So, you want to be famous. You’ve got dreams of Hollywood and Broadway; bright lights and the big city. You can already see your name in lights, and all you need is one lucky break.
Believe it or not, it might be easier than you think.
When I first moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, I had no idea what I was going to do to earn a buck. I had a two-year work permit and plenty of time on my hands, but nobody wanted to hire me, despite having an advanced degree and a willingness to work for peanuts.
Every employer offering a long-term position was concerned about paying and training someone who may not be able to maintain residency; a common problem for potential hires on both sides of the border. After weathering a string of rejections, I decided I needed to be a little more open-minded about employment.
That’s when I stumbled into the world of the background performer (aka, the extra)
Let it be known now that I had no prior training or experience in acting before becoming an extra. The last time I’d been on a stage of any kind was for a bit part in a school play, circa 1986. I think I played a tree in that particular production.
So, it was with great surprise when I was called in for an interview with a reputable Vancouver talent agency. Here are five things that I learned that can help you get your foot in the door, and keep it in:
1. No (Specific) Talent Required
I got hired because I had prior military experience, but it was nothing special. The agency had a particular need for someone vaguely familiar with U.S. military training and tactics, although the truth of the matter is that the set directors would tell me later how to move and act, rendering any relevant prior experience I may have had pointless.
The neat part about it is that these agencies want to know every little trick and skill you have, because they (and you) will never know when it will come in handy. Know how to juggle? Great! Write it down. It could be the one thing that gives you an edge.
2. Be Bold
Interviews for background performers are just that; they are not auditions. Even so, it shouldn’t be seen as a limitation. People in the entertainment industry thrive on energy and enthusiasm, and the interview is your chance to give it to them.
Most walk-on jobs for extras involve little to no acting, but it does require the ability to take direction and be prompt. Show agency reps you have this by being on time to your interview and answering their questions with precision. Think of your interview as your first performance and enjoy it. If you can do that, you’re in.
3. Be On Time, Every Time
The key to getting your foot in the door as a background performer is to demonstrate to the agency that you can be on time, every time. Good agencies have strict rules that help them establish a good reputation in the industry, and they will drop performers who make them look bad.
Avoid this by only taking jobs you know you can do, and by being on time. If they need someone who can ride a horse, and you say you can, you better be able to do it. Otherwise, you will be fired and there’s a fair chance your name will get passed around as a person who can’t deliver.
4. On-Site Promotional Potential
The way it works often goes like this: you show up as an extra with very little to do in the production, but for whatever reason the director takes a shine to you. It could be your look, how you walk or even how you nod off in the corner while you wait for something important to happen.
The next thing you know, you’ve got a speaking line! And, that’s when the ball really starts rolling. After you’ve established yourself by earning credits in this way, you can start to attract individual attention, and perhaps even draw the need for personal representation.
5. Network, Get Paid
A big part of being a background performer is waiting around. You might wait all day so that you can walk through one scene that takes 10 seconds. While you wait, though, you have the chance to talk to other extras, many of whom have a lot of experience in the business.
The best part about this is that you’re getting paid! Extras get paid for all that waiting around, and if the shoot takes longer a few hours, you’re likely going to squeeze a meal or two out of it as well. More importantly, though, is that you can use this time to get to know the other performers. Ingratiate yourself, be enthusiastic about learning and you’ll find a whole new world opening up for you.
This job is about having fun, and if you can approach the work with discipline while still enjoying it people will take notice. Do it often enough and you will gain a reputation as someone who is reliable. The next step from there is getting recognized, and that is often a lot easier to do on a set than it is in an audition.
Break a leg!