Actors generally do not benefit from working as extras for more than a few times. When people said everyone starts small, collecting background acting credits isn’t what they meant. Although some extras did get noticed at some point and soon became successful actors, background acting simply isn’t the best way to get noticed by agents and casting directors from both major or minor markets. If you think about it, agents don’t come to shoots very often, and if they do, their focus is on the clients, connections, and speaking role actors and not on the background actors.
But now that you’re reading this, we’re assuming that you know this fact by now. Background performance isn’t acting. “Featured extra” usually doesn’t count as experience, even if it was for an award-winning Hollywood project. Casting directors look at training and experience in speaking roles when they read through your résumé. No one is impressed with “experience” in handing Jennifer Lawrence coffee in a film. If you finally got “promoted” to acting for a speaking role, what happens then? Are you actually ready for a speaking role? Is being a “real” actor difficult? Read on to find out.
Doing background work can be great as it allows you to see how a set is run behind the scenes. It also allows you to be paid to watch and learn from some great working actors. However, as you have experienced, extras aren’t supposed to say anything during a take, for as the saying goes, “you aren’t being paid to talk.” Nor are you allowed to talk between takes when everything is being reset and put back to the way it was two minutes before. On set, background actors are given direction by assistant directors who tell them where and when to move in a scene. Actors with speaking roles are directed by the directors themselves.
This goes without saying, but watching actors work is different from actually working as the actor. This is why industry professionals tell you that doing extra work is not a surefire road to success. It does not really count as experience. What you learned from being an extra will be entirely unlearned the moment you are given a speaking role. The only learning you should keep is etiquette.
Background actors, even those who would be considered featured extras, don’t have lines. They may take part in crowd murmurings or general backdrop conversation, called omnies. Once you take on a speaking role, lines and impressive delivery will be central in your job. We know you’ve often wondered as a child how actors onstage or on set manage to memorize their lines for an entire movie or play. And now that you’ve found yourself with a speaking role, you’re finally facing the overwhelming dilemma you’ve always wondered about long ago: how does an actor memorize lines? If you wish to pursue this career further, you might soon come across an audition with twelve pages of sides to memorize. You might be honored to replace a major character and are now tasked with memorizing an entire full-length play.
Speaking lines are a responsibility in itself; it’s homework. Aside from memorizing them, actors may have to take down notes to remember all the director’s instructions because it’s not only lines they’ll be memorizing. Actors memorize the corresponding emotion and intonation for every line to achieve the director’s vision. For complex characters with heavy backstories, actors internalize behind the scenes, sometimes applying advanced acting techniques just to give the character justice. The skill of acting is actually harder than you think it is. It takes training and technique, patience, bravery and sympathy, an understanding of human emotions, and the ability to react to imagination.
You’re in a profession where you’re constantly judged, critiqued, and scrutinized by your director, coactors, audience, and the media. The business of acting means proving yourself over and over again. It means growing a thick skin of protection. When you achieve success, don’t forget to stay in shape. Remember that the more successful you become, the more people are looking at you, and always, always remember that for some people you’re a role model, especially young children, so be the best possible version of you. The public eye is all-seeing and often unforgiving, so don’t be sloppy. For every role you receive, you have to play it like it’s the most important one.
Through it all, you have to be incredibly focused and motivated and have a razor sharp positive attitude—not to mention a willingness to sacrifice everything else to reach your goals.
Armed with a speaking role, you’re now on the front lines. Shooting may take place outside in extreme weather conditions, both hot and cold, and one mustn’t whine when presented with such conditions. After all, it is part of the job. Leonardo DiCaprio had to endure the harshest of environments to get his hands on his first Oscar. After the show or movie is done, promotion may require contacts with various media channels—television, radio, press, which, by the way, is not as glamorous as we expect it to be. The acting job is demanding. Long hours and night and weekend work are frequent. It requires travel, sometimes abroad (tours, filming, etc.), and the determination to remain positive on-set or to fans despite the stress. Having a flexible schedule and physical and mental endurance is essential. So eat well, exercise, and have lots of sleep (if you can). What can be achieved visually by makeup artists can’t be fixed any way mentally if you’re exhausted, which is a real threat for every performer in every field.
In spite of all the hardships and responsibilities of a speaking role, you can rest assured that you’ll get paid more than when you had a background role. SAG actors are paid weekly for their time, with $4,197 per week for appearing in every episode, $4,682 per week for appearing in more than half, and $5,476 per week for appearing in half. On low-budget productions, these same performers earn a minimum of $504 a day. In their latest report on employment and wages, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the average salary for several jobs within the entertainment industry, including actors, producers, and directors. The median hourly wage for actors was $17.49/hour. The lowest 10% of actors earned less than $8.97/hour, and the highest 10% earned more than $89.08/hour. According to an article in The Charlotte Observer, non-equity actors were paid a minimum of $200 per week prior to the contract. They are now guaranteed a weekly salary of $280 per week.