The Ins and Outs of Being a Background Actor

Updated on March 14, 2017

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.

The Alamo Movie Set
The Alamo Movie Set

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.

 

Really funny, but great advice!

Questions & Answers

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      • madscientist12 profile imageAUTHOR

        Dani Alicia 

        7 weeks ago from Paterson, NJ

        If you were a background actor getting steady work, you would know that everything in this article is true. The article didn't say that it would ALWAYS take months or that the food would ALWAYS be terrible, but a lot of times this is the case. As someone who is a seasoned background actress (Blue Bloods, Seven Seconds, New Year's Eve), a seasoned featured background actress (Orange is the New Black, Dietland), an actress that has had roles with lines as well as principal roles (#Murder, Fatal Attraction), and someone who has written, produced, and directed her own original play in a prominent theater in Manhattan (Love, Poetry, and Other Missed Connections at the Hudson Guild Theater), I am very qualified to write this article. I have shared my experiences in this field with everyone else. Now I'm not sure what your experience is, but I can guarantee you there isn't any company that provides gourmet catering and air-conditioned trailers to their background actors.

      • profile image

        ScreenAct 

        2 months ago

        Wow, I would like to know which production companies the person who wrote this article works for. As a background actor on the set I have been experiencing gourmet catoring and crafty drinks whenever the camera isnt rolling, air conditioned trailer, wardrobe change areas, sometimes makeup, etc, gourmet pizzas for a foodie shoot wrap snack cap, purified bottled water whenever we want it, and Keurig coffee or espresso.

        Some of these production companies are cheap, only handing out chips, cookies, etc.... Like what youd find at 7-11. Remember, it is n8t the studios behaving like this, it 7s the production company. Why would they want to feed their actors poison? I didnt grow up eating junk food and I can't stand it. Those production companies obviously do not appreciate background actors because they figure anyone who works for the wages we earn, is pretty desperate. And quite frankly, almost anyone can do our jobs. But the stingy production companies are the exception. One bad apple doesnt spoil the bunch.

        It does not take months to get paid. First time it takes over a week. 2Nd time and afterwards youll get paid within a week. If it takes months, then call the labor board or do what you have to do without revealing your name

        Dont complain or cause problems, because in reality there is someone right behind you thay wants your job and like I said before. If you are getting regular work as a background actor, that is a good sign. Not everyone does..

      • profile image

        Actress4Life 

        2 years ago

        Jon Doe, YES it DOES take months long sometimes. I did a commercial that is on the air right now and I'm still waiting to get paid for being a stand in. I'm glad you've been lucky to get paid quickly, but that is NOT always the case.

      • madscientist12 profile imageAUTHOR

        Dani Alicia 

        3 years ago from Paterson, NJ

        This was my experience. It would usually take me two months to get a check.

      • profile image

        Hout 

        3 years ago

        It doesn't take months to get a check, usually a week, sue them

      • traffic225 profile image

        traffic225 

        3 years ago from Medford, New Jersey

        good job on the video.

      • profile image

        BradfromSC 

        4 years ago

        LOL ^

      • madscientist12 profile imageAUTHOR

        Dani Alicia 

        4 years ago from Paterson, NJ

        It does. I can't believe you waited two years to come back and put the same comment.

      • profile image

        John Doe 

        4 years ago

        It does not take months to get a check.

      • profile image

        awesomeactress 

        6 years ago

        I do believe I will with hardwork and determination

      • profile image

        awesomeactress 

        6 years ago

        John Doe, maybe you've been lucky enough to have received a check in five days, and there are some companies who will get your checks to you quickly, but I can tell you from experience that it takes a while to get some checks. This is not an opinion. Its something I've actually experienced several times while doing background work in North Carolina and New York.

      • profile image

        John Doe 

        6 years ago

        It takes five days usually for a check. Not months.

      • profile image

        yaritza sarria 

        6 years ago

        Do you believe that someday you will be one of those V.I.P actresses?

      • BrightMeadow profile image

        BrightMeadow 

        7 years ago from a room of one's own

        This is very interesting. I had no idea. Thanks for sharing your experieces.

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