Who hasn’t thought of the perk of background work? Imagine getting paid to take a sneak peek behind the scenes of your favourite show. I bet thousands of Game of Thrones fans have pictured themselves standing in one of the show’s epic locations, or perhaps canvassing the craft table while Jon and Daenerys rehearse lines nearby. But in light of the fact that Game of Thrones’ eighth and final season done shooting—is there any point? What’s the deal with background, anyway?
What is an Extra?
An extra is a background performer in a film, television show, or stage performance. They do not play a central role or feature heavily in the show, and are generally limited to performing non-speaking roles. Even so, they are essential to re-creating the realistic atmosphere.
Although the possibilities are infinite, common roles for extras include pedestrians, crowds, fans, audiences, soldiers, and protestors. These roles may not be glamorous nor distinctive, but picturing a restaurant scene without diners or a foot chase without impeding pedestrians reminds us of their absolute importance.
The realities of background work
Background work is widely perceived as an easy way to make some money. It simultaneously provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse into filmmaking. While extra work does offer standardized pay and a unique work environment, there are certain realities and misconceptions worth considering.
In the UK, the standard rate for background talent working a 9-hour day is £89.52 (according to the FAA/PACT Agreement displayed by The Casting Network). While getting pay for overtime or role upgrades is always possible, what you take away at the end of the day (or, if we’re being honest, pick up a month or two later) may be further reduced. Background agencies may take commission, and unexpected expenses—like taking an Uber in a zombie-like state after the show’s 3 a.m. wrap time—can spring up.
It’s also important to consider the environment and work itself. The reality is that a big part of the job is waiting, following instructions, and playing a specific role when called upon. Ideal extras should have the ability to switch on quickly and remain focused during repetitive tasks extended over long (and often late) work hours. You probably won’t get star attention, and it won’t necessarily lead to your lucky break. Those pursuing extra work should also be aware that time spent actually ‘acting’ can vary from set to set and project to project. While all your time on set is paid, a portion of it will be spent filling out paperwork or sitting in a corralled space away from much of the ‘action’.
Reasons to be an Extra?
Many people turn to background acting as a reliable way to make money. In addition to observing movie magic, you also get a chance to be in an actual movie. You’ll likely be fed and caffeinated on the job and have some free time to read or work, whether it’s homework or your other side-hustle. Film sets can be a great place to meet like-minded people who share a common passion for movies. Plus, there are no prerequisites required (although having access to a car is a lifesaver when sets are in remote areas).
As with any job, background work has its own unique set of pros and cons. If it’s something you want to pursue, having a genuine idea of what to expect will let you get the most out of the experience.
How to become an Extra
While people have been plucked off the street to feature in a film as extras, the guaranteed method is to sign up with a background casting agency.
- Find An Agency: The UK is home to several reputable casting companies including Extra People and Uni-versalEXTRAS, Ray Knight Casting, and MFS Casting. Do your research and register directly on the company’s websites, per their guidelines. Also be sure to have the flexible availability required for this line of work before your register.
- Get Headshots: While photographs are required, spending hundreds of dollars on professional headshot services before you’ve even booked a gig is not always necessary. Nor is it guaranteed to give you a leg up on the competition. A quality photograph taken in even, natural lighting will be enough to get started. Whatever you do, make sure the photo is a current and accurate depiction of you with minimal distractions (simple clothes, solid background) and double-check submission guidelines.
- Build An Acting Resume: Build your acting resume as you go, listing your most recent or relevant roles first. Acting classes and workshops you take should also appear on your resume. This can also develop into a website showcasing your experience through stills and clips.
- Act Like A Professional: Be responsive and clear in correspondence about upcoming jobs; reading emails in full (paying close attention to wardrobe, hair, and makeup notes) prevents unnecessary headaches. Arrive on set a few minutes early, with everything you need. Most importantly, follow set etiquette.
Like all careers, it’s never a bad idea to do your own research and thoughtfully consider whether it’s a good fit before applying.
TV Shows with stunning UK locations
There’s no doubt that Game of Thrones put certain locations on the map. Though production on GoT has wrapped, there are still a number of great productions that may be hiring background performers in a location near you.
Filming at the Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire is combined with location shoots throughout the UK, using landmarks such as Buckingham, Lancaster House, Lyceum Theatre, and the Old Royal Naval College in London.
The popular anthology series combines UK locations with international locations to create its futuristic settings. UK locations include Twickenham Studios, Painshill in Surrey, Bourne Woods, Dartmoor, London. Filming also branched out to Iceland, Spain, and Canada. Black Mirror Season 5 filming is currently underway, with reports of sets being built in Croydon, South London.
The Doctor’s latest adventures feature locations around Sheffield as its backdrop. Additional UK locations include Cardiff and Gosport. To achieve a diverse range of locations and landscapes, the production also completed three weeks of filming in Cape Town, South Africa.
BBC’s new drama series filmed in locations around London including Southwark and Camden. The series also transformed the Tate Modern museum into a police station, the South Place Hotel into a safe house, and Surrey’s Charterhouse School into the Palace of Westminster.
Set before a stunning landscape, Poldark filmed in a variety of locations around Cornwall. The list includes Charlestown, Porthgwarra, Padstow, Holywell, Kynance Cove, Porthcurno, Porthcothan, Park Head, Bodmin Moor, Botallack, Levant, and St. Agnes Head.
The historical time travel series shoots in Scottish locations such as Kinloch Rannoch, Falkland (near Edinburgh), and Doune Castle (near Glasgow). Other settings include Culross, Blackness Castle, and Drummond Castle Gardens. International locations include Prague and a studio in Cape Town for scenes taking place aboard ships.
This BBC cop drama films in and around Birmingham. The production utilized recognizable locations such as The Queen’s Arms before production relocated to Belfast.
[Author’s Note: These opinions are based on a combination of research and experiences working at a Talent Agency, managing background talent as a Third Ad, and being an extra myself.]
The crime drama features various but equally stunning locations in south-west England. West Bay and Bridport, found along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, feature heavily in Broadchurch. The seaside town of Clevedon, located in North Somerset, also appears in the series.