They say if you ever want to work in film or TV, you have to start out as a PA. The hours of standing around, locking up a location or grabbing room temp water for your department head “builds character.” Similarly, I would say that every actor worth their salt should also work as background talent - also called "extras" or "atmosphere" - at least once during their time on this green earth. Why? Because it is wonderful at best, and downright humbling at worst. (Not to say that humility is a bad thing, it just always comes when you don't want it.)
But Casey, you ask, all you do is hang out, get free meals and move around when others tell you to move. Plus, you get a paycheck at the end of the day. What’s so hard about working background?
Well, dear reader, what is hard about that is exactly what it sounds like. You are where the magic happens, even if it doesn't always feel like you are a part of that magic. Maybe it’s a blockbuster super hero film 4 movies deep into their franchise. Maybe it’s a new TV drama tackling themes of injustice and racism in the sports industry. Or maybe it’s an independent student film with a script that demands far more than your one DSLR camera can handle. You are where the magic happens, and even if it might not always feel very magical, it is. Because you are the magic.
You, as background, help create the atmosphere in which the main characters live and breathe and tell their stories. You are essential to filling the chaotic city streets under alien attack, cheering from the stands at a basketball game, or spinning in circles at a harvest festival. While you are essential to the visual fleshing out of a world being created out of nothing, you are also painstakingly aware of your nonessential-ness. This story isn’t about you. It is about someone or something else. You are there to help them shine, to create light and discretely point it in their direction.
That being said, working background is fun! I’ve met so many wonderful people and learned a lot about the entertainment industry; where to go, who to talk to and how to act. But it is also extremely hard. As an actor, I desire to be seen. I want my facial expressions to matter. My scrunching eyebrows or tightened jaw. But in background, your goal is to not be seen. If you stand out, you are doing your job wrong, because at the end of the day the story isn’t about you. The story is around you, and if you don’t do your job correctly you pop out of of the canvas like a splotch of dark ink, and likely won’t be hired again (or at least not any time soon).
You often work ten-, twelve-, and fourteen-hour days. You receive your wardrobe – or bring it yourself – and have your appearance checked over by hair and makeup and you are on your way to stand in a parking lot, sit on a curb or huddle in a classroom until you are needed. Out of shot, out of sight, out of mind, until the cameras roll and you stroll up to the diner waitress, intent on the backstory you created for yourself to make it feel like you are actually acting, instead of stepping forward to stare at a fellow actor, not uttering a sound.
If you are lucky enough to be working on outside scenes in December (like I was) you can expect to spend many an hour shifting from foot to frozen foot, snuggled in your “warming coat” and anxiously dreading the moment when a PA tells you to stash it behind a car or a tree so you can be ready for the shot. And then you go home in the dark of the night to sleep for a few hours until you are called again, arriving in the dark of the morning, to a new location to film a new scene.
I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’m really not! I am so thankful for the opportunity to be paid to act, and to see professionals at work. I've spoken to directors, DPs, and lead actors, and am on friendly terms with a handful of crew members and some fellow background actors. I feel like I’m a cog, if a small one, in the grand and incredibly complex machine that is movie making. Do I wish I was doing something more? Absolutely. Do I want lines? Yep. Do I want to be the focus of a scene, an episode, a film? Yes. But that will come with time and experience and relationships and, let’s face it, a little bit of luck. If my break comes sometime down the road, I will be so appreciative for the time, patience and occasional discomfort other background actors have made to make our story come to life.
Here are some personal tips I have to offer for those who are interested in working background:
Be early. Show your commitment and willingness to be there by respecting the time of those who are working with you. Early is on time, and on time is late! Especially nowadays if sets require daily covid testing, do NOT be that person who holds everyone up because you missed the trip to the testing tent.
Be over-prepared. If wardrobe asks you to come with an extra outfit, bring two just in case (never bring anything you wouldn't wear in real life). Bring hand warmers, water bottles, tampons, sunscreen and easy snacks. You will get boxed meals, but you never know when you'll have time to dash to crafty to grab a water if you're thirsty, or a snack if you're feeling peckish.
Be respectful. Do exactly what every other person tells you to do. Go where they say to go and do what they say to do (unless of course it makes you feel unsafe). There are so many other things going on that you don't want to be a nuisance to whoever is in charge of positioning background for scenes! They got to work before you did and will leave after you leave. They have important people in their ears telling the what to do, so don't shoot the messenger if they tell you that lunch got pushed back.
Be quiet. Don't offer your opinion. You might see a solution to a problem in front of you, but the crew is trained see the problem three steps down the road your solution might cause. If your opinion is asked, offer it! But don't step forward to tell the director what you think you should do.
Make friends! You will likely be spending a lot of time with the folks who are in a scene with you. Talk to them and get to know them! It is amazing the stories you will hear. I made several new background friends in the Union who know regional casting directors, and exchanged numbers with them after the shoot. You can even chat with crew members, assuming they are not busy with another task.
Know how to read a room. A lot of these tips may seem very restrictive. No one likes to be told not to speak unless spoken to, or not to move unless told to move. But if someone on G&E drops a pencil, pick it up and give it back. If you have an extra granola bar, offer it to someone. It is all about listening to other people and doing what you can to make the situation better or easier for them. My FAVORITE person on the last set I worked on was a man who worked on crafty. He was so kind and truly wanted to know how I was doing. He asked where I went to school, and I learned we both loved UVA, and then he made me a hot chocolate with an Andes mint in it. How sweet is that? He knew I needed a kind word, and offered it.
All this is to say...go in fully charged with patience and a good attitude, and an open mind that is willing to learn. If you're non-union, you might get a lucky Union voucher at the end of the day. You might leave a positive impression on a member of the camera crew who is looking to produce their own independent project in the future. You never know where your next gig will come from!