What is movie extra?
A movie extra is a someone who fills in the background of a TV or film show or a movie or commercial when the cameras are rolling. It would look pretty weird for two actors to have a conversation on an empty sidewalk, so movie extras get cast to make everything look more natural. Movie Extras are almost never given lines to say, but if they are, they technically become actors while they are saying the lines (examples of extras’ lines: “Hi, how are you,” “What are you doing!” and ” I Thank you”). Movie Extras are the folks who walk by on the sidewalk while the stars are being fabulous, or stand around behind the the main actors holding a cigarette while the stars are doing their thing. It’s not all that challenging, but it is pretty exciting if you like being around the actors and the movie extra industry.
The usual way to get started as an extra is to find a casting company or calling service which handles extras (there are many which specialize in extras) and go and register with it. This means you will make an appointment to talk to someone at the casting company, go in and talk to someone briefly and then hand over some amount of money. This is unavoidable, and you shouldn’t let the fact that the casting company is asking you for a registration fee lead you to assume that they are just a scam or a waste of time. You shouldn’t pay more than about $25. They will actually provide you with services, which range from the simple posting of your picture in a directory to someone making phone calls on your behalf and trying to scare up work for you. You should try to determine what sort of services they will provide you and judge whether you want to pay the fee accordingly. In this regard, comparison shopping among agencies is probably a good idea, and to save time, try to get as much information as possible about each casting company’s services and fees over the telephone before you go in.
When you go in to register, some companies will conduct an interview, while others will simply take a picture, collect your registration fee, and be done with you. If there is an interview the main thing that the casting company representative will wish to determine is: “Will this person give me a sum of money?” They see a lot of people and they need to collect those fees to make a living. However, the person will also determine how serious you are about being an extra, how much experience you have with acting, what special skills you have, and what sort of wardrobe you have. If they don’t ask you any of these questions, be wary — you might be getting scammed. If you make a good impression the casting company will be more likely to go to bat for you to get you work, so be prepared for the interview. Be ready to mention your good attitude and special skills, and your understanding that being an extra primarily involves showing up on time and staying quiet. (You’ll know all this because you’re going to read Sections 5 and 6 of this SYW.)
Sadly, some casting companies will pull little side-scams on their registrants, such as referring you to an expensive photographer to get a headshot done (from whom they receive a kickback), charging you an inordinate amount of money to have your résumé printed up on “industry standard” paper, or asking you for “front money” for some project in which you would get to work. These things don’t necessarily mean the place is a total scam – it just means they’re trying to get a little more money out of you. It can be a good idea to get a headshot done, and it’s absolutely necessary if you’re interested in getting work as an actor as well, but it’s not really necessary for most extra work. Most extra companies will simply take a picture of you when you register and keep it on file. Similarly, there is an industry standard for the size of paper on which you print your résumé (8X10, so that it can be affixed to the back of your 8X10 headshot), but you don’t need a résumé if you’re just interested in working as an extra. The point is, if you do decide you want to have a headshot and a résumé, you can probably get these things done much more cheaply if you shop around than if you just do what the casting company tells you. (On the other hand, you should walk out if and when “front money” — money that you have to chip in to help “fund” a film project — is demanded. This is often a scam, and you’re a beginning extra, so you want to work on big, well-funded projects anyway.)
Almost all cities will have at least one agency which handles movie extras, and if you don’t live in a city with an agency you will have to register in the closest city which has one. One last option is to register online. Sure, you don’t get the personal attention, but it’s a start. Try http://talenthunter.com it’s free to register. If you land a gig from that site you don’t have to give a percentage to an agency so some people like to go this route and find movie extras themselves instead of using an agency. Getting an agent is much tougher and most are scams to take you money, using an online service like talenthunter is your best bet.
Or just show up to the casting
If you don’t want to start out by registering, or you’ve registered and you want to try to get more work, another way to start out and see if you like the work is to show up on film or TV sets and try to be an extra on “spec”. This means that you will go to the shooting location, indicate your interest in being an movie extra to someone (if you can get near anyone who’d be interested, which can be difficult on movie sets), and/or stand around looking available while you “speculate” about whether or not you will get hired for the gig. This is not a for sure method of getting work as an extra. Movie extras are only hired on spec if someone doesn’t show up or if they have a specific look which interests the director. Don’t count on it. But if you enjoy hanging around film sets anyway, why not give it a try? You can find out where to make a nuisance of yourself on film sets at talenthunter, they list auditions for free.
Blocking sounds like something you’d find in a hockey game, it actually refers to the placement of the various actors and movie extras in a shot. But you can pretend that it’s a movie about hockey. When the director tells you it’s time to go over the blocking, it means that you have to go and be told where to stand and what to do during the shot. In short, it’s what you actually do when the movie cameras roll.
Marks refer to the specific spot on which you are to stand during a scene. These are actual marks, usually made with tape or sandbags. If you don’t stand at your mark the camera won’t focus properly. Movie Extras are not usually given marks, but you need to know what the term means, that if someone tells you to “hit your mark” you need to go and stand on a piece of tape which should have been pointed out to you earlier.
To be “Tafted” or “Taft-Hartleyed” means to get into the union based on having worked on three union vouchers or by saying a line or speaking. The name comes from the Taft-Hartley labor law, the details of which we don’t know and which don’t concern you anyway. Just know that when people talk about Taft-Hartleying, they aren’t uttering random syllables in an attempt to confuse you about being a movie extra.
