If you live in any city with a significant amount of filmed production, chances are there is a casting office dedicated to casting Extras for movies, TV and commercials.
Extras, also known as background talent, perform as part of the setting of any production. In any movie, TV show or commercial set in a public place, there are people in the backgrounds of those scenes that are being paid to be there. If they are doing their jobs well, you may not even realize they are present, but the person who passes in front of camera in such a way that you can barely make out the color of their coat is an extra. That person was told to walk in front of that camera at that time and that person was paid to do it.
The great thing about being an extra is that the main requirement is that you look like you belong in the scene—you don’t have to act, sing, dance or speak any lines. If your scene takes place in a park, all this is required is that you look like someone who might be in a park. If your scene takes place in an office building, any look common to such offices is fine. “Look” generally means clothing. That means to book parts you will need to have a variety of different wardrobes. If the movie is set in the 70s, clothing from that period is necessary, etc. The more clothing styles you have, the more jobs you will qualify to do.
Most extra’s faces never appear on camera. If your face appears on camera, you are considered a “featured extra” and will earn more money—as well as a Screen Actor’s Guild voucher for your work that day. Receiving three vouchers (or being asked to speak even a single line of dialog) grants you the right to join the Screen Actor’s Guild under Taft-Hartley. Membership in the guild doubles your pay as an extra. There are, however, more jobs for non-union extras than union extras. So being in the union, although it has perks such as health insurance and higher pay, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll work more.
In general, you bring your own clothes. You stand where they tell you to stand (called your “mark”). You do what they tell you to do (called your “blocking”). And you keep quiet. In a few days you’ll receive a check that represents at least $8/hour. The minimum salary you can be paid for up to an eight hour day is $64. That means, even if you only work three hours, you still get $64. The base salary for extras who are members of SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) is currently $134 for up to eight hours of work. And the base salary for AFTRA (Association of Film, Television and Radio Artists) extras is currently $99 to $134 for up to eight hours of work and varies depending on the show. In addition to your day salary, you will also be paid overtime should you work more than eight hours. An average workday for an extra is twelve hours.
If you’re over 18, but you have the ability to look 18 or younger, you can make a lot of serious money as an extra. Many movies, TV shows and commercials revolve around high school aged kids. The problem with working with people under 18 is that their parents must also be on set and special permissions must be signed. So teenagers in film are usually portrayed by adult actors. The same goes for extras. Extras who are able to portray 18 years or younger can earn over $50,000 a year.
When the camera is not on, you may enjoy the same free craft services (prepared meals and refreshments) as other known actors on the set. Besides enjoying the craft services, you may get a chance to mingle with the director, get to know the producer or other actors and maybe even get invited to a party at one of the star’s homes. But make sure you don’t initiate any of these conversations with the stars. Speak if you’re spoken to, but otherwise, keep quiet. Nothing makes an A.D. (Assistant Director—the person in charge of extras on the set) more nervous than having one of his employees offend the star. Violating the pecking order can and will get you fired. So don’t take pictures. Don’t swoon over stars. And stay out of the way.
So how do you become an extra you ask? It is actually quite easy. There are about thirty-five extra casting offices in Los Angeles. There are at least ten in New York and a few in other states. They can easily be found with a Google search. On top of the physical casting offices, there are dozens of online casting offices for people who live further away.
In most cases, you either sign up in person or submit your photo and fill out an extensive questionnaire to explain what special abilities you have and how you prefer to work. The agencies generally require a fee of between $10-25 to register. Anything more than this, such as being told to have headshots done with a particular photographer or being told to give any other money, is suspect. The questionnaire is to help identify any special talents or abilities you have. For instance, if a film requires extras to be in a swimming pool, the casting office may choose only those who indicate ability to swim and who are willing to appear shirtless or in a bikini. Special talents like juggling, doing handstands, gymnastics or dance moves might be required for extras appearing in films featuring such scenes.
The casting agency wants to know if you can drive a motorcycle, drive a car, do stunts, appear nude or partially nude, speak a foreign language, operate a crane, throw knives, or any other skill a filmmaker or screenplay may possibly call on. But it isn’t necessary that you have any of these abilities. In fact, being an extra requires only three major skills—the ability to show up on time, the ability to endure long waits and the ability to do what you’re told.
The job of the casting agency is to announce jobs that are available for actors. Generally your job is to call the agency’s line in the evening and listen through a host of positions or call the agency to let them know you’re available to work. The agency will let you know if they have work for you and, if so, your “call time” (the time you are due on the set). They will also let you know what type of clothes to bring and who to see once you arrive.
Once on the set, you will check in with the A.D. and he/she will explain what they want you to do, where to wait, and any other directions you will need.
Contrary to what you might expect from being around movie or TV stars, working on a production set has been described as the most unglamorous job there is. Long periods of downtime are best spent with a book or in quiet conversation with other waiting extras and actors. And most times, if a big star is on the set he or she is surrounded by their own people all the time so it’s not quite hobnobbing. But if you possess the ability to be on time, endure long periods of waiting, and do what you’re told, you may find work as an extra any time you need a little extra money.