How to Be an Extra
Extras, or background actors as they are also called, are a vital part of film and television, despite often being limited to the sidelines of a scene. The truth is, a lack of extras can completely ruin a scene, since they help to give sets a “real world” feeling. Extras are needed to make places feel populated, busy, and generally normal. Most television shows heavily feature public, densely populated areas—hospitals, schools, restaurants, cafes. Not having extras to fill in those spaces would severely alienate the viewer from believing the story and setting.
The best part about extras is that they’re in high demand, and as the name implies, they don’t have the pressure of lead acting roles. People with no acting experience become extras all the time—so if your child is interested in getting some first-hand experience on an acting set, pursuing roles as an extra is the perfect place to start.
What Extras Do
Extras can be necessary for any sort of performance, including television shows, music videos, movies, and even commercials. An extra’s job is specifically to not stand out, to go about one’s business in the background, and provide atmosphere to a scene (which is why another name for extra is “atmosphere.”) Without them, the immersion and believability of a scene would unravel. Imagine if in the Harry Potter movie series, there were never any other students in the stands during the Quidditch games aside from the main characters, or if the streets of the cities defended in the Avengers movies were empty. It would just feel wrong.
But despite extras having no major speaking roles, it would be incorrect to think that being an extra requires no skill or acting sense at all. Extras need to be able to listen to the instructions they’re given and take direction from directors and producers on set. Extras who don’t follow instructions and draw too much attention to themselves aren’t doing their jobs properly. They need to have a sense for what naturally happens in their scenes, and understand what it takes to fit into their assigned roles.
Becoming an Extra
Because extras aren’t required to have professional acting credentials, becoming one is a simple way for an aspiring actor to gain hands-on experience and observe how real sets function. You don’t need a coach or manager to become an extra, just an interest, basic communication skills, and documentation that authorizes you to work. Extras must be reliable, good listeners, and professional. Your first order of business should be to contact a casting director—many specialize in casting extras specifically. Extras can also join unions, which will impact how much they are paid. And yes—you will be paid.
When contacting a casting director, you may need to provide a headshot along with your documentation. Additionally, extras are often responsible for their own wardrobe and makeup. If you are hired as an extra, you will need to be capable of making your appearance fit in with the setting.
The best part about being an extra is that it’s open to almost everybody, and it provides aspiring actors of any age with networking opportunities. Many extras will have a lot of downtime on set, and that time can be spent learning more about the industry from the inside. Every bit of exposure you can gather here matters, and the experience gained can help you on your way to even better opportunities in the future.