Marci Dean has been in dozens of movies, including films with Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Reese Witherspoon and Jude Law. But you probably don’t know her name. She is one of thousands of part-time actors who make money as movie extras.
Extras don’t get film credits or lines. But they can get union wages, meals and perks — such as getting to read novels on the job. Dean said being a movie extra is a great part-time job for retirees, college students and anyone else who has a highly flexible schedule.
“This business would not have worked for me as a single mother,” she said. “But as a retiree who is not depending on this income to support a family, it’s great.”
Anyone who has watched a film or television show has a passing idea of the role that extras play. Also known as background artists, extras are the people walking on the street when the main character goes to work; the parents in the football stands; the anonymous members of the crowd at the beach.
Being an extra requires no experience, no acting talent and no talking. Although you can sometimes parlay being an extra into an acting career, that’s neither required nor expected.
All that’s expected of you is to show up on time — early, ideally — and to pay attention and follow directions. If you’re asked to bring specific clothing, have it on hand, pressed and ready to go when you start.
You’re there to provide atmosphere in one or more of the scenes being filmed that day. But the scene you’re in is just one of many that the production company will be working on. So a good portion of your workday is likely to involve standing around the set waiting to be called.
You can (and should) bring a book and be ready to socialize with your fellow background actors, Dean said. You’ll have plenty of time to check the various casting sites to see if you can find background work for the next day, too. And if you have some sort of quiet and remote side hustle — writing, editing or being a virtual assistant, for example — you can do that while you wait.
A caveat: You have to be able to interrupt whatever else you’re doing at a moment’s notice to focus on your work as an extra.
Extras can earn anywhere from minimum wage to more than $50 per hour. Typically they’ll get paid for a full day even if they’re needed for only a few hours.
The dramatic swing in hourly pay is largely dictated by two things: whether you’re in the union and whether you’re expected to do something extraordinary — swim, ice skate, play golf or ride motorcycles, for instance. You also are usually paid more if you’re expected to bring a costume or prop, such as a tennis racket or golf clubs.
Union membership accounts for the bulk of the difference. That’s because SAG-AFTRA members are guaranteed overtime pay if the production goes over a set number of hours. And 10- and 15-hour days are common in this industry. Overtime is paid at 1.5 to two times ordinary wages.
Moreover, SAG-AFTRA contracts demand that productions provide actors with meals or meal allowances and pay for mileage if the shoot is distant or lasts more than a set number of hours.
This combination can result in earning more than twice the union standard of about $200 a day.
Why doesn’t everyone join the union?
For two reasons: First, not everyone can join the union. You need to have a certain number of acting credits to qualify. If you qualify for union membership, the other hurdle is cost. There’s an initiation fee of $3,000, plus annual dues that start at $445.
If you are doing only occasional extra work, those costs can be prohibitive.
There are also a lot of nonunion background jobs that union members are barred from accepting.
It can be a foot in the door. Because you’d be around actors, directors and production people, being an extra could give you a good feel for how the movie business works. You’d also be likely to meet other aspiring actors, who could share notes about acting classes and tips on getting speaking roles.
However, being an extra is generally not a resume builder. And the last-minute nature of background jobs could hinder your ability to audition for more serious roles.
Of course, acting ambitions are not necessary. You can make money as a movie extra when you’re simply on vacation, in college, pursuing another career or retired.
There’s no cost to sign up with a casting service. However, some will ask you to appear in person to take headshots and participate in an orientation, so you may want to stick with a service that’s local.
Dean also subscribes to a service called Extras Management that scours additional sites for potential background work and automatically submits subscribers for any job that matches their availability and profile. This site does charge a monthly fee for doing the legwork. Dean thinks it’s worth the cost for those who want to work regularly.
How often can you get jobs?
That’s almost impossible to know. Casting has been slow this year because many productions went on hiatus because of COVID-19. Production companies are gearing back up, but extras are typically called the day before they’re needed. Planning ahead is tough.
In an ordinary year, Dean said, she could get called multiple times a week. Right now, she’s getting daily inquiries but has been reluctant to accept jobs during the pandemic.
Her experience is not necessarily the norm. She has an advantage because she lives in Los Angeles, home to dozens of studios. Jobs are available in nearly every major city, but there are fewer of them outside of top production hubs such as California, New York and Atlanta. Still, as more streaming services like Netflix and Apple TV launch and buy original programming, productions are springing up everywhere.
“There is money to be made, and it costs nothing to sign up,” Dean said. “Anyone and everyone can do this.”
Kristof is the editor of SideHusl.com, an independent site that reviews hundreds of money-making opportunities in the gig economy.