what to know about working as an extra

Working as an extra is a good way to gain industry experience. Extras, also known as background artists or background actors, are the people in the background of a scene that bring a scene to life. Some scenes require only a few extras; others require hundreds.

Work days are long and demanding, and since much of the day is spent waiting, an extra?s job can get boring. The work is typically low-paying, but it?s easy money since all you need to do is follow direction and deliver what the scene requires.

To work as an extra you'll need photos that resemble what you look like right now. The photos need not be glamorous. In fact, casting directors prefer non-costumed, natural-looking pictures of people of all ages, shape, race and gender. They need not be taken by a professional, either. Anyone who knows how to use a digital camera and can take one close up head shot (from the shoulders up) and one full-length body shot can be your photographer.

Make sure your photos are email-friendly, meaning they aren't too large to display on screen without minimizing, and they?re not so small they can barely be seen. It's also a good idea to take and upload new photos every couple of months or whenever your appearance changes significantly.

When working as an extra you need to know your measurements, too. Again, accurate measurements are expected, not the measurements you wish you were. The wardrobe department may provide your costume, but extras are often asked to bring their own wardrobe. 

Locating a Casting Director

The next step is searching for a Casting Director that casts background talent. The easiest way to find these companies is by searching online. Once you find a few casting directors' websites, take a look around. You'll likely see somewhere to apply or register as talent and submit your photos, measurements and your height, weight, eye/hair color and age. The casting director?s website might also list projects being cast, and if chosen for a project, the specifics of that project (when and where to show up, what to bring and how you should look). Wherever you register, be sure to keep your photos and information current.

Another way to locate casting directors is by contacting a specific film. When using this method you'll want to be put in touch with the Extras Casting Director. Craigslist is another source casting directors use to find extras fast for all types of productions. Just be selective about replying.

On Set Dos and Don'ts

  • Do show up at least 10 minutes early. Being early is actually preferred over being on time, or worse, showing up late, which might get you fired. Plan extra time to find the filming location, park in an area reserved for extras, check in and get your voucher.
  • Do remember that you are there to work. Being on set is fun, but you must act professionally at all times. It's expected, and it'll improve your chances of being hired again.
  • Do work until released: Which likely will be 10+ hours, even if the casting director told you otherwise. Shoot schedules always change, often at the last minute and you've got to be able to stay as long as needed.
  • Do listen to direction. Throughout the day you'll encounter Assistant Directors (AD), Production Assistants (PA), or Extra Wranglers telling you where to go and what to do. Listen and do exactly as you're directed. Some terms you're likely to hear include:
    • Quite on the set or quiet all around: Your cue to stop excess movement, talking, etc. and be quiet.
    • Background action: Your cue to begin your activity as directed.  
    • Cut!: Your cue that it's the end of a take and okay to stop your assigned activity. Never stop until you are absolutely positive that it is okay to stop.
    • Back to one: Your cue that the shot is about to be done over and it?s time to return to your starting position.
  • Do be patient. After you go to wardrobe and makeup, you may spend hours at a time waiting. Waiting is a big part of what extras do. Bring a book or magazine, portable chair, and perhaps a small pillow to keep yourself occupied and comfortable as you await direction.
  • Do park, wait and eat where instructed. You may be told to park, wait and eat in specific areas. Even if no one tells you where to go, don't assume that anywhere is okay. Always ask first.
  • Don't come hungry. You don't know what will be available to eat or when you'll be able to eat once on set. So fill up before you arrive and bring snacks to last throughout the day.
  • Don't leave the set. Remain in the extras holding area at all times, so you are ready the moment you're needed. If you have to leave briefly, you must clear it with the AD or PA. Never leave for the day until you are released and the AD gives you a signed voucher. You need this voucher to get paid because it is proof that you worked. 
  • Don't look at the camera. Ever. Unless you are instructed by the director to do so.  
  • Don't forget that actors are there to work. They're not there to make small talk with you or sign autographs. They want to get the day's work done quickly and efficiently.
  • Don't bring a camera or valuables. If you bring a camera and someone sees it, it likely will be taken away. Valuables like jewelry and electronic devices are best left at home or in your locked car.
  • Don't bring anyone. Come alone, unless you are a parent/guardian of a minor that has been cast.