So, you want to be in movies but you don’t know where to start. You also need a job but you don’t have any of those pesky “job skills” employers are looking for. No problem: give background acting a try.
Whether you’re new to the industry or just new to town, getting experience on set while earning slightly above minimum wage can help you make the transition a little easier – and put you within restraining order-distance from the beautiful and famous celebrities.
And please, don’t stare, they’re just trying to do their job.
We Get How Much for This?
There are quite a few good reasons to do background work. The money is decent: Non-union extra work will typically have a flat rate that you’ll agree to ahead of time no matter how many hours they ask you to stand in the desert.
The SAG-AFTRA union gigs will come with an hourly rate that increases by certain percentages during overtime, plus added incentives like “bumps” (or pay increases) for hazards and delays breaking for lunch.
And speaking of lunch, two words that you will learn that basically mean “heaven” – craft services. You’ve never eaten as good in your life as you will while working background on a major motion picture.
Background work on union films and TV shows are also a great way for the non-union actor to get the gold prize: a union waiver. This isn’t the place to get into the finer details, but basically, get three union waivers (a piece of paper that says that you’re working as a union actor) and suddenly you’re eligible to join the same guild that counts such greats as Meryl Streep, Daniel-Day Lewis and Johnny Knoxville as members. Not bad for pretending to be a 1930s speakeasy patron for a week.
There are two kinds of background actors: the worker, and the tourist.
The tourist is just there to be part of the action, to see how movies are made, to have a story to tell their friends or “get discovered” or even just for the craft services (believe me, this can be worth the entire day.)
And when they’re wrapped, they’ll have a lot of new Facebook friends to forget about when they return to the office on Monday.
The other kind is there to build or maintain their careers as performers. They’re not here to gawk, they’re here to work. They don’t get nervous sitting next to Denzel Washington, they “act” like he’s just there because that’s what the script calls for and they have a job to do. They know this isn’t glorious work, but receiving a paycheck while spending 12 hours on set is preferable to spending even half that time serving single-origin coffee to needy hipsters.
They can also make a decent living, because they’re going to get called in over and over again. If you want to make this work, this is the kind of extra you want to be on set.
Here are some of the Extra companies and services that you should know:
- Central Casting: This is the Wal-Mart/Microsoft/Kleenex of the background casting world. If a film requires 300 rowdy crowdspeople, chances are they’re all being hired through Central Casting. You’ll work quite a bit – even if people more often refer to you by your PIN instead of your name.
- Calling Services: For the more discerning back-tor (not a word), you may want a service tailored directly to you. Calling services like Cut Above Casting and Uncut Casting maintain a much smaller roster of specifically-chosen performers who they will then call when jobs come available.
- Casting Breakdowns: If you want to take the hands-on approach, a digital breakdown service like Backstage, LA Casting or the appropriately-named Breakdown Services will put the open casting calls directly in front of you so you can make those submission choices yourself.
Finally, I would be remiss to mention all the “Do’s” for background without mentioning any of the “Do Nots”.
Do not expect to be discovered on set. Even those who get bumped up to Featured Extra or even Stand-In must realize that the anecdotal “Hey, that woman in the background there – I need her for my next picture!” is something that only happens in the movies. People who show up to get noticed do get noticed, and then they get asked to leave.
Do not confuse background work for real acting. No matter how often casting brings you back, you’re still just atmosphere for the people hired to be front-and-center on camera. This is just a paycheck, some food, and possibly a Union waiver.
Finally, and I cannot stress this enough: If you want to be taken seriously as an actor, DO NOT PUT BACKGROUND WORK ON YOUR ACTING RESUME. This is not an internship, and the only work experience here is learning how to wait in costume for hours on end. Nobody – besides maybe your family and circle of close friends – cares that you can be seen for .75 seconds in seventeen different films.
Background work is just one of many ways that the low-totem actor can get on set, and while a few weeks or a month spent going to set every day can help motivate and inspire, remember that you’re still working on someone else’s project.
If you want to make it in this town, put those hours into your own creation. Then you can hire all the extras you want, and we’ll thank you for the job – provided the food is good. Don’t skimp on craft services, people.