Let me start this post with the admission that my daughter Dove never once went out for a background (or “extras”) role. So my experience with this subject comes from seeing extras on sets, both film and TV—talking to them, sometimes to their parents, and seeing with my own eyes the reality of those roles.
I’m going to say something here that may be unpopular, but it is my authentic opinion. I do not see much point in doing extras work for kids who are looking for a professional career as an actor. At least not more than a few times.
As I wrote earlier, the upside to being an extra is that you can learn basic set vocabulary (and there is a whole specialized language on a set), and see if your child even enjoys being on a set before investing much more time and money in pursuing this career at a higher level. This alone can justify a few days working in background. And for those reasons it might be a great idea.
But after that is behind you—or even before that point—it is essentially a dead-end exercise that will only chew up your time and displace an opportunity for either something better (like a REAL role, or an audition that might lead to one!) or even simply school. Taking your kid out of school for a guest star role makes sense. This is something that will actually further their career. Taking them out of school to walk repeatedly back and forth behind the actors who have actual lines, or to be in a crowd, has very little upside. It will do nothing for their career, and worse, it subtracts precious school days that should be missed for more important reasons.
I think there is a persistent myth that having a lot of background work on a resume will count for something in an audition. But all it says is that your child knows how to be an extra. Background roles by their very definition have no lines, and no real camera time. In other words they are more about following simple directions (“when I give the signal, walk from the locker through that door.”) than any kind of indication that someone can act. So their value on a resume is really nil. Worse, it may lead to unconscious typecasting of your child as a background player, rather than a potential lead.
Finally, you should know that most agents and casting directors view listing background on a resume as the mark of an amateur, so you should strongly consider just leaving it off altogether. If you feel that you really want the experience acknowledged somehow, list it under training, and don’t list too many instances of background work.
I also think that there are some persistent, apocryphal stories about actors being “discovered” on sets as extras, and becoming stars. I believe these kinds of stories are repeated because some part of all of us wants to believe that it might be that easy– like a lucky jackpot. If only it were that easy! Inasmuch as anything is possible, I can believe that it must have happened at some point to someone. But as someone whose kid has beaten tremendous odds and truly knows that almost anything is possible, I’d still not bet on that path. Do something where your child at least has a fighting chance at having their time and effort rewarded.
Pursuing extras work in order to rack up points toward getting into SAG-AFTRA also seems dubious, since any actor cast in a role that requires union membership will simply be Taft-Hartleyed in (instantly granted eligibility for membership). This comes from a common assumption that you have to “work your way up” to become a successful actor—which, if you look around at how the system actually works, you can see is not the case at all. No one is watching and noting how many times an actor “paid their dues” doing background work, and then grants them a bigger opportunity.
A fairly common reason some people pursue background roles is that they think they might meet the stars of the show or film they work on. Sadly, this is highly unlikely. As I mentioned in an earlier section, leads are literally segregated from extras on sets. This isn’t out of meanness, but logistics. Leads have a lot to be on top of—memorizing lines that may be changing even as they film, rehearsals, hair, makeup, wardrobe—even interviews jammed in between scenes. They generally have no time or energy to interact with anyone outside of their immediate work.
Since extras don’t have lines, they typically don’t interact, or even get near the leads. Leads have private dressing rooms and extras have common holding areas. Background players even eat in separate areas at lunch. Dove makes a deliberate effort to talk with extras on set when she can, but she frequently doesn’t have much time to do it and still stay on top of her own job. Most stars, according both to what I have seen and heard, don’t even make the effort. Disappointing but true.
Does the industry depend on the existence of extras to function? Of course it does. Think of any scene in any movie you’ve ever watched—all those people who fill in the background were paid perhaps $100 per day (before deducting a decent percentage of that to agent and possibly manager commissions, and of course taxes)… so they might keep $7.50/hour on an 8 hour day if they keep 60% of their gross. That’s in the ballpark of minimum wage for many states, although meals are provided on set too, which counts for something.
Am I worried that discouraging you from pursuing extras work for your kid (or frankly discouraging anyone serious about an acting career from pursuing extras work) will destroy the industry? Not at all. There will always be thousands of people who are willing to do practically anything to get on film, in any capacity. But since this blog is written in an effort to help your family navigate the often heartbreaking world of Hollywood, I must share my strongly-held opinion that you should just say no to background work, except for a possible time or two for educational purposes.
My book, The Hollywood Parents Guide, available on Amazon contains everything I wish I’d known when Dove and I started this journey, and will save you untold amounts of time, money, and stress. Full of information you MUST know, it also features stories from parents of other kids who’ve made it!
Or book an hour consulting with me to come up with an individualized plan that takes your own unique needs into account. For about the cost of an hour with a professional acting coach, you can get your questions answered and a road map to help you move forward toward your dream.
Invest a little in your kid’s future today.
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