I often get letters from actors who are just starting their careers asking about being an "extra."
The most common thing I hear that is -- COMPLETELY WRONG -- is that being a "background artist" will
somehow stand in the way of becoming an actor in the future. Utter nonsense. Think about it. The
evidence for this falsehood is never presented. However, it is a fact that practically every actor
in films today has some extra work in their background ... no pun intended. LOL
All right, back to the letters and a little tough talk for some of you. Now don't get me
wrong, most of the letters I get are delightful -- upbeat, caring, appreciative and a pleasure
to receive --others ... not so much.
Here's a letter that fits in the latter category and my answer. I hope it resolves a few
of the questions you may have about 'appearing' in the deep background.
And what it has to do with your acting career.
You say doing extra work is a 'step' for many actors. You said it was easy. Well, you
are totally wrong. I registered with Central Casting here in LA and not only did it cost
me $25, it was money down the drain. I've tried calling the casting line and it's impossible,
nobody can get through. It's busy all the time. One day I tried calling every 5 minutes for
almost 4 hours. Once I got through but when the operator found out I didn't have the wardrobe
they wanted she got really mean and told me not to waste her time. When I told her that the
movie company probably had plenty of costumes, she told me to wise up. Who does she think
she is? I paid my money and I deserve to get a job every so often. These people are just
casting their friends and the rest of us never get a turn. By the way, I am a trained actor
and it's insulting to be treated this way. ~ Harold
Here is my answer.
When I said 'easy,' I meant easy to understand and do the steps required. Sign up. Call.
Get work. You signed up but then you believed that the next step was 'impossible.' Of course
it's not impossible, hundreds of actors do it every day. Hundreds of actors.
Look, Harold, you don't know me and you don't have to listen, but I think you need to be
clear on two aspects of an acting career that you seem to be missing.
- If you are going to give up at the first sign of difficulty, you are doomed to failure.
- You cannot hope to change how other people behave in order for things to work out for you.
Harold, my friend, YOU are the only human being you have control over. Your success in the
business, in life itself really, is totally dependent upon what YOU DO. If what you do is
give up after the first try and worry about how other people are behaving, guess what? You
won't do the things you need to do in order to be successful.
Is an acting career difficult? Yes. (But, then, so is every other career - with the possible
exception of jobs that require the phrase, "Do you want fries with that?")
Will it take a lot of patience from you? Yes. It takes time to get known by other people
in the business. Will you be rejected a lot? Yes. This is just a fact of life in an
acting career. Will the rejection ever stop? No. I guarantee you that somewhere in
Burbank, right now, someone is saying, "Tom Hanks? Nah, he's not right for this."
Are there a lot of people who want to compete for these jobs? Yes.
Are all of them "competitive?" Not really. About 20% of actors don't even bother to
show up for auditions. Another 30% have convinced themselves that trying doesn't
help matters. (Sound familiar?) Another 25% aren't really that interested in making
money at it. 18% have other careers and part-time dreams. But, believe me, the 7% that
are left are very competitive. (I made up these statistics from my own observation, but
I would not be surprised to find out they were close.)
Okay, those are the 'facts.' Now what?
Well, you could stop 'building a case' for the idea that it's too hard for you. You
could take yourself by the scruff of the neck and remind yourself that this career was
your choice. Maybe now that you know it's going to take work to accomplish, you're
starting to question your choice. In that direction lies quitting. If you continue to
believe what you've written in your letter, you will eventually give up. I'd bet on it.
Is it unheard of that a casting person (not operator) has hired Aunt Millie from
Cleveland to work background on "her favorite show?" No. It happens. Do they give
preference to their friends? Sure. Are most of these 'friends.' actors? Yes. The big
question is really, what does any of that have to do with you?
Other people are getting jobs, oh, poor me. When will I get my turn?
Harold, wake up and smell the greasepaint! This isn't a business of 'turns.' It's a silly
idea really, like "When will it be my turn to be a shortstop for the Yankees?"
And the real question is, are you going to spend your time bemoaning the state of
things - what other people are doing, what breaks they are getting, that it should
be easier - or are you going to work as hard as you must to achieve your dream, by
paying attention to what you are doing? All right. Lecture over.
Practical advice: Look, Harold, have you ever heard of speed dial? You know, on your
phone? In order to 'score' on the 'lines' you must use speed dial. If your phone doesn't
have speed dial, get one that does. To get through, you must keep dialing and dialing
and dialing ... if you are speed dialing for 30 minutes or so, you'll get through.
Believe me, this works. I know. I've done extra work.
Next, do not call for something if you don't have the wardrobe, or if you're the
wrong type, etc. If you do this, thinking you have a better chance to get booked,
be warned: You are going to annoy several levels of people; the casting folks at
Central, the assistant directors, the wardrobe people, and probably the director.
One of these people might think you are clueless. You could get "labeled." This is
a bad outcome for you.
Every movie star (well practically every one) has worked background. You can bet
they were great at it. You want to move ahead in the business? Be great at what
If you agree to do extra work -
BE: On Time. Prepared. No hassle. Paying attention. Working hard. Helping to tell
the story. Acting. And you might try finding out about the "rules" of the game.
There are at least a dozen books focusing on background work. Would it hurt to
DON'T BE: Someplace else when they need you, talking during a take, not ready when
they are ready, late, grazing at craft services all day, a gossip, obnoxious, lazy,
and for goodness sake, don't act like the work you've freely contracted to do is
When you're on the set as an extra ('background' artist) you have a choice; you can
just be an extra or you can be an actor. All the production people mentioned above
can tell the difference.
My advice: Since you are a "trained actor," then do what you're trained to do.
Be an actor. Be a conscientious actor. Be a dedicated actor. Be an actor willing
to learn. Play by the 'rules.' Those are the kind of actors that casting directors,
AD's, directors, producers and principal players think of as "friends."
It's your move, Harold.
Bob Fraser is an actor, writer, producer, director and author of You Must Act! "The Bible of Acting Success."
© Copyright 2004 Bob Fraser. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced or distributed.
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