"How do I get a job as an Extra?"
Becoming an extra (sometimes referred to as a Background Artist) is fairly simple if you live in any city but it is much easier if you live in Los Angeles or New York.
All you do is contact an extras casting service or director, and sign up with their service. Most will be free, but some will charge a very nominal one-time fee to process your headshot and paperwork, it should be no more than $10 - $20. Be very skeptical if someone is charging much more, and run away if they are trying to up-sell you on head shots or acting lessons. It is not inappropriate to ask what movies or TV shows they have provided extras for.
You may be required to submit a headshot, the more sophisticated casting services will take the picture for you.
You will need to provide work authorization documents for completing the required I-9 form.
Samples of acceptable documents are:
- United States passport, OR
- Current drivers' license together with a social security card, OR
- Current drivers' license together with a birth certificate
Original documents only must be presented.
Work as an extra performer can be demanding; standing, sitting, repeating the same motion for hours etc.. Be prepared to work hard and long. A typical day for a crew is 10 - 12 hours and if you have the unfortunate displeasure of working on a music video, be prepared to work up to 16 - 18 hours.
You will start out as a non-union extra until you qualify to be a member of the Screen Actors Guild.
The difference between being a union, or a non-union extra is significant. The largest difference is in pay. As a non-union extra you do not have the benefit of anyone fighting for you. You can be paid anywhere from $0 to minimum wage. As a SAG member, you will be compensated well (see SAG rates)
How to get into the Screen Actors Guild?
There are three ways to qualify for SAG membership.
1 - Get hired as a principal performer in a SAG signatory show (not likely).
2 - Performers may join SAG if the applicant is a paid-up member of an affiliated performers' union (AFTRA, AEA, AGVA, AGMA or ACTRA) for a period of at least one year AND has worked at least once as a principal performer in that union's jurisdiction. (If you are a member of one of these unions then you are probably not reading this).
3 - To get hired as a SAG extra for three days. (this is the most likely way to get in)
How do I get hired as a SAG extra when I am not a member of SAG?
On the surface it appears to be a catch-22. Every production must hire a certain amount of SAG extras for each day of filming. For example on a feature, the first 30 extras have to be SAG extras. After that they hire non-union (you) extras. Occasionally one of the SAG extras doesn't show up for work or is considerably late. If there are more than 30 extras, they need to hand out 30 SAG "vouchers." Therefore one lucky non-union extra gets to fill the empty SAG slot. In addition to a major pay increase, that voucher goes toward the three that you need to join SAG.
Here it is at the discretion of the Assistant Directors to choose the non-union extra that will receive the SAG voucher. At this point it is good to have the ADs (Assistant Directors) in your corner. There is no magic way to get the SAG voucher, but you realize who you need to please while working. Stay out of their way while they work, be as helpful as possible without falling all over yourself trying to please them. Everyone else that is a non-union extra is trying to get the same thing you want, so be tactful and sincere. Eventually, if you can get a relationship with an AD and work with him or her several times, hopefully they will remember you. Extend yourself to the ADs that know you by face, learn and remember their names and do your job well and you should get the vouchers in no time.
An AD's job is very difficult, high stress, and demanding. Choose your times wisely to make conversation with them. If you had a good experience with a particular AD get their mailing address from the DGA directory and write them a thank you note. They will probably remember you the next time and may request you specifically.
A typical day will go like this:
A Day in the Life of an Extra or Background Artist
You will get a call time (time to show up for work) from your extras casting director. Keep in mind that you will be driving to a location that you are not familiar with. Give yourself extra time to get to the set or stage (being late is not a good way to get a SAG voucher) Bring reading materials for when you are in the holding area (a "bull pen" for extras).
Sometimes you will be asked to bring your own wardrobe.
There will be a designated parking area for the film crew. Sometimes if there are so many extras they will have a separate parking lot for them. When in doubt, ask. There usually is a security officer in the parking lot, tell them you are an extra and ask them where to park.
Immediately check in with the ADs or Extras Casting Director. Do not get tempted with the table of bagels and breakfast burritos.
Look for an extras check in area. If you are unsure ask a member of the production staff where extras check in is located. (You will notice them as they are carrying a walkie-talkie, a silver clip board, and look like they are doing five things at once.) Ask someone you see where one of the ADs is, and ask them. Asking a Grip or the Craft Services Person where to check in will not only be a waste of both your time, but you will look like you have no idea what is going on. Remember, most of the ADs listen to their walkie-talkies through a headset so remember that if you are walking up to them they are more than likely listening to instructions through the radio.
At check in you will fill out your paperwork- which is a form called a "voucher". You will have a non-union voucher. If it is not already specified on the voucher, or if you are not told, ask if you are a general extra, or if you have been cast for something specific.
Next you will be told to check in with the wardrobe department to either approve the wardrobe that you brought or they will give you a costume. This is where knowing if you were cast for something comes in handy. When you walk up to the wardrobe trailer or holding area, say "Hi, I am supposed to be a police officer." They will fit you and then take your voucher as collateral to get their police uniform back from you at the end of the day.
At that point If you have not eaten, grab something to eat. Note that many times there are specific areas for extras to eat other than the craft services table where the cast and crew eat. Also there can be a delineation between union and non-union extras eating areas. Again, don't assume, just ask someone.
If you are wearing your wardrobe, take special caution to not spill oatmeal on your shirt. If possible remove anything you can just to be safe.
Go to the extras holding area and wait for instructions from the ADs.
When you are placed in a scene, whatever you do, remember that you will have to repeat it many, many times. Also take note of what you are doing when. They are not always going to shoot a scene from beginning to end. There will be times when you will need know where you are in your action (sometimes called “business”) in a specific part of the scene.
When you break for lunch, extras eat last. Make sure that all the cast and crew have been through the lunch line before you even approach the catering truck.
At the end of the day or when you are excused by the AD's, find the person that checked you in and they will sign you out. They will keep one copy of the voucher and give you the other for your records.
After you get three SAG vouchers you are eligible to be a member of SAG. Schedule your appointment and come up with $3,000. Understanding the issues that performers and broadcasters face, the AFTRA-SAG Federal Credit Union, in partnership with SAG-AFTRA, has designed a loan program that eases the financial burden of the initiation fee for those who qualify.By Brad Hall