There are many ways to make a living as an actor. For some, it means starring roles and a foot-long IMDb page. But that certainly isn’t the only way for actors to spend their lives on film and TV sets, getting paid to do so. Background acting—or ”extra” work—can absolutely be a full-time profession if you know how to go about it. That’s where we come in. In this guide, Backstage will provide all the information and resources you need to answer the question you came here with: How can I make a living as an extra?
Being an extra is a no-pressure way to gain firsthand experience on a set, make valuable connections, and get paid to watch experienced actors and creatives work. So, why wouldn’t you want to be an extra? You can also get exposed to countless types of productions and genres, providing a crash course in the different kinds of sets out there.
As Backstage Expert and actor Amy Russ says, “If you’re a new actor who wants to break into TV or film, you may wonder what it’s like to work on a professional set. Some actors worry that if they nab even a small role in a big project before ever stepping foot on a set, it could add stress to what should be an amazing experience.
“One way to gain professional on-set experience is to get hired as a background actor or ‘extra’ on a couple of big projects. You’ll get paid to be an actor, get an education on how a real set works, and gain the confidence that only comes from real-life experience. I call it getting your set legs!”
In short, an extra is a nonspeaking role. They are frequently in the background of a scene in television or film, intended to round out the scene for realism. It merits being said again, because it’s that important: Extras do not speak. If they have even a one-word line, they are no longer considered an extra (more on that below).
There is not! You may frequently hear “background” opposed to “extra” because, frankly, it sounds a little more sophisticated. But no, when someone is called a “background actor,” they are not in a higher or lower a position than an extra.
With background acting, what you “need” as far as materials go is somewhat less stringent than it is for more principal roles. But you want to get hired, right? The more professional you look, the more likely you are to book it, and that means having the basic acting materials. Namely, it won’t hurt to have a headshot and résumé.
But again, a great advantage of background gigs is that you don’t have to worry so much about formal materials. “What we’re looking for in a submission is a picture that represents yourself,” says Grant Wilfley of Grant Wilfley Casting, which handles most background work in New York.
“We’re not interested in retouched professional headshots if they are not an accurate representation of what you look like…. [Provide] photos that even if they’re a photo that you took yourself, if they’re not a professional photo, that they at least show that you attempted to take this job seriously. It’s not, like, an out-of-focus shot of yourself where you can only see half of your face. That’s not super helpful. It may show your quirky personality, but it’s not showing what you look like, and that’s really the most important thing.”
What you don’t need is a SAG card. Let’s be clear: You do not need to be a dues-paying member of SAG-AFTRA in order to get hired as a background actor on a project, even if the project itself is in fact SAG-AFTRA. It’s also worth noting that background work can count toward qualifying for joining the union if that’s something you’re thinking about down the line.
Speaking of the union versus nonunion extra conundrum, pay will almost always vary depending on the actor’s union status. Those in the union will get paid more (sometimes a lot more) than their nonunion counterparts. The thinking behind it being, of course, that those in the union have to pay those steep union dues and thus should reap some increased financial benefits.
“SAG pay is higher, and there’s overtime when the days are long,” says Backstage Expert Michael Kostroff. “That’s one of the things that a union does: protect its members and ensure fair pay. But you don’t get to demand those privileges if you’re not in that union.”
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to what it is you really want to know: What are the actual numbers? It depends on the project but generally, nonunion talent will be hired for either a 10- or 12-hour day, with additional pay provided should production run overtime. A common rate for a single day of work is between $100 and $200.
For SAG talent, pay is much less uniform and there are a number of stipulations that can affect how much the background actor will make. To learn the ins and outs, it would be to your benefit to scan the SAG-AFTRA official handbook for background actors (even if you aren’t in the union, it could help you decipher whether you’d like to join in the future).
There are certain “unwritten rules” of this business that you may not know if you’re entirely green. That’s applicable for extra credits and how to apply them to your materials. Case in point: Should you list your extra credits on your résumé or put your scenes on your reel? The very unwritten answer is no—but only if you’re submitting to principal roles.
“Few folk in the industry read ‘extra’ on a résumé and get excited about you as an actor,” says Paul Barry, a Los Angeles–based acting coach and Backstage Expert. “Though there’s no shame in the work, if you keep popping up as an extra or featured extra, you’re likely to cement that perception of you in the industry, regardless of how empathetic they are to your plight as an up-and-coming artist. Casting directors will look at your résumé then for the training you’ve taken, not for the projects in which you walked behind Jennifer Aniston, or handed a glass of wine to George Clooney.”
These rules, however, apply for those who want to do principal work. In cases of submitting a résumé for another background gig, then of course you should have your glossiest extra credits listed. Furthermore, for career extras, it’s fine for your entire résumé to be nothing more than extra credits.
