If you’ve ever watched a film or TV series, you’ve watched background actors at work. Whether it’s the cheering crowd in a sports scene, the stunned onlookers of a spy chase, an undead horde crawling toward the camera, or an army charging at the enemy, nearly every great screen creation relies on the work of background actors. Read on if you’re interested in the basics of getting started in background acting or just curious what a day on set would be like.
“Spider-Man 2” Courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing
Background acting is composed of nonspeaking roles in a visual production. Background actors (also known as extras) make a scene more authentic and believable for audiences. Imagine filming your lead actors walking around New York City on a typical day; without background actors filling up the streets and sidewalks, the scene wouldn’t look or feel real.
“I love being on set. It feels like home,” says Michael Lugenbuehl, who has worked as an extra in films such as “Million Dollar Baby” and “Spider-Man 2.” “You get to be a part of the magic. It’s exhilarating. Sometimes you get to see a performance that ends up winning an Academy Award.”
Being an extra requires discipline and acting skills. Background actors are on camera, and they must be able to follow blocking (walking and standing in designated spots). It’s important for extras to blend into a scene well enough to convince an audience.
Background acting is also a legitimate way to join SAG-AFTRA. Each day you work on a union project, you’ll receive a pay stub noting your hours; this “union voucher” verifies your work on a union job. Collect three vouchers and you become eligible for SAG-AFTRA. Keep in mind, though, that most sets have a limited amount of vouchers, and production usually gives them to any nonunion performers in principal roles before background actors.
“Yellowstone” Courtesy Paramount
Work as a background actor requires long days on set. Extras are often the first to arrive and the last to leave. But if you’re good at following instructions and are OK with long bouts of downtime, background acting may be for you.
“It’s a journey. You either love it or you hate it,” says Trish Walker, a background actor in projects like “Yellowstone” and “High School Musical.” “Every day is [different]. My first day on ‘Yellowstone,’ there [were] only two of us, and we got treated like cast [members]. We sat together and ate with the main cast. Other times, you’re waiting in a room having Cheetos.”
The amount of time spent on set may vary, but here are the basics of what a day as a background actor entails:
Call sheet: The night before you’re due to arrive on set—or, at the latest, the same morning—you’ll receive the call sheet with your call time (when you’re expected to be on set). The call sheet also contains a breakdown of the day’s schedule, so it’s critical for ensuring you’re familiar with the production details of the day.
Set essentials: Every production is different. Bring everything that’s requested and some personal items to keep you entertained while you wait. The following are examples of things to bring to set:
- Identification and other documentation (e.g., SAG-AFTRA membership card)
- Wardrobe and/or props
- Snacks and beverages (allowed in holding area)
- Personal hygiene products
- Reading material
- Electronic devices
- Batteries or portable chargers
Arriving and checking in: Upon arrival on set, ask the first person you see with a headset or walkie where “extras holding” is located. This term refers to the area where background actors report at the start of the day, sign in and out, place their belongings, and wait to be called. The production staff will check you in, verify information, and provide instructions for the day. This is also where you’ll receive paperwork.
Wardrobe, hair, and makeup: Depending on the production, you may be asked to bring a specific wardrobe and do your own hair and makeup. Sometimes, the production will request that you arrive “camera ready,” meaning you should arrive dressed in wardrobe with your hair and makeup already done; other times, you’ll get ready on set.
“For nonunion [productions], you’ll be asked to bring several different [wardrobe] choices, each and every day,” explains Lugenbuehl. “[The wardrobe department] will look at your choices and tell you what to wear. At best, you’ll be able to [get dressed] in a comfortable room with a wardrobe rack; at worst, you’ll stand inside a makeshift tent with nowhere to hang your clothes, no chairs to sit on, and [you] will have to change standing up.”
Other productions will provide a wardrobe for you. In these cases, you’ll need a wardrobe “change,” which will require you to report to both the wardrobe department and hair and makeup. Although you’re a background actor, some period, genre-specific productions may require special wardrobes and even special effects to help you blend into the scene.
Long wait times: “About three-fourths of your day is waiting to be called to action,” says Lugenbuehl. “You’ll be in holding for hours at a time, waiting to be called onto set. Bring a book! Or a crossword puzzle.” Or socialize with the other background actors.
“It’s a great place to network and meet people,” says Walker, who has gone from background acting to producing. “You’re sitting with people for a long time and end up becoming close with them.” These days, Walker says, it’s common that she recognizes someone onscreen as a result of her time as an extra.
