I recently joined a local casting company in the hopes of finding odd jobs as a background actor to make some extra money. I hear that some people can even make a living as a background actor!
What is a background actor?
When you watch your favorite movie or favorite TV show, do you see all of those OTHER people in the restaurant? Or the people walking on the street corner? Or, better yet, that huge crowd of people watching a sporting event on your favorite show? Those people didn't just happen to be walking by as the director called "action." No, they're hired actors - "background actors."
What does it mean to act in the background?
As a background actor, your job is to look like you don't see the film crew. You have to pretend like there is no camera and no famous actors around you.
How many times have you, as a pedestrian, seen a film crew and just stopped to stare? That's a term called "Sasquatch a Shot," and it's hilarious. I've been known to do it. As much as I am a film person, if I see a camera, I will stare at it!
Because of the unpredictability of random pedestrians, productions pay actors to just look normal as they sit or walk in the background.
My Day as a Background Actor - No, I wasn't actually on Glee
We were called to set in downtown Los Angeles at 6am. Already a gross time to see the world, but hey, at least LA traffic is clear at 5:30 in the morning! I zoomed along, found our specific "Background Actors" parking lot and walked to set.
Once on set, I found the holding trailer - where the background actors are asked to hang out so no one is wandering around the set. I grabbed a delicious breakfast - breakfast is usually the best meal served on a set - and found my seat in the trailer. It was a fairly large trailer with tables and air conditioning, so we were fine!
There were about 60 extras and I didn't know anyone! I played on my phone for awhile as I ate. I tried to make conversation but people were mainly talking about what it took to get into an actor union, how many shows someone has worked, and what other shows someone is going to work. I, of course, could hardly contribute but I listened nonetheless.
Then they called us to get into a line and receive our timesheet vouchers. This is how we would get paid! We have to fill out all of these forms and have them signed off at the end of the day. I was frantically trying to figure out what to fill out, so thankfully some of those actors around me were helpful!
As a background actor, you are primarily in charge of bringing your own wardrobe. The costume department will look at you and give the okay. If you don't have anything that works for them, then they will give you clothes. If they do give you clothes, then they get to keep your timesheet until you return the clothes at the end of the day. This way nothing of theirs is taken, and you're also protected from being accused of it!
I brought a huge suitcase full of anything I could find around my apartment. We were dressing to be NYC background actors so I wanted to be stylish - unlike my normal attire... The wardrobe lady loved my outfit, and I skipped back to the trailer. Yep, I can pull of city chic baby!
Half of the background extras were called to set - meaning, they were picked to be in the first shot. I was in the second half. So we had a good hour or two to kill. This allowed me to make some fun observations. Here we go:
One woman brought a robe to wear as she walked the set. This tends to be the luxury of the lead actors, not a background actor, but power to her for making this set her own!
Someone is always super opinionated or jaded
A few people I talked to clearly have had a tough time in this business. Keeping in mind that many of them want to be actors, I could understand! The conversation kept turning into a rant on rude, mean famous people to work with and then took a turn for the worse when someone mentioned dating in this industry. I didn't need to hear all that, so I went for some tea.
There's always a talker
There's always that one person who doesn't realize they're being too friendly. We all don't actually know each other, but we're making career talk, industry talk. It's the only thing we have in common. I know I started to get a little overwhelmed by the amount of personal questions asked of me, but I'll be the first to admit that I don't like to talk about personal things!
There are crazies
Yes, some of these people have gone off the deep end. They get angry quickly, fighting over a seat. Mostly they fight to keep their belongings safe. I saw a lot of arguments over drinks being too close to expensive clothes.
I saw a few people just cozy up like this trailer would be their home for the day. I mean, I guess it was...Maybe they know something I don't?
It's always our fault
Sometimes the assistant directors would walk in and make an announcement. Keep in mind, there were about 60 people in this room, so it was hard to hear. A few times, people missed an announcement that was meant for them. Granted, they should have been aggressively paying attention - because we are getting paid (minimum wage) - but things happen.
I saw a few assistant directors get incredibly frustrated, forcing the background actor to apologize profusely. And then once that background actor was out of the room, everyone started saying horrible things about that person! Other actors, that don't even know this person, were judging their character, their work ethic, and who they are as a human being. It broke my heart to see that. I stood up for a few people, but then I started getting the vibe that everything is our fault. If a mistake is made, then we're idiots for making that mistake. It was very sad.
Had to protect myself
It was my first day, and I had to keep saying that so I wouldn't get in trouble. I felt like I was already the bad guy because I was a background actor. No one cares you're there. You're already annoying and in the way. There was no respect, and they all assumed I would be mean to them. The jokes to our face were harsh and insulting, and darnit, it was just weird!
