No doubt you’ve wandered through your favorite Brooklyn neighborhoods and passed by the set of a TV show or blockbuster-in-the-making. You may have seen actors milling about and wondered, “How can I get in on that?” Or you just cursed the production’s hostile takeover of your block, because it cost you a $45 parking ticket. Kidding aside, background acting can be a fun way to earn extra cash. And it’s pretty easy to get the work too. Here are a few ways to get onto a set and into that lower right corner.
First of all, how much can I make as a movie extra?
Wages for background acting varies by production for non-union folks. For major motion pictures, it’s usually around $80-$95 for an eight-hour day. If you do enough background acting and fulfill the requirements, you can become eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild. Union background actors currently earn $139 per eight-hour day for work on a feature film or television production, plus union-regulated extras (meal penalties, wardrobe changes, etc.) that can add up to a handsome paycheck for a day’s work. Visit SAG.org for eligibility requirements and the latest wage rates.
Pick up a copy of Backstage.
Backstage is the easiest way to get started. It’s a great resource, and reputable casting directors always use it. Each print issue is about $4 (available at newsstands all over the city), while an online subscription, which gives you unlimited 24/7 access to casting notices, is about $13 per month.
Attend open calls.
Most of these will be in Manhattan. All you have to do is show up, fill out a form and let them snap a photo of you. If you register, you will most likely get work. But don’t be disappointed if it takes a few weeks or even months. (Reputable casting agencies have hundreds of registered actors to sift through on any given day.)
Well-known casting agencies like Grant Wilfley and Central Casting usually post notices about their regular open calls on their individual websites. These two cast extras for the majority of major television and film productions in New York.
Also keep in mind that these open calls should be FREE. Be wary of casting directors who insist on charging you to register with them. There are many foul hooligans out there looking to scam on innocent would-be actors! Do your research. Some legit agencies will offer to take your picture for a small fee, but registration should be free.
For non-union actors, the tv/film/video listings on craigslist can be a gold mine. (But as with anything on craigslist, be extra wary of scammers!) Sometimes casting agencies look to the wider audience on craigslist for their crazier (read: more risqué) background casting needs. I once stumbled across a casting call by a reputable casting agency looking for women willing to pose nude for a scene on a major television show. On-set nudity and special talent work pays really well—depending on current union wages and the production, it could mean a hefty paycheck and an instant SAG waiver.
Talk to people who’ve done it before.
There is no better way to learn the ins and outs of anything—especially background acting—than by talking to those with experience. And good advice is free (no, seriously, don’t pay anyone for it).
So, you think you want to give background acting a try? Go for it! But there are a few things you should keep in mind before you jump in.
Background acting will NOT make you famous.
You’re barking up the wrong tree if you think being an extra is going to get you “discovered.” You’re not hired because you stand out. You’re hired because you don’t stand out. It’s extremely unprofessional to approach directors, crew (other than the PA assigned to you) and principal actors. The casting director will hear of it if you do, and will likely not hire you again.
You must have a flexible schedule.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are movies. Be prepared to be on set for up to 16 hours at a time, and know that the majority of those hours will be devoted to sitting around waiting to be called to set (otherwise known as the ole’ “hurry up and wait” routine). If you try to leave early or show up late because of a conflict, you will probably not be paid.
You’ll need a headshot.
If you’re planning on doing this say, more than three times, you should probably be willing to fork over some dough for decent headshots. Good headshot photographers aren’t cheap (expect $300-$800 for a shoot) and neither is retouching and printing (visit Reproductions for the best NYC rates). Fortunately, it’s not something you’ll have to do more than once a year, and you can write it off on your taxes if you get enough work!
With that, I bid you Godspeed, aspiring background actors! If you’re lucky, you might get cast in a production shooting close to home in Brooklyn. Scenes from popular shows like Boardwalk Empire, Fringe and Bored to Death have been filmed here in the last two years, and the list seems to grow every week.