On set: When you’re called to action, a member of the production staff—likely a production assistant—will take you to the set where you’ll be briefed on the scene’s context and given instructions, including blocking and any actions you’ll need to perform.
Once the camera starts rolling, stay in character and act your best—and don’t look at the camera. Your role is to blend in and avoid drawing attention away from the main action. It’s essential to stay in character and remain consistent with your blocking and actions.
“When you’re called to set, be ready. Production—normally the second assistant director—will tell you where to stand or where to sit, if they want you to start walking from one point to another,” says Lugenbuehl. “For background actors, they don’t call ‘action’; instead, they’ll say ‘background.’ ” That’s your cue to start moving, if that’s what you’ve been instructed to do.
After each take you’ll hear “back to one,” which means you need to get into your original position and be ready to do it all over again. The process repeats until the director is ready to move on. If the crew needs time to work out a complex set or scene, or the actors need a break, you’ll also get one. If you have multiple scenes in one day, you’ll be instructed to return to the extras’ holding area until they’re ready for you.
On union gigs, production is required to provide meals every six hours. You can expect to break for a meal after six hours from when filming began. If the day goes on for another six, a second meal is provided. And if production runs behind schedule and can’t stop filming after six hours, overtime is paid as compensation for not breaking for a meal on time.
On very rare occasions, a background actor is upgraded to principal performer. According to SAG-AFTRA, the most common scenarios for a background bump are:
- A background actor is asked to say a line of dialogue (other than an “omni,” or atmospheric words or sounds).
- A background actor performs a noticeable stunt.
- A background actor is in the foreground of the shot, noticeable, and “demonstrating or illustrating a product or service or illustrating or reacting to the on/off camera narration or commercial message.” (For this option, you must meet all three criteria.)
When your scenes for the day are complete, you’ll report back to wardrobe to return the items, and to hair and makeup if they need to remove any wigs or special effects used. Then you’ll check out and ensure production has all the necessary paperwork and correct information to receive payment.
The following are key terms all background actors should know for their time on set:
- Background: Cue for background actors to perform
- Action: Cue for main actors to perform
- Cut: Cue to stop performing
- Back to one: Cue to move to your original position
- Cross: When background actors pass in front of the camera while walking
- Matching: Recreating the exact same movements take after take to ensure they can be seamlessly edited in post-production
- Pantomime: Silently mouth conversations
- Wrap: When filming or your time on set is done for the day
“What Men Want” Credit: Jess Miglio
Background acting is a job. Being on set is a good opportunity to watch professionals at work, but it’s not an audition for a bigger role or a place to be discovered. While you’ll be able to network with other background actors and possibly even crew members during downtime, background acting is still a job, and you’re expected to remain focused and professional.
Don’t stare. “Don’t stare at the main actors or even look them in the eye. That sounds horrible, but it’s not really as bad as it sounds,” says Lugenbuehl. “Acting is tough. It takes a lot of concentration, and it’s unnerving to have someone staring while you’re putting your heart and soul into a scene. Imagine you were in a restaurant and a person at the next table just turned and started staring at you as you ate. It’s rattling. So don’t look at it as an ego thing, just a workplace thing.”
Be on time. Like any job, be prompt. Any delays—even from a background actor—will hold up production.
“Make sure you get the exact address and that you’re early,” says Lugenbuehl. “Sometimes the directions are not clear, so give yourself some leeway.”
Be flexible. Expect to be there the entire day. It’s better not to book anything else or request to leave early. You’re filling a role as a background actor, and your job is to be there for when and if they need you.
Review the details. Check what you need to bring, what you’ll be doing, and the times you’ll be expected on set. If you have questions, ask the production staff.
Follow directions. As with any actor, following directions is important to make sure you not only perform well, but you also know what to do and not do on set and while filming. Be aware of your surroundings, including where the cameras, principal actors, and other background actors are.
Don’t take it personally. Even when you show up and follow directions, there may be days when you’re not used as a background actor. The good news is that while it may be a lot of sitting around doing nothing, you still get paid for being there. And if you are needed, you may not actually make it into the final cut. It’s not personal.
Enjoy the experience. You have a job to complete, and while it’s important to be focused, don’t forget to have fun.
“It’s actually really cool to hear my neighbors say, ‘Hey, we were watching a movie from a few years ago and saw you!’ ” says Lugenbuehl. “There’s a lot to love about being a background artist.”