If you are like me, you enjoy the little things in life: taco Tuesdays, cursing loudly at California “drivers”, and seeing the occasional skateboarding hipster texting and drinking a Starbucks latte eat pavement. Also, you are a one of the many background actors working your butt off in the film and television industries.
If you are not like me, then you have no idea what a background actor is, or your are one of those assholes that calls us “extras”. We are the ACTORS in the BACKGROUND of visual media (movies, television shows, webs shows, commercials, etc.) Whether you are thinking about this as a part-time job or profession, or are currently employed as background, this blog is for you…but enough about you; let’s talk about me.
screenshot from a film I starred in
What about me, you ask? I AM NOBODY. This also happens to be the most important skill that a talented background actor can have; not just being nobody, but realizing it as well. Hush, hush! I can feel your disdain through my computer screen (in hindsight it would have been a bigger accomplishment to write this blog solely from my smart phone, but what do you expect from a nobody?) My goal is not only to prevent you from getting fired, but also to get rehired by the same casting directors and productions so you can have steady income…and not embarrass your fellow background (BG) actors. But, I guess I should explain.
So, fellow nobodies, please read the following guide.
RULE 1: YOU ARE NOBODY
Sure, I served active duty in the US Navy for four years, graduated from college, and have written several feature-length screenplays in just under two years (some of which have won awards and placed in major screenplay competitions)… but all of that means just about as much as a cease-fire agreement from a terrorist organization (you know who you are!)…jack squat. What I mean by “nobody” is that you are the bottom of the barrel as far as production is concerned. It doesn’t matter what you have done before this, or what you plan to do in the future. You can be replaced, easily and quickly. Being humble and realizing your place in the production is not something everyone can do, but it is the best thing for you to do. I am a favorite among casting directors and I believe if someone follows this guide, they can be a favorite too.
I am sure you have heard stories about this person or that person being stuck-up, smug, or entitled. These are people that other people do not want to work with. Believe it or not, there are people in background that think they are granted a lot of things that they are not. You are a human being, and have certain rights, everything else is just courtesy, and you aren’t going to get it all the time. Deal with it, swallow your pride, and use these opportunities to learn from and achieve your goals.
Also, remember this: BE HUMBLE AND GRATEFUL
If you are union, you are making around $18.50 an hour (not including bumps or OT). There are people that will happily do this for minimum wage. And, if you are N/U making minimum wage, there are plenty of people that would do this job for FREE.
RULE 2: SET GOALS
My goal was to have a segue into the next rule segment. Give me a moment to pat myself on the back. . . wow, that was harder than I thought. My arms are so muscular that I had trouble reaching my own back. But I did it! Did I mention my arms are muscular?
Where was I? Oh yes! Goal setting (for sports-related goal-setting, please check Wikipedia).
When I first moved here, I was somebody. I had major representation for my acting, a pocket full of cash, and zero death threats against me…but (if you have been following this blog you already know this) that all changed quickly.
So, I gave up on acting. I bounced back and forth between California and Ohio, looking to make money, and little else. I had no direction, at all. Then, one day, a friend who was an aspiring actor asked me if I was interested in doing background work. “No!”, I said. “Background work is like purgatory for serious actors!”, I cried. Then I wrote that down because it was really clever.
After a week passed, and the cleverness high dissipated, I thought about it a little more. The conclusion was this: I am an actor…and I was doing nothing about it (because I quit like a wuss, remember?) I could work full or part time in a non-entertainment job like food service or bar tending and deal with assholes all day, or I could work BG on film and television sets and meet people that are trying to do the same thing I am and not meet as MANY assholes…probably.
So, I signed up with a great booking service, and they put me to work. But I didn’t want to make the same mistake I had made before, and put all of my eggs into one basket. Did you know that eggs are fragile? Yeah, they are. They break, like, super easily. Plus, baskets aren’t the best carrying device. But I digress; I came up with a ten step plan, by golly! And here is what it was (is):
-1- Join a booking service
-2- Work background/ get paid
-3- Meet and impress casting directors to get regular background work
-4- Sign up with extra services to get more BG work, and start seeing what is out there for auditions.
-5- Obtain/earn three (3) union vouchers. (Although I got my Taft-Hartley twenty years ago, I personally wanted to earn three vouchers.)
-6- After getting 3 union vouchers, ask casting directors (CD’s) and booking service if I pay into the union to get higher rates, if I will get union rate gigs.
