After recently sharing a little about my most recent stint at a background actor, I learned that a lot of people have questions about it, so here is all the info!
What is a Background Actor?
A Background Actor, or “Extra”, is exactly what it sounds like - a performer in a film, tv show, commercial, stage show, etc. who appears in a nonspeaking role, usually in the background of the main actors in a scene.
Do you get paid? How much?
YES! You do get paid. There are occasionally unpaid opportunities (you are usually compensated in some way - whether it’s free swag or tickets to an event or something like that), but I’ve only ever done paid work.
The rate of pay depends on a lot of things - the size/budget of the film/project, the working conditions, etc. For example, you can get paid extra for overnight shoots or if you’re filming “in the elements” (rain, fog, in the water, etc.). You can also get paid extra for the use of your car. I got an upcharge on my work on Abduction because they used my car - I didn’t even have to drive it anywhere - it was just parked there!
Usually, you make an hourly rate for a day of work as a Background Actor, and you generally earn 1.5x pay after the first 8 hours (average days are 12-14 hours). Other times, they may offer a flat rate for the entirety of the day or of the entire shoot (this is more common for commercials or other short-term projects).
You also get paid for attending your wardrobe fitting, if applicable. Usually, a film has a set budget for every single element of the movie, meaning they’ve budgeted for X number of extras to be included, $X for props, $X for wardrobe, etc. When I went to my wardrobe fitting for the upcoming film You Are My Friend, I got paid a flat rate that accounted for a wardrobe fitting up to 4 hours (mine took 30 minutes!). They also compensate the max rate for the parking garage ($9), but my parking only cost $5 for the time I was there, so I just pocket the difference.
Other compensation includes parking reimbursement, meals, snacks, and occasionally, you get really lucky and they let you keep something from your wardrobe! When I worked on The Dark Knight Rises, they let us keep the rally towels we waved all day. Honestly, it was a winter scene that we shot outside in the August heat, so I really think they just didn’t want to touch anyone’s sweaty bandanna by the end of the day. I got to keep several wardrobe pieces from my Ebates commercial shoot - this is pretty typical of commercials. They’ve got crazy big budgets and they don’t need the clothes once they’re done filming.
What is a wardrobe fitting?
For some projects, they just need you to arrive in your own clothing. For Abduction, they needed everyone dressed for a Pirates game, so I wore my own clothes. For Concussion, they needed me in business attire, and my final outfit was a combination of some of my own pieces as well as a few selected from their wardrobe options. The scenes I worked on for You Are My Friend were a 90s wedding in New Jersey, so every piece of my wardrobe was courtesy of Sony.
What is a casting call?
Production companies using casting calls to find background actors! Most major films outsource background casting to local casting agencies (more info on Pittsburgh agencies below!). Most have an option to create an online profile, but the casting calls are a great way for the agencies to find the right people for the job, and to ensure they have up-to-date photos of people in their records. Sometimes, it is solely up to the casting agencies to select extras for a project, while other times the movie’s main casting director will review the options and make final decisions.
I once submitted my information for a featured extra role on a mini-series. The local casting agency I had been working with narrowed their pool to 5 (including me) and asked us to come into meet with the director, who would select someone personally. In this case, the director was Ben Stiller! The scene included stepping out of a helicopter, and he told me that my hair, while “really beautiful”, would stand out in the scene too much, so he ultimately selected someone else. If you have to be rejected from a role, there are worse reasons than being too pretty haha!
What does being a Background Actor entail?
I’ll be honest – it’s not for the faint of heart or easily bored. An average day on set goes something like this:
7:00am (or earlier – my call times on Abduction were between 4:00 and 5:30am!): Arrival and check-in. Complete your employment paperwork. If you had a wardrobe fitting, you go and pick up your stuff from the Wardrobe crew. Get dressed and head to hair and makeup!
8:30am: Get your hair and makeup done, or get it checked by the Hair crew and Makeup Crew (these are totally separate teams of people). Most of the time, they ask background actors to arrive with their hair and makeup already done to save time. The makeup crew for You Are My Friend LOVED how I did my own makeup, so I take that as a huge compliment! It also meant I got to go get breakfast sooner haha.
On Concussion, I was one of only a few extras in the scene, so the hair and makeup crews did everything for me. It was mind-blowing how much hair spray they used, and even crazier when they kept doing touch-ups every 15 minutes! I had to wash my hair twice that night to get everything out.
10:00am: The catering people usually have breakfast out. Depending on schedule and the production budget, this ranges from a simple continental breakfast to a full hot breakfast buffet.
12:00pm: If the extras holding area is in a different location than the actual set, you’d probably head to set around now. You likely have another holding area on set to hang out when you’re not doing anything, which is most of the day.
2:00pm: Craft services, which is different than catering, usually has snacks and coffee out all day. On most sets, extras have their own craft services setup, while on smaller sets, you might use the same snacks and drinks as the rest of the cast and crew (this is how Will Smith and I once had coffee together!)
3:00pm: They might need you for a scene, so you’ll go and film it for a few hours (or however long it takes to get the shots they want).
5:00pm: The meal break for the day is dictated by when filming began that day, not when you arrived. So, while you might have arrived a 9am, if filming didn’t start until 12pm your lunch break wouldn’t be until 6pm (it is usually 6 hours into the “work” day). This is why craft services is so important and appreciated!
8:00pm: This is usually when they’re wrapping up for the day. As you can see, most extras have been earning 1.5x pay for several hours at this point in the day, so the daily pay looks a little sweeter now.
Most of the day, you’re hanging out in a holding area with other background actors just hanging out. I’ve met so many amazing people on the movies I’ve worked on, and it’s amazing how quickly a bond forms. I always bring a book to read as well. A physical book, not one on a device as sometimes you aren’t permitted to have your phone with you.
Here’s a great article about what it’s like being a background actor.
I’m interested! How can I become a background actor?
My experience is solely Pittsburgh-based, but I imagine the process is similar in other cities (though I’m guessing the opportunities are far more concentrated in cities like Los Angeles and New York). Here in Pennsylvania, we are fortunate to have a great film tax credits, which makes it enticing and affordable for movies and shows to film here. This has resulted in a pretty constant flow of projects coming to Pittsburgh! You can learn more about the tax credit here.
A great resource for learning more about the film industry here in southwestern PA is the Pittsburgh Film Office website. They don’t have an exhaustive or constantly-updated list, but they do list casting notices on there.
Pittsburgh Casting Agencies:
I follow all these accounts on Facebook and check them for casting opportunities. If you see them post about something and you fit the description, apply FAST! They usually fill roles quickly, so you’ll want to get your information submitted as soon as possible.
This was longer that I intended it to be, but I wanted to give y’all some useful information! Do you still have questions? Comment below!