5 Benefits of Being a Background Actor
(By Jim Webb)
Who the heck would want to be a background actor?
The real question is, why would anyone not want to be a background actor (sometimes referred to as an “extra”)? Especially when you’re just beginning your acting journey. Background acting is arguably the best “starter job” an actor can have. It is jam packed with benefits that can make an actor’s career, and life, better and more enjoyable.
Here are just a few benefits:
#1: Gaining experience
There is simply no easier way for a new actor to gain experience in the game than to become a background actor. Sure, an actor can gain more training and education in an acting class. But for a quick and easy way to gain experience on a professional set, with professional actors and a professional crew, nothing can match background acting.
Even if an actor is lucky enough be leave school and immediately become a working actor, it still might not give the actor the variety of experiences that working background can offer, at least in the very beginning. Bouncing around from set to set, seeing lots of professional actors perform, cannot be matched by anything else.
#2: Gaining union membership
One great benefit of background acting that some actors don’t know about is, it’s a backdoor way to get into SAG-AFTRA. Actors don’t actually have to be “Taft-Hartleyed” to get into the union. An actor can be “vouchered” into the union. In that scenario, a non-union actor is chosen to work a union background job. If the actor can manage to rack-up at least three of those union vouchers, they will become eligible to join the union.
It’s not easy, but it happens more often than you think.
#3: Gaining knowledge and making connections in extras holding
In all large productions, there exists this magical place called “extras holding”, although it may go by many different names. In extras holding, there are lots of would-be actors waiting around to be called to set. While waiting, many conversations are taking place. And a lot of those conversations are centered around the entertainment industry.
Many questions are asked and answered, like: “What’s the best place to get my headshots? Which agencies should I try to sign with and which agencies should I avoid? Which acting classes are good and which ones are useless?”
Extras holding is a terrific place for new actors to exchange information and get up to speed on the business. And, while in extras holding, actors and would-be actors have lots of free time on their hands to socialize and interact. In the process, lots of industry connections and friendships are formed.
If you’re moving to a city like Los Angeles or New York to pursue a professional acting career, forming these bonds and connections in extras holding can be a valuable opportunity.
#4: Gaining perks (money, bumps, free food, free coffee)
One great reason to do background acting in the beginning of your acting career is, of course, money. Background actors get paid to do “crosses” and perform other simple actions to keep a scene alive and to make it look like real-life. And they get paid reasonably well for it, relative to the work performed.
Plus, there are other perks. Background actors usually receive free food and coffee, along with “bumps”, extra financial compensation for things like using their vehicles in a scene, being around smoke or performing a special request.
Background actors can also get “upgraded” to a larger role, such as “featured extra” or, in some cases, they can obtain a small speaking role.
#5: Gaining confidence
How cool is it to work on a set with Christian Bale or Johnny Depp or Jessica Chastain? How amazing is it to see a celebrity you grew up watching perform live, right in front of you?
Not only is it an amazing experience, it is also a confidence-booster. Seeing how the pros do it gives a new actor a certain sense of confidence. You may discover that being a professional, working actor is not as intimidating as you thought. After all, you just saw your favorite actor perform live.
You think: “I can do that!”
Related: What is a “Background Actor”?