Some actors look at it as a gig for when they’re in between jobs. Other actors frown upon it and feel it’s not worth their time. And some actors who are new to the industry don’t even realize it’s an option. I’m talking about background, or being an extra.
Background work certainly isn’t glamorous and probably not what a lot of actors have in mind when they decide to pursue this profession, but it is a job (and can pay pretty well, too). As with any job, there are pros and cons:
Money (particularly if you are SAG)
If you’re non-union, then no, you won’t be making a ton (but it’s still a paycheck). If you are union, however, you will receive a higher rate. Additionally, you get pay bumps for a variety of things (i.e. if actors are smoking in the scene you are an extra in, you get a smoke bump; if the scene requires you be sprayed with water, you get a wet bump; if you have a car the production uses in the scene - even if it’s just parked - you get paid extra for your car; the list goes on). For SAG members, background work can count towards your insurance when the acting jobs are lacking.
It is possible to earn your SAG card by doing background. When you do background you receive a voucher - union members get union vouchers and non-union members get non-union vouchers. However, occasionally a non-union extra might be upgraded to work on a union voucher. This happens in a variety of ways, such as they are featured prominently in a commercial or they are hired because of a special skill. You need three union vouchers to become SAG-eligible. However, not all cities operate on the voucher system, which can make it harder to earn your SAG card this way.
For actors just getting started in their professional careers, working as an extra can provide invaluable experience. You learn what it’s like to be in front of the camera, common set terms and rules (i.e. “back to one” - resetting back to your first position of the shot - and “MPV” - Meal Penalty Violation), and the various jobs of others (i.e. 1st AD vs. 2nd AD vs. 2nd 2nd).
Availability…or lack thereof
If you commit to a background gig you become unavailable for other work that day, as well as auditions. So if your agent sends you a last-minute audition for the following day, but you’ve already booked work as an extra, you are going to lose out somewhere. With self-tapes becoming more and more common hopefully conflicts like these become less frequent. It’s never a good idea to cancel a background job once you’ve already booked it, as this will hurt your reputation with your background service (a service that provides job postings and arranges the details for extras). However, you also don’t want to cancel an audition. It can be a tricky path to navigate as an actor.
Background work can be a pretty decent gig, especially when acting jobs are few and far between. The more background you do, the more connections you make and the more work you can book. As more paychecks come in it can be tempting to rely on the guaranteed income rather than pursue auditions, causing you to get stuck in a rut of working as an extra rather than pursuing your acting dreams.
It is not glamorous
While there are definitely pros to working as an extra, it can at times feel, well, somewhat soul-sucking. Large calls can be particularly dreadful. Extras holding - the space where background waits until needed for the scene - can be anything from folding chairs set up under a tent outside to a large warehouse. It’s often uncomfortable (those who do background on a regular basis often invest in their own chair they bring to set in order to be more comfortable). It’s easy to feel like you are just a number, one in a crowd being herded from one spot to another. There is a lot of downtime - many bring a book or some other activity they can do to pass the time. It can be a long, slow day with little activity and not much artistic reward.
Despite the cons, I think it’s a good idea for actors to work as an extra at least once, if for no other reason than to have the experience of being on set. I have worked as an extra myself, as well as a stand-in, and learned far more about tv and film sets than I ever learned in my college theatre courses (we didn’t have a film program at my school). For those interested in getting into background work, I recommend seeking out a background service that is responsible for booking extras (a simple internet search should return some results). It will be far easier to find these resources in larger cities such as LA, Atlanta and Chicago than it will be in towns without a tv/film industry presence. If you do live in an area where working as an extra is an option, go on and give it a try! You’ll gain experience and make a little money along the way.