Moviemaking is hard work. I should know, I've been in them since I was a kid. Well okay, I've been in one. For half-a-second. When I was in the third grade.
In 1995, the location scout for Jumanji chose to shoot the movie in my bucolic hometown in New Hampshire, and before they started filming they cast a whole bunch of us country folk as extras. I had the meaty role of "'60s-era paper boy," and if you squint real hard in the opening sequence you can almost see the top of my head. Almost. It was awesome.
Ever since then, I've wondered about the actors who build entire careers out of blending into the background of TV shows and movies. So to find out what it takes, I caught up with Jesse Heiman, who's worked as an extra in dozens of hugely successful films and TV shows, from Spider-Man and Old School to Parks & Recreation and The Big Bang Theory. He's even earned the unofficial distinction as The World's Greatest Extra, and seeing as that's the title of a forthcoming documentary about his life, it would be hard to argue that he isn't. He also got to make out with Bar Rafaeli in a 2004 Superbowl commercial for GoDaddy. He was the nerd. This man is doing something right.
To corroborate Jesse's sage advice, I also got in touch with Lee Genick of Sylvia Fay/Lee Genick & Associates Casting, which has cast background actors for hundreds of big budget film and TV projects, to get the scoop on how to break into the background. Truthfully, it's a lot easier than you might think.
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"The best part of doing extra work is how easy it is to get a job," Heiman says. "I learned this the very first day I signed up for work through Central Casting in Burbank. I was standing in line for my picture to be taken and a casting director approached me and asked if I was available that night and booked me on the spot for a night shoot on the movie Rat Race. Extra work is really easy to book because they cast you to play yourself based on how you look. The process for finding work for me then and now is the same. I call a hotline number that details what projects they are currently casting for and types they are looking for at the moment."
2. Get your name out there
"Register with as many background casting companies as possible, registration should be free. The more places that have you in their system the more opportunities you will have to find work," Lee Zenick states. If you want to support yourself working exclusively as an extra, you'll need to line up a bunch of projects. So just how frequently should you expect to work? "That depends on the jobs you get and the lifestyle you lead, but if you’re living in NY, a lot."
3. Patience is crucial
According to Zenick, waiting around is one of the biggest parts of extra work, so bring something to entertain yourself in the down time unless you enjoy staring into the abyss for hours on end. Shoot days can stretch longer than 14 hours, and complaining or looking bored will only earn you enemies. Heiman brings something to read and keeps his phone fully charged to play games between scenes. Paid to play Candy Crush for hours on end? Not so bad.
4. Befriend the right people
While you shouldn't treat it like a networking session, it doesn't hurt to get close to people who could help you land bigger roles. "The best person to befriend on a set, I would say, would be a PA, director, or assistant director," Heiman says. "They have connections to other shows, and if they get to know you and like you, they will bring you back for multiple projects as an extra and as you move up in the ranks [with them], they will be most likely be the ones to cast you in a small role, opening doors for you down the road."
In order to be choosy about the gigs you work, you'll need to have a lot of offers on the table. To become a go-to background actor, Heiman says you need to give good energy all day long and be reliable. "Once they start bringing you back for more episodes and other shows you become a part of the family sort of and are expected to be trusted with more substantial roles." Zenick agrees: "If production people get to know and trust you, the more likely you will be to be selected for 'something special' should the opportunity arise."
6. Never take photos
If you're personally a fan of the film or show you're working on, you'll be tempted to take photos of the action. Absolutely do not do that. If they catch you, you could very well be blacklisted and thrown off the set. Same goes for leaking any plot details to the media. According to Heiman, "If you get caught you will be subject for dismissal and banned from some studios and deemed as paparazzi. I've seen it happen while working on "Glee" the first two seasons. They had to refresh the extras multiple times because people were leaking story information online."
7. Stay in the background
Your main concern should be to blend into the background, so don't make it your mission to flail around or otherwise call attention to yourself in hopes that it'll land you your first big break. "Doing anything more to try and steal a scene is a sure way to be thrown off of the set," Zenick says. You have a better chance furthering your career simply being yourself and looking as though you belong in the background. "If [directors and assistant directors] like a certain extra's action they may ask them to do more crosses or something where they'll be on screen for more time," Heiman says. "I was fortunate to have this happen for me in Transformers 3. Michael Bay asked me to walk by an office scene and look in towards the camera, which is usually a big no-no. Sam Raimi did this for me as well on Spider-Man. I was the only one in the crowd of kids watching Peter Parker fighting Flash in the school hallway clapping. I mimicked Kirstin Dunst's expression, as directed by him."
8. Enjoy the free food
Depending on the scope and budget of the gig, you may be eating like a legitimate movie star. "There have been some pretty epic meals I've had from working with Tom Hanks, David Fincher, Spielberg, Michael Bay, and other A-list talent who go above and beyond to make sure we are all treated as part of the crew. Steak and seafood is the best thing ever when you are basically getting paid to eat it," Heiman says.
Even if you're bold enough to chat up an A-lister, don't. Generally, the rule is not to speak to any big stars or crew members unless they start the conversation. As awesome as it would be to get chummy with Clooney, that's the wrong move.
10. Don't expect it to be glamorous
No, you won't be getting your own trailer. During the long stretches of downtime, you're kept "in holding" in a designated area away from the action. It may be under a tent, in some huge room, or out in the open, so you won't have much in the way of a personal nap station. As Heiman told us, "Trailers for extras are mainly for changing your clothes or using the restroom." It can also be grueling, especially when you're working in a big crowd scene. "When you are working a sporting event scene and there are literally up to 10,000 extras working and sometimes fake smoking in a scene, it can be stressful and tiring. I worked four days on the movie Ali with Will Smith and the boxing scenes were unbearable with smoking and just the large capacity crowd."
11. Market your special skills
As Fenick explains, "The non-union rate is not always the same, so different projects have different pay rates. Sometimes people are cast because they have a special ability (i.e. play an instrument, certified EMT or nurse, etc.) and having a special ability could get you higher paying work."
Joe McGauley is a senior editor at Supercompressor and still owns the Jumanji board game.