Being a ‘full time opera singer’ often leaves me with a lot of free time, not to mention a dearth of income. To combat the boredom and the threat of imminent poverty, I occasionally work as a background extra on several New York area films and television shows.
I first became interested in background work because I love TV (so very, very much) and I wanted to learn about the filming process. Also, my competitive nature was piqued when my engineer/science guy roommate started doing it and was getting in all these commercials and movies when he’d never acted a day in his life. So a couple of years ago I registered with a NY casting agency and began my adventures in background.
It doesn’t take much to be a background actor. You need to be able to sit, stand, walk back and forth and they like it if you have at least a basic grasp of the English language, but it’s not strictly necessary. BG work is a lot like being in a herd of cattle or on a first grade field trip. There are lots of people prodding you to move faster, yelling at you to stop or stand still until they say go, and someone to you know, make sure you’re wearing shoes and stuff. Suffice it to say, this is not highly skilled work, which is probably why it pays so little. Well, that, and the fact that some idiots are willing to do it for free…
That brings me to the many different types of background actors:
*The ‘Actor’ Actors:
The ‘I don’t usually do background anymore/I’m more of a principal actor/I’m just doing this as a favor to the casting director’ types. I see them all the time.
*The Career BG
The Careers are usually in their 40s or 50s and have been doing this forever. For many if not most, BG work is their main source of income. They are almost always in the union. I’m guessing most of them used to be ‘Actor’ Actors, but then again I can be rather cynical about these sorts of things.
*The Paycheck BG
This type of BG usually has another career or is retired and just doing this for fun or to make ends meet. They know they won’t make a lot of money, but the schedule is flexible and it beats temping. These are my people.
Then there’s my favorite group of all:
*The Parade of the Deluded
These unfortunate souls believe with every fiber of their being that they are going to be famous. I’m not talking about people with legitimate goals here. These are the assholes on set who name-drop, talk incessantly about ‘the biz,’ give unsolicited advice to anyone who is dumb enough to listen, promote their upcoming album, pass out business cards, etc… Normally I would say that these are some legitimate networking techniques, if these poor sods weren’t so hopelessly clueless in the way they go about it. You can usually distinguish them by their outlandish outfits. For example on a recent film set I saw this delightful character…
(Allow me to zoom in on those awesome cheetah shoes.)
This guy tried to worm his way to the front of the group in every single shot. Folks like “Cheetah Shoes” think that simply by being on set and drawing enough attention to yourself that the director will somehow ‘discover’ their talent and make them a star! They make me have a sad face.
Before I continue my dissertation on all things BG, I should probably show some credentials. While I haven’t kept a list of all the shows in which I have appeared, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that I’ve been in pretty much every tv show that films in NY (with Boardwalk Empire being the notable exception because they won’t take any women with high-lighted hair – apparently my look is too modern – ha!) I’ve also been in the following films, some of which haven’t been released yet:
Men in Black III: (Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin) I’m in a large crowd of people watching a shuttle launch in one of the flashback scenes. I’m the one in the yellow hat.
Now You See Me: (Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Jesse Eisenberg) This was a five-night, overnight shoot on the roof of a warehouse in Brooklyn. They shot fake money out of a canon at us, so that was pretty fun…at least it was fun the first five times. The next four hundred times, not so much. Also, I’ve never been so cold in my life.
Gods Behaving Badly: I was actually pretty excited about this one because I had read the book, but it seems like they Americanized the heck out of it so it’s probably lame. There were a myriad of celebrities and one really crappy wedding band that played the first few lines of ‘People…people who neeeeeed people…’ All. Night. Long.
Tower Heist: (Ben Stiller, Casey Affleck, Eddie Murphy, Matthew Broderick, et al) I was in the mall scene.
Some French film about people kissing? [Spoiler Alert: the unattractive female lead gets hit by a car right in front of me! I have a killer reaction too.]
New Years Eve: Everyone under the sun was in this awful, awful movie. I call it the poor man’s ‘Love Actually’ – worst shoot ever.
Diva: (some South American film) I was in the scene where the couple goes ice skating in Central Park. I used to be a figure skater, so this was a particularly fun day for me. I even got to stand in for the leading lady for a minute while they reset the lights because she had never been on skates in her life. I suspect that I’m a pretty big deal in Bolivia now.
Arbitrage: (with Richard Geer and Susan Sarandon) I was in a fancy dinner/award ceremony scene seated only one table away from Rick & Suzie (as I call them now). We filmed at The Plaza Hotel which was, admittedly, pretty cool.
