You see them on every television show, but you probably don’t even notice them. They are doctors, lawyers, waiters, police officers and a host of other roles. They play an integral part of virtually every scene. They are background actors.
They are the people that are there to blend into the background, hence the name ‘background actors’.
But, they are not there not to be seen. The role of the background actor is very important. They’e there to make the scene look real and often to react to the actions of the main characters.
Background actors come in all shapes and sizes and ages, from very young children to Senior Citizens.
Here is a description of a typical day for a background actor. After securing the job, the actor arrives at their designated call time. Usually it’s a very early call time, often at 6 or 7am.
If the action for the day is in a studio, then the actors simply go to that studio and are directed to a soundstage. If the shooting schedule calls for everyone to be on location, then the actor usually arrives at what’s called ‘Base Camp’. Base camp is where the actor’s trailers and the hair and make-up trailers are located.
The first stop is check-in with the Assistant Director. The AD provides the actor with his/her voucher. This is the paperwork that the actor needs to get paid for the day.
After receiving his/her paperwork, the actor heads to wardrobe. Most of the time, the actor provides their own wardrobe, having been told what type of clothing to bring to set. They may be told to bring two suits if they’re playing a professional of some type. It may be casual wear if it’s a scene outdoors. Actors are usually asked to bring a few options for the wardrobe department to choose from. If the wardrobe department has other ideas, they will provide clothing for the actor. If the show is a period piece, like “Mad Men”, or there are special costume needs, the actor may have to go a day or two before the shoot for a wardrobe fitting.
After wardrobe, the actors often head to hair and make-up. Much of the time, background actors are told to arrive on set ‘camera ready’ with hair and make-up done. Again, if it’s a special show, there may be special requirements for hair and make-up.
After getting checked out by wardrobe and hair and make-up, background actors head to set. If on location, there are vans that transport all of the actors to set.
Once at the set area, there is usually an area set up for background actors to wait in in-between scenes. This is called the ‘holding area’.
When it’s time for background actors to be placed in a scene, the AD will bring everyone to set and starting setting the background. Background actors may be sitting or walking or moving in some way in each scene. The AD gives all directions about which way each actor will move during the scene. He/she will ‘set’ each actor in a ‘1st position’ or starting mark. Some actors will move immediately when the Director starts the scene. Some will wait a few beats and then move into the scene. All of this is done in an attempt to make all actors move so that the scene looks natural.
To begin each scene, the Director will yell ‘Background!’ to start the actors moving. Then he/she will call out ‘Action!’ for the main action of the scene to begin.
When the scene is finished or there is a need to cut, the Director will say ‘reset’ or ‘back to one’, which means for the actors to move back to their 1st position to begin the scene again.
Scenes are shot several times so it’s important for all background actors to remember where they were placed and how they moved during a scene. And, scenes are shot from several angles with the camera shooting from one direction and then moving to another direction, so there is often the issue of ‘matching’ each take of the scene. This means that to make the scene look smooth once it’s edited, everything has to match from each angle. So background actors have to match their actions in each take.
All of the action that you see are people that are hired as background actors. There are no random people in a scene. While on location, there are production assistants on set who ‘lock up ‘ the area to keep random people from wandering onto the set. A random person wandering into a scene would ruin that take.
Each scene takes at least a few hours to shoot. Days for background actors are long. Usually at least 12 hours.
For this article I went ‘undercover’ as a background actor. I registered with Central Casting in Los Angeles on a Monday and went to work on my first set the following week.
I’ve worked on “Chuck”, “The Mentalist”, “Outlaw”, “Mad Men” and “Law & Order: Los Angeles” as well as a few other shows.
As expected, I was truly in the background, as a courtroom spectator, a store shopper, and or just a person walking through a park.
The main company to supply background actors for television shows is Central Casting. Background actors register with Central Casting and then are provided information on shows that need actors. Jobs are booked through Central with paperwork for payment coming through a division of Central Casting.
Most opportunities for background work are in Los Angeles and New York, but there are often productions elsewhere in the country.
Working as a background actor is certainly an interesting job as no two days are the same. As I mentioned, most often the days are long, sometimes very long. But, if you are interested in being on a set, working as a background actor is one way to go.
For more information about Central Casting, please go to: http://centralcasting.org/