The Perks of Being an Extra

How to get your "set legs" so you're ready for your closeup!

If you’re a new actor who wants to break into TV or film, you may wonder what it’s like to work on a professional set. Some actors worry that if they nab even a small role in a big project before ever stepping foot on a set, it could add stress to what should be an amazing experience.

One way to gain professional on-set experience is to get hired as a background actor or “extra” on a couple of big projects. You’ll get paid to be an actor, get an education on how a real set works, and gain the confidence that only comes from real-life experience. I call it getting your set legs!

Here are some steps to help you get your set legs:

1. Register.

Sign up on background casting sites. (Backstage!) You’ll need to know your clothing sizes and make sure your special skills section on your resume is up-to-date and accurate.

2. Be professional.

When you get that call, understand this is a business and you must treat it as such. That means if you accept a job, it’s critical to show up on time and follow the directions of the Assistant Director.

3. Hurry up and wait.

Days on set can seem very long. You’ll spend most of your time waiting to be called, so bring reading material or something to keep you occupied.

4. Take notes (discreetly).

The main benefit of a long day is that you’ll have plenty of time to observe and take note of everything going on around you. Learn the lingo, watch the gaffer, grip, sound person, and makeup artists in action, and take it all in.

Depending on the set up, you may even get to watch the principal actors work. This experience is invaluable. Remember, it’s why you’re here! Don’t waste the opportunity if it presents itself.

Of course, make sure you’re not in the way. Be discreet, follow directions, and be professional at all times. This is not the time to get an autograph or eat your weight in snacks at the crafty table.

5. Build relationships.

This is a great time to network with other industry professionals. Bring your business cards and make a point to truly connect with at least two people.

6. Set a limit.

There are professional background actors who work all the time and love what they do, which is awesome! But if you want to shift into bigger roles, my advice is to limit how many background jobs you take. Do them for a little while until you feel confident and understand the workings of a professional set, then focus on auditioning for bigger jobs.

When I was starting out, I took a handful of background jobs. I felt like they were a critical part of my education, but once I got comfortable with the rhythms, hierarchies, and ins-and-outs of set life, I stopped accepting those gigs and put my attention toward booking bigger roles. When I did get a role, I already knew what to expect, so I could concentrate on my acting work instead of trying to figure out what was going on all around me. I can’t tell you how glad I was to have those prior experiences under my belt.

Should you still do background work on a big set if you’ve already worked on student films or smaller non-union gigs? While the lexicon is the same, there is simply no comparison to the hustle, bustle, and sheer magnitude of a well-oiled, big budget production. My feeling is you should give yourself every opportunity to gain experience and first-hand knowledge so you’re super confident when you get your first big budget role!

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