Many aspiring actors looking to get their feet wet in the entertainment industry begin with background work. So if you want to know how to be an extra in a movie or a TV show, this article will give you the first steps to take as well as talk about how much do extras get paid.
We know that many famous actors started out as extras. Renee Zelwegger, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, James Dean, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood, just to name a few.
Many newcomers to London have moved to the city with goals of becoming actors in film, television or on stage. As one of the home bases of the entertainment industry, it’s no surprise that London draws so many future actors. But it can be tough to find your own starring roles when you’re competing with millions of others, all of whom share the same dream.
Living in London, however, doesn’t mean your only option is to chase after blockbusters, stellar TV shows, and countless appearances on the red carpet which you’re not in a position to get into yet. Therefore, for some aspiring actors, trying to become an extra in movies and TV could be a great stepping stone, while for others, extra work can mean extra income.
Whatever the reason for you wanting to find out how to be an extra in a movie or a TV show is, doing background work can be an educational experience where you can learn a lot about the show business and filmmaking. Doing work as a background artist will not only help you to get your foot in the door if you’re an aspiring screen star, but can help pay the bills along the way.
London’s film industry is booming right now, and more movie productions are constantly being brought into the city. Even a lot of Los Angeles based TV shows are cast in London. With this expansion, there’s also plenty of work for anybody involved within the production of a film or a television series.
So fortunately for anybody looking to be an extra in a movie, there’s always a need for additional background artists and even voice over actors. And, unbeknownst to many, working as one of these extras can even net an okay income, either supplementary or substantial in and of itself.
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If you want to know how to be an extra in a movie or a TV show while living in London, read on for the best tips and advice on ways to do so effectively.
How to Be an Extra in a Movie or a TV Show
Of course, working as an extra for both film and television is not an easy task. Extras are required to perform, at times, demanding work that entails repeating the same movement or action over and over, for long periods of hours.
A typical day for an extra, or other members of the crew, is between 10 to 12 hours — on lengthy days and longer shoots, extras can be trapped on set for up to 18 hours. It’s not easy. But those who regularly work as extras, say that being on a film set is very thrilling, according to my personal experience and this Chicago Tribune article.
At the same time, background artists have no lines to learn, no skills to perform; they simply exist within the background. No skill in particular is required, and anyone can become an extra. All it takes is a few simple steps and you’re ready to embark on this career.
What, Exactly, Does an Extra Do?
As mentioned above, working as an extra on a film set often means spending a great many hours on the production of a movie, television show, or even commercial.
Yet extras aren’t exactly spending those long work days doing much — instead, they’re hanging out on those sets, filling in their “free” time while awaiting their chance to appear onscreen in a brief scene or two.
Extras aren’t “talent,” in the traditional sense; rather, they are the individuals who appear in the background, the bodies and crowds that linger in scenes behind the actors. Whether it’s a bustling crowd of professionals moving along the streets of London in a commercial, or the excited concert attendees waving their arms in a film, every one of those unnamed individuals is an extra — and they were paid to fill that role.
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Extras have one task, when hired: to make the scenes being filmed appear realistic. Sometimes also referred to as “background artists” or “non-principal” performers, extras simply need to be present and fill the backdrop.
To become an extra you don’t need any experience, any particular skill set, or even a particular wardrobe (although you may, at times, be asked if you can bring items like cowboy boots or a certain-colored sweatshirt).
Background artists are the quiet majority of a bigger film production, and they don’t interact with the stars of the project, but are instead given their instructions from directors, assistant directors, or even production assistants.
Here’s an interesting video of an aspiring actor sharing her experience of becoming an extra on a set.
Typically, extras do not receive speaking roles. This is a great rarity, and occurs only when a director finds an extra who they need to fill a particular role or speak a single line. Getting selected for a line is quite exciting for extras, as this both increases the pay rate and gives you a chance to drop that “role” onto your acting resume.
If you do get a line to speak, even after coming onto the set as a background artist, then after you deliver that line – you are no longer an extra. You’re an actor now, and you’ll be credited accordingly, provided that it’s a professional film set.
For many extras throughout London, working in the background of various TV shows, movies, and commercials is a great way to both supplement the income from a regular job and to build a steady career. Many extras work repeatedly, and consider being an extra their career.
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Once you get started working as a background performer, you can find regular, frequent work on many different sets. It’s certainly a way to pay the bills and appear on the screen, and the more you appear as an extra, the more you’ll be selected for future projects, too.
Being an extra in a movie is also a flexible job. Not only will you be introduced to a wide variety of projects, but you can also choose how many and which days you work each week. Even those who are currently attending school, or working a part time job, are able to pick up a few “shifts” as an extra.
Embarking on a career as a background performer doesn’t mean you are limiting your opportunities to act in the foreground in the future. In fact, working as an extra will introduce you to a variety of roles and possibilities within the film and entertainment industry.
As an extra, you will get more comfortable working with production assistants and assistant directors, come to see how a “live” film set works, and even observe others, such as camera operators, wardrobe, and producers, to see what their jobs entail. It may introduce you to areas within the film and television world that you never considered pursuing before.
How to Get Started as an Extra?
First, you’ll need to put together something of a portfolio. Like all other jobs, working as an extra in movies means you need to appear professional and experienced in the field.
