Supporting Superstars: What it’s like to be a film and TV extra

Behind every great performer… are a hundred blurry, out-of-focus ones in the background!

Ever wondered what it’s like to be a civilian watching your favourite superhero take down a bad guy right in front of you? Or maybe sit in a certain famous pub while beloved soap-opera characters have a dramatic spat before your very eyes? Or maybe you’d like to serve the Queen breakfast in bed on a silver tray, or dance at a glittering high society ball?

All these situations and more can be just another typical day in the life of a film or TV extra. One day you’re a patron at a café in the South of France (actually rainy Didcot), the next you’re graduating from Oxford University, or walking the mean streets of Gotham City (actually Watford).

You’ve probably heard the term film ‘extras’ before and maybe even watched the Ricky Gervais comedy series of the same name. Extras or ‘supporting artists’ to give them the proper industry name, are the people who appear in the background of films/television shows. They fill out the set, helping it look more authentic. Extras seldom have any lines and the actions they perform are normally in the deep background. The camera is scarcely focused on them – indeed, much of the time they are little more than just a blur milling around in the distance. None the less, they are an extremely important part of film-making, helping to set the scene and making it feel believable.

Being an extra is a bit like being an actor or actress, getting to experience many different lives and situations – but with less responsibility, less screen-time and of course, less money…

To be an extra you don’t need to have the looks of Brad Pitt, the acting skills of Meryl Streep, or a performance degree from RADA. Most productions want their extras to just look and act like ordinary, regular people, the same as you would find on the street of any town. All ages, sizes, genders, ethnicities are sought after – usually the more varied and diverse the better. You are not normally required demonstrate any particular acting skills. As long as you’re comfortable just pretending to do the things on camera you’d normally do, like walk, talk, eat or drink, you’ll be fine.

How to become an extra

So how do you become an extra / supporting artist? You have two main options: 1) find opportunities yourself or 2) sign-up to a casting agency. To find opportunities yourself, you can search for filmmaking and acting via Facebook groups, which sometimes have productions looking for extras. There are also websites like ‘Star Now’ or ‘Talent Talks’ which put out calls for extras and you can apply if you fit the bill.

Probably the best way to get extra work is by signing-up with an agency that specialises in casting ‘background’ artists. There are many of them and you can easily Google them. The agencies know the ins and outs of the industry, have many good contacts and will be able to take care of and admin stuff like chasing up payments. In return, they will take a commission fee, however this cost is usually worth it to get work.

WORD OF ADVICE: Reputable agencies will NOT ask for a large upfront joining fee. Instead, they will only take payments out of paid work they actually get for you, typically around 15% commission plus an annual admin fee. Payment for an extra job varies from around £100 a day (which works out at around minimum wage depending on the hours) to a lot more if you are featured in a TV commercial which generally pays better. You’ll also get more money if your part is upgraded, or you have special skills which are occasionally needed on screen.

For most of these casting agencies, the sign-up process is incredibly easy. All you have to do is fill out the online forms with your personal information and details about your appearance (hair and eye colour, skin tone, height, measurements etc) then upload some photos of yourself. These don’t need to be professional photos, however they should be of decent quality, taken in good lighting, with plain backgrounds, clearly showing your face and body and no filters. The agency will then decide whether to accept you and if they do, they will put you forward for work.

So, what’s it like so actually be an extra? Every production is a completely different experience, but here’s a quick review of the ups and downs.

The pros of being an extra:

  • Genuinely fun and interesting. You never know what you’re going to see, who you’re going to meet or what you’re going to do until you get there. You could be booked on an independent arthouse project or a major Hollywood blockbuster, and often you don’t know until you get there
  • It’s very easy. You don’t have a huge amount of responsibility or work to do. When you are on set, you’re usually given a straightforward task like walking around, miming a conversation, pretending to eat food or shuffle papers.
  • The people. There’s a lot of sitting around waiting and one of the best ways to pass time is to chat to your fellow extras. Often they will have great stories about other productions they’ve been on, or celebrities they’ve seen or met. You will also see celebrities yourself, and occasionally if they are friendly and not too busy, you might get to talk to them!
  • You might get on the telly. Extras are not the focus and often you will be little more than more just a blur in a big crowd, but sometimes you can get lucky and see yourself clearly. Even if you don’t see yourself in the final cut, it’s always fun to know you were a part of something like that and it’s a great story to tell…

The cons of being an extra:

  • The hours. Starting at 6am or 7am is pretty typical for a day shoot, and bigger productions can even start as early as 4am. Night shoots will usually start later in the day, but the finish or ‘wrap’ time will likely be in the early hours of the morning. Ten hour days are common, and if you go into overtime, can go on even later. This schedule can be exhausting and don’t forget you have to add your travelling time if you start on set at 6am and finish after midnight.
  • The weather. Just because you are filming a scene set during a heatwave in the height of summer, does not mean you will be filming in one. You could be filming in an icy field in January. Being too hot or too cold and having to pretend on camera you’re not is a very common occurrence. The show must go one, come rain or shine…
  • The waiting. There is normally A LOT of waiting around, occasionally you will end up waiting all day and not even get used on camera. Days like this can be pretty tedious, so you need to bring some activities to do, just in case. Don’t just rely on your phone for entertainment though, because high-profile productions will often confiscate phones for the day to decrease the risk of photos getting leaked to social media and the press.
  • You might not get on the telly. Even if you’re in a lot of scenes, you can’t guarantee you’ll even be visible in them. You might just be a blur in the distance, or a corner of a shoulder, or your scene may be cut entirely. It’s great to see yourself on screen, but most of the time you won’t, so if you think being an extra will lead to your ‘big break’ then you are probably mistaken…

Being an extra is much like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get… Every set is different. It’s often exhausting, but is a fantastic way to meet new people, see interesting things, have fun and make a bit of money in the process. Whether you’re old or young, tall or short, fat or thin, scruffy or smart, somewhere out there is probably a movie or TV programme looking for someone just like you to set the scene!


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