This refers mainly to television (guest starring doesn’t exist in film). In the TV hierarchy, the ranking goes: guest star, co-star, extra. At this point, you hopefully now understand what it is an extra does.
Guest stars, as you may have guessed, are the big time. You’ll get billed at the start of the show and will likely be needed for at least one week of work. And while it’s somewhat uncommon for extras and co-stars to transition to a full-time principal cast member, guest stars do it pretty frequently.
Co-stars have five lines or less; generally, they’ll only be required for one day of shooting, though that’s subject to change. Unlike extra work, you absolutely can put co-starring gigs on your résumé. Also unlike extra work, almost without exception, productions will require co-stars to be members of SAG-AFTRA.
As an extra, you aren’t there to “get discovered.” In fact, the way you’ll make an impression (and thus be hired again and again and again) is by maintaining utmost professionalism at all times, being on time (that means early!), and generally keeping your head down. Unless explicitly called for, you should not approach the director or principal actors, and you should try your very best not to make additional work for anyone.
“When you get that call, understand this is a business and you must treat it as such,” says Russ. “That means if you accept a job, it’s critical to show up on time and follow the directions of the assistant director.”
That’s another thing: You’ll likely be receiving instruction from the assistant director; if you have a truly important question, try to find the appropriate moment to ask. But at all times, understand that this person is extremely busy and any minute spent speaking with you is a minute that could probably be spent elsewhere.
“Of course, make sure you’re not in the way,” Russ adds. “Be discreet, follow directions, and be professional at all times. This is not the time to get an autograph or eat your weight in snacks at the crafty table.”
As an extra you are entitled to the on-set meals provided, as well as crafty (the on-set term for the craft services table), but like everything, be respectful (i.e., don’t shove mini cereal boxes in your bag on the way out).
In short: long. Days on set are long for everyone. But for extras in particular, you may be one of the first in and the last out. As Russ puts it, “You’ll spend most of your time waiting to be called, so bring reading material or something to keep you occupied.” But you’re an actor, which means there is always work to be done.
While standing around as the principals block or waiting for your next scene, get a jump on your next audition and study the sides. You can also research for your next TV gig and catch up on previous episodes, or read a novel that will help deepen your character development for the next project. You can also use the time as forced-zenning: knit, meditate, enjoy some good-natured spacing out—you’re getting paid to do it!
And whatever you do, don’t forget your phone charger!
In delving into the extra-turned-principal terrain, a distinction needs to be made. Specifically, the distinction of what it is you want to get out of your career. There are many professional background actors who do not have principal aspirations—they work all the time and are content. However, it’s also not uncommon for those actors who do want bigger roles to use background work as a steppingstone. Both are fine! But you need to figure out what’s best for you. For the latter, we turn again to Russ:
“If you want to shift into bigger roles, my advice is to limit how many background jobs you take,” she says. “Do them for a little while until you feel confident and understand the workings of a professional set, then focus on auditioning for bigger jobs.
“When I was starting out, I took a handful of background jobs. I felt like they were a critical part of my education, but once I got comfortable with the rhythms, hierarchies, and ins-and-outs of set life, I stopped accepting those gigs and put my attention toward booking bigger roles. When I did get a role, I already knew what to expect, so I could concentrate on my acting work instead of trying to figure out what was going on all around me. I can’t tell you how glad I was to have those prior experiences under my belt.
“Should you still do background work on a big set if you’ve already worked on student films or smaller nonunion gigs? While the lexicon is the same, there is simply no comparison to the hustle, bustle, and sheer magnitude of a well-oiled, big-budget production. My feeling is you should give yourself every opportunity to gain experience and firsthand knowledge so you’re super confident when you get your first big-budget role!”
There are two prominent ways to find extra work. The first is through other actors. Who better would know where and how to look for a background acting gig than the actor who just did one last week? After utilizing the who-you-know resource, check Backstage! Countless—and that word is apt—productions seek talent for background gigs every single week on Backstage, all around the world. Head to our casting notices and you can filter extra gigs specifically by your age, location, and gender, and you can rest assured that every notice will be 100 percent legit.
“First things first: Register with Backstage,” says actor and Backstage Expert Bill Coelius. “Talk to every actor you know; ask if they’re doing background work and where they found it. If you ever pass a production on the street, kindly ask anyone with a headset if they know who they hired their extras from. I did this once, called the agency, and was on the set as an extra the next week. If you know any production people, ask them for a referral.
“When registering on casting sites, you’ll have to provide your physical description and give a recent photo or headshot. Fill in all of this information honestly. You’ll get hired based on what you look like, not what you want to look like.”