Background Actor: How to be an Extra in a Movie or TV Show

by Mariana Tramontina

Every great actor had to start somewhere, and many began as extras in movies and TV shows before making it into the spotlight. Brad Pitt made his acting debut appearing for a few seconds in 'Less Than Zero' (1987). Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were among the crowd of people watching a baseball game in 'Field of Dreams' (1989). Megan Fox is credited as "Stars-and-Stripes Bikini Kid Dancing Under Waterfall" in 'Bad Boys 2' (2003).

Being an extra (or a background actor) is a convenient way to help make ends meet and break into the entertainment industry. If you're starting your career, getting on the set can be a foot in the door. Because you'd be in close contact with actors, directors and producers, you'd get a good sense of how the movie business works. Also, you are likely to meet fellow performers who could share insights on landing speaking roles and expand your network.

How Do Extra Jobs Work?

Extras have one purpose: fill the backdrop to make a scene visually realistic. They look like regular customers at the grocery store. They are the kids playing in the park. They are the fans at a concert. Once in the set, anything is possible. You might end up as a zombie strolling the streets of an apocalyptic world or as a shopper in a crowded mall during the holiday season. You may be able to stretch back 50 years or step 30 years into the future.

Background actors don't need acting skills or memorizing lines. By definition, extras never speak. When a speech is requested, even if it's a single word, it becomes an actor role - and you get film credits for doing it. All an extra is expected to do is show up on time, ideally before the scheduled time, and follow the instructions.

As an extra, you can have a lot of fun, but it can also be a very dull experience as there are many hours of waiting around to be called (bring a book or make sure your cell phone is fully charged on that day to keep you entertained). In most cases, extras are not allowed to interact with the principal actors and are held in a separate area away from the action. So use your 'in holding' time to talk to other fellows and make contacts.

When selected for a part, never bring people, pets, or cameras along. You may get blacklisted and kicked off the set if you are spotted snapping photos of the action. The same goes for leaking plot information to the media or sharing it on your social media. Asking for autographs is also inappropriate - remember: you are in the workplace, not at a public event. As long as you take it professionally and give your best shot, you'll keep on working.

How Much do Extras Get Paid?

An average day of background work will range between $100 and $200, depending on what you do. You may be hired for a 10 or 12-hour shift and, even if you work for only a few hours, they will likely pay for a full day. They will also pay you more if you are required to bring a costume or accessories.

After landing three gigs as an extra, you're eligible to apply for the SAG-AFTRA membership, the union that represents actors. SAG talent earns more than nonunion actors, but not everyone joins the union because some jobs are not open to members. The association also requires initiation fees of $3,000 and annual dues starting at $445.

How to Get Started as an Extra?

  • Keep an eye on online casting boards

Casting websites have become more valuable than ever: after Covid-19, general guidelines are almost entirely virtual, including the casting process. There are hundreds of job boards listing extra work opportunities online. Some are free to access, while others may charge a fee to join and use their services since they are doing the legwork. 

  • Contact your local offices

Check with your local City Hall if there are any upcoming movie shoots --production companies need permits to film in public areas. It's not uncommon for film crews to fly around to shoot on location, so there's a good chance something will take place near you.

  • Sign up with casting agencies

Production companies use casting agencies to find actors they need, and they always keep a talent database. Joining different agencies in your area can help you find opportunities available. Most likely, it will not cost you any money, but you will have to pay the agency to handle the paperwork.

  • Have a good headshot 

Extras casting is mainly visual, so you'll want to have your headshot taken. It doesn't need to be fancy, but it's a plus to have polished, high-quality photos. Keep in mind: a successful headshot will sell you to casting directors because they want to see how you look.

  • Persist and be patient

Stay positive and continue to look for ways to pick up extra gigs. The production industry is always swamped with new projects, especially as more streaming services launch and buy original content. They all need extras.