Start Your Acting Career as a Background Extra

Background Extra work can be your ticket to break into show business.

When you are cast as a background extra it is one of those gigs that sounds more impressive to your folks back home but is not necessarily glamorous in reality. The truth is that background extra work can be a thankless job with long hours and uncomfortable conditions. “I want to be a star,” you’re thinking. Why would I want to be cast as “background?” As the saying goes: Everyone has to start somewhere.

A hot set is the actor’s classroom. Get out there and build relationships with the directors, the producers and even the production assistants. Make sure you are in front of the right people because you might be just the person they are looking for.

Background Extra work is a great way to start an acting career

Lee Genick of Sylvia Fay/Lee Genick & Associates Casting, the company responsible for background casting on such feature films as (update)Click with Adam Sandler and Brooklyn’s Finest with Richard Gere, views the job of a background extra as an educational experience: “If everybody’s got to start somewhere,” he points out, “why not start on an actual set?”

Beginning actors do not typically have the contacts they need to market themselves properly. Background work offers a solid start building your own show business network. Unlike principal casting, background casting directors deal directly with actors. Agents and managers are not generally sought after for this type of work. “I like dealing directly with actors,” says Karen E. Etcoff of Kee Casting, who casts for feature films, television, commercials and industrials. “I like the concept of it, and I like the one-on-one practice of it.” This personal touch can lead to ongoing work for the actor or perhaps even a union card.

Make your first big break

Starting out as a background extra requires patience and a lot of stamps – yes, stamps. Snail mail is still the best way to get your face into the hands of casting directors. After that first mailing, most casting directors prefer to receive picture postcards as a monthly reminder. Many casting Web sites also allow for online headshot and resume submissions. Genick notes that his office receives upwards of 600 photos and postcards a week. Though Etcoff too admits that the mail can be overwhelming, she promises, “We do look at every postcard that comes in.” Many casting directors note, however, that they do not accept telephone calls from actors.

Casting directors sometimes hold open calls where “you only have what feels like one second to make an impression,” says veteran actor Heather Dominic. “One second is enough if you’re organized and ready.” Dominic, who has worked on and off as an extra for nearly two decades, adds, “It’s all about how you package yourself to the casting directors. You have to try and present yourself in a unique way.”

If you want to be a star, look like one

Etcoff warns, “It’s shocking when people come to open calls looking terrible – dirty jeans, no makeup, and their hair wet from the shower. I’m not saying dress up; just be clean and well-pressed. You should style your hair in a way that complements and highlights your facial features, so if that means looking for the best hair rollers to stop yourself from having a bad hair day, then that is what you should do. You should do everything you can to look the part. This is essentially a job interview.”

Being professional will increase your odds of getting the gig. “You must have a professional-looking headshot,” says Genick.

Meredith Jacobson Marciano, who did the background casting for Sex and the City, says: “Some people have been sending me the same headshot since I started in 1986. I know that I’ve changed a lot since 1986.” Updated photos and clean cover letters and resumes are very important. Other obvious points include being polite and appreciative, and showing up early.

They did not hire you because you can act

Looks, props, wardrobe and skills play a huge role in background extra casting. Background actors often provide their own props and wardrobe. “I don’t want to sound harsh,” says Dominic, “but extra work is not about being an actor. You might be an actor who played at the Public Theater last month, but when Karen [Etcoff] casts you because you own a bicycle, then that’s really what it’s about.”

In addition to professionalism and an accurate headshot, one of the most important assets for a background extra is wardrobe. “When we were casting background for The Last Days of Disco,” recalls Marciano, “we needed people who had vintage disco-wear. It’s not like everybody at that time was walking around with a ‘70s hairstyle.”

The most common wardrobe requests: black pants, white shirts, and black shoes and socks. Nearly every movie has a restaurant scene, and actors who can look like waiters are always in demand. Marciano’s list of wardrobe needs also includes “uniforms – especially for cops and security people – tuxedos and formal wear. Also, you can’t go wrong with a good black cocktail dress.” For Sex and the City she looked for, “hip wardrobes – from SoHo funky to Upper East Side upscale.”

But who can afford “upscale” on an actor’s meager salary? Be resourceful – check out sample sales for marked-down Chanel suits and Prada shoes. Genick advises that background extras find a good variety of clothing to accommodate a range of roles.

A day in the life doing background extra work

A background extra’s day begins as early as 5 or 6 a.m. “It usually starts with coffee and a little breakfast, then you get your wardrobe approval. Finally you either sit for a while or you are quickly put on set,” Etcoff says. Even if the set is full of action, there is usually a lot of waiting around. This downtime does provide a good opportunity to schmooze with people on set and make industry contacts.

However, Etcoff warns, actors must understand that they are entering a set where people are “stressed-out, overworked and sleep-deprived. What bothers me are people who act like they are above what they are doing.”

“If somebody tries to get noticed, it often becomes annoying,” Genick adds. “To get ahead, people simply need to follow directions, listen and pay attention. Anything more usually becomes a nuisance.”

Show me the money

Most of the money made by background extras is in overtime, particularly for union actors. After a full eight-hour day, SAG pays members time and a half for the next two hours and then double for the next four. After that the pay becomes “golden time” and actors receive a full day rate for each additional hour. “Golden time” is as fruitful as hitting the jackpot, but the chances of a shoot reaching that point are rare. “After smoke pay, penalties and overtime, it really adds up for a union person,” says Dominic.

Non-union actors receive less pay and usually no benefits and perks. Marciano notes some differences between union and non-union workers: “There are different holding areas, and SAG people get preferential treatment. They get closer to the camera. But it’s usually not that different of an experience between union and non-union actors.

Debunking a Myth

Some actors believe that if they do background extra work it will somehow hurt their chances at landing principal roles. However, casting directors and actors categorically deny that extra work prevents an actor from larger parts in the future. “There is no negative impact from doing extra work,” Etcoff claims. “It’s a perfect way to meet casting directors, and it often leads directly to principal work.” Many well-known actors – from Gary Cooper to Jamie Kennedy – began as extras.

Principal actors often don’t want to go back to the daily grind of extra work, although some continue to do so at various stages of their careers. “I have background people who are successful performers with Broadway credits and feature films under their belts,” says Etcoff. “Some people just want to stay busy and do it for the benefits. Some realize that they want to stay fresh in the minds of the casting directors. It’s a good move. I might call them in for extra work one day and call them back for principal work the next day.”

No Guts, No Glory

Dominic admits there have been some horror stories in the extra trenches. One included filming Paul Mazursky’s The Pickle at the Plaza Hotel. “It was pouring down rain and we were all pretending to be aliens. The costumes were black latex, no coats and it was freezing,” she recalls.

Extras in period pieces often encounter wardrobe limitations. Dominic recalls that on the set of Woody Allen’s Radio Days, she wore shoes two sizes too small. “We had to run from a guy with a butcher knife through a Brooklyn neighborhood. My feet were killing me.” Dominic’s advice for avoiding uncomfortable situations is to find the right shoe size.”

Complaints from the casting director’s side are less colorful and more common. “When they don’t show up…” Etcoff sighs, her voice trailing off.

Horror stories aside, extra work is a terrific opportunity to make money in front of the camera and advance your career. And if you find comfortable shoes to wear while you’re on set, all the better.

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