Backstage Experts Answer: 14 Reasons Extra Work Won’t Jumpstart Your Career

Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

This week, our Backstage Experts answer a question several readers asked on Facebook: Is working as an extra a good way to get noticed by agents/casting directors—especially outside of the NYC and L.A. areas?

Here are several answers from industry professionals spanning different areas of this business to give you some perspective!

Wondering what this new column is all about? Backstage Experts Answer takes your questions and brings them to our incredible network of Experts. If you missed last week, check out “12 Tips for Where to Begin Your Acting Career,” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!

Carolyne Barry, on-camera and commercial teacher
Unless you are working to get your SAG-AFTRA vouchers or want experience being on a set and/or need the money you make doing extra work, I have reasons (regarding undermining confidence and getting bad industry information) as to why actors do not benefit from working as background for more than a few times. And I really don’t believe it is a good way to get noticed by agents and casting directors in major or minor markets. Agents don’t come to working sets very often and if they do their focus is on the clients and not on the background players.

Casting directors hardly ever come to the shoot and if they do, it is to connect and socialize with their directors, producers, the name talent and/or actors they may know. I have never heard of anyone working as an extra getting noticed by an agent or CD and helping them get acting work, though I have heard about extras being noticed by a director or assistant director and being upgraded and sometimes requesting them for other work—and that’s because they spend time directing the extras and experience their talent, professionalism, and ability to take direction.

Be cordial and respectful to the director and assistant director when doing background work.

Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher
Countless actors have become famous after taking extra work (both featured and non-featured). Kevin Costner, Megan Fox, Matt Damon, Renée Zellweger, Bruce Willis—heck, even James Dean had just one line in a film before becoming a star. Of critical importance though, is that none of them became successful actors because they did the extra work. Correlation does not equal causation.

Few folk in the industry read “extra” on a résumé and get excited about you as an actor. Though there’s no shame in the work, if you keep popping up as an extra or featured extra, you’re likely to cement that perception of you in the industry, regardless of how empathetic they are to your plight as an up-and-coming artist. Casting directors will look at your résumé then for the training you’ve taken, not for the projects in which you walked behind Jennifer Aniston, or handed a glass of wine to George Clooney.

On the flipside, you may have the rare talent, confidence, and personality to completely dazzle the director when they meet you. But if that’s the case, you’ll be a star even if you never do extra work.

You can learn something from anything and you can make some money along the way, but the odds are not in your favor to build an impressive résumé on the back of extra roles. No right, no wrong, though. Your choice, your responsibility for the consequences.

Steve Braun and Risa Bramon Garcia, The BGB Studio
Our answer is a simple resounding “no.” But it’s an excellent way to get set experience. And here’s an anecdote that might resonate: Recently, an actor we know from the studio, who did some background work on “Masters of Sex,” showed up in the scenes with such conviction and clarity, simplicity, and truth, that she got the attention of the AD, was moved up to a featured background spot, and came back for several weeks. In watching dailies I did take notice and encouraged her and the AD. She had a great ongoing experience that mattered. And this goes back to what we always say: Do your work, do it well, show up fully, whatever the circumstances. And it will grow you as an actor.

D.W. Brown, L.A.-based acting teacher
Extra work might prepare you for life on a set, but it won’t otherwise get you a leg up because, almost by definition, it’s going to be distracting if you’re showing off your acting chops.

Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director
No, but working as a “background artist” can be a valuable classroom for on-set etiquette among tons of other learning experiences.

Brette Goldstein, NYC-based casting director
I don’t think so. I know that doing background work can provide some working knowledge of a set, but I don’t really look at background credits, regional or otherwise. I come from the D.C. area, and I don’t think my thoughts on this would have changed had I continued working in that area.

Amy Lyndon, actor, celebrity booking coach, creator of the Lyndon Technique, and founder of TLTaccess.com
Extra work is good when you’re first learning about the business and want to gain knowledge about the inner workings of what’s going on behind the scenes, on set with the actors, and how to work the camera. I have heard on many occasions that an actor can be pulled out of the crowd and get seen in a commercial or given a line in a feature film or even a special business with a star. All of these things can happen, however, to be noticed by an agent or a casting director in that situation, is truly hard to say. I believe that the way to be noticed is to keep working in front of the camera in a speaking role on as many projects as possible. Extra work is a hard indicator because it’s not showcasing your acting ability, because you’re not using dialogue. It’s also hard because you’re unable to use it for your demo reel to show the people who can help you when you do have the opportunity to get in front of them. I remember back in my management days that casting directors do notice certain actors on commercials and put out a breakdown request for their agent to contact them. But again, that was for principal actors in a commercial, not extra work. I do believe that extra work needs to be put in its proper perspective. It’s a great way to make money and learn about the business.

Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
No, but it’s not unheard of for extras to get noticed by people working on the production and possibly be moved up to featured extra. Also, just being on set and interacting with people in the industry is a great way to learn basics and see how a film or TV production works!

Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
Building and maintaining relationships with producers, directors, writers, and casting directors is the surefire way to carve a path for your career. While working as an extra may give you a sense of working on-set, it is not your “in” to a career. The concept of “getting noticed” is a recipe for disaster, as it’s so passive—it’s putting your success in the hands of a “notice-er.” While we might each know a few stories of extras who became recurring characters on sitcoms, or who ended up delivering lines in major motion pictures, they are by far the minority.

Doing extra work in the hopes of someone noticing your look or your abilities is the opposite of hard work and sharing your talent. You get noticed when you create your own work or add something of value to the equation. Getting noticed is proportionate to the amount of work you put into it.

Back in the day, extra work could be a good path to getting SAG vouchers—nowadays it’s way more effective to create a Web series, or some form of original content. I’m not devaluing extra work; it can be valuable in showing new actors the inner-workings of a professional movie set. However, there’s a dangerous element to it as well. It can be too comfortable and too safe for the developing actor. You don’t want to grow too accustomed to being an extra, and unfortunately far too many actors do.

Jackie Reid, manager, and owner of L’il Angels Unlimited
Doing background work is good for several reasons, none of which are to be noticed by casting directors or agents.

It is a fairly easy paycheck, and can sometimes be a steady gig. For example, if you are working on a baseball-themed movie you may have several weeks of work as an extra sitting in the stands as a fan attending the game. Or, if you are working on a series that’s set in a school, you can be called back time and time again to be a student walking through the halls.

Another good reason to do background work is to get experience on a set. It’s a great thing to do once or twice to get an education on what a set looks like, how it runs, or the amount of crew that it takes to make a production run smoothly. Once in awhile an extra will get noticed by the director and bumped up to a featured extra or the holy grail of background work: a line!

Unfortunately, to do extra as a reason to be noticed by agents or CDs is not a reason. I have never known any industry professional gasp and demand to know who is that person standing in line for coffee three people behind George Clooney. It just doesn't happen.

Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
In my experience, having worked on both the casting and talent agency side, working as an extra is not a very expeditious or fruitful way of finding management or making connections with casting directors. However, background actors sometimes get bumped up on set to a small role, so in that way, you can build your résumé. Having a real credit on your résumé will make casting directors and agents/managers look at you more closely.

Joan Sittenfield, L.A.-based manager
I have never felt that working as an extra does any good for someone trying to build a career as an actor. First of all, extras are handled by a completely separate union than SAG-AFTRA. Secondly, once one is slotted into a particular “group” of actors, it is very difficult to emerge from it. Thirdly, no one notices extras at all. They don’t say anything and are, by nature, designed to be part of the background. If an extra pulls too much attention to himself, he is not doing his job. In my opinion, perception is everything and an actor looking for a worthwhile agent or hoping to get work from a casting director has to be careful how he is perceived. Unless you really need the money or can use the credit to get into a union, there is not good reason to be an extra

Ilene Starger, NYC-based casting director
Extra work doesn’t necessarily get an actor noticed by casting directors or agents, but it can be a valuable way of gaining experience on set. It can sometimes result in being upgraded to a speaking role, or helping an actor get his union card. Often a small but juicy featured extra role can make an actor noticeable in a scene, and it’s always helpful to add another credit on one’s résumé. That said, take care not to pad your résumé with too many extra roles which sound generic and give the (accurate) impression that you had a background role (one of several diners in a restaurant scene, etc.) Casting directors can usually tell when extra roles are listed, rather than day player roles. Yet, working as an extra can be worthwhile.

Douglas Taurel, NYC-based actor-producer
I would say no. It really doesn’t matter what part of the country you are in, working as an extra will not get you noticed by agents and casting directors. However, if you are new to the business don’t have your SAG-AFTRA card or experience, it could be a great opportunity to gain both.

Being on set and learning the process of a film or TV is invaluable when you’re starting out. It doesn’t matter how good your acting is, knowing how to act on a set is very important for your career.

If you have experience and a SAG-AFTRA card, don’t do it. If you are starting out and don’t have SAG-AFTRA card, then do three or four jobs and focus really hard on learning how the camera is moving around you. Watch how the main players prepare. Really try to learn.

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