January 8, 2011

Working As An Extra

If you are truly serious about being an actor and want to be taken seriously as an actor, then I highly advise against working as an extra. Allow me to take a moment to shatter some misconceptions about extra work.

1. Extra work is acting.

Extra work is NOT, and I repeat, is NOT ACTING. It's not, I'm sorry. There are actors and there are extras. If you were an actor, you would not be placed in a separate holding area, you wouldn't be yelled at like children by the second ADs and production assistants, you would have first pick at craft services, you would have lines, and you would get paid a hell of a lot more. This leads to me to misconception #2.

2. You can put extra work on your resume.

It does not go on your resume and if you are guilty of putting extra work on your resume, you are telling anyone of real influence (agents, producers, casting directors) that you are an amateur and that you have no idea how this business works. I see it time and time again: I'm talking to someone about past projects and this person is bragging about how many TV shows and films they've "acted" in. You are thinking to yourself, "If you've done so much, why don't have an agent/SAG card/manager"? Then you see their resume and see a score of "characters" named 'dead body #67', 'cafe patron', 'audience member', etc. All of these are listed next to HUGE television shows and films. If you somehow manage to catch an agent's eye and are granted a meeting, I GUARANTEE they will ask you about your credits and will most likely want to see a reel. When you tell this agent that you were just an audience member on "Glee", or a dead body on "Fringe", you can kiss that agent goodbye. You've just wasted their time and they will not be happy about it.

3. It's a great survival job and you'll have time to pursue your acting career.

The day rate for SAG extra work is around $135 a day. That's before taxes are deducted so we're talking around $100 a day. You are generally notified a day or two in advance of your call time and shoot date. In order to make an okay living as an extra, you'd have to do this almost every day of the week. Then you are on set ALL day long so where you'd find time to pursue a true acting career is beyond me.

4. It's a great way to gain set experience.

Meh. I'd say doing extra work once is a great way to get a bird's eye view of what generally goes on on set. But there is a huge difference between the set experience of an actor and that of an extra. The job of an actor is much more technical and involved. The extra has no real bearing on the story being told, and they are easily (and cheaply) replaceable. Extras have one action per scene. For example: You are told to walk to the left of the bar carrying a tray of cocktails and set it down. Don't cross in front of the actors or you'll be reprimanded. You do this over and over until the scene is wrapped. Actors deal directly with the director and assistant director, they are usually given better holding areas and trailers, they are provided costumes (extras are sometimes given costumes on larger productions), and they are all around treated better. It just doesn't compare. Trust me.

5. It's a great way to earn your SAG card.

If you are serious about being a professional working actor, you are doing yourself a HUGE disservice by gaining your SAG card through extra work. For one, the process of collecting three SAG waivers is erratic at best. There is no rhyme or reason as to how they are given out and you usually have to work as an extra several (if not dozens of) times before you acquire all three.

So, say you've worked many films/shows as an extra and you managed to get all 3 waivers. You just joined SAG and think that all of the big opportunities will start pouring in from agents wanting to sign you, casting directors giving you auditions, and producers wanting to hire you. Um, wrong?

Your resume is pretty much non-existent (extra work doesn't go on there, remember?) and you have no reel or a very meager one. Well, your weak resume is going to turn off most prospective agents and when they ask for a reel, you'll have nothing to show them. So now, you can't get an agent and you need an agent in order to be seen by high level casting directors. Forget ever meeting a producer and convincing them to hire you based on the amazing audition that never happened. No job for you.

Now you say, "Well I can build up my reel by doing indies and student films". Wrong again. You're part of the union now, which means that you have single-handedly cut yourself off from the plethora of student films and non-union films that actors use in order to gain acting experience and reel material. You can be fined and permanently lose your SAG status by doing non-union work. I've been SAG-eligible for over 6 months now (well I'm technically a must-join) and I don't plan on joining until I have to. There's too much amazing non-union work at my disposal right now.

Many newbie actors are so caught up in joining SAG that they forget the process of working your way up to a professional status. You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Start out with student films and non-union films so that you can build up a REAL resume with real on set experience. Then you can use your best scenes on your reel. Once you get some great work under your belt, you can start shopping yourself to good agents and managers. A lot of agents don't care if you aren't SAG, but they do want to see a good amount of set experience, good training, and a great photo. If they really believe in you (and you've given them all of the tools that they need), being non-union is small potatoes because a good agent can get you seen for SAG projects. Then, when you become SAG eligible from booking a principal role on a national commercial, or a co-star on an amazing show, you can feel like a true professional that earned their card the right way.

So, in conclusion....

I hope that I have not offended anyone, I'm simply speaking the truth. It's better to read it here, than to be told by an agent or casting director why you're not being taken seriously as an actor. And for what it's worth, I have worked as an extra. I did it once my very first year in NYC....before I knew any better. It only took one time for me to realize that it was not going to be the right path to get to where I wanted to be. Plus, it was hellishly depressing to watch the stars of the TV show that I was working on do what I'd been dreaming of doing for half of my life.

Now, I will say that if you have already built up your resume with student films and indies, you have a good reel, good headshots, and you are still having trouble getting a legit agent, you still have better options than doing extra work to gain union status. It's much easier to get a commercial agent than a legit agent. Commercials are a great way to earn your SAG card. If all else fails and your dream agent won't take you on unless you're SAG, then and only then would I recommend extra work as a way to get it. But, if you're doing everything that you should be, you're working hard, and keeping your skills up, you should have no problem getting the results that you desire.