Here’s a list of things you’ll need to become an extra:
- A headshot
That’s it. You’ll need to have headshot photos taken, and those don’t even need to be as professional as an actor headshot. Sometimes, even a snapshot will do. Casting directors who are working with background artists simply want to see what you look like.
Obviously, you also need authorization to work in the country and all legal employment documents and fill out some paperwork when registering for some type of extras service – online or not. So once you have all of the materials ready, it’s time for you to register with a casting agency or extras service.
Registering with a casting service offers many benefits. Instead of seeking out casting calls for extra work on your own, the casting service works to place you with suitable jobs — all you need to do is fit the description, if there is any.
You are able to ask various companies what their experience placing extras is, and determine whether they’re high-profile enough to suit your needs. Additionally, you can look into how many union and non-union individuals they represent.
Even if you don’t work with a single extras agency or representative unit, different agencies hold open casting calls that you can come and check out. Do be aware, though, before you sign up with a casting or extras agency, is that they usually have fees they charge. Extras don’t earn much, so if a company asks for a significant amount of money to register, it’s something to consider.
The reason they do this is because that’s the only way they make money. They have a team of people who have all background performers’ profiles in front of them, and then they call movie products and pitch the extras. Other times, it’s the other way around – productions inquire those agencies about bringing in background workers.
You can avoid working extras services and do the submissions by yourself. It will save you paying those fees, but you’ll have to do a lot more work.
Here’s another video of someone explaining how to become an extra in movies.
So if you want to search for jobs on your own, without the work of going through a service, you can do so. You just need to be diligent. Keep up-to-date with the latest auditions and casting calls by checking the casting websites such as CastingCallPro (UK) or Backstage (USA).
No matter which method you choose, being an extra offers many benefits: you can hear about potential casting calls and acting work from your fellows background artists, and network while you’re waiting around on-set.
Or, if you’d like to spend an afternoon hanging out with the most famous people of Hollywood, you might be able to do so — if you’re placed on the right set, with the right cast. Just remember to never bother them. If they make contact with you, then it’s fine to communicate, of course, but other than that, you’ll be unprofessional and likely fired quick.
If you’re looking to turn your extra work into a career, or perhaps into even bigger roles within the industry, take advantage of the holding area on every set.
Extras are needed throughout the duration of a shoot, but they don’t appear in every scene. So, while the extras are not needed, they spend their time hanging around the holding area, awaiting their next call to appear on camera.
There, you’re free to use your time as you wish — with the exception of wandering around the set while filming is occurring — and many extras use this downtime to line up more work. Instead of reading a book or staring at a game on your smartphone, use your time in the holding area to connect with other aspiring actors or extras.
Chat with those who are sitting with you, and ask them about their experience working as an extra or the steps they’re taking to become an actor. They may be able to share how they make a career out of consistent extra jobs, or even how to build a resume that will secure you future jobs.
Don’t be shy. Ask for advice on everything you need some help with: headshots, talent agencies, auditioning and even upcoming projects, and you can find some inside information that will help you once the current project’s production ends.
How Much Do Extras Get Paid?
The payment model for extras is very simplistic and standard. It usually breakdowns down into two ways of paying extras: per hour (rarely) and per day (most common).
Extras do not get paid much, but if you’re doing this on a regular basis, you can definitely make a living. The hardest part is in the beginning when you need to make a name for yourself as a reliable background artist who will always show up on time and be professional. Once that status is achieved, you’ll have regular extra work and it may get you a little more money.
In terms of how much do extras get paid, it will depend on the project. Obviously, bigger productions pay more, and low-budget films will pay less if anything.
The standard pay is usually about £50-100 / $100-150 per day. If it’s hourly, which is very rare, then you’ll be paid minimum wage or something close to that, but that never happens because extras are expected to stick around for however long the production takes, and that may be well into the night. Nobody wants to pay overtime, so they just pay a flat rate.
As an extra, your day will likely start early and end late. You’ll be expected to be on the set as soon as possible, and simply stick around for whenever you are needed, if ever. Some days, they may film exclusively at night, so you may get a call for a night shoot. Those are usually paid a little better, but there’s no rule for that.
This answer on Quora has given some good details on the pays background performers get. It’s based on the US industry, but the numbers are pretty similar to the UK industry as well.
The Benefits of Extra Work
Extras spend their time in the background rather than the forefront of the projects they work on, but this doesn’t mean that they go unnoticed by movie and TV audiences — and they certainly aren’t ignored by directors within the industry. The more extra work you are able to pick up, the higher the chances of your screen time increasing.
Background performers are meant to stay out of the way, for the most part. The director of a shoot can ask specific extras to perform individual roles, like carrying an object or making a face that’s clearly visible in the background. Additionally, if you’re lucky enough to have a director toss you a line to say, you’re on your way to your first real actor credit on a big production.
Continue with extra work, building a career or a track record of winning background roles, and you’ll create a unique and unpredictable job. Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing a music video set one day, and spending the next week as part of a feature-length film, and possibly line up another month of working on a famous TV show?
Working as an extra will allow you to participate in so many different projects within the entertainment industry, and you’ll have to do little more than simply show up and follow blocking or movement instruction. It’s a fantastic way to get your feet wet in London’s world of film and television, and who knows — you may even make a name for yourself as a renowned extra.