I wanted a job...behind the camera
I wanted to ask if there was someone who was hiring a behind the camera person, but I never really found the time. None of the workers wanted to talk to me. It felt so weird because I'm so used to chatting up anyone. The only nice person was the props guy because I teased him. Then we had a friendly banter. I couldn't help but think "See! Someone thinks I'm cool!"
Being on set was epic.
Now, keep in mind that I am being intentionally vague of the TV show I worked on because we are not allowed to talk about it. So I am simply talking about my experience and how I related to the set.
Once on set, we were divided into mini groups. My group was pushed to the other side of the street, away from the film crew. That was a bummer because I really wanted to watch the film crew in action! But it turned out to be a very entertaining side of the street.
We were in Downtown Los Angeles - near a homeless shelter. The production wouldn't let anyone walk down the sidewalk with the famous actor, so they were all pushed to our side. We saw some crazies (not to be confused with the crazy actors...these street people were clinically insane).
There were a few "she-mans" - men who look like women or women who look like men - your choice. There was a lot of weed smokers and drunks. There was a witching woman. A few fun hairstyles that you can't create in a normal person's reality... And there was one little girl with a dog who literally threw it at me. I caught it, but still...weird. Finally, the best was the little woman who looked like Pippy Longstocking.
We were all best friends fast!
Everyone on my side of the street became very close with our common fear of the crazies. One time we saw a drunk man literally stumbling and holding onto the wall, so we all huddled together to protect each other from him. Keep in mind that it was about 10am... We dodged his advances by shimmying left and then shimmying right. Please, just try to picture a group of 7 people shimmying left and right around a drunk man. Please...picture it.
Unfortunately, the production never noticed how uncomfortable we were. They would yell "background action" and we would RUN to our places!
A few times they would yell "action," and as I walked, I noticed non-actors, Los Angeles pedestrians, walking with me. One man walked beside me, so he could film the production on his cell phone and not get noticed. Then he would walk back with me to my first position and get ready to film again!
The BEST non-actor experience was when the assistant director was telling a group of us to back up, and as they backed up, so did other non-actors. I turned around to see about 5 extra people just backing up because they thought they were told to do so! We all laughed and yelled "No! You can keep walking!!"
I think I messed up a shot
Normally, it is the assistant directors who tell the background actors where to go during a take. One particular take, I think someone should have informed me of the new shot changes...
The production was trying to hurry and get more cameras, meaning more coverage, on the action. I was supposed to walk to the right. That's it. Just walk. But to my right were about 3 cameras, so I knew I would be crossing all of the cameras! No one told me not to cross them, so when they said "background action," I went for it!
Once I crossed one camera, I heard the director yell to me and my fellow walker "go left." All I could think was "If I stop to turn and go left, then I will literally be standing in front of a camera and the action taking place in the scene." My fellow walker had enough time to go left, but I did not. So she left me alone, and I hustled to get out of their way.
Because I was so frantic, I didn't even react to what was going on in the scene and it probably looks hilarious.
So did I mess up the shot? I TRULY thought changing directions would have screwed up the shot even more. They didn't do the take again because they ran out of time...so I hope I didn't ruin it!
All of this brings me to my final conclusion: I'm glad I'm not an Actor.
Don't get me wrong. If someone said, "Hey Ashley, be in this movie and I'll pay you so much money," then I probably wouldn't turn it down.
But, I'm glad I focused my career path to behind the camera. Talking to the other actors and hearing what they have to go through to get even a background actor job is ridiculous.
This particular casting service requires that you call in to hear about their casting gigs. Once you think you are qualified for a role, then you must call that particular casting agent. Seems simple right? Nope! The line is usually busy because thousands are calling that casting agent at the same time. So you literally just call, hear a busy signal, hang up and call again. You keep calling until you get through - like when we used to call in to radio stations to get tickets to a concert!
They also make you second guess your attractiveness. Often they stress that you have to be very attractive to be cast in a certain role. This means thin, large breasts and a face of a model. While on set, I felt I was working with gorgeous women all around me, but they are not "Hollywood Gorgeous." I think I'm pretty, but I don't think I would be cast as a model. It's so weird to think of myself in this light. That's why I'm happy I'm not an actor!
But let me tell you all right now, based on my personal casting experience, being "model hot" is NOT what gets you cast in real speaking roles, unless the role calls for hot-girlfriend of course! Having a look, a face of a person who can be real, who can show emotion, is what will get you cast. You have to be relate-able. At least, that's how I feel!
I only made about $72 that day so it's not really something to live on, so I hope to get a better job behind the camera soon! I'll probably continue pursuing background acting gigs, even though I don't think I'm their ideal background candidate, but at least it's a part of this industry, a part of LA, I never thought I would see!