How do I become an actor or extra?

| August 19, 2013 | 5 Comments

“How can I become an actor?”

This is a question I hear all the time. It surely is a question that has been asked countless millions of times since the inception of film-making. I will spend some time attempting to shed light on this subject and point you in the right direction. For extras, it is not that difficult to find work, if you are in the right location. For actors… not so much. First the bad news:  Becoming a successful actor most always requires hard work, sacrifice and perseverance. You must have what it takes to face seemingly unlimited competition and rejection. Now the good news: The above requirements knock most people out of the competition because they simply won’t put forth the effort. More bad news… most of the people left standing are serious about what they want and you are going to have to be on the top of your game to edge out this competition and get what you want. There are millions of people who want the same thing. The large majority of them, while they have great desire to be rich and famous, don’t have any understanding of what it might take to develop any of the skills necessary to pursue this dream, what kind of sacrifices are required or any clue as to how and where to direct their energy or use available resources.

AchairMost people are really just not that serious, many are actually dreaming of being discovered or noticed by methods like shotgunning pictures of themselves to people or companies on Facebook who seem to be involved in the film industry. They have the fantasy, that if they get the word out that they REALLY want to be an actor, that some producer or director will come along and pluck them up and polish them into a shining star. In reality, nothing says I have no idea what I’m doing more than this approach. You have just as good a chance of becoming the CEO of  Disney by messaging them on facebook to let them know that you are available and while you’re at it, throw in that picture of yourself making the duck lip expression.

Before going any further, let’s clarify the different things people might be looking to do in the film industry (in front of the camera). Do you want to be a film/tv  actor… to go straight to the big screen without “‘passing go”, or do you want to get your feet wet by being an extra (background artist)?  Believe it or not, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about the differences between the two.  (read more about extras) This is because people who do extra work (especially those who have special talents or abilities), often refer to themselves as actors. In fact I have had countless instances when people have found out that I am involved in the film industry and they will say something like, “Hey, I do some acting, I was on Dawson’s Creek as a shopper walking by Katie Holmes.”  Well this is not a crime and background people are in a sense “acting”.  Even in scenes where they are simply required to act ‘natural’, that ability alone is absolutely critical to the success of any scene that requires background. For the sake of clarity, however here is the difference. An extra is generally a background player who helps to make a scene more realistic by simply being present or even performing some task as in real life. Extras are sometimes even “featured”.  For instance, an extra who is in a scene accompanying a principle actor in some way, like if the lead actor was suddenly hugged or patted on the back by a jubilant bystander (extra).

An actor is generally a performer who speaks or acts (with voice, body language and or facial expression)  in at least one scene. Extras may be very important in a scene but as a rule they are not paid or billed as actors unless they are speaking or somehow required to carry a scene. While there are often requirements for extras there are usually more for actors. As an extra you may be required to run up a hill pretending to do battle with a sword, while as an actor, you may be required to do the same while vividly portraying a shakespearean character and in some states, to be a member of the SAG-AFTRA Union.

Let’s take a no-nonsense look at both…

For actors: The wrong way:  Start calling/soliciting directors, producers, casting directors and telling them that you are now available for hire and that you were “born for this” or that you’ve “got game”. Follow up by sending emails with pictures you took of yourself in the mirror scantily clad and making awkward faces that seem cool to you. Catch the next plane to L.A. because you are really good looking and charismatic.

The right way:  Do not solicit anyone other than perhaps headshot photographers and when your ready, an agent but don’t do this until you are at least somewhat prepared. So maybe you’re good looking… wait til you see how many beautiful people there are in Hollywood parking cars and waiting tables and not all roles go to gorgeous people anyway, thankfully. Get involved locally by going to reputable schools, classes or instructors where you can learn about the craft of acting. Audition for local plays. Look on Craigslist or other sites for student filmmakers needing actors in their projects. These are people who like you, are just starting and are usually very receptive to new actors. Pay attention to what and how you are doing and be realistic. You might discover that you just aren’t cut out for acting or you may find out that you have a knack and you are in the right place to hone your skills in order to survive in this highly competitive field. Either way- you learn, you get the answers and at this stage of the game this is exactly what you need. There are people you should direct all of your questions to, the ones who are paid to teach you or the ones who get paid when you work! When the time is right, find an agent. Your agent will be the one who gets the breakdowns from casting directors and may submit you if you are right for a part. Your agent is your liaison with the casting director. If you really want to be an actor, STOP DAYDREAMING AND GET TO WORK!

