Most of the work actors do are on episodic television, since there's a ton of it out there, and those shows need a constant supply of actors.
Not counting series regulars, there are three types of jobs actors can book on TV. Here's their breakdown by size, compensation, and billing.
Co-stars are minor characters. They do not have arcs, and their functions are superficial. Think of the uniformed cops at the start of every “Law & Order” episode—the ones who tell the leads about the crime scene and then disappear. Those are co-stars. Sometimes they work one day; sometimes they work more.
Co-stars are hired on a daily contract. The pay is usually scale ($1,082) plus 10 percent for the day, but agents have room to negotiate. And if a co-star is hired for two days on an episode of “NCIS” and those days are Monday and Wednesday, for example, Tuesday is a hold day, and they'll get paid for that, too.
As for billing, a co-star's name will appear in the end titles on a card with a bunch of other actors. The odds are that that card will get squeezed to the side so the network can run clips for the next show.
Like really good ribs, these parts have more meat on the bone. They’re characters who service the plot while interacting with the leads, but they can also be filmed in a day. Imagine the lead is a disillusioned lawyer who meets his mentor for drinks in a bar. The two of them have an intense conversation in that one location, and the scene runs about four minutes. That mentor character is a one-day guest star.
The rate here is negotiable. Some established actors can command $3,000 for one day of work, while less experienced clients might go for $1,500. It all depends on the performer and their agent’s ability to get things done.
One-day guest stars are billed in the main titles. Those are the credits that appear up front at the start of the episode. They have to share the card, but a good agent can negotiate how many actors are placed on that card and what their client's position will be.
These roles are the focal point of the plot, and the actors who play them are hired for the entire episode. Sometimes, the character shows up in future storylines and they end up recurring on the series. That means multiple bookings from one audition.
The pay is called “top-of-show.” That’s the most a show will pay for a guest star actor, unless that person is a name. On network TV, the rate for a one-hour drama is currently $9,522 (eight days of work) and half-hour comedies pay $5,951 (five days of work).
Guest stars are billed in the main titles on a separate card. That means it’s just their name on the screen.
Keep in mind that there are minor deviations to everything explained here, and rates vary between networks, cable, and streaming services.
This story originally appeared in the July 11, 2019 issue of Backstage Magazine.
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