How to be the best extra in a movie: six vital tips

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Extra work. Some people love it, some people hate it, but regardless of how you feel, there’s no denying that it’s a great way to make some cash, flex your acting skills, and get on set. But being an extra in a movie or TV show is a little different than being the lead talent. There are plenty of tips in this article that apply to all acting gigs, but I promise, if you take these things to heart, you are going to be the director’s favorite. Read on and learn how to be the best extra in a movie! 

Make the casting process easy.

We’ve all heard of actors pulling stunts and making giant demands during the casting process. Many people are notoriously hard to work with and still get roles. Well, I’m here to tell you that only absolutely huge names can get away with this, and also that those people are jerks. My first tip to be the best extra in a movie is to make it easy to cast you. This means a couple of things. Always have materials ready to go, including up-to-date headshots and resumes. Respond to inquiries from your agent promptly, or, if you’re self-submitting, try to reach out as early in the game as possible. This may mean setting aside a few minutes to check your email or Actor’s Access in the morning, during your lunch break, or in the evening each day. That way you won’t miss casting calls and you can get in touch ASAP. 

Read the producer or casting director’s announcement or email in full. Then, once you’ve read it once, read it again. I can’t tell you how many people skim the announcement and miss major details; really knowing your stuff will give you a huge leg up over other actors. It also helps to have a flexible schedule. If you’re a full-time actor, you are mostly going to be working around other gigs, but if you have a full-time job, I understand this is easier said than done. Do everyone a favor and only reach out about work you know you can fit into your schedule; if you apply for opportunities when you can’t get the day off work, you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. Reply to emails from the producer or casting director promptly. Just like you, they’re busy people, and you’re more likely to get the work if you’re easy to communicate with. Of course, during this stage–and every stage–be polite and professional. 

Be reliable.

This one is pretty simple, and applies to all actors. Once you commit to a job, make sure you show up. This means, barring a horrible family emergency or sickness, you don’t back out of your commitment. Movies take a lot of time and money to make, and once you’ve committed to a role, the producers are depending on you. You may think that your role is small and can easily be recast, but you don’t know what’s happening on the production side of things, and if you’re going to be the best extra in a movie, you have to take your job seriously enough to not back out.

I will offer one exception to this rule: if anyone from the production is behaving abusively or you have safety concerns, you have my full blessing to withdraw yourself from a project. 

Master on-set etiquette. 

When you’re cast, show up to set on time or a little early. Arriving late makes a bad first impression and can create a time crunch for other departments like hair and makeup, sound, and costuming. 

Sometimes being on set can involve a lot of waiting around, or your costumes may be weather inappropriate, or it may be a long day. When things like this come up, try to stay positive and professional. On smaller sets, people remember the actors who behave appropriately when things are difficult. On larger sets, the expectation is that background actors are professionals with a job to do just like everyone else, and part of that job sometimes includes waiting around for other scenes to wrap or for the schedule to move forward. 

For smaller shoots, you may be asked to bring costume options or other things with you to set. Make sure you understand what you’re being asked to do, ask clarifying questions if needed, and then deliver. Don’t choose an outfit just because you like the way it looks; make sure it’s in line with the vision that was communicated to you. Being the best extra in a movie isn’t about standing out, it’s about helping to build the world of the film, and costuming is one way you can help with that.

When you’re on set, continue to treat everyone with respect, regardless of their role or status. The PAs and the makeup artists are there to do their jobs, just like the EP and the director. Be flexible and treat them with respect, even if someone is coming to you with bad news or a scheduling change. Especially on smaller sets, people will make note of this.

Be aware of who’s in charge of what. As an extra, you should be familiar with the most common roles on a film set, and should be looking to your handler or a producer for instructions, the 1st AD for scheduling, and the director for creative decisions. On a smaller set, people may be performing several roles, so make sure you understand who’s who.

When anyone makes any sort of announcement or gives directions, listen carefully and make sure you understand their instructions. A film set is a busy place, and if you’re going to be the best extra in a movie, you need to be clear on what you’re supposed to be doing.

If you’re new to this, familiarize yourself with common set lingo, like “striking” (a light is being turned on or off) or “points” (sharp object coming through.) This will help you while you’re on set, both to protect yourself and make the crew’s life easier.

Fade into the background.

I understand if this tip is a little disappointing, but it’s absolutely vital to you doing your job well. As I’ve already said, the role of an extra or background actor is to build out the world of the film, not be the star of the show. If you want to be the best extra in a movie, and you really want to make the director love you, your focus shouldn’t be on giving the performance of a lifetime. Your performance should be subtle, nuanced, and natural. Unless you’re directly told to do so, don’t have a big, over-the-top reaction to what’s going on around you. Focus on the directions the director is giving you, and unless you’re told to go big, try to fade into the background. If you’re running from Godzilla who is coming to crush the city, have fun running and screaming, but don’t try to scream the loudest or have the most over-the-top expression of terror on your face. If you’re supposed to be sitting in a coffee shop or a courtroom, think about what’s appropriate for that situation and then give a natural performance. Remember, you’re here to add to the world, not distract from it. If the audience is totally locked in on your performance, you haven’t done the job to the best of your ability.

Being over the top is the fastest way to get edited out of the final version of the film. If you keep your movements small and repetitive and your performance subtle, it will be easier on the editor to maintain continuity. If you’re all over the place, they’re way more likely to cut you out of the frame, because it actually makes their job harder.

Stay ready.

If you’re interested in being utilized more in the scene, getting more on-screen time, or even being bumped to a featured extra, you have to stay ready. When you’re on set, stay quiet and calm, don’t get engaged in conversations, and stay focused on the director, awaiting instructions. Directors are way more likely to pick actors who are professional, composed, and ready to go than an actor who’s chatting and laughing on set. 

Limit your networking.

While some people are career background actors, a lot of actors take on work as an extra because they want to work their way up to bigger roles. That’s a great goal, and it’s okay to network on set, but you need to be smart about it. Don’t spend too much time focused on networking, especially with above-the-line creatives like the director or producers; they have a job to do, and if you’re a distraction to them, they’re actually less likely to hire you in the future. The best way to make a good impression and get hired again is by being a professional and nailing your performance, not by chatting with the EP. Say hello and goodbye, introduce yourself, and afterwards, send a single nice email thanking them for including you in the project. Especially on smaller, indie sets, people take note of these types of things and will remember you when your name comes up in the future.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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