Working as an extra — or background artist — on a movie or television show is fun. It’s a great way for retirees, students, homemakers, and kids to earn some money — or for aspiring actors and actresses of any age to get the kind of invaluable experience you just can’t get anywhere else.
I live in Texas, and we know dozens of people who work as extras in between other acting gigs or as a way to supplement their income. I have several family members who work regularly (3-4 days per month) as an extra, and I’ve done it a time or two myself when I had to be on set anyway to chaperone my teen actor and they needed an older woman for some scene. Friends or family members have worked as extras in films like Transformers, Jurassic Park, Bernie, LBJ, The Free State of Jones, and many others, and on TV series like Queen of the South, 11.22.63, Dallas, Salem, Roots, Into the Badlands, and a number of pilots.
You don’t need any acting experience to be an extra, and you don’t need any specific “look”. Extras of all ages, ethnic groups, shapes and sizes are always in demand. So don’t assume that you won’t get hired because you don’t look like the toned LA beautiful people you see on the red carpet. Directors want extras who look “natural” for the setting — there’s probably a casting director not far from you who would love to hire you for a role one of these days. (There’s a large demand for older actors, people who can pass for prison inmates or bikers — tats and all — and cute kids, as well as “typical” office workers and shoppers.)
You won’t get rich doing this. But if you need to make a few hundred dollars extra, it can be the perfect gig. Checks typically arrive about three weeks after you work. Some production companies treat extras as independent contractors and do not withhold taxes and social security payments. Others, especially when you are hired as a “recurring background player”, may treat you as a temporary employee and withhold the required taxes.
If you are asked to fill out a W-4 tax withholding form on the first day, you’ll know that the check you receive will have the appropriate taxes withheld. Either way, expect to get a Form 1099 or W-2 at the end of the year if you earn more than $600 from the production company during the year. They’ll report your income to the IRS, and send you a copy. So plan on paying taxes on what you earn.
My 14-year-old averages $88 for a 6-hour gig as an extra, but has earned as much as $250 for a day’s work. My adult son usually earns $125-250 for a 10-hour shift as an extra. Recognize that these rates are low because we live in a “right to work” state where Union rates are “optional”. You’ll make quite a bit more than that in California, New York, or other states where workers have more protection and rights. (By the way, here’s a link to my teen grandson’s guide to working as a movie extra. As you might expect, his take is slightly different than mine, but is filled with good tips — he’s been working as an actor and extra since he was 10.)
Most of the information contained in this blog post comes from my personal experience on set — and the rest comes from the instructions I’ve gotten from casting directors, experienced extras, and production assistants (PAs) or assistant directors (ADs) on various sets. If you read this, and spot a mistake, please let me know, as I want to share accurate information.
Note that the information here applies to motion pictures and TV series produced by a major production company, following SAG rules in a right-to-work state. If you work on an indie film, a student film, or one of the “proof of concept” projects being shot in hopes of getting backing to make a full-length film, chances are extras won’t be paid at all. Do these films (a) to help out a friend who is making one (b) to get experience on a set or (c) just for fun. During one of those “no pay” gigs a friend did a few years ago, he was taught “the zombie shuffle” (the specific way zombies move on The Walking Dead) by one of the shows assistant directors. It came in handy later during an audition for a major role, which he booked. Casting notices for the no-pay gigs usually offer “snacks and film credit” in lieu of pay.
Extras are also often asked to work without pay when they are serving as the audience for a live performance or sporting event. Think of it as getting free tickets to an event that would otherwise cost $50 per person or more, and it can be a good deal.
It’s a Job: Leave Your Inner Fan at Home
The first thing to remember when you are working as an extra is that it’s a job. When you’re being paid to be an extra, you’re not there to “see how it’s done”, or meet your favorite actor, or experience what it’s like to be part of another world. If that’s your goal, you won’t last out the day as an extra, because being an extra is WORK.
Don’t bring extra people to work with you — kids, spouses, and significant others should only go to a set with you if they are also working as an extra. Don’t bring a camera (video or still), or any kind of recording device. You can bring your cell phone to use when you are not on set, but it must be turned off and left in the holding area when you are on set.
Because it’s a job, you need to show up prepared to prove that it’s legal for you to work in the USA. That means arriving on the first day with all the documents required to fill out the I-9 form required by the federal government. For an adult, that means your social security number, and at least two forms of ID acceptable to the Feds. You can get a list of acceptable documents, and a sample I-9 form at this link.
Many states give cash incentives to production companies that hire in-state residents as cast and crew. In those cases, you will be required to show a driver’s license issued by that state and a voter’s registration card, or a passport with a home address in that state and a utility bill or taxpayer number from that state. The casting company can tell you what is required. (Louisiana, for example, gives tax credits or incentives to companies that hire Louisiana residents — but a lot of Texans get hired, too. So if you can show you are qualified for the film credit, casting is more eager to hire you than to “import” someone from out of state — even if “out of state” means five miles from the set, on the “wrong” side of the state line.)