-7- Find time to get head shots, small roles in indie/student films, build demo reel, and continue writing
-8- Get to a place financially where I only have to work 2 to 4 days a week, and spend the rest of the time submitting for auditions and looking for representation.
-9- Get cast in principal and supporting roles, making more money, and self-produce a proof-of-concept or put together detailed budget proposal for one of my many feature or short scripts.
-10- Retire on the moon in a mansion.
If you are an aspiring actor, and think BG might be a good path, then you are welcome to follow my plan…except for the moon. That shit’s mine.
RULE 3: KNOW YOUR INDUSTRY
Being a background actor has its ups and downs, but if you know a few things, you can better plan for success.
How “it” works: When a production needs background actors they hire a casting director (CD), the casting director reaches out to background booking services, and then the background actor gets booked on the project. Either your booking service will send you the details via email, text, or on their website…if you are lucky. Probably the most frustrating part of this job is when you are required to call in. It is a running joke among background actors that CD’s are simply terrible at leaving voice messages. When you call in to get your details, they seem to leave long messages filled with unnecessary information, and the pertinent information (location address, phone numbers, wardrobe info, etc.) they speed through like an auctioneer. So, keep in mind that you may have to listed to a five minute long message a few times to get all of your information. Sometimes, the CD will list an emergency number that you can call to talk to someone at their office directly, but if they say it too fast, by the time you hear the number correctly, you will have all of the other info too. Why don’t they just write down the important stuff, read it carefully from paper, and speak slowly? Because usually the gig you are booked on isn’t the only one for which the CD has to leave a message. Also, CD’s do more than just leave messages all day. They make a lot of phone calls, and send out emails, and browse booking service websites, trying to find talent (like you) to fill the spots for their background roles. In other words, they work very hard and the more time they try to get a details message for you perfect, the less time they have to do all these other things. Don’t worry, after you work some of same shows, you will know all the studio locations, what wardrobe expects, and will just have to make sure your call time is correct.
HOWEVER, If you are a casting director and are reading this, here are some notes from all of us background actors:
1. Read all numbers slowly, and clearly as if there were a dash in between them…not Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller slow, but, you know, not super fast either. This includes phone numbers, address numbers, and zip codes.
2. Don’t just say the address(es), spell it (them) out. You send us to a lot of places, please don’t assume we know what you mean.
3. Give us a phone call if you change the call time only a few hours before call, or let the booking services know so they can tell us. Whether we are supposed to come in earlier or later, we need to know. It really just isn’t fair for us to make the initial call, a call before we go to sleep, and a call when we wake up, just to have the call time changed again after that and not know about it until we show up or get an angry call from our booking service. Now, I feel I must mention that this has NEVER happened to me without my booking service letting me know. I have just heard other people make this complaint. However (in hindsight) it is very possible that these people were not calling before they came in and would have found this information out had they called earlier.
4: Cast me!
Happy in 100 degree weather in a hot ass furry costume, because the production was awesome!
In order of importance, here is the main info you should get, and how to prepare once you get that info:
1. CALL TIME – This is when you are expected to be standing in front of whoever is checking you in (usually a PA). You should ALWAYS try to arrive 30 minutes to an hour EARLY. You DO NOT want to be LATE. EVER. If you show up late once, you may not only never work that production again, but the CD that also cast for other things, may never use you again either. Plus, your booking service will count it as a strike against you…and some booking services only let you have one strike.
2. LOCATION – This is where you are expected to be at your call time. This will be where to park and/or where “basecamp” is. This can be a studio, or a location being rented. Again, GET THERE EARLY, especially if you have never been there before. I once drove around for an hour, and it was a show I had worked many times before (actually my favorite show to work). I showed up an hour early because it was a new location. The casting director had listed a general address, but not the actual address of where to park. When I found crew parking, I was then directed to park at a second crew parking five minutes away. I stood around for fifteen minutes before being told to drive back to the original parking lot. When I arrived at the original location, I parked and had to wait twenty minutes for a shuttle that took me back to the second location. Then, as the shuttle I was in was half-way between locations, we had to turn around to leave our car keys for security. Then, when I arrived there again, I was directed to move my car no less than three times. By the time the shuttle got us back to the second location and I got in front of wardrobe, it was my call time. So again, GET THERE EARLY! Usually there will be yellow signs with arrows direction you to where to park.
