Let’s face it, if you’ve gotten into acting, you like to be in the spotlight! And there’s nothing wrong with that; it would be pretty weird to want to be a performer if you didn’t, you know, enjoy performing.
That said, for the vast majority of actors starting out, your time at center stage or in the spotlight is going to be pretty limited at first. Despite your one delusional actor friend who thinks they can be “discovered” sitting at a diner counter like the Hollywood stars of yesteryear, the truth for 99.99 percent of actors is that careers are usually a bit more slow to develop than that.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with careers that take a while to get going. Virtually every casting director and agent will advise actors to be patient. Not only that, the more time you have to develop your craft, the better equipped you’ll be to land that big, big role when the opportunity does arrive.
But as you’re cutting your teeth in acting classes, student films, local theater and commercials, there is a lucrative and educational slice of the field that you shouldn’t overlook: working as an extra or background character in television and film.
Why would you want to be in a thankless role like that? Well, there are plenty of reasons. For one thing, working as a background actor or an extra is lucrative! Would you rather work part time in Starbucks or on set? Plus many of your favorite actors got their start working as background or as an extra. This is simply the way the path goes for most actors.
Another reason to seek out work as an extra is that while your delusional actor friend is sitting around waiting by the phone for Martin Scorsese to call, you on the other hand will be gaining valuable skills as a working, professional background actor.
In addition to the $100-plus per day you can earn on set, you will also gain valuable experience with what it’s like to work on a real-live television show or film. There’s nothing like getting your feet wet actually doing something in order to give you the confidence you need to chase away any lingering nervousness. So when the day comes that you are up for a speaking role, you’ll have the self-assurance to pull it off.
Another great reason to fully pursue extra and background work is that there is just so much of it! take a look at the listings for extras on NYCastings for instance. There is literally something for every type of background performer!
Better yet, you can self-submit to the vast majority of these projects, saving yourself a commute across town for a preliminary audition. Be sure that you’re up to speed on how to make the best self-tape actor’s audition possible, so you can make sure you get a chance to meet the casting team in person and show them what you’ve got!
What’s more, getting yourself onto a set by ay means necessary is sometimes the most important thing. That is to say, just because you get cast as an extra or background actor doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to remain that way on the day of the shoot. Most directors fly by the seat of their pants to one degree or another, and this means that they may well pull someone out of the background and put them in the foreground–perhaps even giving you lines.
So how can a good, versatile background actor or extra prepare for something spontaneous like that? One word: improv! Here’s where synergy of the experience you are gaining of how life on set works will come together with your hard work in class and/or on stage.
Going onto set as an extra with a serious attitude that says, “I’m here to do the work and get the job done” is of course important. But just as vital is going in with an openness and a sense of play. Believe me, ADs and directors notice background actors who are having fun. The background performers who are loose, relaxed and seem like real people, not like terrified sheep are the ones who will be pulled out of the crowd.
And keep in mind too that just because you are in the background for a particular scene that doesn’t mean you get to sit on your laurels. In order to bring a genuine look to a film or television show, it’s vital that every actor in the shot–and that includes background actors–seems like a real person in that moment in time and space. To that end, you can take your background acting game to the next level by working on developing your character skills.
While you’re honing your skills at developing a character–even someone who remains in the background and has no lines is still a character!–keep in mind too that there are some really awful clichés that directors see on set all the time. Background actors and extras who want to take advantage of their opportunities to the highest level possible would do well to avoid these. You want to call attention to yourself, but only in the right way!
Look, the bottom line is that you would be hard-pressed to meet a successful actor who never once took a role as a background character or extra on their way to the top. If you go in with the right attitude, determined to learn as much as you can, have fun and make the most of it, you might be surprised not only at how much money you can make, but also at how the opportunities open up for you as a result!
Break a (background) leg!