If you are the parent or guardian of a child actor (under 18), and your child doesn’t have a state-issued ID, you must provide a copy of their birth certificate, your custody papers if you are not the child’s biologic parent (this is one time when grandma, a nanny, or Aunt Sue can’t substitute for a parent), a copy of the child’s report card, and a copy of the child’s immunization record. If the child is home-schooled, you’ll need the certificate of enrollment provided by your home school sponsoring organization in lieu of a current report card. Note that even if your child does have a state ID or passport, you may still be required to bring proof of school enrollment until the child is 16.
Some states also require that children working as background extras have a valid state work permit and a Coogan Trust. The casting company will advise you what documents your child needs, whether you need to show proof of a Coogan Trust, and whether they can handle the work permit for you or not. (Some do, many do not.) The Children in Film website has a list of state work permit rules, with links to applications.
Also, since it’s a job, recognize that as an extra, you’re the lowest of the low. Crew, regular cast, and the stars of the show all outrank you — and none of the have time to stand around and talk to you. Working as an extra isn’t an audition for a bigger part, and it isn’t your chance to “get your foot in the door”. It’s a job with specific responsibilities, a set salary, and strict rules for behavior.
The number one rule of behavior is not to ask an actor for a photo or an autograph, or attempt to talk to them on set. Many actors need to “get into the zone”, or “get into character”, and the last thing they need or want is for a start-stuck extra to try to chat them up when they’re getting emotionally ready for a scene. There are few things that will get you fired faster than forgetting that everyone on the set is there to do a job — including you. So do your job. Stand where you’re told to stand. Move when you’re told to move, and keep your mouth shut unless you’re told to talk.
This doesn’t mean that some actors won’t take time at the end of the day, or during a break, to talk to extras or even pose for photos. But if they do, it’s their choice — not yours. Kevin Sorbo, Jack Black, Ernie Hudson, Marilyn Manson, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock, and Jennifer Lawrence are among the stars who have gone out of their way to pose for pictures or talk with extras we know. The key is to let them initiate contact, and be respectful when you are on set.
When you are on set, you’ll be assigned to a specific AD (Assistant Director) and AD PA (Assistant Director Production Assistant). Your assigned ADPA is your primary point of contact for the job. They’re in charge of letting extras know what they are supposed to be doing in a scene. It is very important to be quiet at all times and pay attention to their instructions. On set, everyone has a specific job to do. Ask the PA if you do not know what to do. Do not ask wardrobe, cameramen, grips, etc. Don’t leave the holding area or the set at any time, for any reason (bathroom break, smoke break, etc.) without checking with your AD or ADPA.
Don’t Post Online or Talk to the Press
Most production companies have extras sign a non-disclosure agreement that says they will not post photos of themselves or anyone else online until the film has been released or they have been given specific permission to do so. You’ll see extras snapping photos of each other in the holding area or on the fringes of the set — but if you see them online too soon, you can bet you’re seeing an extra who won’t work as an extra again.
In my area, most extras are hired through a website called MyCastingFile.com that aggregates casting notices from some of the top casting agencies in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Arkansas. Nearly all of the big-name productions in the area hire their background performers there. So getting fired and blacklisted by one casting company for posting selfies or on-set photos can mean no other casting director will hire you, either. Note that MyCastingFile.com is free to use — just post your headshot and a full-length photo and fill out the questionnaire, and you’re in the database. MyCastingFile does not list unpaid gigs.
Sometimes, if you’re working on a set with a big name star, the paparazzi and the tabloid media will hang out near where you are shooting. It can be flattering when they ask you what you saw, and whether one star seemed friendly to another.
Just don’t do it. Anything you say can be held against you. It’s especially important not to take money or even a free drink from the press if you want to keep working in the business. Only a few people are privy to what goes on during filming on a closed set. If the leak comes down to a scene or day when it looks as if you could be the culprit, it won’t take a smart private investigator long to figure out who the leak was.
Remember those papers you didn’t read before you signed them? They likely contained a clause that makes you liable for damages if you leak information. Just trust me on this: don’t be the source of a tabloid news story. It isn’t worth the cost to your reputation or your bank account.
Underwear, Make-Up & Other Necessities
Extras will either be asked to come ready to shoot — and provide their own wardrobe — or they will be “dressed” by the costume department. The casting calls for extras often specify that the extra supply specific clothing or even props. For example, here are a few recent casting notices I saw:
- Bar goers with BIG CARS Casting Notes We’re looking for BIG cars for this scene. Trucks with a top, SUVs, etc… NO WHITE CARS. Pays $XX talent + $XX for use of your car.
