Yesterday, my grandpa and I were in a movie. So were several dozen other people — some of them are actors, and others are just people who showed up to be in the film. The truth is, anybody can be in a movie or TV show if you’re willing to work as an “extra”.
Extras are those uncredited people you see in the background of nearly every scene in a movie or TV show. People having lunch at a restaurant, people walking down a street, kids playing in a playground. Or, like yesterday, people at an arts festival. There are several kinds of extras — some are featured, some are background, and some are part of a crowd scene.
Usually, I get paid to be an extra because I get cast by a casting director through my acting agent. Sometimes I get booked through MyCastingFile.com (more on that later). And sometimes, like yesterday, someone I know is making a movie and they put out a call for extras so all their friends just show up. People who are part of big crowd scenes don’t usually get paid — none of the extras who worked with me yesterday got paid. But that’s ok, because we all got to visit with really cool people, film something fun, and support a local filmmaker. We volunteered, in other words.
Marco Bottiglieri is a young filmmaker based in Los Angeles — but he grew up here in Dallas, and studied acting with Nancy Chartier. She’s one of the best teachers in the area, and all of the people who have ever studied with her (no matter how old they are) are “Nancy’s Babies”. So when Marco was going to film a new feature called Color Me You, he posted a notice in the Facebook group called Nancy’s Students, and asked anyone who could be an extra for one scene that happens at an arts festival to just show up. And, boy, did we show up!
Not one of Nancy’s Babies, but you want to be in a movie? You can. There are four ways to get hired as an extra on a movie where you get paid.
Sign up with a regional website like MyCastingFile.com, where casting directors look for extras and background cast members. It’s free, and about a dozen big casting companies from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi and the surrounding area hire nearly all their extras through MyCastingFile. All you do is post two photos (a full-length photo and a headshot — you don’t need professional photos, just real pictures of how you look today), and fill out a questionnaire about your skills and where you are willing and available to work. They want to know if you have any special skills (sports, for example, or music, or even riding a motorcycle), what size clothing you wear, and whether you have any training (military, police, firefighting, etc.) that might be useful in a scene. They’ll send you an “availability request” if they want to hire you, and that will tell you when you will work, how much you will be paid, and what they expect you to do on set. You can say yes or no to any offer. They hire anybody — babies to great grandparents — and they are always looking for older extras. Also register with Central Casting and Katz Casting, and look for similar websites in your area — be sure it’s a legit site. Never, ever pay anybody for an audition, or to “market you”.
- Sign up with one of the online “breakdown” sites. This is different from sites that charge big fees to “help you break into acting”. Be wary of scams! The sites I’m talking about here are the ones like Now Casting, Actor’s Access, or Casting Frontier, where casting directors post legitimate casting notices. They’re free to join, but you pay a small (less than $5) fee if you see a movie role you want to submit yourself for. These sites also list casting calls for featured roles and even reality TV competitions, too. Of course, nothing beats having a great agent, but if you’re just starting out, this is one way to get experience or even fill in between better-paying gigs your agent gets for you.
- Sign up with your state or local film board to get notices of what’s shooting in your area. I live in Dallas, and we have a site called Short Film Texas that lists all of the short films and student films filming in the area. Actors usually aren’t paid for working in these films — but it’s a great way to get experience, or new footage for your demo reel. There is probably a similar website in your area, no matter where you live.
- Take acting classes at a professional film acting studio. When someone needs actors, the first place they look is in the acting classes run by teachers they respect. In Dallas, that means they call people like Nancy Chartier, Lauren Lazell, Cathryn Hart, or Twila Barnett. So sign up for classes with one of these great coaches, or go to the Kamp Hollywood summer camp or a class at The Movie Institute. (There are others, of course, but these are great people I know personally.) The truth is that if you want to be an actor, you need to take FILM acting classes. Not classes in theater arts at your school. Not classes at the community theater. Those are fine — I’ve taken them, and they are a lot of fun. But film acting, for movies, TV shows and commercials, is different, and it takes a different kind of skill to get cast in them. Casting directors and agents look to the top film acting studios and teachers for recommendations all the time.
You’ll notice that there are some things I didn’t list here. You shouldn’t respond to an ad for actors on Craig’s List or another “job listing” site, you don’t need an agent to work as an extra, and you certainly shouldn’t ever pay someone to “help you get noticed”, “help you find an agent”, or “help you get cast”. Here’s a link to an article my grandma wrote about what to expect when you work as an extra.
Also, if you hear something advertised on the radio or television, be sure you know what you’re signing up for. People who need extras don’t have to pay for ads on radio or TV — and big movie companies like Disney certainly don’t pay to advertise their auditions. That doesn’t mean that you will never see something in the news about a film. Sometimes a film company needs thousands of extras — for instance, they want to film a parade or a football game — and they’ll ask the local TV and radio stations to tell people about it. That’s different than paying for an ad.
The last thing you should know about being an extra is that it isn’t “your big chance” to become a star. In fact, if you work as an extra on a TV series, you might be barred from auditioning for a bigger role on that same series later. If you have an agent, don’t take a job as an extra on a TV series or film without checking with them first.
Extras are there to do what they are told to do. They aren’t there to meet their favorite star, audition for a bigger part, or “show what they can do”. It’s a job — whether you’re paid to do it or not.
But if you show up with the right idea, being an extra can be tons of fun. I’ve done it a lot of times. You meet great people, get to wear costumes, and see exactly how a big film or TV show comes together. You won’t get rich — extras in Texas earn $10-20 per hour, depending on what they are asked to do. (You get paid more if you are a dead body, or are an adult who isn’t wearing many clothes — but child actors under 18 usually get paid a flat hourly rate.) And if you are a kid, you still have to go to school on set even if you’re an extra, and you still can’t work more than a certain number of hours per day. You also have to have the right work permits if you are a paid (not volunteer) extra, and you have to have an adult chaperone while you are on set.
And nobody works every day — although during the spring, when the weather in Texas is good and there are a lot of movies, series, and pilots filming nearby, you can work almost every day if you want to. So being an extra is a great job for a retired person, a student, or someone who stays at home with their kids most of the time — or if you need a fill-in income when you’re between jobs.
So, like I said, you don’t get rich when you work as an extra. But they feed you (usually really, really well), and you get to work with some really cool people. Where else can a kid earn $10-20 per hour to run around with zombies, or be part of a scene in a popular movie franchise? I enjoy being an actor, and I get paid a lot more when I’m in a featured role as an actor. But being an extra can be fun, too. I’ve been doing it since I was 10, and no two days on set as an extra are the same.
One of the reasons yesterday’s filming was so much fun was that I knew so many people, and I got to see some friends who have moved to LA but were in town for this film. Plus, it was just nice to take a summer afternoon off and spend it in the park having fun while they make movie magic around us!