The Dictator: (with Sasha Baron Cohen) For this film they actually shut down a section of 5th Avenue. It was a Sunday morning (Father’s Day as a matter of fact) and we only had from 4am – 10am to shoot because we needed to be out of the way by the time all the stores opened. It was a parade scene where General Admiral Alladeen came riding down 5th Ave – on a camel! – followed by his retinue of ‘virgin’ guards. (I felt so bad for those ladies. They had to march up and down the street all day in stilettos.) Then there were I think fourteen powder blue Lamborghinis, a few more camels carrying all of his stuff and row upon row of black suburbans as far as the eye could see. I played a member of the giant angry mob. Sasha Baron Cohen took all of our vitriol in stride.
Phil Spector: (with Al Pacino, Helen Mirren and Jeffery Tambour) I played ‘Madame Alternate’ (uncredited) on the jury in one of the courtroom scenes.
Great Hope Springs: (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones and Steve Carell) I was seated right behind Tommy Lee Jones in a restaurant scene. If I scooched my chair back even a little bit, I could’ve bumped heads with TLJ.
Today I am writing from the set of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig. I do a lot of writing while working in the background. WordPress has a great iPhone app that makes mobile blogging quick, easy and fun! (You’re welcome WordPress. Can I get my hundred bucks now?)
Understand that blogging, twittering, facebooking or any other type of social media-ing about the movie is expressly forbidden. Sometimes they make you sign a confidentiality agreement. Other times they’ll just scream at you for taking out a cell phone and fire you for taking pictures. I must admit, I’m guilty of snapping a few covert pics on set, not because I’m some celebrobsessed fan girl, but because I want proof of how short and normal-looking most movie stars are.
I totally understand why these ‘no camera’ type rules are in place though, especially on big-budget films. No one is going to make a big deal about a show like Law & Order filming on the streets of NYC, that’s an everyday occurrence, but if it’s a shoot where a big movie star is involved, things can get a little crazy. Try as the production crew might to deter them, the paparazzi will show up, and those guys can be a real nuisance. For instance, just this afternoon a particularly wily paparazzo posed as a member of the background (he was registered, signed in and everything – this dude didn’t wander in from off the street) just to get on the set. The crew made him delete all the pictures he took then kicked him out.
Sometimes for big deal movies, they’ll use a working title on set or when hiring background artists (as we prefer to be called) so no one will leak the location of the shoot to the press. For instance, the latest Spiderman movie was listed as Fiona’s Tale on all the casting websites. Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest film The Dictator was called Finchley’s Dream. I’d love to know who comes up with these decoy titles…
Anyway, there were no such precautions with this film, (perhaps there should have been) and I’m not really worried about being caught with my phone out today. For one thing, we’re filming outside in the financial district and I am playing an NDP (or nondescript passerby) so I’m way too far away to see what’s going on (never mind get in the shot), we’re filming stunts today so none of the stars are even here, and most importantly, this blog is about me, dammit! If you wanna hear gossip about celebutards go read Perez Hilton. Although, there was this one time on Gossip Girl…never mind.
When it comes to background work, the real name of the game is ‘hurry up and wait.’ Typically (although there is precious little about this business that can truthfully be called typical) you will be asked to arrive on set very early in the morning. Sometimes they will provide a courtesy bus if it’s too far away from public transit or too early in the morning for public transit to be running on any sort of reliable schedule.
When you arrive on set you check in with a PA (production assistant) and receive your voucher for the day. This little pile of paperwork is how you get paid. After signing in (hopefully) you will be instructed to go to breakfast. Even when they don’t mention anything about breakfast or give you explicit instructions not to go, the breakfast truck is usually my first stop because really, the free food is the best part about this gig. It’s awesome. No matter what time of day you arrive on set, nine times out of ten there will be some kind of breakfast available. Even if it’s a night shoot, the first meal of the day on set is always breakfast, not necessarily breakfast foods, but still breakfast. FREE breakfast.
Then you have to wait in line at the wardrobe department so they can approve your outfit. You almost always wear your own clothes when you’re BG unless it’s a period piece. Half the jobs I book are because I own tons of cocktail and formal wear. Also, they almost never let you wear white, red or wild prints because they ‘pop’ too much on camera and they prefer the BG to blend into the, well you know.
They always ask you come to set ‘hair and makeup ready’ but you still have to wait in another long line to get approved first by hair, then by the makeup department.
Almost without exception, after you’ve eaten, been thoroughly inspected and told to wear your most uncomfortable pair of shoes, you will be asked to sit around for hours before actually doing anything, unless you are in the union. If anybody is going to go to set it’ll be the members of SAG/AFTRA.
