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Extra, Extra: How to Become a Background Actor

31 May , 2011  

Written by K. Correia | Posted by:

With film and television crews descending on the region this summer, locals are finding they’ve been bitten by the acting bug. But what exactly is a 'background actor'? Learn what it takes to become an extra -- union or non-union.

Whether you prefer the term extra, background actor, background performer, background artist, or atmosphere, they all refer to the same thing: an individual or individuals who appear in a non-speaking role in film, television, or even in a theatrical production, and are usually situated in the background. While the unsuspecting person may think this type of work involves ‘standing around all day watching famous people and eating free food,’ the truth is something quite different.

Background actors or artists (or B.A.s) have one of the most demanding positions on a film or television set and are one of the most minimally paid. An average day on set is 12-14 hours long and much of it is spent performing the same repetitive action take after take. It is a demanding job and not a glamorous one, but it is rewarding and for many, a springboard to future work in the entertainment industry.

But before an acting hopeful can even get on set, it’s important to understand where to go to get these jobs, and what it means to be a union or non-union B.A.

The easiest and perhaps the most reliable way to get work as a B.A. is to sign on with a casting director or calling/booking service. The difference between these two entities is that a production company contracts casting directors to find B.A.s and performers for their project, whereas you contract a calling/booking service to find work for yourself.

When signing up, it is important to let the director or service know of any special skills or talents you may have. It could be something like swimming or line dancing, or something more involved that requires a special license such as truck or motorcycle driving. The idea is, as when applying for any job, to distinguish yourself from the pack or, the less gracious term, herd, as B.A.s are unfailingly referred to as being wrangled from time to time.

Regardless of whether you sign with a director or service, when first starting out you will be considered a non-union extra. Although at one time B.A.s had their own union, they are now considered part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). One of the principal differences between being a non-union extra and a union extra is the pay. Where union members have a contract guaranteeing pay (including overtime) and ensuring certain working conditions, non-union members do not and can be paid anything from zero to minimum wage.

SAG signatory productions are required to employ a certain number of union-covered B.A.s before they are allowed to hire those outside the union. Currently, the minimum requirement under the SAG East Coast jurisdiction for feature films is 85 while for television it is 25. Once this requirement is met, the production is allowed to hire non-union B.A.s.

SAG’s website currently makes reference to only the “3-voucher” system as to how non-union B.A.s can qualify for membership in SAG. A voucher is merely an authorized time card given to the B.A. from the production company. To become a union B.A., you must earn three vouchers from SAG signatory productions. Once you achieve this magic number, you can apply for membership by filling out an application and submitting your original paycheck stubs.

There are other ways to obtain a SAG voucher reserved for union members. For example, if the union B.A. fails to make it to the set on time, the production still needs to fulfill their obligation with SAG as to the minimum requirement of union B.A.s they employ. Therefore, a non-union B.A. gets promoted to fill the vacancy left by the union no-show, gaining the pay rate and security of a union member.

Earning a SAG membership via B.A. work has been under constant discussion of revision. SAG has openly acknowledged problems with the “3-voucher” system and is taking steps to improve the situation both for B.A.s and the union. The latest talk has focused on the development of a points system in which B.A.s earn points for both union and non-union work on SAG productions. Such a system would allow B.A.s to receive credit for the countless hours they put in as non-union members. Once the certain point level is attained, the B.A. would be eligible for union membership.

The flip side to being a union member, however, is that union members are not allowed to work as B.A.s on non-signatory projects. Union B.A.s are also prohibited from working on a signatory project as a non-union B.A. Hence the union B.A. who missed his call time and lost his spot to the non-union B.A. cannot then fill the spot left vacant by the non-union B.A. who replaced him.

Non-union B.A.s can still work on non-signatory projects. Productions outside the union are at the total discretion of the producers. Often, this work is unpaid, but B.A.s may be compensated in the form of a meal or receive a copy and credit of the finished project. In some situations, payment may be deferred with the provision that should the final project make money, talent and crew members will be reimbursed for their work. It is important for a B.A. to use sound judgment when selecting these types of projects, or any project for that matter, especially if you decide to go it alone and forego signing with a casting director or calling/booking service.

As summer rolls around in New England and film and television productions set up camp, you may find yourself wondering what it would be like in front of the camera. While many might see it as the opportunity to experience something different and the chance to soak up the environment of being on a working set, there are those of us who contemplate it as the chance for something more. It’s weighing the benefits between a casting director and a calling/booking Service. It’s the struggle to find work while judging between SAG signatory productions and non-signatory productions. It’s the aspiration of union membership.

In either respect, it is a demanding job that requires equal doses of professionalism, courteousness, punctuality, and reliability. It is important to remember that background actors provide depth to the screen and represent the professionalism of a production.

For a list of casting companies and directors, see the industry directory at

Related Article: How to Be… An Actor

For a list of casting companies and directors, see the industry directory at

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