How to become a Background Actor
Background acting can be a great way to earn an income while getting your “feet wet” in the film industry. This would be a great place to start before you lock yourself into an expensive acting class or to get paid to see if the industry is for you. See what it’s like to be on set and if it’s a place that you even want to be...or just to make an income if you’re desperate for cash and haven’t been able to find work in your desired field. There are any number of reasons to be an extra (the free food topping the list for many. Pro tip: bring a cooler with ice, you might get to take leftovers home!) But where do you start and how do you get enough gigs to make it worth your while?
Extras Casting Agencies
There are any number of casting agencies around Los Angeles, New York, Georgia, Louisiana and other states and cities that frequently have films produced there. (Do a quick Internet search of your location or cities near you. I will be talking specifically about LA because that is the location nearest me.) Central Casting is the most widely known background casting agency and has a great track record. It’s really easy to get started too! It used to be that you had to get up early and plan to wait in line for hours in order to get signed up, but they have recently changed it to an appointment format. Call Central Casting today to set an appointment and remember to have all of your necessary and up to date documents in hand. They also provide you with headshots, which is a big plus!
Speaking of Headshots
Please, don’t go crazy on your hair and make-up. Do some concealer, foundation, blush and mascara, that’s fine. But be your naturally, beautiful self. Casting directors are looking for specifics. Example: They’re looking for people with freckles, but you covered your freckles with make-up. Guess who doesn’t book the job. They’re also looking for your natural hair, so they can adequately determine how much time they’ll need to have you in hair and make-up. Example: You have really curly hair, but straighten it for your headshots. They think you have straight hair and need straight hair. You show up curly...it’s a problem. Time is thrown off, people are pissed. It’s just better for everyone if you begin your relationship with full honesty.
Once You’re Signed Up
Congratulations on your new job! It may be a super easy job as far as “doing tasks” is concerned, but you still need to be professional. A lot of scheduling is needed to make sure you are where you need to be ON TIME, looking the part you are supposed to play and getting yourself cast for as many films, tv and commercials that you can in order to pay your bills. That’s right, y’all. You’re in control of your own destiny when you are an extra. You want to work, you need to submit photos, “about me” blurbs and sometimes short videos for each gig you qualify for. You can submit for things online at the Central Casting website and even elect to receive texts when new jobs come up. Always respond to emails and text messages as quickly as possible. This can be the difference between getting a job and not getting a job. I also recommend that you follow Central Casting on Facebook. A typical Facebook post for a gig looks like this:
Let’s break it down. At the top, you will notice the “non-union” requirement. Therefore, to qualify, you must be non-union. Then you will see the dates that you must be available. If you cannot work these days, do not apply. If you are available those days and fit the union requirements, look at the physical requirements. This particular ad is looking for Asian and Hispanic women between the ages of 20-50. If you are not an Asian or a Hispanic woman aged 20-50, move along, this is not your gig. If you are, let’s keep going. Can you look like you belong in 1960 (hair style, make-up, finger nails, no visible tattoos, etc)? Are you dress size 0-6? Do you have natural hair color? If you fit all of these parameters, and only if you fit ALL of these parameters, you may then proceed to follow the instructions to submit yourself for the role. This is true for the emails, text messages and jobs on the Central Casting website. Please don’t be upset or offended if you don’t fit the parameters, there are always more jobs. They are making this request in order to set the tone and feel of the film.
Tips for on Set
Yay! You booked a job! Plan to get there at least 10 minutes early to find parking and to figure out where basecamp is located. Basecamp is the designated area for check-in and communication for the crew. (Find other helpful terms here ). You’ll notice pretty quickly, as an extra, you have a lot of down time. Bring something to do...something quiet. If you want to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, watch Netflix on your phone, bring earbuds and your charger cord and make sure you are still paying attention to any and all instructions. Bring multiple outfits that fit the character you are playing. Don’t wear white, black or red unless directed otherwise. And come dressed, hair and make-up ready, like the character you are playing, unless directed otherwise. Be very quiet. If they have to reshoot a scene because of a noisy set, it costs them upwards of $500 per minute. BG workers need to pantomime on set; pretend to have a conversation, pretend to eat food (don’t actually eat it, it’s been out all day. Ew.), pretend to laugh when appropriate, etc. Be pleasant and willing to work. Expect to work 12 hour days and don’t make yourself available to work as an extra if you have anything else scheduled that day. Sometimes they’ll ask for volunteers to do something (stay later, walk through fog, be a stand in, etc). Always volunteer! Always take every opportunity to prove your worth. Always be on their good side. Never complain.You’ll be surprised at the opportunities that present themselves because of something as simple as this. It’s a fairly tight community, you’ll end up working with a lot of the same people. If you stand out as being pleasant to work with, you’ll get a lot more jobs and a lot more opportunities to move up...including becoming union. There are pros and cons to becoming union. Pros: higher pay, more pay bumps, potentially better sets, health insurance options, etc. Cons: you are no longer eligible to work on non-union sets which could cut into your hours, annual union dues, high initiation fee, etc. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it. You are not obligated to become union, but you do have to earn it, and it's a little bit complicated as to how exactly you get a voucher (you need 3 to become SAG-AFTRA eligible). The basics are: 1) you have to be working on a SAG film, 2) you need to fit a SAG part that no other SAG background actor is qualified for, 3) your character is imperative to the scene, 4) you worked a certain number of days for the same film. I’ll add a few links in the “Resources” section so you can read up on all things SAG.
Final Thoughts and Encouragements
All in all, BG work is a great thing to get involved in and could be a good paying job, or even a side gig, if you: pay attention, watch your schedule, show up with an attitude to work with a smile on your face, keep up to date on the casting websites and follow all instructions.
Central Casting - Schedule your appointment to become a Background Actor and learn more about how to get involved with Central Casting
Central Casting Documents - A list of all the documentation you need to bring with to sign up with Central Casting
Useful terms for BG actors - If you’re new on set, this list will help you understand what people are talking about.
SAG-AFTRA - Sag-AFTRA’s website that has all your answers to all things SAG related.