The world of background is one of the last bastions of segregation in this country when it comes to union and non-union delineation. Depending on the set, they sometimes like to keep the union members cordoned off in their own separate area in order to keep out the non-dues-paying riffraff (like me). In addition to their higher rate of pay, union members get to cut to the front of all of the lines, they eat first (and sometimes get their own special food) and they’re usually the first people brought to set. Plus they get all kinds of benefits like bonus pay for bringing more than one change of clothes or a prop, they get smoke pay if there is smoking or a fog machine on set, they get wet pay if they have to work outside in the rain and they get meal penalties when they have to work more than six hours without a meal (the craft food services table doesn’t count.) They generally have an earlier call time and are the last to wrap at the end of the day as well. This ensures that union members get the maximum overtime benefits.
On any given set, a certain (usually small) percentage of the BG actors HAVE to be in the union. On rare occasions when they can’t find enough union members for a particular job or if the casting director likes your look, they can bump a non union BG actor up into that role by giving you a waiver. A waiver temporarily grants you all the benefits of being in the union without having to join. Once you have obtained three waivers, you become eligible to join the union, but if you choose not to join, you are ineligible to receive any future waivers.
During my two years on the job I have accrued two waivers. Both of those times, oddly, I was asked to play a VERY pregnant woman.
[This is me on the set of Law & Order SVU. Those pregnant suits are a trip! It’s all one piece, body suit style. They even add bean bags to the boobs to give it that realistic feel. Can I also take a moment to express my hated for florescent lighting? Gross.]
[On the set of NYC 22. At the shoot they were calling it The 2-2. Not the most flattering maternity clothes of all time. Also that kid looks like he’s riding suspiciously high. I’m not sure gravity would allow such a thing to occur in nature.]
I should mention that on both of these occasions I was not technically BG. I was working as either a stand-in or a photo double. (See below.)
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the shooting process. Let me fill you in on some handy BG related lingo:
BG – Background (hopefully you’ve picked up on that by now)
PA – Production assistant (they’re the ones in charge of wrangling the BG and yelling at everyone)
Crafty – According to Wikipedia (member when people used to say Webster’s Dictionary?) craft service or crafty refers to the department which provides food service and beverages to the other departments or crafts. Basically, it’s where all the snacks are.
Stand-in – literally stands in for a principal actor while the crew is figuring out camera angles or setting lights
Crew – any off-camera member of the staff including stand-ins and photo and/or stunt doubles
Photo Double – this is kind of like a stand-in except you’re on camera performing the same action as the actor you are doubling, but the camera never sees your face. For instance in my case, all the camera saw was my pregnant belly in that awful orange shirt.
First team – principal actors and/or movie stars
Second team – the stand-ins and/or stunt doubles
AD – assistant director; usually the highest authority who works with the BG (Note: there are lots of other people who are higher up on totem pole or simply have a job that don’t require them to interact with the BG so I’m ill-equipped to write about their job descriptions)
Second second – literally the second, second AD – there are two
BG to Holding – in a quiet and orderly fashion, please return to the room where all your stuff is; likely far away from set
Camera reload – technical jargon I don’t understand that means everybody but the cameramen have to stand around and wait for a while
Turning Around – when they move the camera to shoot from another angle, often from the opposite perspective; usually followed by ‘BG to Holding’ (best case) or standing around for a long time (typical)
Back to 1’s – return to your original starting point in the scene
When you’re filming a crowd scene, and when you’re working BG you’re almost always filming a crowd scene, there is a highly predictable sequence of events. It goes like this:
The AD will yell:
Picture’s up! – that means, ‘everybody shut up, we’re gonna start shooting now!’
Roll sound – to which the sound guy responds, ‘Sound is rolling/speeding.’
Then eight hundred PAs will yell:
Rolling! – now you really have to shut up cause everything you say will be picked up by the microphones. At least that’s true for interior shots, but even if you’re outside you should still shut up so you can hear the directions that come next.
[Interesting side note: As an opera singer, I have been trained to project my voice like crazy, especially when delivering dialogue since we don’t use microphones. Therefore, it was really jarring for me when I realized how quietly film actors (especially TV) deliver their lines. They barely speak above a whisper. It’s amazing. Actors who have a theater background seem to speak with more resonance compared to their strictly film actor compatriots, but no matter their training they all tend use their ‘inside voices’ on set.]
Slating: No one actually says, ‘slating.’ This is the part when they snap the little black and white dealie (the slate) in front of each camera (if there are more than one) and say, ‘A mark’ or ‘B mark’ for a second camera.
When everything is all set – and often there are several false starts where they have to ‘hold the roll’ to adjust something – the AD will yell:
Background! – this means, start your action. For instance, today, my action was to walk from a mailbox to a bus stop over and over and over again…ad nauseam.
This is followed by:
Action! – principle actors start their action
At the end of the scene, or if something goes wrong they yell:
Cut – stop doing anything
The eight hundred PAs will echo this ‘Cut!’ to make sure everyone within a five mile radius knows that they have stopped shooting.