- Recital Kids Casting Notes African American kids age 12-17 who play instruments. Call time will be early (6:30am). Must be able to bring instrument to set. All submissions must include: Photo of child, child’s name & age, what instrument the child plays and a brief summary of experience, parent contact info.
- Upscale Wedding Guests Casting Notes Upscale wedding guests in cocktail or after-five attire. Men in nice suits or tuxedos, women in cocktail dresses and heels. Height/weight proportional. All ethnicities welcome. Ages 21-50. (Note: “Height/weight” proportional is Hollywood-speak for thin and good looking.)
If the TV series or movie you’re applying to work in is a period drama, or requires special hair or make-up, expect the costume department to outfit you from head to toe unless you are told otherwise before you arrive. It shouldn’t need to be said, but if you are going to be fitted for a costume, make sure you show up wearing appropriate underwear. Going commando is not appropriate, and undergarments should be a neutral color so they don’t show through your costume.
Unless it’s part of a costume you are providing (per casting), leave all jewelry (watches, earrings, facial or belly button piercings, etc.) at home. This includes engagement and wedding rings in many cases. For example, Puritans in 17th century America didn’t wear diamond engagement rings — so if you’re an extra on the TV series Salem, which is now filming its third season, you’ll be asked to remove your sparkly engagement ring if you wear it. Do you want to leave your engagement ring in a handbag or backpack in a holding area filled with strangers? I don’t.
Don’t assume that you can easily go back and forth between your car and the holding area or set. You may be asked to park several miles away, with a bus or van to take you to the set.
The casting notice will tell you whether to arrive on set wearing make-up or not. If you see a casting notice that says, “arrive make-up free”, it means exactly that. “No make-up” includes nail polish, eyelash extensions, sunscreen (tinted or not), foundation, and mascara. In a period drama, extras can’t have braces or gold teeth, artificial nails, or “artificial” hair color (platinum blonde, the popular “maroon” red, streaks, colored tips, etc.).
It’s a good idea to avoid using beauty products (shampoo, hand or body lotion, perfume, deodorant, after shave) with strong scents. You don’t know who you’ll be working with, and a surprising number of people have allergies to various scents.
Extras are usually hired based on headshots submitted to casting, so make sure that when you show up, you look as much like the photo you submitted to get hired as possible. Don’t cut or color your hair. Especially don’t add neon colors, cover any gray, or change your hair color. Men, don’t change the facial hair shown in your photo unless you are specifically asked to grow your beard/mustache between the time you are cast and the time you report for work. Why? Because that touch of grey that bothers you so much may be exactly the reason that you were cast — or they may have needed four red-heads, or six brunettes. If your hair color, length or style changes drastically, you may be sent home.
Hurry up and Wait
The three essential characteristics for a good background player or extra are good manners, the ability to follow instructions exactly, and patience. I can’t over-emphasize these characteristics. Good manners means treating everyone you meet with courtesy and respect. The ability to follow instructions exactly means just that: no one wants an extra who argues, can’t follow direction, or improvises without permission. It also means showing up on time, parking where you are told to park, taking care of the props, costumes and set furnishings around you, and making sure that your phone is turned off whenever you are on set.
As for patience, in this business everything is “hurry up and wait.” There may be long periods of time when it seems like nothing is happening. However, actors may be rehearsing lines, the crew may be lighting the set, a wrangler may be warming up a horse, or the carpenters may be repairing a loose step.
Be patient. Remember that you are getting paid for all the time you spend waiting, even if all you are doing is sitting and talking to your fellow extras in a holding area, reading, or enjoying the food at the craft services table.
The hours can be long and the weather can be unpleasant. When you agree to be an extra, you’re agreeing to be there all day. That may be four, six, 8, 10, or even 12 hours. And it may extend beyond that. Don’t sign on as an extra and expect to be home for dinner, able to get to your part-time job, or to a class that same day. If you get cold, bring a sweater or loose-fitting coat to wear between takes. (Loose-fitting because you don’t know how bulky your costume will be.)
A note for the parents of working child/teen extras. On the set of a major motion picture or a network/cable TV series, you will be expected to remain with your child at all times except when he/she is on camera. This is true whether the child is 7 or 17. When they are on camera, you may be asked to wait nearby, but out of range. This can mean standing around outdoors, under a freeway overpass, or crowded into a small waiting area (tent, behind the facade of a building, etc.). But you won’t be able to use your cell phone or other electronic device, talk, eat, or take a bathroom break.
On an indie or student film, they may “park” parents nearby — during one memorable movie shoot a couple of years ago, the kids were filming outside a vacant house next door to the director’s home. So the director put parents in his beautiful dining room, and we relaxed in warm luxury while the kids were outdoors being chased by zombies in very cold weather. That doesn’t happen often.
