When we think of actors we think of stars. But there are lots of other categories of performers. One is the background actor or extra. This used to mean being in huge crowds, like in Ben Hur, but more and more background actors are also doing what used to be called “bits.” This is called a “featured extra”. So whether you are an aspiring actor or a retiree who wants to get out in the sun and have some fun, you, too, can be in the movies.
What do you need to do to be an extra? In bigger markets like New York City; Orlando, Florida, Chicago and Los Angeles there are agencies who will call you with extra jobs. But they usually cost money to join if you are not in the union (SAG). Another way to to look on your local craigslist.com under “Talent” and “Gigs.” For your first time, there are always student films to work on, so you know what you are doing, and at least they will feed you. You can also contact your local film commission (every state has one) and find out who casts extras and actors in your area. You can even leave a picture with the commission. Pictures used to be a big deal, but now with digital cameras and computer editing equipment, you can probably have one taken in your backyard. Make sure it’s color, tho. And then save it in a jpeg format so you can send it off to on-line casting notices. (Keep the size small, too.)
What do you need? A good wardrobe, because you will be supplying your own. It helps to have a whole range of things to wear – from uniforms to formal wear, to jeans and beat-up clothes if you play a homeless person, as I did once. They often ask for medical scrubs, or police uniforms. And sometimes they specify sizes if they are providing the costumes, so you can fit into them – then the sizes are mostly small ones. They often specify evening clothes and business attire, so men should have suits, and a tux if possible. And women should have suits, too. And of course, the shoes, etc .that go with that. I actually got to wear a vintage hat I had and a fur stole I inherited on one very cold night shoot!
They will expect you to bring several changes besides what you are wearing. So, people often pack those clothes in a garment bag. I label everything!
Then you should also bring a drink, something to do (it can be a long time between shots) – like a book or crossword puzzle. Also bring snacks, like energy bars, because although you usually get fed, there are those times you don’t. I also like to bring energy or caffeine pills – especially when I had that night shoot of a music video and they ran out of diet soda/coffee, everything caffeinated at 1 AM and we were going till 2!!
Just a few words about etiquette on the set. You will probably want to find the Assistant Director or A.D., who is in charge of the extras. If there is anyone notable there, please be cool. Maybe you will get next to them and can talk to them, but otherwise remember that you are all there to work. Stay in your holding area until you are needed (that’s why you need stuff to do.) When you are on the set, do as YOU ARE TOLD. Obedience is an actor’s primary trait. What do you want? OK, I can do THAT. Keep quiet on the set so you do not interfere with the filming!! When they eat, the crew always goes FIRST. Wait your turn. And don’t be a pig, either! There will probably be snacks on the set for in between.
Bring a chair of some kind to sit on, as there isn’t always enough seating, and none is usually provided. Veteran extras have folding chairs they bring with them. It’s hard to stand for 8 hours! Vets also sometimes have little wheeled charts to put everything in/on, as you may have to schlepp your stuff from the car to the set area yourself.
Most of it is just showing up. Try to get as good directions as you can. Look it up on a computer map site! Bring a map with you. BE ON TIME!! BE EARLY, in fact!! Show up at least a half hour before your call time. Expect to stay 8 hours, even though it may be much less. The current rate for non-union extras in L.A. is California minimum wage – or about $60 for 8 hours. Some gigs pay more. And the rate for union work is considerably higher, and those jobs are harder to land.
That’s the bare minimum. It isn’t brain surgery. (Although, there is a book called BRAIN SURGERY FOR EXTRAS!.) I think it’s mostly common sense. Oh, try not to wear black or white. They usually prefer pastels. And avoid “busy” patterns that may cause the camera to flare.
That’s it. Really. Anything else you can learn on the job. So, go and be in a movie!!!