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Being cast as a background extra is one of those gigs that can sound impressive to your friends and family back home, but in truth, it’s not necessarily that’s glamorous, and doesn’t involve a whole lot of acting. It does however give you excellent experience on a film set and can be an invaluable first step for a new actor to learn the ropes.
- What is a background actor or extra?
- Is there a difference between “background” and “extra”?
- How much do extras get paid?
- What is a featured extra?
- What is a Stand-in? And how are they different from a regular extra?
- How do I become an extra?
- A great way to start a career as an actor
- No acting required
- How to Find Movie Extra Jobs
How to Be a Background Actor in a Movie & What to Expect as a Movie Extra
Being a background performer, also known as an “extra” is a low-pressure way to gain first hand experience on a real film or tv set. You may not be doing a lot, mostly walking from one place on-camera to another, but you’re literally getting paid to watch more experienced actors as well as a whole film crew, work. You’ll get to know and understand what a First A.D,, D.P., Grip and Crafty is, and what function each one of those has. You can also make valuable connections with producers and directors and build relationships with production assistants so that when you do start to look for principal work, you know how to get in front of the right people.
Becoming a movie extra or background performer involves a few basic steps:
- Take a good quality actor’s headshot
- Research background talent agencies in your area
- Contact the agencies for sign-up info, open calls etc.
- Register with at least one background casting agency
- Submit your work authorization documentation and take any additional photos they require
- Begin working as a non-union extra right away!
- Sign up for an online casting site to find jobs
- Become a SAG-AFTRA member after qualifying
Not sure what a First A.D. is ? Check out….
Let’s go through some FAQ on what an extra is and how to do background work.
What is a Background Actor or Extra?
Simply put, an extra is a nonspeaking role in film or television. Background talent appear often “in the background” of movies and tv shows. The purpose is to fill out the scene and make it look more realistic. Just think how weird a street scene would look if there were only 2 actors talking and no one else was around! It would suddenly go from being drama to sci-fi 🙂
Extras might also be fans at a sporting event, patrons in a restaurant or bar, or audience members at a show.
Is There a Difference Between “Background” and “Extra”?
Nope! No difference at all. The true industry term, and the one used by the unions is “background performer”. Quite frankly it just sounds a little more respectful than “extras”. A background actor is the exact same thing as an extra and does the same job for the same pay.
How Much Do Extras Get Paid?
Background actors are paid differently depending on their union status. Generally, nonunion talent will be hired for either a 10 or 12 hour day, with additional pay provided should production run overtime. At the time of this writing, a common rate for a single day of background work is about $120 USD…. And you get meals.
Union talent, SAG-AFTRA, ACTRA, Equity-UK, earns a lot more than nonunion talent. The base rate for background work in 2021 is about $178 per day. Yes, this is one of the perks of being in the union, but currently to join SAG-AFTRA it’s close to $3500 so you have to be doing a lot of background work to make that worthwhile.
There are also a number of conditions that affect how much a union extra can make. For example, a union background performer will be paid more if they provide props such as sporting equipment, use their own car, are required to get wet, or body makeup is applied to more than half their body.
There is also a pay bump for “special skills” such as juggling, tennis, skating, horseback riding, driving a motorcycle or stage combat. This is sometimes referred to as a “specialty extra”.
What is a Featured Extra?
A featured extra is a background actor who gets a little more screen time, and is in a sense, “featured”. If the scene takes place in a restaurant, they might be the hostess who seats the main stars, maybe they pour a glass of wine for the lead actor, or deliver a package if the scene is at a home. Featured extras are often recognizable, just for a split second! The term is not officially recognized by the union, but it does mean more pay
*Important to Know: Featured extras still don’t speak on camera. Even if you say just one word, you’re now considered a “Co-Star.”
Not sure what the difference between a Co-Star and a Guest Star? Find it here:
What is a Stand-in? And how are they different from a regular extra?
A Stand-In for movies, TV shows and commercials is a person who takes the place of a main actor when the crew is doing things like setting up lighting and camera angles. This allows the main actor to work on their lines or very importantly go through hair and make-up and wardrobe while the crew is setting up. Stand-ins are similar in appearance to the main actor and must have some experience on set to know exactly what is expected of them. They are paid more than general extras but less than lead talent.
How do I become an extra?
Becoming an extra is a lot easier than becoming a lead actor. Most extras agencies only require snapshots and not professional headshots (although they don’t hurt!) They really just need an accurate representation of what you look like. Often they will have specific requirement such as full length body shots. Be sure to check their website for details.
To become an extra, you don’t need to belong to any union, you can simply be hired at the cash day rate. For SAG-AFTRA in particular though, doing background work can count toward qualifying if you do want to join the union at some later point in time.
This is an excellent guide for background actors!
Background Extra work is a great way to start a career as an actor.
As a new actor you really need to gain some experience on set and make some contacts in the industry. Background work can give you a solid start in an acting career.
Unlike principal casting directors who go through agents and managers, background casting directors deal directly with the actors. Agents and managers are generally not involved in this type of work. This kind of personal connection often leads to ongoing work for the actor.
Good news, Bad news: They didn’t hire you because you can act.
Again, the main reason background talent is hired is to fill out the scene and make it look more realistic, so appearance, props, wardrobe and special skills play a huge part in casting background performers. Background actors usually provide their own props and wardrobe, which is a huge bonus for the production.
Some of the most common wardrobe requests: dark colored pants with a dress shirt for men and “upscale casual” dresses for women. This can work for restaurant scenes, church scenes, funerals, courthouse etc.
Uniforms are also very popular, especially for cops and security guards, and tuxedos and formal wear are not an uncommon request either.
How to Find Movie Extra Jobs
You don’t need any experience to become a background actor, but a basic headshot can help and a little patience and persistence to get going.
Many background agencies will require you to register in person, so they can take photos, verify your appearance and make sure you are who you say you are, but there are also a lot of opportunities available online.
For online opportunities check out the links I’ve put together here:
These sites are not actually the ones who are doing the hiring, they are simply job boards where casting agencies, producers or production companies post their current needs and openings. They’re kind of like Indeed.com, but exclusively for actors.
A couple of USA sites that I haven’t listed are Central Casting (if you are in NYC, LA, Atlanta or New Orleans) and Extras Access also for New York and Los Angeles. Both are well known and highly reputable sites and companies, although Central Casting can be stringent and difficult to work with.
You can also try doing a Google Search for:
- Background casting agencies (insert city name)
- Background actors casting calls (insert city name)
- Movie extras job (insert city name)
Doing background talent or extras work can be an excellent way to start making money as an actor and to gain valuable experience. Do the work for a little while until you feel confident on-set and understand the workings of a professional movie or television set. After that, you can focus on auditioning for bigger jobs and you’ll already understand what is expected of you when you show up to set rather than trying to figure it out on the fly. I guarantee you’ll be grateful for those previous experiences.
Being a background performer, also known as extra work, can mean long hours, late nights, outdoor shoots and sometimes uncomfortable conditions, but it really is the best prep work you can do to step into the spotlight for those bigger roles!
Until next time, keep reaching for the stars and following your dreams! xo Hunter
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This post was originally published in August 2021 and had been updated
* Please Note: I am not an agent, manager, or casting director. I do not procure work for actors. All information, workshops and coaching are for educational purposes only and are not a guarantee or promise of employment. Thank you for being here!