“We’re actors; a day spent on set is better than a day spent anywhere else.”
That line comes from Carolyn Minnott, played by Jacki Weaver, in The Disaster Artist. If you agree with the sentiment, then congratulations my friend: you are a certified actor.
Sometimes, all I really care about is getting on set or on stage. I don’t care about how big or small the role is, or how insane the hours might be—I just want to be where the people are. Whilst principal and supporting roles can be tricky to land purely because of how many people are going for those roles, extra (background acting) work is rarely in short supply. If you’re like me and you’re itching to walk the boards and make just enough cash doing it that your parents will be impressed, extra work for actors is your ticket in.
When you’re cast as an extra, you’re usually there to populate the world of the film, commercial, play ,etc. You’ll be sitting at tables having pretend conversations, dancing to the sound of silence in a nightclub, walking back and forth along a street. While the pay is less than you might get as a featured actor, extra work is nonetheless a stable and lucrative job in the industry—and a far easier job to land.
What is an Extra?
An extra, background actor or supporting artist, is a performer in a production (stage or screen) who populates the background of the scene in a non-speaking role. They are commonly used in television series, as well as larger budget films such as war or fantasy epics, which require a large amount of performers in a given sequence.
The role of an extra on stage or set is heavily regulated; for instance, extras are not permitted to speak or spoken to by the director (usually an assistant director has this role.) This is to ensure that actors livelihoods are preserved, and that extras are not required to perform additional labour that should warrant a featured actor’s salary.
The Reputation of Extra Work
I’ve known certain people who turn their nose up at extra work, because they don’t think it’s “real acting”—whatever that means. Sure, you’re not going to get famous from being an extra, but you’re just as essential to the project.
The most recent stint of extra work I did was for another one of those musician biopics that are so popular these days; I was part of a crowd of one hundred other extras pretending to be rabid fans at a concert. Imagine if they shot they shot the project without rabid fans. Not really a movie about a famous musician anymore… The director thanked all of us at the end of the day and said: “We couldn’t do it without you”, which is absolutely true.
Working as an extra helps you gain experience, gives you an opportunity to network and lands you a paycheque at the end of the day. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Don’t do Extra Work for Free
A quick word of advice before I tell you how to find extra work: don’t do it for free.
I’ll happily do a friend a favour for their short film, but any sizeable production will pay their extras; unless you’re getting some on-site experience (which is the real reason to be there) you at least want to be paid for those balmy 14 hour days. You’re also protected by an actor’s union when you work in a professional setting, which is super important.
Got that written down? Great. Here’s how you get paid extra work:
Where to Find Work as an Extra
First things first: if you have an agent, let them know you want to do extra work. Sometimes agents won’t put their actors up for extra work because they assume they don’t want it. Other agents will discourage you, not wanting to rob you of later opportunities to work on a particular show. Either way, it warrants a chat.
If you don’t have an agent, there are companies who specialise in extra work, such as OnCue Talent. But only sign with such an agency if extra work is all you’re interested in getting (and make sure you’re not surprised by any hidden agency fees.)
A good place to look out for extra work, whether you have representation or not, is casting networks. Start browsing options like StarNow and, well, Casting Networks. StarNow has a much broader range of work which usually includes a lot of unpaid work, so keep that in mind when you’re perusing. Casting Networks is more quality over quantity, but the yearly subscription is more expensive as a result.
Extra Work in Australia
If you’re based in Australia, check out Screen Australia’s website. They list professional projects that are about to be shot or are being shot. Pick a project that sounds like it might need extras—feature films and tv series are a safe bet. Give the production company a call and ask to speak with the extra department for that particular project. If you have representation, it’s always good to mention that to them so they know who to contact when they’re ready to cast. If you don’t have representation, your personal contact details will suffice. Just don’t miss the call when it comes!
While I’ve never been cast as an extra for a theatre show before, a good friend of mine recently worked as one with Melbourne Theatre Company and loved it. Landing extra gigs in professional theatres usually requires a well-connected agent or a personal contact—they won’t be advertised publicly. But they can provide long-term work if the show proves popular enough.
It’s always a good idea to go to general auditions for major theatre companies to potentially land a principal or supporting role, but you can also let the panel know that you’re happy to be considered for extra work on any upcoming shows; they’ll definitely appreciate the offer if nothing else comes of it.
What to Expect as an Extra
The average pay for extras varies according to the type of project. You can expect anywhere from $20-30/hr for most extra work on feature films and television series. Commercial work, by comparison, is usually a little higher. I got paid $300AUD for being on a commercial set for 15 minutes, once. That was a good day.
If you’re working on a feature film or television series, you’ll be given a call time and a location to check-in. You head to the check-in at the start of the day and get a catered breakfast (if you’re lucky.) Then, after a stint in costume/make-up, you settle in for a long day of waiting around.
When it comes to screen, actors are paid to wait so bring a good book or a deck of cards and make some friends to play with on set. I was once called for 8 hours and ended up being on set for 14. Try to keep the whole day and night free for this reason.
If you are there all day, you’ll be fed. And from what I’ve seen in recent years, the catering is usually pretty awesome.
What Does an Extra Do?
Before every scene, you’ll be told what’s happening and what you need to be doing. A word of advice: if you’re doing a scene that requires a lot of physical exertion, pace yourself. You could be repeating that scene for over an hour.
Be certain about what you need to do. When the cameras roll, do it. Don’t try to get yourself a cheeky bit of screen time by moving closer to the camera or looking over at it and never ever look down the barrel of the camera: the operator sees everything.
Remember that you’re there to help create a vibrant world. Without you, the project wouldn’t be possible. Be professional, be respectful and commit to your action every take. That’s the kind of attitude that will take you places in this industry and get you noticed by the right people.
Should I Put Extra Work on my CV?
When the job is all said and done, I’d advise against it. You could potentially put something down if you were a featured extra. This means that you have a proper credit and maybe a few lines. But even then, it’s not something that’s going to make your CV stand out.
Think of it as something in between your regular, muggle job and your dream acting gig. It’s certainly going to give you some much-needed professional experience. But it’s not quite the same as an acting role you auditioned for and worked hard to develop.
After graduating from drama school, I worked as an extra on a feature film for three weeks. I’m telling you: getting on my bike each morning and riding out to the studio instead of my boring muggle job was such a good feeling.
If you’re not working on a project in a principal or supporting role, you might as well be working as an extra. There’s a process to how high-budget entertainment is created and it’s important to understand that process as a professional. Simply put: extra work is the easiest way to do this. And the free lunch doesn’t hurt.
Hope this helps. See you around the traps!