot of people’s nerves. Also being rude on the phone to interns (such as myself and Alex) is a sure way to get your profile thrown in the trash. It does not really matter if you’re talking to the boss or the lowest worker. In this industry you have to be friendly to everyone because even the lowest workers on the totem pole have a surprisingly large amount of power.
Any background actor horror stories?
I don’t have too many nightmare stories, but there have been times on set when I’ve been an extra and had to deal with other extras who are extremely annoying. They talk a lot backstage when it’s supposed to be quiet and they form small groups and are pretty much not taking their jobs seriously. A production assistant should never have to tell groups of extra to be quiet while rolling. I just think it is bad karma as well. There have been times where I would separate myself from the talking group and actually have gotten more screen time because I was not fooling around.
What separates a good extra from an average extra?
An awesome background actor does everything he or she is told to do. They do not annoy anyone around them and they make friends with everyone fast. Since you are an extra you will start seeing the same faces over and over again. You never know who is going to recommend you or even make it big one day. So stay friendly but not crazy friendly.
What goes on in a casting office that may surprise people?
Most people think a casting office is a lot of glimmer and glam but it’s just like any other place of business. You have your good days and your bad days. A lot of paperwork and busy work.
What would make you more inclined to call someone more often with work offers?
Someone who I know is reliable and who I know will get along with other workers. I don’t want to send in someone who is going to get on someone’s nerves or not do their job to the full extent. If you can prove you’re someone who takes the job seriously and is prompt, you’re already a step ahead of many people.
What would you tell someone who is on the fence about giving background acting a shot?
Taking the plunge is the hardest part. Honestly for me I waited for so many years because I was just fantasizing about getting into the scene and not stepping up and doing something about it. I was scared. But believe me everyone is friendly and there is really no reason to be hesitant. You never know what’s going to happen or what someone will ask you to do on set. Hell you might even get to talk to talk to Tom Cruise … or better yet be a suspicious onlooker.
More interviews will be posted as they become available. I currently have interviews lined up with more extras casting assistants and a couple extras casting directors. If you have any requests please contact me!
Frequently Asked Questions
These aren’t really frequently asked questions but just a way to squeeze in more random information without creating multiple sections.
How can I get my car into a movie or television show?
Some extras casting companies ask for your car information while you’re signing up. If they need your car for a production, they will call you. Otherwise sometimes productions will list that they are looking for particular types of cars on casting call announcements. If you’re driving your car during a scene, you typically get paid slightly extra (something like 25 dollars).
I’m under 18 can I still be an extra? Can my child be an extra?
Yes. But there are more restrictions due to child labor laws. Also, there tends to be less work available for minors. You go about finding the work the same as everybody else.
What is SAG-AFTRA? What are career extras?
SAG-Aftra is the largest and most respected union of professional actors. If you gain three background vouchers OR say a line, you will be eligible to join the union. These are given out very randomly, and I would suggest Googling for more information (eventually I’ll add more info about this but right now I’m tired). Career extras are members of the union and get paid $145+ for eight hours of work.
Background Acting Jargon
Here are some words which will be helpful to know on set.
- “Action!” – The director shouts this to indicate that the actors should start performing. Sometimes this is your cue as well (if the director doesn’t shout “background!” first).
- “Background (Action)!” – This is your cue to start doing whatever you’re supposed to be doing in the scene. If you were told to walk from point A to point B, start doing this. Sometimes they simply shout “background!” instead of “background, action!”.
- Blocking – This is basically a rehearsal where someone will show you what you’re doing if you’re supposed to be performing an action.
- Call time – This is when you’re supposed to arrive on set. Aim for ~15 minutes before this.
- Holding (or Extras Holding) – This area is set aside for the background actors and is where you will be spending a lot of time waiting in between scenes. There will be food. Lots of food.
Thank you to my friends Cory Cook and Chris Ralph for helping me throughout the entire reddit situation. Ladies, Chris is single. He is very attractive, he is never unattractive, and he has a pet guinea pig. Please contact me if you’re interested. Also, thank you to reddit. Imgur is pretty cool too. Thank you to Malana Linton for coming up with the name of the website. Zeke Hickson gets an honorable mention as well. Thank you to Shawn Douglas for editing this guide to make it grammatically presentable.
The Small Print
I am far from the most qualified person to be creating this guide (there are thousands of casting directors, casting assistants, career extras, and other people who actually make a living in the industry). This is just an honest attempt to help out my fellow redditors and other Internet people. I plan on offsetting my lack of enterprise by bringing in actual experts to evaluate or contribute to this guide, and I will update it accordingly. Please note that the majority of my experience comes from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and certain parts of this guide may be slightly irrelevant depending on your location.
Last Updated: (21 November 2012)
This guide was written under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) License. What that means is:
- You are free to share this guide in any way that you think of. Print it out and throw it at people, email it, publish it, torrent it, whatever.
- You are free to modify this guide in any way that you can think of as long as you also release the modified work under a creative commons license.
- You can not charge money for this guide.
- If you use this work, you must attribute the work to me (no claiming it as your own) but not in any way that suggests that I endorse you, your organization, your product, or your use of the guide. Something like “Provided by Alexander Rhodes” would suffice, but this is up to you. Also I’d really appreciate it if you would link back to this website if you copy-and-paste this guide onto your own website, but this isn’t required.
Finally, if you find any errors or have any suggestions, please contact me or comment below!