Working as a TV Extra
Extras are people (actors or simply members of the general public) who appear in films and TV shows in the background of the action. Extras - also known as N/S (non-speaking), supporting and background artistes or walk-ons - won’t be given lines in most cases and are often simply expected to provide a backdrop to the main actors. In some cases an extra may be picked to speak a line or two or to appear as a Continuity Extra (i.e. to turn up in various scenes as the same character).
Some people work full-time (if they can get the roles!) as extras, some do it part-time and others may simply do it once (for example, if a TV production films in your town and needs background artistes). As most full-time extras will tell you this is not a guaranteed job - suitable work (i.e. that needs your ‘look’, that is close enough to get to and that you can get to when needed as often you are only given short notice) is not something you can always plan in advance.
Many people say that the best extras are ‘invisible’ - this means that they can do their job without distracting the viewer’s attention from the main action. Although you don’t need training to be an extra you will learn specific skills on the job - i.e. how not to look at the camera or the lead actors (no matter how famous they may be!) while the camera is rolling.
Extras get work in various ways. Some, for example, will register with an agent that specialises in this kind of work. Do remember to avoid agents that will try to charge you for joining their list - reputable agents won’t do this - and to think about joining more than one extras agency if you want to maximise your chances of finding work regularly.
Other extras will look for jobs in the media (such as The Stage which is also a good way to find suitable agents) and online. And, many will get work on a word of mouth basis. Bear in mind that you may have to drop everything to get to an urgent job and it may be cancelled at short notice depending on how filming is going. In some cases you’ll be provided with a costume (do make sure that your agent has your measurements for this!) and in others you’ll be asked to wear your own clothes but may be given hints on what to wear.
Extras are usually paid via their agents (if this is the way they found the job) although some smaller productions may pay cash in hand (though the rates may not be as good). In most cases extras are paid for a day’s work. And, if you get enough work as an extra you may find that you will qualify for an equity card which could lead to bigger roles.
Bear in mind that a day’s work as an extra may mean a very early start and a long day with a lot of waiting around. As most successful extras will tell you, you should aim to turn up a bit early and never to be late - you won’t get more work if you hold a major production up because you get lost! Check who you need to register with when you arrive and don’t wander about - there will be a specific area for extras so stick with it! If you are filming on location then the TV/film company will usually provide food and drink but this generally isn’t the case for studio work where you will have to pay to eat in the canteen.