Today we are taking a peek at what goes into being a background performer. Like the composers, costumers, and cameramen, the group of people surrounding the stars is a critical element for every television show.
If you were a fan of Friends, think back to Central Perk. While the group of friends on the show held court on the orange sofa, there were people all through the coffee shop chatting and drinking tea or lattès that you might not have paid much attention to. If you watched The Big Bang Theory, you’ll remember the cafeteria scenes when the guys had lunch together. The room was full of other staff members enjoying their lunch as well.
While you can relate to these scenes, you probably can’t give me any details about specific characters who appeared in them. That’s what a good background actor is; someone who has a nonspeaking role and is in the setting to make the scene appear more realistic. Although you don’t notice the actors in the background, you definitely notice when they’re not there.
There are many people who choose to become background actors. Perhaps they are waiting for their acting career to escalate, and this is how they are making a bit of extra money. Maybe they are a fan of television and just enjoy being behind the scenes. Behind the scenes is definitely where you’ll spend most of your time waiting and waiting and waiting. Usually the 2nd Assistant Director or Background Production Assistant will let you know what your instructions are.
Typically background actors who aren’t part of SAG or other unions earn minimum wage. There are a few situations where you get a bit of extra money which is called a “bump.” For example, you get a bump if you are required to smoke, if your car is used in the filming, or if you have to bring some personal effects with you such as sporting equipment or a unique costume.
You can take a look at Central Casting’s website. They cast hundreds of roles daily, including stand-ins and doubles. They have offices in Los Angeles, New York, Louisiana, and Georgia.
On the day I wrote this blog, some of the positions they were trying to fill included men who owned a snake that they could be booked with; men who were okay getting a very short, military-regulated haircut; men and women in their 20s to 50s who are familiar with a variety of firearms to play law enforcement roles; and Hispanic house painters ages 28-40.
This is not the glamorous life most people envision when they think of filming television shows or blockbuster movies. Often you are waiting for an upcoming scene or you have to repeat a single shot, perhaps dozens of times. It’s not unusual that after a fifteen-hour day, your part is cut from the episode.
When you’re on the set, it’s like a long game of “Don’t Break the Sugar Bowl.” You have to appear to be realistically having a conversation or reading, or whatever, but you cannot make any noise that could interfere with the dialogue occurring on the set.
The conditions you are working in are not always comfortable. It might be a beautiful 85-degree summer day, and you find yourself standing around in a parka and mittens, filming a snow scene for a long, long time.
While stars might have access to an amazing food banquet, extras have more limited choices. You are encouraged to bring snacks for the day.
Some people might think that a perk of working on a television show is getting to talk to your favorite star. Think again. Most of the time, stars are considered off limits for background extras. It probably goes without saying that phones are not allowed on set and photos are a big no-no.
I talked with an actor friend of mine who lives in New York. She did background work at the beginning of her career. I asked her for an honest assessment of what the work was like. She said if you are in the union, the wages are actually not bad and you earn health and pension credits. If you’re not in the union, it can still be beneficial; you just have to understand the reality of the job. She said first of all, “be on time and bring whatever they tell you to bring.” Understand if you want to make a living this way, it is hard work. “You will always be hustling for the next job. Your days will be long ones.”
She said another downside to the job is that “a lot of your time is spent in holding; it can be exhausting because some people want to talk constantly.” That might be okay for an hour but not so much for a ten-hour day. She often took earbuds and a book along for quiet time.
Know that you are being hired to be insignificant. You will wear drab clothing, you might work in the rain, you might work overnight. My friend mentioned that sometimes you have to realize that you are “a walking hanger,” because they need you because of a specific item you have, perhaps a blue-sequined evening gown or a gorilla suit.
My friend recalled one of her first jobs when she was a stand-in for a movie. She didn’t get breaks because she had to watch the star in rehearsals, so she knew what would be required of her. When the star went to rest or to eat or to make-up, my friend would stand in. The crew would figure out lighting and blocking and sometimes she had to be in the same position for more than half an hour. She did this for two weeks, and it was a long, arduous process; however, she said the knowledge she gained made the experience worth it. She learned so much about the filming of a movie and all the different crew members and what their specific roles were.
Mark Falvo is an attorney and sports broadcaster in Pennsylvania. He has a lot of experience in background acting both on television and in movies. You will see him on the big screen in Slap Shot, Hoosiers, Bull Durham, Happy Gilmore, Twister, and Remember the Titans among many, many other films. Tune into the small screen to see him in Veep, House of Cards, and Law and Order. His experience was that every job was positive because he learned something on each project. He said that “after a while, the crowd scenes in sport movies became tough because you had to continue to move around, but they were jobs.”
Falvo said he was able to get to know other actors. “Meeting old friends and getting a chance to talk to them even while waiting was good. Hurry up and wait is part of the job, so bring a book or some work to do.”
His advice to beginners is “Don’t have high expectations!!! You are there to do a job, no matter what the director wants, keep your energy high and always be ready.”
Let’s take another look at that group of coffee drinkers at Central Perk. When you place your order, most likely Gunther (James Michael Tyler) will be your barista. Gunther is a permanent member of the show, working at Central Perk and in love with Rachel. He never really becomes part of the group, but he is invited to some of their parties and get-togethers. Tyler got the part because he was the only extra who knew how to use an espresso machine; he received his first speaking line in episode 33.
So, every once in a while, there is a happy-ever-after ending. You just might be the person who finds it.