3. WARDROBE – This is what you are expected to wear for filming. Wardrobe is also the name of the department responsible for your…can you guess it? WARDROBE! Good job, pat yourself on the back (if your arms aren’t as giant and super bulgy as mine). You are expected to bring a lot of “options” or “looks”. These are just different sets of clothes that would be appropriate for your role. Usually the CD will list certain clothing items. For example: you are playing a business person ladies will be expected to have business suits, hair and make-up done, shoes (which are never comfortable to wear all day…the ladies have it harder than us guys, so respect that on set fellas!) and guys will be told to bring a few button-up dress shirts, a suit or two, and dress shoes with black socks. It is a good idea to bring 2-4 different looks. If you are recalled from a previous shoot, you will usually be expected to wear the same exact clothes that you had the previous day(s) you worked.
Just in case you still don’t know what wardrobe is, here is a picture of my closet…yeesh, time to do some spring cleaning.
Often certain colors or patterns are not accepted. Red, black, or white are bad because of either how the camera reads those colors, the mood/setting of the shot, the time of year or area the shot is supposed to take place, or just because it will be distracting from the main action. Also, heavy stripes or other patterns may not only be distracting, but may cause problems with the camera, such as a moiré pattern/striping or other anomalies.
Another important thing to know about this industry is that work fluctuates; is never consistent. Some parts of the year are busier than other (more productions means higher demand for BG) and other parts of the year are slower, usually because television shows are on “hiatus” (fewer productions means lower demand for BG). Generally, hiatus is during June to early-August for a “mid-season break”, but it can also slow down during other months, depending on the industry or the production. Hiatus also usually only applies to television shows.
RULE 4: HOW TO ACT ON SET
By “act” I don’t mean in the theatrical sense, though I will briefly touch on that. This rule section is more about the DO’s and DON’Ts while on set or in holding.
-1- Know your crew. Find out who you report to (background coordinator, lead PA, 2nd AD, etc). If you need something or have any questions let them know. Try to limit what you ask them, they do have other things to do. Be kind and respectful of their position, and realize yours. Not all of these people are going to be pleasant, but they are paying attention to how you act, and this is usually directly related to whether or not you will be called to be back on the show or next project. Some people work multiple shows or productions. Also, it is a small community. Everybody knows everybody. Your reputation is all you have. Also, it helps to learn their names. Saying, “thank you” is different than “Thank you, Janet.” Also, they are more likely to learn your name if you know theirs…guilt is a hell of a thing. Thank you, Jewish family of mine!
-2- Be where you are supposed to be, when you are supposed to be. If you are not on set standing by to take your action, then you should be in holding, at crafty, or using the restroom (however for the last two, or anywhere else, you should inform the person in charge of you before you leave for longer than a minute or two). DO NOT go wondering around set/location.
-3- Know your role. Remember how you are nobody? Good! Because some people don’t. They talk to people they shouldn’t, and do other things they shouldn’t. Usually, during your initial meeting on set, whoever is responsible for you will give you a little speech. This speech usually details what they expect of you, what they will fire you for, and who to talk to or not talk to.
*typical DO NOT DOs are:
– DO NOT use your cell phone while on set; especially DO NOT take or post photos. This could be because they don’t want you to be distracted and be paying attention at all times, because they are worried you will take photos
you shouldn’t be taking that could reveal something about the plot before the show airs, or because it is just plain annoying.
– DO NOT speak to principal actors or crew you were not specifically told you could speak to. It isn’t necessarily that these people are pretentious or elitist and consider you worthless (though this COULD be the case). More
often than not, they just don’t have time to talk to you. They have a million things going on, and (UNLESS IT IS AN IMMEDIATE SAFETY CONCERN) just don’t have time to bullshit with a BG actor. Also, if it is a principal
actor, talking with them is distracting and make pull them out of character. As an actor, you need to understand this, and if they talk to you, they are doing more than just being polite. They are making an effort to be kind.
– DO NOT take things personally. Working on a set can be stressful. People each have their own lives, and you don’t know where they are coming from. You should never feel uncomfortable, but there is a time, place, and way to handle that. Each person must decide for themselves the best way to handle an interpersonal problem should it arise, but my advice is to not take it personally, smile, and say “okay”!
– DO NOT post photos of production online. Sometimes, it is okay to take photos. If in doubt, ask. Usually it is okay to post these photos after the movie comes out, or show airs. However, if you infringe upon their intellectual property, forget not working again; you could even be so unlucky as to face a lawsuit down the road. Yikes!
