The Secret Life of Background Actors

This post has been a long time coming.  So be prepared for a lengthy one.  When I moved to New York City almost two years ago, I was pretty clueless about the realities of finding part-time work that didn’t make me insane.  Ten dollars an hour seemed like a dream to serve people cupcakes.  And I could live in the grand ol’ city with just enough to make rent, right?  I didn’t need any left over for you know…living.

Four months later, with no savings and a newly formed hatred for cupcakes and stock brokers, I quit without a solid plan of what to do next.  I took very part-time work as an assistant teaching artist with an after school program.  It was heaven compared to food service but I was working with about $150 a week.  This is when I discovered my wonderful temp agency and the fine fine world of background “acting”….

Boardwalk Empire: Irish Immigrant 1921

It started with a suggestion from Ben.

Ben:  Well, you could always do extra work.  I used to do it, but it was a hassle so I stopped for a while.

Me: A hassle?  Are you kidding me?  You’re saying I get to be in a major film or TV show and get paid for it??  I could work on set with celebrities and then be seen with them on TV??

Ben: You only get paid like $85 when you’re non-union…

Me:  I’m making $30 a day right now.  I’ll take it.


So I signed up for Casting Networks and was on my way to my big film debut!  Here’s the deal with Casting Networks:  You sign up for a bit of money and every day receive posts about what they are looking for in the next few days.  Things move pretty quickly.  Though I’ve talked about this is in other posts, it’s worth repeating.

Common types sought are:

-ND Peds (Nondescript Pedestrians, aka, not particularly noticeable people)

-Artsy Types (Still not sure what this means, my guess is you have to be sitting on funky steps or in front of a brick wall in your headshot to be considered.)

-Hipsters (Young people with the deadpan Williamsburg face.  They usually request tattoos or mohawks…?)

-Upper East Side Types (Waspy People)

-Low-Income Neighborhood Types (Not commenting on this one, it makes me uncomfortable.)

-Model Types (I got called in for Blue Bloods for this type once and did a go-see to be considered.  I was the shortest and least skinny girl there…and if you know me, I’m not concerned about my weight.  Afterwards I went and had ice cream in their honor.)

-Homeless Types (Many people have wardrobe set aside for this)

Uncommon but favorite types I’ve seen:

-Gay Bears with Cars: figure it out on your own.

-Bottom of the Barrel Prostitutes:  If I wake up and decide that that’s my type, I hope one of my friends stages an intervention.

-Seedy Brooklyn Types

-Corpse who has not yet worked on this show.  I’m glad there is work after death.

-High School Types with cow milking experience (THIS WAS TOTALLY ME!  I applied, with legit cow-milking experience and never heard.  Are there that many people in NYC who have milked a cow??!)

-Homeless types with high end car and news reporter change.

-Homeless Cabby Types with Suit Options

Untitled David Chase Project with two awesome ladies

The Oh-So Glamorous Life

Now don’t get me wrong, when I get called for BG work, I still get pretty excited.  It is nice feel a part of the shoot for the day, chat with some interesting new people, and learn about the way a film set works.  I was pretty clueless when I went into it and am now a member of the union with some experience and a plan under my belt.  The union pay makes it more worth it, especially when it’s something you do occasionally.  I also have a hell of a lot more patience…

So, yes, you get to follow those signs that say “to set,” and yes ,you get to eat from that free food table on the street…but how glamorous is it?  I’ve had family members and many friends actually be somewhat jealous when I’ve mentioned I’ve done this…so let me clear that up for you…

A typical day:

First you get the call from the casting agency the day before.  Pick up your phone or no job.  This makes you a little psycho about finding creative ways to duck out of other jobs when your caller ID suddenly says GW Casting.  There’s usually no way to call back.  Then you call in late that night and find out what time you should show up.  I wouldn’t cancel if I were you, I have a theory there is a background actor dart board you end up on if you bail too much.

Sometimes your call is on 160th street at 5am.  That’s when your boyfriend takes the 1 train with you at 4am because no background shoot is worth getting mugged for.  Next, you check in with the PA’s who have been there for a few hours already.  Be nice to these people.  They put up with a lot.  Next comes the great part!  The breakfast is one of the largest you’ve had in a while.  There will be enough breakfast food to feed a small army.

Then you sit in holding for 3-4 hours.  Activities include reading entire books, finishing other work, yoga, learning lines, playing with your phone, fighting for an outlet to charge your phone (only the strong survive!), and chatting with your table of fellow actors.  Initial conversations will ALWAYS include: rumors of when the day will end, who is union and how everyone feels about unions, the different casting agencies and odd ways people get work,where crafty is, and of course, personal details that are very TMI.  Choose your table carefully!  Look for people with books.  No matter what you do, one person at your table will be seeking their big break from today’s shoot.  Nod with sympathy.

