How to Not Overact as an Extra + More Advice From a Background Casting Director

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Photo Source: “Feud” Courtesy FX

While not as life-changing as starring in a lead role, getting cast as an extra still has its benefits. Background actors are essential to bringing scenes to life. Think of any action sequence with crowds running or any scene shot on a busy street or at a packed venue—extras are there to normalize the setting. Background work can also be a launching pad for actors to land more prominent roles or get into behind-the-scenes work, like costume design, casting, or even directing. 

But how does someone be a good background actor? We chatted with casting director David Waldron of Waldron Casting to get his expert advice. The seasoned CD has assembled background talent for prominent FX, CBS, NBC, and Netflix projects such as “American Horror Story,” “Feud,” “FBI,” and “The Blacklist.” From insights into the casting process to advice on blending in, let this be your go-to guide on being a great extra.

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Getting started

How background actors shape a project

“Without background actors, the scene just wouldn’t be realistic,” says Waldron. “I always go to that infamous scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally…’ That orgasm scene in the restaurant would not have landed had you not had the expressions of all the actors in the background.”  

He adds, “It’s funny—back in the day, I used to think, Oh, [extras are] just bodies. But finally, we’ve gotten to that point where people realize they’re not—because if you have the wrong look in the background, that scene is not going to look right.” 

How the casting process for extras differs from other roles

“The main thing is, we don’t require a headshot. We don’t need a glamour shot. We really just want to know what you look like in the moment,” says Waldron. “Principal casting, they’re looking off of a headshot and looking off of your skill level as far as what you can bring to that scene. [For extras,] we’re looking for actors that can kind of paint the background and really bring that scene to life.”

Taking your acting career to another level

How being a background actor can lead to other opportunities

Background work is an opportunity to learn more about the industry. “It’s like a teaching ground,” says the CD. “You’re on the set, you’re watching a director direct, you’re watching the script supervisor take their notes, [and] the costume department…doing their job. So it’s almost like a schooling ground, where if you’re interested in the industry but maybe you haven’t figured out what part of the industry you want to get into, you can see everyone on the ground level doing their job.” 

He adds, “If you really are interested in honing your craft as an actor, [being an extra allows] you to watch that happen. You get to see [other actors] work with the director. You get to see [actors] rehearse. So, really, [background work] is like a free class that you can get paid for.”

How to not ruin a scene as a background actor

While a background gig may seem easy, it’s important as an extra to not take away from the actual scene. Waldron explains it’s all about blending in: “We’ve all seen those funny memes or reels—if there’s a background actor that’s sweeping, but they’re sweeping the air…. If they’re not correct, they can totally take you out of the moment.

“As an actor, you want to be the star; you want to have your moment. But know that…the best that you can possibly [do] is to blend in with the background, to really enhance that scene. Don’t try and have those distracting moments, because it could backfire. If you’re that distracting, they’re going to move you out of frame, and you’re going to lose that opportunity.”

The future of background work and AI

Where casting directors currently look for extras

Waldron shares that CDs utilize different casting platforms (like Backstage!) and social media to find background talent. “We post on all the casting platforms, like Backstage. We [also] have people that can register with us, so we’ll kind of do an internal search of our own database. And we still utilize social media, like [X], Threads, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. We try and utilize every kind of avenue that we possibly can,” he says.

What type of talent are casting directors looking for today?

“I feel like now with the way that our industry has evolved with the times, we’re now thinking outside of the box,” he says. “If you watch ‘FBI,’ it’s like, all of a sudden, they’re solving a case at a fashion show. Shows used to be cookie-cutter, and now they’re kind of leaning into, ‘Oh, we can do these [more lavish] sets.’

“It’s still the same process of looking for [talent]; [it’s] just a matter of what kind of looks we’re looking for. Like on ‘Feud’ this season, ‘Capote vs. the Swans,’ [we were looking to match] more of the time period—so making sure that [background actors’] hair was not modern or [looked like it] wouldn’t be back in the ’50s and ’60s. So we’re always looking for people that have a look that can be shaped into the right time era of [the project we’re casting].”

How AI is changing background work + what you need to know

As for what background actors should be aware of when it comes to artificial intelligence, Waldron advises to always “speak up and ask questions” if you’re unsure about something listed in a casting notice or if there’s a note about scanning. “We’ve seen it in the past, where for bigger scenes, they will do scanning or filling in, where they’ll kind of paint the background,” he explains. 

“When you see in a casting [something about] scanning, ask what type of scanning. Ask what it’s going to be used for. You know, if [you’re] playing a pedestrian at a concert or a concertgoer, and they’re scanning [you], [ask if] it’s just going to be used in that episode to fill in the background of, like, a 2,500-person day when there’s only really 1,000 people working. Or is it going to be utilized for promos…or is it going to be utilized for another movie that this production company is doing,” Waldron says. “You got to speak up, because if you don’t, you’re getting yourself into trouble.”

The best advice for getting cast as an extra

Ready to apply to your first background role? Here’s some go-to advice to make sure you snag the part.

Selfies are gold for auditioning. “What I always tell anyone that’s getting into [background acting] is don’t worry about getting professional photos. Don’t waste your time unless you know you’re doing it for Broadway or you want to do principal work at the same time,” says Waldron.

“Be realistic of what you can portray, like a business [professional] or college [student]—whatever you can play in your mind. Then have a friend take selfies of you. Have a selfie in a cocktail dress. Have a selfie [dressed like] a college student. Just have [these photos] on your phone, basically what you’d put in an [Instagram] post. Just be ready to submit the requested information, and have those selfies ready.”

Make sure your photos match your current look. “We’re casting off a look, so if your look changes, update the photos you send to us. If you decide, ‘I’m going through my punk rock era,’ and [you decided to] dye [your] hair black, then update us,” he says. 

Every moment is an opportunity. “A lot of times, you have a director that when they walk on the set and they see how the actors are kind of relating to the background, something just pops up,” says Waldron. “And [they’re] like, ‘You know what? This scene plays so much better if this background actor were to say this—let’s do that.’ And that’s why I always say [background work] is an opportunity that you won’t get anywhere else, because you’re in the moment.

“It’s great, because there’s your opportunity, and now you have a credit to your résumé [that] you wouldn’t have had…had you not done the background work to get there.”

Be prepared and have a good attitude. Waldron explains, “We always will ask the same questions—like name, union or nonunion, contact number, all your sizes, last time that you worked…. They’re always going to be the same questions that we always ask in our social media or our casting notices. So keep those answers handy. The job of an actor is that you got to be ready to go at a second’s notice, whether for background work or whether it’s [for] your agency.”

He adds, “My best advice is also to just be open. Come [to set] with a positive attitude. Be ready, be prepared, listen, and be on time. There are so many extra opportunities; there are so many extra casting companies. As long as you’re prepared, you’re going to stay busy.”

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