When you know you’re going to be waiting around all day, it’s tempting to bring your laptop, tablet, iPod, books, or work materials to use while your child is working. That’s fine — but remember two things. You aren’t likely to have a place to sit and work for long periods of time, and there is seldom a place to plug in your electronics.
More importantly, if you bring it, you’re going to be carrying it all day. (And you’ll be carrying what your kids bring, too.) Since your kids have to bring their schoolwork and whatever else is required to keep them happy and busy (snacks, entertainment, etc.), you’ll need a tote bag or backpack that you can manage all day. Rolling bags are generally not acceptable on set. (They make noise.) Of course, you can always leave your stuff (and your kid’s) in the holding area when they go on set — the adult extras have to do that.
Bring only what you don’t mind carrying all day or leaving in a room full of strangers, and you’ll be fine. Note that I am not suggesting that someone will steal things, or that you can’t trust your fellow extras. I’ve never personally had a problem. But you never know, so why take chances? Actors and extras are not background checked. The production company isn’t responsible for items that are lost or stolen on the set or in the holding area.
There are a few things you should bring, however, especially if you have a child with food allergies or one who is a picky eater. Bring snacks that won’t stain costumes or spoil during the day. Bring any medication you or your child needs. Kleenex and contact lens solution, eye-glass cleaner and a water bottle are also a good idea.
The food at the craft services table is generally good, and almost always plentiful. There is water and coffee available all day, but the food is tailored for adults, not kids. I was on a set last week where the lunchtime offerings were a tossed salad, gourmet wood-grilled pork in a cranberry/jalapeño glaze, rice pilaf, rigatoni Florentine, a lentil/tomato/bacon dish, and mixed vegetables. There were pecan brownies for dessert, and lemonade was available for those who wanted something other than coffee or water to drink.
My teenager loved the food, but I saw more than one kid eating lunch mom packed for them because they would not (or could not) eat what was on offer. If you need kosher or halal meals, or have food allergies, you will definitely need to bring your own food. There is usually a vegetarian option, and items on the craft services buffet are usually labelled so vegans, vegetarians, and those with food allergies can make good choices. But that isn’t always the case.
Union rules determine when meals are served on a SAG set — lunch, for instance, is exactly 6 hours after the crew is required to show up for work. But just because the crew is breaking for lunch doesn’t mean you’ll have the same lunch time, or be eating with the crew and featured actors. Extras may be served different foods, in a different area, at a different time. One thing is certain, though. Once you are in costume, you won’t be heading out for lunch with your friends.
Bring school work for your child to do during breaks. (This is NOT optional. The on-set teacher is there to help and supervise, but you’ll likely need PAPER books and assignments — don’t count on being able to get online.) Bring a toothbrush and toothpaste, and any personal hygiene products you need. A pen, paper, deck of cards, and paperback book are also good ideas. So are ear buds and an iPod or phone with your favorite songs.
A note about accessibility: I use a cane or walker, and sometimes my child works on sets that just aren’t accessible to me, so my husband is his on-set chaperone on those days. Make sure you find out in advance what physical demands you might face, so you can make sure that you can meet them before you go. I totally embarassed myself a few weeks ago on a set that just wasn’t accessible, given my physical limits.
Glossary of Terms for Extras
Quiet on the set: Please be quiet. (They are usually talking to the extras when they say this.) If one person is talking, it may sound like a whisper. If a group is talking, it sounds like a roar. The crew may be talking because they are setting up equipment, or principal actors may be talking, but this doesn’t mean you are allowed to talk!
Pictures up: They are about to start filming. You should stand by for your cue.
Rolling: There is film moving through the camera. Please do not move yet. Your cue is coming next. That cue is not usually “Action!” — but it may be. The ADPA will tell you what your cue is.
Background: “Background!” usually meant that it is time for you to perform. Please remember never to look directly into the camera. Most scene will require multiple takes, so take care to remember exactly what you were doing in a scene, so you can repeat your actions each time.
Action: When you hear the director call “Action,” it is time for the main actors to perform.
Back to one: This means that you should return to your first position and standby to start your action again.
It’s a wrap: This means that the scene is finished. It does NOT mean that you can leave and go home. (Not if you want to get paid. Most extras are paid on the basis of vouchers — papers that look like time cards. You’ll be given your voucher when you check in at arrival. If you are not given a costume, you’ll be asked to hold on to the voucher until you check out. If you are assigned a costume or specific props, you will probably be asked to give the voucher to the costume department after you are dressed. When all of your costume pieces are returned, the costume department will return your voucher, which you’ll turn in when you check out. Until your voucher is returned, payroll won’t know that you need to be paid.)