What to Expect When Working as a Background Actor

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Photo Source: Nicole Rivelli

Congratulations! You’ve been booked for a day of background work. This can be a fun and wonderful learning experience if you’re just entering the industry. You’ll quickly learn about the life of an actor and the uncertainty that can exist about the project’s details, the last-minute changes, the long stretches of sitting and waiting, and the rush to then begin working. It’s important to understand that when working on a film or TV project, things are very fluid, so when you’re there as a background actor you need to stay calm and just go with the flow. 

At the start, you’ll be told the date of the shoot but your call time might not be given to you until the night before the shoot. Understand that production is not trying to make your life difficult. They can’t set a call time until they know when the shoot has finished the day before. There are strict union rules about how many hours both actors and crew must have off before beginning work the following day.

On the day of the shoot, make sure you bring all wardrobe that was requested along with a pen, paper, identification like a driver’s license or passport and social security card, and business cards. Business cards are great to bring because if you have the opportunity, giving your card to other actors is a good way to connect with others in the industry. If they don’t have a card, write their information down so you can stay in touch. 

Always arrive early to your shoot and ask where “extras holding” is located. This is the area where all background actors congregate, sign in, and leave their belongings. It’s also where a production assistant will begin checking you in. They’ll ask for your name and check you off their list signifying that you’ve arrived. You’ll also be given a voucher to fill out that will be handed back to a production assistant at the very end of the day. Make sure you fill it out correctly with all of the requested information. If you’re not sure how to fill out the form correctly, just ask one of the other actors you’re with. There is always someone there who be willing to help you.

How to Make a Living as an Extra

There might be snacks or even a full breakfast available depending on the project. Find a place to sit and find the bathroom. Make sure you use the facility prior to being called onto set because you could be working many hours. This is your chance to talk with the other actors too. It can be a great opportunity for you to network, make great connections, and learn more about the industry. You should also make sure your phone is off. You never want to interrupt a scene because your phone starts ringing. Some productions won’t even allow cell phones on a set. There are some concerns that background actors will record or take photos of some of the scenes and upload these to their social media platforms too. Never take any photos or video, and never ask for autographs. You’re there to work as a background artist. Let the principal actors work and not be disturbed.

If this is a union project, you can expect to break for a full meal every six hours. There are some exceptions, but that is a union rule. Productions sometimes will go longer than six hours to get a scene completed, even though they’ll have to pay union actors meal penalties for not breaking on time. 

If you’re walking during the scene, a production assistant will let you know exactly where you begin, the timing of your walk, and where you need to end. Once you start walking, continue until you hear someone say cut. Then you “go back to one” which means you go back to your original starting spot. Depending on the scene and director, some scenes will be shot over and over again. You can always ask the production assistant if you have any questions. While you’re there, watch the principal actors work. It can be a great learning experience. Observe all the crew as well to have a better understanding of what needs to happen in order for a TV show or film to be created.

Once the shoot’s ended, you most likely will go back to extras holding to finish your paperwork and hand it to the production assistant. You’ll be given one copy of the voucher for your records.

And most importantly, remember to have a good time!

Ready to find your next gig? Apply to casting calls on Backstage!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Aaron Marcus
Aaron Marcus has been a full-time actor for 36+ years while living in a secondary market. He has booked over 1,290 jobs. He is the author of the Amazon 100 + 5-star rated book “How to Become a Successful Actor and Model.”
See full bio and articles here!

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