If the idea of holding a regular job is simply too taxing for you, then you may wish to invest some time and money1 in becoming a 'background actor', or in common parlance, an extra. In North America you will make approximately US$46 a day2.
Extras are those people you see doing, or in some cases not doing, menial tasks in movies and television programmes. Having nothing to do with the actual story, they are, as Alfred Hitchcock once put it, breathing props.
The first thing you will learn as an extra is how to wait. It is highly recommended that you bring one or more of the following to the production site:
- A book
- A deck of cards
- A Walkman
- A knitting project
- Your unfinished, working to-scale model of the interior of a nuclear submarine
You will get lots of use out of them.
The second thing you will learn as an extra is 'bumps'. Bumps are when you get an extra amount of money above and beyond your $46 a day. If you bring your own clothes, you get paid for every outfit they ask you to wear. If they keep you five minutes after everyone was supposed to break for lunch, you'll get paid an additional $5 for every ten minutes until you are released. If they have smoke or loud noises on the set, you get $15. And so on... For further information about bumps, ask another extra what's up. They will answer you. Loudly. And for a long time. It's another way to fill in the tedious waiting-around periods.
The third thing you will learn is the pecking order. You will quickly find out who the first and second assistant directors are, who the props man is, who does costumes, right down to the guy whose job it is to move boxes around.
It is extremely important to never, under any circumstances, make small talk with the stars or director of a movie. These people have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and can be rather touchy if you invade their rose-tinted space. They also have the power to get you fired, or even worse, blacklisted.
The only time it's OK for you to talk to anyone important is if they talk to you first. And even then, keep your answers to one syllable grunts. Some sets even have rules that you can't make eye contact with certain stars.
The Good, the Bad and the Clothing Option
Occasionally, you will be asked to remove items of clothing. You always have the right to say no. If you are male, this can include pants and/or boxers. If you are female, this generally means going topless, although our Researcher has heard of full-frontal, but never seen it happen. If you agree to remove clothing you will be paid extra.
Also, there will be times when you have to be covered in water, mud, dust, thick make-up and hot clothes in the middle of summer, skimpy clothes in the dead of winter and, quite possibly, even jello and catsup to simulate wounds. Whatever you do, make sure you do not touch your make-up. It was put there for a reason.
If you are really successful as an extra, you will be given a SAG5 voucher. They are the union vouchers and are worth $90 a day. Keep in mind, however, that once you have three union vouchers, you are considered a 'must join' and unsurprisingly, must join the union before you get any more vouchers. The dues to sign up with SAG in Southern California and Los Angeles are $1,1926 and then any subsequent dues once a year thereafter, depending on how much you work. Also, in order to join the union, you must have a completely unique name from anybody else in the union. That's why Tommie Lee Jones is Tommie Lee Jones instead of Tom Jones and is the same reason why many people adopt film star pseudonyms.
So there you have it. A few handy rules to remember when trying to achieve stardom in the fast lane.
See ya in the movies!