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Working as an Extra or Background Actor: Is It Worth It?

Extra or “Background” Actor Bookings

Whether you have an agent or are searching Backstage.com and other casting sites yourself, you are likely to come across opportunities to be an extra or background actor. This means you will not have a speaking role and you will not make the big bucks. The pay—around $150/day on the SAG pay scale—is tiny enough that my son’s agent will always say it’s up to us if we want Jamie submitted for background roles. Most of the time we conclude: no, the pay (and remember, agency fee and taxes have to be subtracted out) is not worth the effort.

Working on a Feature Film like Boychoir

But when Boychoir, a movie starring Dustin Hoffman (Kathy Bates and Debra Winger, as well), happened to be shooting a few towns over from us, we decided it would be a neat experience. After about 6 days on set during the last few weeks, I feel I’m in a position of authority to proclaim the pros and cons of background work.

Dustin Hoffman and boys in "Boychoir"

The Prep School Boys and Dustin Hoffman on the set of “Boychoir”

Pros of Working as an Extra

1. LOTs of time to sit around and get things done. Most of what you will do as an extra is wait.

2. Lots of free food. SAG (if it’s a SAG production) requires that meals are served regularly and “Crafty” is an area with free-for-all snacks and candy, which the kids love.

3. Working as an extra is a great way to learn the ropes on set. From the lingo to the intricacies of how scenes are shot, it’s nice to first be immersed in the microcosm of movie world (or TV world), without worrying about lines to learn or being in the spotlight.

Boychoir Set

Jamie on Set With the Boychoir Boys

4. Star sightings! My son got to hang out with Dustin and be in a scene with him (of course that was the day my husband chaperoned, so I missed all the excitement. And my husband did too, cuz he was on a work call the whole time, somewhere outside the hotel where they were shooting. “What’s the big deal?” he said. “He’s just an actor.” Dustin Hoffman—just an actor! From the stories I hear on set, DH is so down-to-earth, he’d probably appreciate my husband’s perspective.)

5. You may make more money than you expect. For SAG jobs anyway, you make extra money if you get wet, or work in dust or smoke. You make extra for the number of changes of clothes you wear (technically, the number you are asked to bring, but the wardrobe people appreciate if you bring extra options and you shouldn’t expect to charge for that). Overtime is frequent as well, since shoot days are unpredictable and the schedule often changes last minute. Today my son’s call-time was 6:18 AM (the odd time accounts for travel time, which is figured in apparently. I can’t tell you exactly how that works). But he and seven other boys, some of whom rose at 3 AM and travelled from hours away, ended up not being needed in the morning and by 8 they were released until 1 PM. Thankfully, there will be a “bump”—an inconvenience stipend for that.

Cons of Working as an Extra

1. Lots of time sitting around, not getting as much done as you would like, especially if it involves trying to get your 10-year-old to get school work done. Especially if seven or eight other kids are there with parents who don’t seem to mind if their charges play video games and screw around all day.

2. Lots of free food. This is not necessarily a good thing when you are stuck sitting around all day.

3. There is a high risk of you/your child becoming envious of the featured actors and wishing he had a “real part,” which can turn into a full-on whining session about when his chance will come and how life is not fair.

Boychoir Trailer

Jamie Dreaming of a Trailer Upgrade.

4. Letdown when you are expecting to hang out with a bigwig actor when actually the closest you ever get is seeing his name on the booking details.

5. Once you subtract travel expenses, taxes, agency fees, parent’s lost work time, the haircut junior needed, wardrobe items you couldn’t drum up in your closets or those of your neighbors, I promise extra work will not be putting your kid through college or paying the rent. Consider carefully if the missed school hours are worth the pennies in the piggy bank!

Btw, if you think working as an extra will make you a star, read this: Advice for Actors

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