How to get background work in Philadelphia and NYC

Me as a background actor on the NBC pilot “Do No Harm” filmed in Philadelphia in March 2012.

Originally published Mon, Apr 16, 2012. Revised Mon, Dec 17, 2012 and Wed, Feb 22, 2017.

Several people have asked me lately for information on how to get background (“extra”) work in TV and film. Over the past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure this out, so I’m happy to share what’s worked for me. Please keep in mind that these guidelines are drawn from my limited experience on three television sets (one in Philadelphia and two New York) and one commercial shoot in NYC. 

About Background Work

“Extras” are generally called background (or BG) actors. (You may also hear the term “atmosphere.”) The word “extra” seems to be used by the general population but not in the industry. BG actors are generally uncredited. They are often unidentifiable, as they are usually shown at a distance and out of focus. 

Casting Agencies and Sources

  • Casting Networks (www.castingnetworks.com): This is the place to go if you’re looking for BG work in NYC. Several large agencies (Central Casting, Grant Wilfley, Sylvia Fay/Lee Genick, Barbara McNamara) that hire a lot of BG actors list gigs here. I have gotten work on Pan Am and 30 Rock using the site, and I’ve been offered gigs that I had to turn down on Law and Order: SVU, The Good Wife, and the latest Batman movie. However, I have not seen much, if any, Philadelphia work listed here. The site is free to join, but it costs ($5/month) to submit yourself for gigs.
  • Heery Casting (www.heerycasting.com): As far as I know, Heery is the only Philadelphia-based agency that handles background casting. They sometimes hold open calls, but generally all you need to do is respond to listings found on their website or Facebook page. They are currently handling background casting for After Earth (an M. Night Shyamalan movie starring Will Smith) and Political Animals (a series starring Sigourney Weaver). I got a background gig through them on an NBC pilot, a hospital drama called Do No Harm.
  • Greater Philadelphia Film Office (www.film.org/Philadelphia/public/gpfo/whatsshooting): The Film Office provides listings of film shoots that will take place in the region. Their website is a great source of info on independent and student films, which are ideal projects for less-experienced actors. (Just don't expect pay.)

Casting Process

Agencies hire background actors through open calls or via email submissions. My impression is that agencies hold open calls about 6-8 weeks prior to a large production like a mainstream movie. For smaller scenes or TV shoots, they tend to rely on last-minute postings (on their own websites or on casting networks), and actors submit themselves via email. These gigs are generally posted online a few days prior to the shoot. 

Booking Process

BG work generally requires a flexible schedule with weekday availability and the ability to book shoots on a moment’s notice. However, really big shoots that require hundreds of extras (Batman, for example) often take place on the weekends. 

Any time I’ve received a call from a casting agency, they wanted an immediate answer about a shoot that would take place in the next few days. (I have had times when I saw a listing, submitted myself, the agency called me, and I reported to set all within 24 hours.) When you accept a gig, you generally know only the date, approximate location, and pay rate. Full details about a shoot are available after the previous day’s shoot has wrapped. If you accept a gig, be prepared to arrive early and stay on set the entire day. (I’ve had call times as early as 430 AM and wraps as late as 1130 PM.) If you’re doing several back-to-back days of shooting, plan to spend the night nearby. You might wrap late and be expected back on set before sunrise the next morning.

When you do finally get the details about the shoot, you should expect to receive the following information:

  • Address: This will take you to the background holding location (the place where background actors wait until they are called to set).
  • Call time (the time you arrive to check in at the holding location)
  • Wardrobe (the clothes you need to wear or bring): Background actors generally wear their own clothes unless it’s a period shoot or requires special attire (for example, a hospital scene in which nurses wear scrubs). The instructions might include details such as “upscale casual,” winter jackets/hats/gloves, business attire, etc. Actors are encouraged to bring a variety of options. (For example, if wardrobe calls for business attire, I might bring a pant suit, a skirt suit, plus a blouse, a sweater set and several pairs of shoes.) Also, period shows are likely to specify size limitations due to the small sizes of the costumes. (For example, women who wish to work on Pan Am need to have a waist size of 29 inches or less. If they wish to portray stewardesses, the limit is even lower, as the airline actually required the women to weigh 130 pounds or less.)

On Set

When you arrive on set, you check in at a table staffed by production assistants (or PAs). (Be nice to them. They work very hard and can make or break your day!) You show identification and fill out a voucher (tax and payment forms). You may need to change into your wardrobe or show your clothing options to the wardrobe department. You may also need to be checked by the hair and makeup department. Then you go back to the holding area and wait. Eventually, a PA will come in and choose a few people to take to set.

If you are chosen, you’ll be shown where to stand, where to walk, or what to do. You might be asked to mime conversation with another BG actor or be told to walk from points A to B. The cast and crew will rehearse the scene a few times. Once things are running smoothly, they will start filming. When your scene is finished, the PA will send or escort you back to holding. He or she will often then choose different BG actors for the next scene.

In my experience, PAs function as liaisons between the background actors and the people on set (director, assistant director, etc.). The director tells the PA what he/she needs for a scene (example, 3 nurses, a doctor, and some hospital patients), but it is the PA who chooses which specific background actors to bring to set. If a director wants to use a background actor as a stand-in or add a small speaking part, the PA will choose which actors to present to the director. (As I said earlier, be nice to the PAs!)

At the end of the day, the PA tells the background actors when they are finished working. This may happen in shifts (for example, union may be let go before or after non-union) or all at once.  

Rules

  • Arrive early.
  • Be prepared to wait. Bring reading materials, but leave expensive mobile devices at home. (You’ll need to leave your belongings in holding when you’re on set.)  
  • Be quiet. As a BG actor, you are expected to be seen (at a distance) and not heard. Don’t talk to stars or the director unless they speak to you.
  • Respect privacy. Don’t take pictures on set (except perhaps in holding), and don’t post information about the shoot on Facebook or Twitter until after it’s over. 
  • Don’t whine. You chose to do this. Appreciate it for what it is and make the most of the experience. 
  • Get advice. If you have a question or don’t understand what’s going on, talk to your fellow BG actors. Every set, every show, every union, and every city has its own culture. Experienced background actors will be in tune to the surroundings and are generally happy to guide newcomers. However, if they can’t help you, ask a PA. 

Pay and Other Rewards

Non-union background actors on a union shoot can expect to make around $80-$200 a day. (Non-union shoots will pay less or nothing at all.) Also, be careful about how you list BG work on your resume. Some people say BG work doesn’t belong on an acting resume at all. My impression is that it’s fine to list it, especially if that’s the only on-set experience you have. But don’t try to pass off BG work as more than it is. 

For me, one of the best rewards of background work is talking to the other BG actors. You’ll find that a lot of people who do BG work are highly accomplished actors, while others are just regular people looking for an exciting experience. You may not earn much money or attain eternal fame and glory, but you will get to hang out on a film or TV set, meet likeminded people, and earn major bragging rights among your friends!