– DO NOT use props as toys, especially firearms. Though they may not be real, they are not toys. Always treat a prop as if it is real, again, especially firearms.
-DO NOT talk on set. Even whispering (though you can get away with it) can get you in trouble. If they wanted you for your voice, you would have already auditioned for that. This is probably the biggest cause of getting in trouble while on set. You will speak when spoken to and love it!
-DO NOT smoke near me. Smoking reduces your life span…especially if I kill you for doing it.
-4- Pay attention. You will be told many different things by many different people. Listen to them (except for that one background person that thinks they know everything). The better you pay attention, the better you can do you job. once a PA or AD knows that you know how to do your job, they will treat you as such. This also increases your chances of getting recalled for another day or production. When someone gives you direction, telling them “got it”, “copy that”, or even a general head nod or thumbs up is a good thing to do.
-5- Don’t be THAT guy. Often, there is a background performer that drives everyone nuts. They don’t follow my advice from this rule section and they do and say things they shouldn’t, causing problems on set. Usually, this person is not recalled…ever again. Eventually their booking service fires them or won’t let them sign up, because they make the service look bad. If you see this person on set, my advice is to be friendly, but to limit contact to as little as possible. And, if you do not see this person on set, reflect on how other people interact with you…because YOU might be THAT guy.
*few people know this: background acting is one of the few jobs you can get straight out of prison. They don’t do background checks, care if you are a convicted murderer, rapist, or child molester. In fact, signing up with certain casting services is one of things they recommend to people when they get out of prison!
RULE 5: HOW TO GET BOOKED
Everyone gets booked (or not) for different reasons. Mostly, this depends on your personal “look”. This doesn’t mean attractiveness, necessarily. The CD’s need to have people of all ages, shapes, etc. Anyone is marketable. The key is finding a booking service that can market your look, and applying yourself for roles that are a match for your look, or changing your look to match the call type. Doing these things in conjunction with performing well on set will get you booked more often/consistently.
This is my first attempt at a (semi) serious blog entry. I believe that I am in a position to help people who were in my shoes two years ago (almost to the day) when I started this blog to record my journey. I hope it is both entertaining and informative; I will make updates as I receive feedback.
So, may your feet remain blister free, your background holding have lounge chairs and have an open bar, your call times be convenient, and your work days be short or filled with pay bumps and upgrades!
See you behind the red carpet 😉
Q: How much will I make working background?
A: Minimum wage is paid for non-union work. Current minimum wage is $9/hr, which is $72/8hrs. However, you can also receive bumps, and overtime.
An example of common wages for union work are $18.50hr, $27.50 for time and a half, and $37.00 for double-time.
Current SAG-AFTRA pay rates are:
They do not update their page often, and you may be paid at a higher rate. Rates can still vary, but the 7/1/13 update is what can be expected.
(more to come, please email me your questions; do not post them in comment section)
INDUSTRY TERMS EVERY BACKGROUND ACTOR SHOULD LEARN
The following are some terms that will make your job, and the job of the PA or AD responsible for you a heck of a lot easier are listed below. You’re welcome:
“action” vs “background” – A command to start moving. “Action” is for everyone, “background” is for…you guessed it. Usually “background” is given before “action”.
“AD” – Assistant Director. There may also be a 2nd AD or 2nd 2nd AD!
“back to one” – Your “one” is your starting position. This may change during rehearsal. “Back to one” means they want you to stand at your start of the scene, and be ready to go in when told.
“bogey” – A person not with the production that has wondered onto set. They have other code names. This is only something you have to worry about when working on location, such as a shopping mall.
“blanks” – A special effect that simulates a gun shot. Mmm, I love the smell of cordite in the morning.
“blocking” – Taken from theater, blocking is your physical position path, or movement through the scene. Also referred to as your action, or being placed.
“bump” See Penalty.
“busy” – How much is going on in the background. If it is too busy that means too much going on. You may be asked to slow your cross, or do them less frequently.
“call” or “call time” – When you are “called” to set/ IE time you are expected to be there. Lunch is 6 hours after crew call.
“checking it” – This means they are checking everything to make sure it okay to move on. As BG, this is a good indication that you can go back to holding. Also known as “checking the gate”, left over from the analog days of having to physically check the camera gate/ shutter… whoops! The lens cap was on for the last two days. Back in everyone!
“check-in” – When, at your call time, you are accounted for, and fill out your voucher.
“copy (that)” – A verbal affirmation meaning “I understand”.
