Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them—because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here are a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.
1. Extras Are Not Professionals.
The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU.
Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.”
And there are always a few extras on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.
2. Extras Have to Do a Lot of Hurry-Up-and-Wait on Set.
Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”
Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says.
3. What Looks Like Booze On Camera Isn't Actually Alcohol.
While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.”
“Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.)
4. Smokers Get Paid More.
When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone).
Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.”
5. Extras Have Been Wearing the Same Duds for Days ...
On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”
6. ... And They Usually Have To Bring Their Own—The Blander, The Better.
Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of gray and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says.
If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.
And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.
7. Wardrobes for Extras Get Recycled.
If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.
8. Extras Are Great Mimes.
Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later.
While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”
9. For Actors, Seasons Are Irrelevant.
It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.”
For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down.
10. The Movie Stars Are Off Limits for Extras ...
“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist.
While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says.
But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.
On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.”
11. ... And Social Media Is a Good Way for Extras to Get Blacklisted.
Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” McHargue says. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”
If you’re sneaky, you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says.
12. The On-Set Catering Is Pretty Good.
The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster, and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.”
The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time.
13. Extras Can't Watch TV Like Regular People.
Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says.