Assistant director, or A.D., is your boss. The A.D. is usually in charge of all the movie extras, and he or she is the person to whom you need to endear yourself. Assistant directors can help you in alot of ways, from not screaming at you and firing you to getting you lines or letting you work for more money on a union voucher.
“Nuts and bolts”
If you are registered with a casting company, you will have a number to call when you want to work as a movie extra the next day. You call in and they’ll tell you whether there’s any work for movie extras. It’s very important to try to develop a good relationship with people at the casting company, as they can help you to get work by recommending you to directors. Sometimes they’ll call you and ask if you’re available to work, but it’s better to take the initiative yourself. Be nice, but also let them know that you want the work.
Whether you’re registered or not you can, as described above, just show up and look wistful near film sets. If you want to be more pro-active about it, you can check here; this site has audition listings devoted to casting. Sometimes casting directors will advertise for movie extras independently, without going through a an online casting company. This, however, is rare, so you should still think about hooking up with an online casting company.
Another thing which can help you get work is if you have special skills. For example, shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and Entourage often require large numbers of people to be randomly rollerblading around and smiling as if they enjoy it. Therefore, it’s not a bad thing to be able to rollerblade. Other skills which could be useful include karate, line dancing, tai chi, frisbee-throwing, and demolition expertise…
Movie extras don’t have lines, what is most important is how they look. This does not mean that you have to be gorgeous in order to be an extra; if the scene is in a skid row location, it would be great for you to look like a homeless person. Gorgeous movie extras will get work in situations which require there to be a lot of beautiful people around, and it’s never a bad thing to be attractive, particularly in Hollywood. However, casting directors could be looking for an older person, an ugly person, a midget, a goat-footed hell-spawned creature, or anyone with some sort of interesting look or unique look.
One thing which is always a great asset is the look of youth. It’s a hassle to cast movie extras (or anyone) who are under 18, because then the kid’s parents have to be on the set and they have to get release forms signed. Many films and TV Shows concern those precious little high schoolers, and they need to have people who look like they’re teenagers to be movie extras. Therefore, if you’re over 18 but you can look like you’re not, you can get a lot of work. They have to have somebody around to offset all the 28 year old “teenagers” who are doing the acting.
It’s important for movie extras to have an extensive wardrobe. You might receive a call which requires you to be able to dress up in sixties clothes, and if you don’t have it then you can’t work. You should try your hardest to have clothes from many different eras and to suit many different roles. Sometimes you’ll need to wear a suit, at other times you’ll need to wear a swimsuit. So don’t throw away any old clothes because they’ve gone out of style.
Movie extras need to have a good attitude at all times. If you cause anyone any problems whatsoever, you won’t be cut any slack and you might get a bad rep with the casting company if anyone complains. You need to do what you’re told, to stay out of the way, and to show up. Showing up is of most importance, because it reflects badly on the casting company if you’re a no-show they will probably cancel your hire as a movie extra. If you accept work, you go, even if you get a sudden onset of the stomach flu and you have to spend most of the day running to the toilet. It’s not fair, but you can get a black mark as a movie extra pretty easily if someone has any reason to think you are unreliable. Be on time and don’t leave until you have signed out at the end of a day.
This is very important. Whenever the cameras are running, movie extras have to be quiet. This means no talking, no rustling around, no opening and closing of doors, and no breakdancing. When shooting is about to begin, there will be something to indicate it, such as a red light which flashes and/or someone in the crew yelling really loudly. Once that happens all the movie extras have to keep very quiet until it is clear that shooting has stopped. Sometimes the movie extras will have a waiting area which is far enough away from the shooting that whispered conversations will be tolerated, but don’t allow your whispering to ease gradually into a normal speaking voice. And if you’re told to keep quiet, then do so without question.
You must remember at all times that you are very low in the movie set hierarchy and that you need to be polite and stay out of the way. Some directors can easily develop a foul mood over the course of a day of shooting, and they might just be looking for an excuse to scream at or fire someone.
Bring something to read, snacks and whatever else you need to keep yourself occupied and sane over the course of a long day of doing almost nothing and staying quiet. You will get bored of the rare glimpses you get of the actors as they scurry back and forth from their trailors. You will need something to do.
You must not speak until you are spoken to. We are not kidding. Movie extras are not allowed to speak to actors unless an actor initiates the conversation. This rule is pretty strictly enforced, and you can get fired or disciplined if someone thinks you’re bothering the actors. This means:
- No asking for autographs.
- No offering compliments.
- No behaving like you are star struck
- No “pointers” for Denzel Washington on how to “make that last scene much funnier.”
Do any of the above, and you will probably get fired from being a movie extra.
Do not stand around an actor for a long period of time while a shot is being set up and he or she doesn’t seem too uptight about your odious presence, it might be appropriate for you to toss out a little comment or some idle conversation. Use caution, though, and don’t do it if you think you’re going to sound breathless and spazzy or if the actor is concentrating on something else not on you as a movie extra. If in doubt, just keep your mouth shut until the actor deigns to speak to you.
Another absolute taboo is to film yourself on set. Don’t bring a camera, and if someone forcibly puts a camera into your possession, do not use it under any circumstances. People will get really uptight about it if you break this rule, and you’re likely to find yourself on the bus back to Hollywood before you can say “Sorry”
Congratulations on your new movie extra job! You’re well on your way to getting an inconsequential role that will not be remembered. Or maybe it will. . .