Want to be in a movie?
Have you ever wanted to be in a movie or on a TV show? Depending on where you live, it may be easier than you think to sit or walk near famous movie stars and appear on the big or small screen. Here’s a Q&A about how to be an extra and what it’s like to work as one based on my experiences as an extra on 70+ movies and TV shows filmed in Chicago. Other cities may have different policies and procedures.
1. What exactly is an extra?
Extras, also called background or atmosphere, fill all kinds of non-speaking roles in movies, TV shows, commercials and even corporate films, also known as industrials. I’ve been a wedding guest, shopper, bar or restaurant patron (many times), commuter on a train (five times), comedy club audience member, nurse (three times), homeless person, black tie event guest, neighbor, professor, secretary, courtroom spectator, tourist and concertgoer (twice), driver on the street (twice). My first (and only unpaid, except for a couple of projects for friends) experience was in the Ferris Bueller’s Day Off parade.
Extras never have individual lines, but may be called on as a group to cheer or even sing. Extras must do what they’re told and usually work very long hours. Twelve-hour days are the norm. On rare occasion, an extra will get upgraded to a principal and be given a line. This hasn’t happened to me, but I know people who received upgrades.
If you’re given something to do, usually by an assistant director, you’ll probably do this thing many times, and are expected to do it in exactly the same way at the same time for continuity purposes. If you’re going up stairs or walking a long distance, the repetition can get tiring. I’ve worked on movies where extras were ice skating or roller skating. Because of Chicago’s fabulous architecture and lakefront, many scenes are filmed outside. Sometimes you freeze, sometimes you broil.
You might be on set the entire time, in the midst of, close to or far from the actual filming, or you might spend many hours in a waiting area, called “holding.” The way I look at this: they’re paying me to read and eat. Sometimes if you aren’t called to set, they’ll call you back to work another day.
When I worked on Public Enemies, in period hairstyle (I had to cut most of my hair off) and attire, Johnny Depp walked within inches of my secretary desk. Other times, you may be so far from the action you don’t see any of the stars. Or they may not be working the day(s) you are.
Many times, you’ll only work one day. This is because if you’re a shopper and established on camera, they can’t repeat you the next day as someone else. The most I’ve ever worked on one production is four days, but many people I know have worked more.
2. What do you wear?
Most often you’re expected to 1) bring at least three wardrobe changes suitable for your role from your own closet. 2) not wear red, white, logos, neon or bright colors or busy patterns.
If it’s black tie, you’ll get a bump in pay. I’ve worked on a few period movies. Wardrobe for those included a paid fitting for clothing and a hair/makeup discussion. I’ve had to set my hair in rollers and wear them to set, where the style was combed out.
3. How much do you get paid? Any other perks?
In Chicago, the rate is usually $104 for eight hours, minus a half hour for lunch, then time and a half after that. On occasion, extras will be “upgraded” for certain things, but though I’ve been featured on assorted projects, that never happened to me. You also get paid more if you have to be wet or in smoke or use your car (which may require you to spend hours driving). You get paid whether or not you’re called to set and actually work or sit in holding all day, and whether or not you ever appear on screen. You get paid the entire amount even if your shooting day is less than eight hours.
You get fed according to the union crew’s schedule and eat after the crew. The smaller the scene you’re working on, the better the food and desserts. I’ve enjoyed rack of lamb, lobster supposedly flown in from Iceland and freshly grilled salmon. Occasionally, I’ve been given permission to help myself to snacks from the crew table. If you’re not given specific permission, you’re not allowed to touch their food. If you’re doing a large scene, there’ll probably be a separate food line with still good but not as good food, or perhaps a box lunch. Often extras get donuts or nothing for breakfast, while the crew enjoys an entire spread and can order hot dishes from Craft Services. Several times during shooting, the cast and crew were served snacks on set but nothing was offered to the extras.
I’ve also been a stand-in, called “second team.” This means you fill a first team star’s shoes during camera and lighting set up. You watch what they do during rehearsal, and are expected to repeat EXACTLY what they do. Once I used my left hand to open a door, but they told me the star had used her right.
To be a stand-in, you need to be very close in height, body shape and coloring to the star. You also need to have an amazingly flexible schedule, because you’ll might be expected to work every day that your star is on set. You make more money and eat with the crew. The rate for that is often $150/8.
My “biggest” appearances were: a) as the mayor’s assistant in an episode of The Chicago Code. I made the trailer b) in Flags of our Fathers in a scene with John Slattery (Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling) c) sitting next to Joe Mantegna in Uncle Nino. I also had the opportunity to go to Lithuania, be a featured extra and spend several nights on the set of Highlander: The Source.
I don’t do much extra work these days because I’m pursuing principal roles, and a) if you’ve committed to being an extra, then you’re not available if you get an audition or a job (for which the pay is much higher) b) once you’ve been an extra on a project, you can’t also be a principal (someone with a speaking role).
I’ve had speaking roles in numerous independent feature films (three films have distribution), web series and national TV commercials. If you’re interested, more info is at ruthtalks.com and imdb.me/ruthkaufman.
4. So have you met lots of stars?
Yes and no. Extras can be sent home if they initiate a conversation with a star. Or if they take pictures on set.
That said, some stars, such as Dustin Hoffman, were amazingly friendly. He went out of his way to talk to extras, including me and even introduced me to Will Ferrell. Sometimes I’ve been positioned so close to a star that conversation began organically, because as shooting went on it became uncomfortable not to speak. In a film with a very famous female star, we were told multiple times by the crew and even her bodyguard not to speak to her. Once we were told not to even make eye contact with a certain male star.
I’ve seen dozens of stars close up and how they work. Often I’ve been so close to the filming I could hear everything the director, such as Clint Eastwood, says to the actors.
5. How do I get to be an extra?
Keep your eyes open. In Chicago, “casting calls” are usually done via Facebook pages of extras casting companies such as 4 Star and Extraordinary. You have to have registered with that extras casting agency before you submit for a given call and perhaps they’ll ask you fill out an availability form for a given week or project. Usually you don’t need a professional headshot, but will need current candids, often a closeup and a full body. You might need pictures wearing certain types of attire.
They’ll post what they need for a given day, such as people over 30 with upscale business attire, joggers in a park or blue collar workers. If you fit the specs and are available that entire day, you submit exactly as instructed before they take the post down. Usually there are many, many more submissions than extras needed.
On rare occasion, there’s an open call where you show up in person. Note: this don’t mean you’ll be auditioning. All you’ll do is bring a current color picture and a pen and fill out a form with your contact information and sizes. You may need to wait in line for a long time. Sometimes you can email a picture. You don’t need a headshot, just a recent, clear, color snapshot that looks like you. Frequently they ask for an additional picture in whatever type of attire they need at that time.
Some projects, like student or independent films, may seek extras willing to work for free.
Still interested? Maybe someday we’ll meet on set.