You may fear that you'll fall flat on your face when the director calls, "Background!" and you begin to walk across the movie, film or television commercial set. But here's the good news: Unlike your class assignments, you won't need to remember any lines and no one will expect you to have attended acting school. You could be majoring in biology, political science or nursing; the casting agency and the production studio really don't care. And for a summer or a semester break job, spending your days without having to memorize anything at all is music to the ears. (Professor Smartypants will have his turn when you get back to school.)
You don't have to have ambitions of making it as a big-time actor, reaching star status or giving up other dreams. Taking acting classes really isn't necessary unless it just feels good and helps build your self confidence. The nice part about being a background actor (aka movie extra), whether it's for one production or several, doesn't require lifelong acting goals or formal acting classes.
In film, it takes real people to populate the scenes in noisy restaurants, elegant hotel lobbies, tense courtrooms and on bustling city streets. You can be part of the "background" that fills that role and while you're at it, make a few bucks, get to know some interesting people and have a lot of fun.
Being a good background actor is a little like passing basic English Composition, without all the homework. A sprinkling of preparation and research go a long way toward your success and happiness. And when you're all through (unlike English Comp) you want to do it again. Here are a few tips to help you get off on the right foot:
- Have a pad of paper handy or create a computer file to keep your notes.
- Find potential casting agencies by networking with friends and asking for their best referrals; searching the Internet and your local telephone business directory. Jo Kelly's book, The Truth about Being an Extra, is another good source for reputable agencies.
- Interview potential casting agencies. Find out how long they've been in business. Ask if they have a specialty (such as dancers, children, college students, mature adults, etc.). Check the agency's website to see if it's professionally presented and if it can offer additional information about them.
- Check references provided you by the agency. Ask other actors what they like and don't like about working with the agency.
- 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.
You're going to go into that set and take the world by storm. You're the character, the diamond-in-the-rough the director has been looking for. You're doing to be discovered.
Ahem. This is background acting, remember? Background actors for the background? You may well be discovered along the path you are about to take, but that's not the goal for this first assignment. Making a great impression (the sort of impression that gets you called upon for the second and successive jobs) requires following certain rules. Here are a few words of advice to help you do it "right" and feel at the top of your confidence game when you do:
- Call the hotline. Once you're signed on with a good casting agency, you'll be given a special phone number. Simply call that number to see which studios need background actors on what dates. The recorded message provides the date, time to arrive, the project/film title or description, and location for the set.
- Take your instructions from the recorded message. Bring an extra jacket, perhaps a second pair of shoes and wear a necklace. You can make points by wearing all your clothes and accessories and still have the option of removing some of the extra ones if they are not needed. (Some studios, depending on the production, will make their Wardrobe department clothing available to you.) It's very important to follow the instructions given on the recorded message. Tip: If your instructions call for clothing you don't have, remember your local used clothing store is a great source for things you might only need for this one occasion.
- Fill up your car's gas tank the night before.
- Allow ample travel time. On the morning of the job, leave extra travel time to allow for freeway delays.
- Always arrive on time. Being on time says you care about your assignment and the people you work with.
- Upon arriving, look for the Assistant Director. Make sure the "AD" knows you're there. In show biz, it's not "who you know" but "who knows you" that matters.
- Never bring friends, pets or cameras along. Friends will not be permitted to work unless they are registered with the appropriate casting agency.
- Take some busy work. That's a book, crossword puzzle or something to occupy you during the long waits in the holding area. (Just don't bring anything that makes noise that might interfere with a "quiet" shot.)
- Network with other background actors. If you obtain one good tip or referral, it could lead to a lot more background acting work. More work could qualify you for membership in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), which carries great benefits and a healthier rate of pay.
- Don't ask movie stars for autographs. (It's a work environment, not a public appearance.)
- Bring a pen with you, just in case you need it.
- Complete your voucher before you leave for the day, not the next day. (If you lost the voucher, you'll have no proof that you worked that day.)
My advice? Have a fun semester break in the "background!"