The Background Actor
If we're friends on Facebook then I'm sure you've seen the photos and posts of me on set doing background work. I like to drop names alot and act like it's a big deal, but I feel like I've been taking advantage of my friends and family by not telling you what background acting really is. It's easy.
I mean really easy. I went to an orientation with Central Casting (the largest background acting agency in LA/NY) three days after I moved out here and then I started submitting myself for work. There's no audition and there's barely a casting process.
It kinda goes like this:
- I have a day off from Islands every week...sometimes two days.
- I call the Non-Union Female Central Casting work line (you can actually call it if you want to, it's just a bunch of recordings: 818-260-6130) to see what is available for the one or two days I have off. This work line is updated randomly throughout the day, so it's always different. As someone trying to find work, it's really really amazing that you have no idea when there happens to be new work available. It just makes the whole thing that much more...exciting? Hassle-free? Enjoyable? Kill me. It's awful.
- If there happens to be something on the one day that I have off that I actually fit the description for (caucasian-looking, female, 20's-30's, average sizes, over 5'7") then I can start the gleeful task of calling in to submit myself for the show.
- There's also something fun called a "doubling period" which means that you can't work on the same show within 30 days (sometimes it's 14 days, sometimes it's a whole season, sometimes there isn't a doubling period and you can submit all the time)
- There are 515,000,000 Non-Union talent registered with Central Casting. Yes, Five Hundred Fifteen Million people. The vast majority of those people are not actively seeking work. They came to registration but then found fame and fortune the next day so never wound up working, or they found a day job, or they went back to wherever they came from a month later, or they spent one day on set and realized they'd be treated like crap so they never submitted again. Whatever. There's still a grip ton of people registered and looking for work.
- So, when a casting director posts a new call on the lines, there are literally thousands of other people trying to submit themselves for the call. Which means....their lines are always busy. I tried calling over 200 times one day to submit myself for a call and never got through. But re-dial is a girl's best friend. It's annoying but it's easy.
- Once you actually get through, a casting director will answer the phone by saying "Casting, first five?" The first five digits of your social security number are like your ID for them. So you give them your first five and then tell them your name and then there will be a 1-2 second pause, after which you will either hear "Can't use you." Click. Or they'll start asking more specifics and eventually book you and give you another number to call to get directions to set and information about wardrobe. So. Many. Phonecalls.
- Once you're booked you have three jobs: 1) Show up early. (Waaaay more difficult than you might think in LA). 2) Bring the right wardrobe. 3) Do what you're told.
- There's also something really fun when background acting called a "bump". It means you get more money ;) Like any time I'm booked with my car I get an "auto bump" which is $15. Or you if you have to change wardrobe you get a $5 wardrobe bump or if they asked you to bring a prop you get a $5 prop bump. Some background actors have these bumps memorized and you hear them asking the AD about them at sign-out. "I think I felt some rain earlier, do we get a rain bump? I was asked to carry something heavy, can I get a bump for that? Someone stepped on my foot, can I get a bump?" You hear it all. And usually the answer is no. The AD will tell you what bumps they're allowing.
- And, no, I will not tell you how much money I make background acting. That's so rude.
- Just kidding. It's not a big deal. I make $64 for 8 hours. Which means that they own me for 8 hours. If they choose to only use me for 5 or 6 hours then that's their decision, but I get paid $64 no matter what. As Non-Union talent, for hours 9 & 10 I get paid time and half, which is $12/hour. And anything over 10 hours is double time ($16/hour).
- 15 hour work days are my favorite. And I'm actually totally serious about that.
I don't know if this has shattered anyone's dreams about what I've been doing out here, but I thought you all deserved to know the truth. Literally anyone can do this if you live in LA.
There are a few things you can always count on though when it comes to Background Acting:
- Someone will tell you that the food they're giving you is "exactly what production is eating". It's a lie.
- Another background actor will tell you how long they've been background acting.
- Another background actor will tell you about how amazing or awful a star is in person on another show.
- Another background actor will complain about the weather.
- Another background actor will tell you about their auditions.
- Another background actor will give you advice on how to make it in LA.
- Another background actor will give you advice on how to get a Union voucher.
Sometimes "another background actor" are all the same person and you end up murdering them at the end of the day.
Or you end up Facebook friends with them because they cornered you and you had no choice.
Somehow, after all that, I absolutely love it. It might get old someday. But I love being on set.
It is kinda rough though. Being so close to your dreams that you can touch them. Literally, actually touch the people that do for a living what you only do in your dreams. And to also be in front of people who could change your life. If that director or that producer or that casting agent or that talent happens to notice you, they have the power to make your dreams come true. It's unnerving. And it has to be the last thing you're thinking about or you'll seem desperate and draw attention in a negative way.
So along with showing up on time, bringing the right wardrobe, and doing what they ask me to do, I also pay attention. I watch people and make eye contact and smile. Because that's about all I can do.