I Spy... a Fun Part-time Job for Seniors and Retirees

Tips for Becoming an In-Demand Background Actor

As a retiree and senior citizen, the full-time work days may be all of a memory now. Remember those days? You reported for work at a company, put in your eight or more hours a day and looked forward to the paycheck you could make your monthly bills with.

As a retiree, perhaps, you get involved. You work part-time, shop, visit with friends, golf, play bridge, work in the yard, read, do carpentry and so forth. Perhaps volunteer work fills your days. Still, you look for something to add a little spice to your life. Perhaps life isn't completely satisfying... just yet.

As a retiree drawing Social Security benefits, the fun I'm having as a "background actor" (aka "movie extra") beats everything else I've experienced since quitting the real estate business 12 years ago. Since the late 1990s, I've walked across the sets of dozens of television sitcoms, commercials and movies. That's walked across while being filmed as part of the "background" of the set. And I know other retirees who do the same.

The background actor (extra) is the person or people who bring a scene to life and make it realistic. They make scenes in television's "Law and Order" and current movies look like they're happening on actual city streets with honest-to-goodness tourists, business people and others walking by. Restaurant scenes appear to be shot spontaneously with real diners seated at the tables. Courtrooms are filled with people who seem to have taken the day off work to attend a real trial of someone they personally know. Playgrounds are filled with what appear to be children who really came to the park to play on the day the scene was to be shot.

These are all background actors who answer to the call, "Background!" during the filming of a scene when fill-in people are needed for realism. Although the requirements are few (no special acting talent is required and there are no lines to be memorized), there are a few rules to follow to assure a smooth experience when you find and work with a casting agency.
  1. Find potential casting agencies by networking with friends and asking for their best referrals. My book, The Truth about Being an Extra, is another excellent source to locate reputable agencies.
  2. As you contact casting agencies, interview them. Find out how long they've been in business. Ask if they have a specialty (such as dancers, children, mature adults, etc.). Check the agency's web site to see if it's professionally presented and if it can offer additional information about them.
  3. Ask other actors what they like and don't like about working with a particular agency.
  4. Before you give the agency any personal information, book yourself or make any arrangements, call the Better Business Bureau to see if the agency has a good rating.
  5. ALL background agencies charge a small fee to register you, take your photo and include you in their database. Take some cash or a check, along with a small note pad for notes, when you first visit an agency.
Now you've done your due diligence, contacted or visited a reputable casting agency and signed on. You've even got your first assignment! Great!

You say you're a little nervous?

That's natural. I wouldn't have it any other way, because my own experience tells me that you need to know certain things and take specific steps before you leave your home for your first assignment. Once you do, your heart will stop fluttering, you'll feel well prepared and all will be well. Here are some tips that helped me banish the butterflies:
  1. Call the hotline. After signing on with a good casting agency and getting booked, you will be given a special phone number to call for your time, location and wardrobe.
  2. Follow the wardrobe instructions and requirements, as you will be checked by the wardrobe department when you arrive on the set. Bring an extra jacket (even if it's summertime). It's always cold on a sound stage, where you might be working. Ladies, take a pair of flats to wear when not on the set (your feet will thank you).
  3. Prepare the day before. Fill up your car's gas tank. Look up the address and driving directions on your favorite Internet map site.
  4. Always arrive on time.
  5. Upon arriving, look for the Assistant Director, or your contact person, to assure that they know you arrived on time. (In show biz, sometimes it's not "who you know" but "who knows you" that matters.)
  6. Never bring friends, pets or cameras along. Friends will not be permitted to work unless they are registered and have been booked.
  7. Take a book, crossword puzzle or something to occupy you during the long waits in the holding area.
  8. Network with other background actors. If you obtain one good tip or referral, it could lead to a lot more background acting jobs. More work gives you more opportunities to get the necessary vouchers (three) to qualify to join SAG (Screen Actors Guild). Being a member of SAG gives you benefits you would not have as a non-union extra, e.g. double your pay and medical, dental and vision benefits.
  9. Don't ask the stars for autographs. (It's a work environment, not a pubic appearance.)
  10. Bring a pen with you to complete your voucher and be sure to get the voucher signed when you are wrapped for the day. Keep your voucher until you are paid, as it is your only proof that you worked.
If you take the above advice to heart and give background acting your best shot, you'll enjoy it, make money at it and look forward to continuing work. And what's more fun than being with people, in the middle of the action and, later, seeing yourself on the silver screen?

Happy background acting!
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Jo Kelly, author of The Truth about Being an Extra: How to Become a Good Background Actor, has worked for nearly ten years as a background actor. She was married to the late Jack Kelly, who co-starred with James Garner in the long-running television series, "Maverick." Her book is available on Amazon.com.