How to Enjoy Working as a Movie Background Extra

If you follow the Greater Cleveland Film Commission (GCFC) website, you may have seen a posting stating: “Casting Call for Extras” or “Extras Needed” in conjunction with film projects being shot in the Cleveland area.  If you are an actor like me, you will almost certainly have received an email from local casting directors Angela Boehm or Lillian Pyles announcing the same.  Whether you have been an extra (also known as “background”) before or have never set foot on a movie set, this post is for you!
Extras play an important role in the making of a film.  While you don’t typically have any scripted lines and your face may not get any camera time, background actors bring a scene to life in concert with featured actors in the foreground.  One might say that it makes a scene more real. 

For example, one of the most famous scenes in the movie Judas and the Black Messiah, which was filmed right here in Cleveland in a local church, was when Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya, gave a call-and-response oratory to a large crowd of background actors seated in the pews.  Kaluuya played off the energy of those extras to deliver a memorable performance in that scene which likely garnered him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.  Or imagine a park scene in which two actors deliver their lines while walking through an empty park.  It would probably feel, well, empty.

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Whether you have lines or not, you are still acting and should take the action the director gives you as seriously as what the main characters are doing, even if it is simply tossing a frisbee in the distant background of a park scene.  Background extras are an integral part of the team.  Who knows, you might get lucky and end up with some decent camera time like I did when I was an extra in the movie Hoffa.  My reporter character ended up right next to star Jack Nicholson while he delivered one of his most important monologues of the film.
Following are a few comments on what to expect and some words of advice if you are selected to be a background extra:
1.     Be yourself.  When filmmakers are selecting background extras, they are looking for real people who will complement the scenes being shot in a movie.  They are not typically looking for a room full of people who look like Denzel Washington or Charlize Theron, so come as you are.  Big productions will usually have wardrobe on location they will put you in, especially if it is a “period” film.  Sometimes you may be asked to bring some of your own clothes to wear.   Bring/wear clean underwear and have a variety of socks and shoes.  Be sure to keep track of all your belongings in any event.
2.     Be on time!  Show up at least 15 minutes before your call time.  Be prepared for a long workday, usually a 10-12-hour day, or more.  So, bring along a good book, as you may find yourself sitting and waiting to be called to set more often than you will be working.  Background actors are often asked to arrive on set before nearly everyone else.   Even before some of the crew and main characters.  This allows for enough time to arrive at the designated parking area, lug your stuff inside, or hop on a shuttle to what is called the “Holding Location” or “Extras Holding”.  Once there you will fill out paperwork, maybe get fitted for wardrobe, if they have an idea of what scene(s) they might plan to put you in.  Since each day on a set is different, an Assistant Director (AD) may need you to report right away to the set or may not need you until later. 
3.     Be ready.   While you will find yourself waiting quite a bit, be ready at a moment’s notice to report to set.  The more opportunities you get to be involved in filming a given scene, the better chance you might have of seeing yourself in the final product.  Background actors who can respond immediately to an AD’s call will ingratiate themselves with the production team.  Even though waiting is part of the gig, don’t let people hear you complaining or looking impatient.  Be strategic with your bio breaks so that you are prepared to go on set when called, and don’t get antsy if a scene runs longer than your bladder can take. LOL.
4.     Be professional and friendly.  Even though a movie set is not meant to be a social hour, and time is money, you are still interfacing with human beings.  Although some of the crew may seem a bit high strung and testy, it is not personal.  Everyone is on a schedule, and you want to ensure that you are keeping things moving forward smoothly.  Smile, introduce yourself to your fellow actors and others when and where appropriate.  You don’t want to make a spectacle, but you do want folks to know you were there in a positive way.  Being an extra on one film could lead to getting hired onto another in a speaking role or as part of the production crew.  Oh, and when you are filming, follow the precise direction you are given, and don’t look into the camera or otherwise try to draw attention to yourself unless you are directed to do so.  When they say, “back to one,” that means return immediately to where you began the scene.  It goes without saying, no autograph or selfie requests with the main characters while on set!
5.     Be courteous and aware of your surroundings.  Food and drink is typically provided.  Some films provide breakfast as a courtesy, although sometimes extras are expected to have eaten breakfast already.  To be safe, eat a little something before you arrive so you aren’t starving, and give yourself time for that morning elimination.  Lunch or dinner depending on call time will be provided, and there is craft (snack) service and plenty of water, throughout the day.  If you have any special dietary restrictions or needs, come prepared in case what is being provided is limited.  In any event, drink plenty of water and plan snacks accordingly.  And don’t try to “get your money’s worth” and eat everything in sight!  You never know when someone may be watching.  See #4.
6.     Be a sponge.  Besides being a Production Assistant (PA), working as an extra is one of the best ways to get an education about what goes on during a film production.  Keep your eyes and ears open not only for your direct work instructions but to what is going on around you, what preparation goes into shooting a scene, proper set decorum, what kinds of interactions are happening, forms being filled out, the different shot angles and other actions that go into building a given scene. 
As a background extra, you are important to a scene looking authentic in the final product.   You are the one getting direction before even the main characters do in most cases.  When a scene is ready to begin shooting it is not simply the word “action”.  It is normally, “background, AND action!”  Go have some fun!
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