Then you’ll hear one of several things:
Reset/Back to one/Going again/Going again right away (which is pretty much the same as regular ‘Going again’ except with less fucking around) – go back to where you started your action (if you moved). For me, this meant walking back to the mailbox so that I’d be ready for my next trip to the bus stop.
…all day long. Forever. Until finally someone yells…
Martini! – the last shot of the night. This phrase harkens back to the old studio system days when everyone, particularly the studio execs, would go out for martinis at the end of the day.
Or they yell the more conventional, ‘That’s a wrap’ or ‘BG, you are wrapped!’ which precedes the longest and slowest moving line of the day because everyone has to have their voucher signed before they can leave.
If my depiction of the glamorous life of film and television has enticed you to embark on your own BG career, allow me to give you a few tips:
Things to bring with you to set (or not)
As a general rule, you should never bring anything valuable to set unless you can carry with you all day (in a pocket or purse) or can afford to have it stolen because it almost certainly will be. There is always supposed to be someone (a PA) in the holding area to look after all the stuff when everyone is on set, but that person is usually taking a nap, reading a book, generally not giving a shit…or stealing your iPad. Cause let’s face it, it’s not like they’re making any money either.
That said, your gonna want your…
*Smart phone – the only way to compete for roles in the highly competitive world of BG is to be able to submit yourself for work the minute those casting emails come in!
*Smart phone charger! – I cannot stress the importance of this accessory enough. Unless you have some magical device that can stay on all day and still have the battery last for 12+ hours (and that’s a normal day) you’re gonna want one.
*External smart phone battery – Mine makes me the envy of every other BG in holding. In the holding area, outlets are scarce and on outdoor shoots, non-existent. Don’t let a lack of electricity keep you from being glued to your phone!
*Something non-phone related to do – like a book or whatever else people used to do before their smart phones did everything for them.
*Comfortable shoes! – Ladies, do not bring uncomfortable shoes to set (i.e. heels) because you will have to wear them ALL day. If you bring cute shoes, the wardrobe people will ask you to wear them and you can’t exactly refuse since you’re the one who brought them. If wardrobe is somehow dissatisfied with your less than fashionable flats, you have a few options: 1) compliment the cuteness of the rhinestone stilettos they’ll inevitably try to give you from their stock while ruefully bemoaning the fact that they simply don’t fit; 2) agree to wear your uncomfortable heels (I accidentally typed ‘hells’ and was tempted to leave it that way), but keep a pair of comfy flats in your bag to slip on during breaks and ‘hurry up and wait’ times; 3) agree to wear your heels, but actually wear your comfy flats knowing that they can’t possibly keep track of every pair of feet on set. (This is my standard option.)
*Toothbrush – I personally don’t like to go 12-14 hrs without brushing my teeth.
Other helpful hints:
*If the holding area is indoors, stake out a spot next to an outlet, especially if you don’t have an external battery. This way, your phone is less likely to be stolen while you are charging it.
*Know that foreign film crews are the worst. They are disorganized, serve crappy food and offer little to nothing in the way of crafty. And yet, they also tend to pay a lot more, so I definitely works these shoots whenever possible, but it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into so you can plan accordingly and bring your own snacks.
*Casting agencies will always tell you to ‘bring lots of options’ in terms of wardrobe. I always do. I have a small rolling suitcase that I bring with me to almost every set. That said, 85-90% of the time, the wardrobe people say that I look fine in whatever outfit I came in and don’t even bother to look at what else I brought. This can get annoying if you schlepped a suitcase through three subway transfers.
*If you’re anything like me, you will never be able to watch tv the same way again. Have you noticed how much tv has changed in the last ten years? Sitcoms are shot like movies now. For instance, take a show like Everybody Loves Raymond and that quintessential living room/kitchen set they used. You only ever saw three of the walls. They had cameras set up (I’m guessing two or three) on one side of the ‘room’ and the action played out on the set like live theater. Now picture a current sitcom. Take one of my favorites, 30 Rock. Next time you watch it, or any show really, count the number of seconds before the shot changes. I doubt you’ll ever make it to five. Editors are constantly changing the angle or perspective to achieve a much more dynamic viewing experience. I LOVE learning stuff like this, but some people complain that the magic of the movies is a little bit lost on them now and they don’t enjoy watching film nearly as much anymore. Something to think about at the very least.
So, if you don’t mind long hours, crappy pay, a lot of hurry up and wait, being told when you can eat, and losing all sense of individuality, for from now you will be known collectively as ‘background,’ then perhaps a career as an extra is right for you!
Update: Turns out Ben Stiller is here today! So are his parents which is super adorable. I didn’t take any pics though cause I didn’t want to be ‘that girl’ plus this is a really nice crew and for some reason they are paying us way more than the normal rate so I definitely don’t want to risk getting kicked off set.
Also, can you say, motorized power skateboard? This shoot just got a whole lot cooler.