Progress Report
I had three commercial auditions this week for: Special K, Kindle, and Payless. I received a callback for Special K that took place on Friday the 7th, and I'm also holding for the shoot dates. It shoots next week in Toronto and if I book it, it'll force me into joining SAG since I'm currently a must-join. Fingers crossed!


  1. That was awesome advice to anyone seeking to take acting seriously Andrea and who better to take the guidance from than a person who has the experience to back it up and speak personally to it. Well, thanks for the heads up if I ever decide to get into acting, haha. And best of luck too with your auditions!!

  2. Well said, and I'll keep my fingers crossed for you!

  3. Thank you both, I appreciate it! I only speak the truth!

  4. Hey Andrea, great post. I've done extra work twice, just to get the "set" expereience. However, I definitely agree. It's not a path one should take to become a professional actor. Good luck on your auditions and call backs. Have a great night!

  5. Thanks for posting! I just wanna smack my background buddies when they call themselves ACTORS.

  6. Eh....though I don't disagree with the overall attitude casting persons have of actors doing extra work, (which I believe is apalling in it's self)I do disagree with the this young lady's advice. Until she has a impressive resume herself, I think she should refrain from giving out advice to others.

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  8. Hi Anonymous: Why do you find a casting director's attitude toward extras appalling? Their job is to cast actors, not extras.

    What specific points in my post do you disagree with, if you don't mind me asking? I'm curious to hear your perspective. You can email me if you wish and I'll make a blog post about it.

    Also, if you don't think that my resume is impressive, that's fine. What would you consider impressive? Considering how much work I've done in the past year and a half, I (my managers and agents, too) would have to respectfully disagree. My IMDB page is updated with all of my professional credits if you care to take a look.

    1. SAG Extra work for a commercial is $342.00 for 8 hrs. Just so you know.

    2. Yes, that is true. However, the majority of background jobs are in tv shows and films, not commercials.

  9. While I am a few years late on this: "You're part of the union now, which means that you have single-handedly cut yourself off from the plethora of student films and non-union films that actors use in order to gain acting experience and reel material. "

    This statement is significantly wrong. To begin with, there is a SAG Student Film Agreement, which is incredibly easy to file, and allows you to hire both union and non. While there are certainly non-union student films, the majority of the thesis and MFA films (the ones you want to do) will be under the SAG Agreement. In addition, there is a SAG Short Film agreement, SAG Ultra Low Budget, and Modified Low Budget. All three happen fairly often, and the vast majority of them go the self-submission route. Not really sure I would trust the advice from someone who is not aware of this.

    1. I'm well aware of the different types of contracts available under the SAG Agreement. I've written about them in other posts and I've even done one or two ULBs in my day. I'm not sure why you assumed otherwise, but I suppose that's neither here nor there. I also think that, unfortunately, you missed my point entirely. What I was saying is that, generally, the type of actor who chooses to gain SAG status through background work is one who may have little to no on set experience. By joining SAG prematurely and with no experience, they are cutting themselves off from a valuable avenue (non-union work) to gain the experience that would grant them real consideration for future SAG jobs. How is what I said wrong? In your comment, you're conflating two separate issues. It doesn't matter what SAG Agreement projects are available, it doesn't change the fact that they can no longer work on the plethora of non-union films that are always looking for talent. That's my point and I'm sorry that wasn't more clear when I wrote that post 3 years ago. As you said, you can audition for SAG student and indie films regardless of your union status.

      Now, you've admitted that you are a few years late on commenting on my post and I think it would have been more fair for you to consider the fact that my post was written 3 years ago before responding but I'd like to point out that the landscape of what kinds of jobs available to new actors hasn't changed significantly since then. The truth is that back then and mostly now, the vast majority of student and indie films available to actors were non-union, despite the ease, as you say, with which one could apply for a contract under the SAG Agreement. I would argue that the majority of indie films available on sites like ActorsAccess, Backstage, and even Mandy are still skewing toward the non-union side, although not as drastically as 3-5 years ago. I stand by what I wrote 3 years ago, but I have no issue with being challenged. I wanted to make sure that I had just cause for feeling that way then and now.

      Well, I got curious, so I went to Backstage.com and ActorsAccess.com to do searches of just feature films that are currently casting. For Backstage, I searched nationwide, and for ActorsAccess, I only searched the LA area. For Backstage, there were 6 union feature films in the breakdowns, but there were 18 non-union. No contest. On ActorsAccess there were 35 union features casting as compared to the 29 non-union features. So on AA alone, which is probably the most used source for actors self-submitting, the data is nearly 50/50.

      Now, I must ask, why would an inexperienced actor blow their chances of auditioning for those 47 (total) non-union films just to be able to claim SAG status when they have no experience to show for it? Yes, they can audition for SAG student films, as well as ULBs and whatnot, but, and I repeat, they could STILL audition for those same SAG jobs, whether they are in the union or not! But they CAN'T audition for the non-union films that could still serve them well until they're ready to join.

      Do you understand my point a bit better now?

      Anyway, thanks for taking the time to read and for leaving me a comment. I hope your holiday season has been lovely.