The industry is in every sense a community and a lot of information sharing happens in this community but you must first enter it, one way or another. You will not just be learning skills but you might find a lot of valuable information that could have otherwise been very costly and time consuming. You will learn the right approach.

For Extras: If you want to be an extra, you most likely can do this without too much trouble, especially if you are in a film town but be thoughtful in your approach. Find out who is casting extras in your area for various projects and then pay attention to the instructions that are posted on their websites or facebook pages. Look for those who have given an indication that they are casting extras, otherwise you are just barking up the wrong tree. I watch daily as people wander onto these facebook pages and right away start asking for information rather than reading what info is provided and what steps are required or what submissions are currently requested. Casting directors are human just like you. So you have to ask yourself, who do you think they are going to want to give opportunities to, those who are being thoughtful and making their lives easier by reading their notices or those who rush them in desperation without first reading any of their requests and “how to” information?

Traditionally this industry operates on a don’t call us, we’ll call you basis. For example, say Paramount announces that they are going to make a mafia movie? Well, out of all of the people who are or would like to be extras in the world, how many should call the casting director and ask a bunch of questions or ask for work? The answer is zero. The casting director, when he or she is ready, will announce what types they are looking for and on what dates and ask for people who fit those descriptions to submit pictures, generally by email.

If you want to be an extra, start by doing a search on facebook to find out who is casting for whatever show or movie you are targeting and where the notices are posted. You also may find info like this on the “casting” link on websites like this one. The point is, to remember that this  is an industry that is traditionally overrun and overwhelmed with people seeking entry and info. Casting directors are not hoping that their phone will  ring ten-thousand times a week with people who are hungry for information or opportunity. This is why they post information on their pages when they have a need for talent and you should note that they are very specific about what they are looking for and how to submit so that they done have to have 10,000 conversations. Imagine if you were working in a casting office and you had just posted that you are looking for a young dark-haired girl to work on a certain project and your phone was ringing all day with people of all ages and types, asking what work you have available!

 

  • Have a current picture or pictures of yourself that are truly representative of what you look like.
  • If you have special talents or abilities that lend themselves to movie making like dancing, specific sports etc., you may be able to earn extra pay as an extra.
  • Know your clothing sizes and be ready to submit these things when they call for your type.
  • Be prepared for long work days and lot’s of waiting around.
  • Bring reading material, playing card etc. to the set to help pass the time.
  • Know what the pay is and how long the shoot may take. If you don’t like either, don’t submit for the job.
  • Just enjoy the process and the experience and be aware that you may not end up seeing yourself in the final product.
  • If you are asked to bring your own wardrobe, bring several options for wardrobe to choose from.
  • Never look into into the camera.
  • Do not take pictures on set.

These are of course just a few tips but be sure to read as much as you can about the process, there are books and websites dedicated to the profession of being an extra.

Whether or not it is your lifes journey to be an actor or an extra, learn as much as you can before jumping in, you will find that preparedness goes a long way to making either experience fruitful and enjoyable. Then of course, do it for the right reasons so that you are enjoying the process. Remember the old axiom, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right”.

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About the Author ()

Jason Saucier was born in Burbank, California and raised in and around New Orleans which is his family's native home. He began working in the film industry in the mid 1980's and has been residing in North Carolina since the turn of the century.

Comments (5)

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  1. Take classes, do Theatre, learn film technique. Work hard, make friends, get used to rejection, persevere.

  2. Millie Wannamaker says:

    I have written a book on being an Extra, after over 20n movies, 9 TV episodes and several commercials. The book is: “Background!” Being a Background Actor in Movies and Television” and is available on Amazon.com. Additionally, I am holding a workshop in Wilmington based on the book, in October of this year. I will have a local Extras Casting Director for a Q&A Session as well as a PA (Production Assistant) also for Q&A. My FB page is Background. Workshops on being an Extra.

  3. JW Burriss says:

    Good article. I will say however that Background Artists, (I can’t stand the word extra) are crucial in the making of virtually any film or television works, and are indeed Actors. Take for instance a current local production where the Director tells the Background Artists to “act like you are watching a basketball game”, and then throws in the word “Pantomime”. Even though as Background Artists, we are in the background, we are none the less actors. In just about every production out there, and yes there are a few exceptions, there in the background, are the Background Artists, acting. My goal here is not to in anyway dismiss Mr. Saucier’s experience and knowledge, as they speak for themselves, but rather to raise the awareness of the importance of the Background Artists.

  4. Tammy Odel says:

    Thank you for the best information I have received so far.
    Respectfully,
    Tammy

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