If it’s a period piece, you were probably fit for a costume on a separate day.  You walk to set and tourists take pictures with you.  Someone may do your hair and makeup.  This is my favorite part, I often get life advice from the crew.

Next you get called to set and are given a place to sit or walk.  Don’t fuck around.  (Unless it’s 4am and you’ve lost all awareness of reality, then you should sing Les Mis with a group of fake Hamptonites.)  One very fun day on Boardwalk Empire, I had two different husbands and a child with one of them.   We had a fake family rivalry going by the end of the day.  Another time I spent 75% of the night trying to sleep in the Natural History Museum’s cafeteria.  It’s really hit or miss.

Lunch comes about 6 hours in and people turn into wild animals with the fear that the crew will eat it all.  They never do, there is always food.  Stop bitching.

You will then go back to set and begin picking up on any cues possible from the crew about whether the day is coming to a close.  Rumors circulate!  Bets are made!  Fights break out!  Not really, but some people get pretty funny about it.  I figure, if you’re not in for a long day, don’t sign up.  There are other options of how to spend your day.

Ben getting lunch on Pan Am. Looking dashing.

Thinking about doing it?  Things to know!

To close, below are some important vocab words and survival tips:

Craft Services: The most ridiculous assortment of free snacks you will ever have available to you at one time.  Want to slather almond butter on crackers and top it off with peanut M&Ms?  Or what about fruit salad with a side of Pirates Booty and an espresso?  Be sure to hoard candy bars and bring them back to holding for brownie points with your table.

Tax Forms:At every shoot you will fill out a whole new set of tax forms and receive the pink one when you leave.  This is because you are essentially being laid off at the end of each day.   Learn to fill these out in your sleep.  If you wrap at 3 am, you may be asleep.

Your One: This is the place where you start the shot.  You may do a million takes so you go back to it if they yell this.  You may begin your one with someone who is either very friendly and awesome or someone who wants to tell you about their taxidermy collection.  Takes all types.

Martini Shot: The final shot of the day.  The term goes back to have a post shoot drink.  Keep your ear out for this.

Golden Hour: If you are non-union, turn your ears off, you do NOT want to hear union people talking about it if you’ve worked this long.  If you are union: after 8 hours you get time and a half, after 10 you get double time, then the 13th hour (am I wrong about this?) you get a Golden Hour.  You are now getting paid about $147 an hour.  Celebrate.  Call your mom.  Buy new shoes.

“May Go Late”: This is an overnight.  If you are non-union, proceed with caution.   I did many before I joined the union, and the $80 paycheck was rough.  If you have nothing to do the next day, just jump on for the ride!  Ever want to hang out with random people dressed up as hipsters during a fake blackout in Bushwick until the sun comes up?  Here’s you chance!  Or maybe pretend it’s the 50s and pony dance at a Fourth of July party.  I’ve had some of the goofiest nights this way.

I also had an overnight that was so terrible, I joined the union afterwards.  It was the final non-union straw.  After sitting outside in 45 degree weather for 6 hours in sundresses until 4am, my section of the crowd started losing their  minds and humming “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Mis.  I still run into people who were there that night.  It’s like discussing a ship wreck.  We were dropped off by Grand Central Station at 5am.  Many people had to sit on the sidewalk until LIRR or Metro North started running.  No thank you.

My point:

I always have a point or lesson to all my blog posts, and I promise this one was not to be negative.  There are many great things about working on sets as an extra, especially once you get past the myth that it will enhance your career or help you be “discovered”.  You can take from it what you like, I personally have learned a lot and made some great friends.  It has been an occasional source of fun flexible income.  I also love observing other actors and picking up whatever I can from their work.  And hey, I got to meet Steve Buscemi and serve a fake breakfast to Michael Emerson.

If for some reason you’re a casting agent reading this…ummmm…I swear I’m a hard worker and background work is awesome!  I won’t bitch or stare into the camera:)

So next time you’re watching a show or movie, check out those extras.  There’s a whole other story going on back there.  Thanks for reading, and much love to all my fellow extras out there.

Play “Find the Ginny”

6 responses to “The Secret Life of Background Actors”

  1. Did you work on Pan Am? (Not sure who Ben is – bf?)
    I really liked that show 🙂 was bummed when it was canceled.

    And yeah, my dad and I were extras on Ides of March one day, here in Michigan (Clooney! Gosling! I couldn’t not apply, lol) and it’s pretty much this. Although I think we wrapped at like 7 or 8pm, it wasn’t too bad.


    • I almost did! I had a conflict with the string of dates. My husband Ben (he was my BF when I wrote this) worked on it for months and actually had a really lovely time. I’ve had some really great days, but the bad ones were too extreme to make it work it in the long run.


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