What is a “Background Actor”?
(By Tonya Tannenbaum)
A “background actor” is an actor who performs in view of, but usually away from, the foreground, in a non-speaking or non-singing capacity.
Commonly referred to as an “extra”, the background actor’s role is to help give a scene the illusion of a real-life situation.
If you’ve ever watched a “street scene” on a television show or movie and watched people moving about in the background; folks walking to work, people waiting to catch the bus, street vendors waiting to make a sale and cars moving up and down the street, then you already know what a background actor is. They perform very basic acting roles like “walking” or “working” or “eating” or “chatting” behind the main action, while the lead actors, the ones who have dialogue, perform their roles.
Background actors help bring authenticity to the scene. While they don’t audibly speak or sing during the scene they are, nonetheless, vital to making the scene look like real life. In fact, imagine how a street scene would look if background actors didn’t exist or were not used in the scene. The main characters would be standing on the street conversing, pretending to exist in their imaginary world. That world, however, would resemble a ghost town. Nothing would be happening in the scene beyond the main characters and their conversation.
No matter how interesting and realistic the conversation, the scene itself would fall flat. Ironically, rather than being inconsequential, the lack of background action would actually become a major distraction. The audience would begin to wonder why two characters are standing on a sidewalk, in what is supposed to be a busy time of day, having a conversation while the streets are completely empty. The scene would no longer be believable.
Background actors are also referred to as “atmosphere”, “background artists”, or simply, “background”. In some instances, they are referred to “supernumeraries” or “supers”.