The Ins and Outs of Being a Background Actor
Being a background actor/actress is a lot of hard work. When people watch a movie, or television show, they focus on the main characters--basically the ones who have lines. Their jobs are very hard, but the main actors/actresses are often pampered on set, and the background actors are treated, well...differently.
Background work can often involve working very long hours, working in unfavorable weather conditions, and working with very little food, and all of this for very close to minimum wage pay. Background work really only serves two purposes in an actor/actresses career: to gain experience of being on set, and to put some extra cash in their pockets. In some cases, it can also put you in the eye of casting directors also, and if they like you, they may continue to call you back for work. However, background work cannot be listed on an actor/actresses resume, so it does not count as past work experience.
I was recently booked for background work on an eight hour job in which I was paid $85. I was required to bring a few changes of clothing so that the wardrobe guys could pick and choose what they wanted me to wear. I was instructed not to wear certain colors, which is very common. Background workers are usually required to bring their own clothing and do their own hair and makeup, which means hauling some type of overnight bag or suitcase with you to set. Once everyone was properly dressed for the shoot, we had to walk a few blocks to get to set. During the course of the day, we must have walked back and forth those few blocks like twenty times. They gave us a great breakfast, but we were given an hour long lunch break and it was a walk-away lunch break, meaning we had to go somewhere other than holding to get lunch. Well, during the lunch break, it started raining. Once we got back to holding, I thought that they would hold off on doing the next scenes. I was wrong. We had to walk those few blocks back to set and film the scene in the rain. What's worse is that some of the background actors/actresses who did not have umbrellas during the morning shoots were not allowed to have umbrellas during the afternoon shoots because they wanted matching shots. I was one of the background actresses without an umbrella. So here we are getting soaked in the rain in fifty degree weather in NYC for $85. Of course, the stars that were on set were given the V.I.P. treatment, and did not have to endure any of that crazy weather. They were shooting an indoor scene with the stars, but the backgrounds had to be outside because they needed the illusion of people passing by on the sidewalk when they camera was facing the windows.
Production companies are required to provide food for all actors/actresses on set, however for non-union actors/actresses, there are no set rules on what type or how much food should be provided. There was another shoot I did that was similar to this shoot, but instead of rain being the huge weather problem, it was freezing cold outside. It was a ten hour shoot (I was paid $101), and we were on set for most of the shoot, not traveling back and forth to holding. Since the shoot was in Long Island, a courtesy bus was provided in Manhattan for background actors/actress who were not able to self-report to set. However, our courtesy van was late picking us up, and by the time we arrived to set, breakfast was over. There were no drink or snack machines or water fountains in the holding area, so we had to wait till lunch time for food or something to drink. However, we did not get a break on this particular shoot, nor did we get lunch. They provided us with small bags of chips and packages of the fifty cents packaged cakes that you find near the checkout lanes in stores. We were not provided with anything to drink. The company was more than likely fined for not giving us a break (there are rules that govern breaks for actors/actress). This experience taught me to always bring my own bottle of water and some type of snack that I can munch on in between scenes. Still yet there was another shoot I did where we were only given one bottle of water and no food. Shoots that involve union actors/actresses usually have better food for non-union actors/actresses, but if the shoot only involves non-union, sometimes you have to take what you can get.
Earning a living as a background actor/actress is extremely hard, although not impossible. Most companies pay something close to minimum wage for non-union background actors/actresses. Background actors/actresses who are members of a union get paid on a higher scale which is set by the unions. Sometimes actors/actresses may get paid right after working on a job, but most of the time the production companies mail out the checks and it usually takes two to three months to get paid for a job that the actor/actress did. If an actor/actress can get steady background work, then they have a steady stream of checks rolling in for a few months. However, for the actor/actress who only books a job here and there, it can be very stressful waiting that long for an $85 check.
Why would a person go through all of these complexities for so little money? The truth is that most actors/actress love what they do. The thrill of being on set is what actors/actresses live for. Maybe its because a true actor/actress just can't imagine doing anything else. Whatever the case is, there are many actors/actresses, including myself, that are willing to go through the grunt work to get to that V.I.P. status.