With the motion picture and TV industry booming, background acting gigs are plentiful across the country. While aspiring actors might take the work on their way to speaking roles, some have found background acting offers a fulfilling, low-stress career that pays the bills and offers the opportunity to pursue passion projects.
Tyree Simpson is one of those actors. He started in the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” squad room during its first season in 1999. Nineteen seasons later, he’s a mainstay on the show as a desk sergeant.
Simpson’s career has a lot to do with how he approached the work and a shift in his priorities. He had wanted to be an actor since he was very young, but he found himself instead in a highly stressful investment banking career that was not working for him. Taking on his first background role meant he could get on-the-job training while he scheduled other auditions, wrote poetry, and performed in independent plays at the same time. What was at first a few days of low-stress work every week, eventually turned into a full-time career.
“There is some stigma to background acting, but there are extras and there are background actors,” Simpson said. “The background actor will take the job seriously. The extra is just there.”
Brittany Gischner, senior casting director at Central Casting’s New York office, also emphasized the importance of non-speaking roles.
“Background actors sell the scene,” she says. How can you have a high school classroom without all of the people who would typically be in a school? Or a hospital, or a city street, for that matter?
Sticking with one show for two decades like Simpson has is quite rare. For some, background work is a summer paycheck or even something to do after retirement. “We work with people who are filling time in between gigs, kids who are between high school and college, and even retirees, like people who were real doctors and who now play a background doctor on TV,” Gischner said.
Gischner invites anyone who is interested in the industry to register with Central Casting. The process involves submitting a photo and specifications to their database. Then, as a casting director, Gischner sits down with directors and assistant directors to assess the needs of a show scene by scene. After that, she searches the database and starts making calls.
Rates are set by contract negotiation every few years and are presently at $166 per day for up to 8 hours of work for Screen Actors Guild members and $121 per day up to 10 hours of work for non-union actors. Rates can be higher for people with special abilities, like someone who has training as a nurse, or a background role that requires nudity.
If an actor is looking to get up front, Gischner advises they know the right time and place to make an impression. “Sometimes networking can get in the way, but people develop relationships on these sets,” she said. “And sometimes background actors themselves have come together to start their own thing.”
As a seasoned actor, Simpson says he still learns on set every day. “What you learn in the classroom a lot of times you have to unlearn in the field,” Simpson says. Those just starting out can pick up a great deal in a background role, he said. “Background acting has been my masters class.”
Gischner agreed. “You don’t have the lines, but you get to observe and understand what goes into production,” she said. “You have a good understanding of how things get done.”
Looking forward to at least two more seasons of “SVU,” Simpson is aiming to be part of television history. “I have come this far and definitely want to be part of the next two seasons. I like to finish what I start,” he says.