“crafty”- Also known as craft services or catering. Some sets have snacks and drinks for you to munch on in between shots. They may also be the same people feeding you during meal times.
“crew” – People that make the production happen. Not the cast members (talent).
“cross” – A move done across the camera in one direction to show movement in the background.
“cut” – Stopping filming/action. Left over from the analog days where they actually marked where on the film reel where they could safely physically cut the film roll to edit.
“DNR list” – Do Not Recall. You do not want to be on this list.
“extra” – Another term for background. Viewed as an almost derogatory pejorative. We prefer to be called background.
“featured” – Someone lucky enough to get important action or lines of dialogue. Usually this role is auditioned for, but you may get “upgraded” for a small role while working background.
“holding” – Background holding is where you are set up. Hopefully it will be an air conditioned space with nice chairs. If outside, it is usually a tented area with folding chairs.
“honey-wagon” – A tongue-in-cheek term for the restroom if located in a trailer or port-a-potty.
“I-9” – Part of your paperwork that proves your are a US citizen. You can use a passport, or both a driver license AND a social security card…I recommend just a passport.
“in” or “out” – Whether or not something is in or out of frame. You can also ask where your in our out is to know how far you have to move.
“makeup” and/or “hair” – Your appearance as well as the department or person(s) responsible for that look.
“martini” – Term meaning the last shot or shot before last, depending on how effective the crew is.
“NDB” – Non-Deductible-Breakfast (meal). This is a loophole that allows production to synchronize your time with crew so you can eat at the same time as crew without them having to pay you a meal penalty.
“PA” – Production Assistant. Paid or unpaid, intern or veteran. These are the gophers of the production; the cogs of the machine. They work very hard, and you will probably be dealing with them directly for your job.
“pantomime” – When you act like you are talking, but do not actually speak. Even a whisper can screw up audio…and you will get yelled at for it. Common words to mouth include “watermelon”, and “When is lunch?”
“penalty” – Smoke, meal, wet or other types of penalties maybe be granted to you. Theses are also known as bumps.
“picture up” – This means that the video is coming through the cameras and production can start rolling.
“placed” – See BLOCKING
“principal” – Main actor. Important.
“props” – The items you use, as well as the department or person(s) responsible for those items. Some specialty wardrobe may be considered a prop instead of wardrobe. When you “prop-up” or”de-drop” you are picking up or returning those items to the property master. DO NOT just drop them off if no one is there unless you have been directed to do so.
“rate” – Your pay rate. $72/8hrs is currently the CA minimum wage, and union averages $150/8, though some pay more or less depending on…things….
“rehearsal” or “rehearsing” – Practice run through of the shoot. Production may roll on rehearsal. Generally, as BG, you don’t need to give %100 percent for rehearsal, so take it easy.
“reset” or “resetting”- “Essentially “back to one” but quicker. If they are resetting, they are ready to roll or still rolling. Time is money. Hurry your butt up!
“rolling” – The cameras are recording, and/or so is the sound. Don’t screw up, it will be on film FOREVER!
“speeding” – Almost synonymous with “rolling”. Term taken from analog days when film and sound needed to get up to speed to record.
“squib” – A special effect that simulates a gun shot wound. Usually a small firework and a plastic pouch containing fake blood.
“stand-in” – A person that stands in for a principal actor so that actor doesn’t have to get tired. Stand-ins are useful for setting up lighting, makeup, blocking.
“Taft-Hartley” – Paperwork/contract for landing a featured role. This has to do with credits and residuals. If this is your first one, congrats. You are now eligible to join the union. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taft–Hartley_Act)
“talent” – You! Because you’re so damn talented.
“ten-one” or “ten-two” – Going to the bathroom. 10-1 means urinating, 10-2 means the other one.
“turning around” or “reversal” – Literally turning the cameras around to get another angle.
“upgrade” – See FEATURED
“video village” – Where the director and other important people sit and watch on video monitors what the camera is seeing.
“voucher” – Your paperwork. You will be directed how to fill it out. This is what proves you worked on the shoot, and will be given to payroll. SAVE ALL OF THESE. Can be either union or non-union
“wardrobe” – What you wear as well as the department or person(s) responsible for that clothing. After shooting, DO NOT just drop them off if no one is there unless you have been directed to do so.
“wipe” – Essentially just a cross done very close to the camera lens or foreground.
“two-shot”, “close-up”, “wide”, “tight” – How the shot is framed. Self explanatory…right?