So you want to be an extra?

Illustration by Ed Appleby
Illustration by Ed Appleby

Working as a background performer in the entertainment industry

By Cazzy Lewchuk, Staff Writer

Almost every movie, TV show, or music video has at least a couple (and often, several hundred) people in the background of the scene. While the actors are speaking at a party, there have to be other party guests present in the background, or it wouldn’t make any sense. The people who portray these non-speaking roles are known as “background performers,” or more commonly, “extras.” Pretty much everything being filmed requires some background performers—and you can be one of them.

Vancouver in particular has a booming TV and film industry, and summer is a busy time for filming due to pilots and blockbusters being shot then. However, something is always being filmed year-round in the city. Working as an extra can be a lot of fun: you get to watch and hang around at a film set, eat lots of craft service food, and be in a movie or a show! It can also be exhausting and daunting, but it’s overall a good experience.

Many wonder about the initial process. Generally, most shows and movies recruit extras through an extras agency. Hollywood North and BCF Casting are two of the biggest ones, but many talent agencies exist throughout the city. If you don’t mind not getting paid—just doing it as a one-time experience—smaller productions like music videos or student films can be found on Craigslist.

Once signed up, an organizer for the production will contact you with details of the shoot. Shoots are often announced only a couple days in advance—having a flexible (or an empty) schedule really helps with getting booked. While shoots generally take place during the day, super late night or early morning call times do happen. Sometimes filming even occurs overnight, particularly if indoors and/or at a popular location like a restaurant.

Extras come in all shapes and sizes, although some are better fits for specific parts than others. Someone with stretched earlobes, a beard, and dyed hair doesn’t blend into the background as nicely as a clean-shaven, short-haired person. On the other hand, sometimes shoots specifically require people with distinctive features—if the scene took place at a metal concert, for example. It all depends on what the script calls for.

Probably the most important aspect of being an extra is shutting up and doing as you’re told. Working on a film set is a stressful and busy process for everyone involved, and background probably has the easiest job on set. A great deal of it is sitting around waiting for directions. It can, and often does take hours for any filming to get done. Shoots can last a great deal of time—days lasting 11 plus hours are not uncommon. The extras always have a resting place where they are free to socialize, eat, or otherwise relax. Bringing a book and a phone charger is often a good idea.

It’s not a glamorous job. The actual working part is—in essence—being a human prop. You’re specifically meant to not take attention away from the lead or main actors, meaning you should look natural and non-distracting. The acting component can mean any number of things—you may stand talking to someone else, or be running away from a monster. You may be wearing clothes from home (you’ll be instructed on what to wear in advance) or be given a full costume. This is where the obedience and the listening part come in. You’re working in a group and adding a natural element to the scene.

Owning a car or at least having access to one is a huge asset to being an extra. Although not a necessity, it greatly increases the number of opportunities offered. Many of the film sets are far away from public transit and can be in places like Aldergrove, Abbotsford, or even Squamish. Being able to drive can also give you an advantage on set—often drivers are needed to take others short distances, and using your car leads to a bit more pay. Sometimes your car can even be used as part of the scene.

It should go without saying, but background performers should never bother the primary actors on set. Yes, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are famous and handsome. But the actor is there to do his job on set just like everyone else and doesn’t have time to be harassed by the background actors. Although some performers may—at their discretion—do a quick photo afterwards, it should never be asked for. Don’t talk to them. Don’t interact with them. Nobody wants you to do it and blacklisting does occur in the industry for those who can’t work on a set properly.

If nothing else, extra’s work is a memorable experience. It’s something that should be tried by anyone who has a general interest in it. It’s definitely fun and neat to view a set, and to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the industry and work that takes place in creating entertainment. There’s free food and creativity abundant, and much worse ways to get paid.