Working as an Extra
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Promote Yourself as an Actor; Find Free Casting Calls and More
by N J Howell
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Casting directors get paid by studios and production companies to hire background performers for various scenes throughout the movie or television filming. Many actors start out as background, to gain experience about being on a film set and to pay the bills while they are in acting classes and looking for an agent, working on starting their careers. I did extra work for two years in Los Angeles before I found a good agent there.
If you are just now getting into acting, or wanting to explore being an actor, you may not be familiar with what an "extra" is to a film. Movie extras, sometimes referred to as atmosphere players or background actors (because they are in the background of a scene, to make it look real) are needed for virtually every film or television program on the air.
The extras provide the ambiance behind the stars, to help the audience suspend their disbelief. The great thing about working as an extra is that they need all ages and all character types so you have a better chance of getting cast as an extra than in a principal role. Not so great: Extra work is usually tedious and repetitive (you will hear "back to one" a lot!), the days are long, parking may be a real bear if you are working in L.A., you may have to drive long distances of doing extra work in the south, you often must provide your own costuming, and the pay is minimal. Related article: As an actor, should you do low or no budget?
As I mentioned before, I did extra work when I landed in Hollywood the first time. I looked at it as getting paid to learn the business and enjoyed working as an extra, or what is now called "atmosphere", even though the days were often long and involved a LOT of waiting around. The food was usually great too! It was also great for networking. I met a lot of friends on extra sets and picked up a lot of information I might not have gotten elsewhere. I loved atmosphere work because it allowed me to see how different directors worked with actors, how much it takes to set up a single scene, the different actors approached their craft, etc. I also learned a lot about how sound and lights and camera work helped to create a scene, etc.
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I got paid a little too, and I got fed. What's not to like? Used to be, back in the day, extra work only paid about $35 to $50 dollars a day. Many starving actors and actresses did extra work for the meals. Really. Unfortunately, at least for the non-union extra, it's not that much better today. In the south, the going day rate for extras is about $64. It's higher if you are SAG/AFTRA. I think they set different rates for TV, film, commercial background. Last time I checked, the SAG/AFTRA rate for background work on a commercial was over $300.
I remember very good food on the set but that may have been because I basically had ramen noodles at home. That was before I had any clue about MSG, by the way. It's ironic that the staples you'll find in every starving actor's cabinet (ramen noodles and tuna) are full of something that may be hindering their memory, ability to perform and general health. The other staple (mac and cheese) can affect sinuses and vocal ability, due to phlegm from too much dairy and probably has MSG too. It's such a big deal for me personally (MSG has such a huge impact) that I suspect I'd have nailed more auditions then, had I not been consuming sooooooo much monosodium glutamate in cheap products. And of course, it's in way more foods now than it was back then....ok, I digress. Back to acting....
I was talking about doing extra work for the food, since the money wasn't great. It still isn't great even for union actors but if you are SAG or AFTRA, you can at least break over $100 a day for atmosphere work. TV extra work may not always pay as much as film extra work. In the south, the rate is usually $64/8. Standins make a bit more.
How Do I Find Extra Work?
If you're in Los Angeles, register with Central Casting, The Casting Couch, LA Extras, Idell James, etc. It may be different now but when I was there, extras were not given a lot of respect by these atmosphere casting agencies. Hopefully, that's changed by now. Lack of respectful communication was one of the reasons I left L.A. Just this year, 2016, Central Casting came to Atlanta, Georgia too. Check the Central Casting Facebook Page for extras casting calls in the Atlanta area.
Get online too.
There are a number of online resources that list extra work but you always need to be careful when accepting a role from a company you read about online. I know that some CD's have started getting facebook pages so any extra work you came across from a Casting Director's Facebook page would be legit. For example, look up the facebook page for Tona B. Dahlquist, the casting director who cast extras and featured bits for Homeland as well as a lot of the projects coming into the Carolinas.
Another way to find extra work is through local casting forums. I really like these because actors will quickly post if they come across a scam or a project that fails to pay their actors. However, the forums are full of projects that don't pay at all too; this may be fine if what you most want is experience.
I mostly know about resources in the like this casting calls forum for film and television projects in the south since that's where I'm based now, but I expect there are similar forums and message boards for your area. A lot of states have a film industry website too and sometimes these have casting hot lines, like the Georgia Film Industry website. Georgia film-making has exploded in recent years, mainly due to Tyler Perry studios being there (Atlanta area). I've actually found paying indie short work that was legit on craigslist as well but you need to be extremely careful with that one as a lot of scammers show up there too. Talk back and forth by email and by phone til you feel satisified that it is a legit production.