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How to Become an Extra in a Movie or TV Show

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Movie FilmingOK, this isn’t very personal finance-y but I found it fascinating. A few years ago, while I was working at Northrop Grumman, I was helping organize an event where current and former Northrop employees came back and talked about a variety of issues. The session I was helping with discussed work life balance.

Unfortunately I forget who I was talking to (or I would’ve interviewed him for this story) but he told me that his current retirement hobby was being an extra in movies. As it turns out, he was one of the extras in the wedding scene in Wedding Crashers. That scene was filmed on the eastern shore of Maryland.

Being an extra, as he explained, was mostly about having fun and “being in a movie.” The pay is terrible. The work is unreliable. And even if you were a “full time extra” and managed to get work 40 hours a week, you still wouldn’t be able to support yourself. Ever since I heard him talk about his retirement hobby, I’ve been fascinated with what it took to be an extra.

So, I started to research it.

How to Become an Extra

There’s a joke that every aspiring actor in New York has been in an episode of Law and Order. That’s because the original series started airing in 1990 and there have been half a dozen spin-offs (SVU first starting airing in 1999 and has over 300 episodes), so there have been plenty of opportunities!

If you live in New York or Los Angeles, there will be far more opportunities than in any other city, and you just need to scour backstage.com, craigslist, newspapers, and sign up with local and regional casting agencies (if you’re serious, this will cost you a little bit of money — be concerned if that’s more than $20).

How Much You Are Paid?

The world of extras is split into two groups – those in the Screen Actors Guild and those not in the Screen Actors Guild. If you aren’t in SAG, you can get anywhere from absolutely nothing to minimum wage. SAG members get paid based on the negotiated schedule, which is significantly more than minimum wage.

How do you get into the SAG? You are either a “principal performer” (which you won’t be) or you get hired as a SAG extra for three days. How do you get hired as a SAG extra when you aren’t in the SAG? Every production needs to hire at least 30 SAG extras as part of their negotiated agreement and sometimes the SAG extra doesn’t show up. Or they’re late and they need to start filming. When they hand out the thirty SAG vouchers, you need to try to snag one. You’ll get paid more, you’ll get a day credit, and when you get three you’ll be able to join the SAG!

Joining SAG-AFTRA

Joining SAG gets you better pay for being an extra (instead of minimum wage), but it’s pricey. The one-time initiation is $3,000 with annual dues of $198. You also pay 1.575% of covered earnings of up to half a million dollars. But joining does get you access to that better pay!

(Incidentally, the chat with the former Northrop employee only stoked my interest in it. The fascination probably started when they filmed Smart People in and around my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon. I still remember the fake snow on the grass when they were filming in the spring.)

Have you ever been an extra in a TV show or movie? Ever been in a commercial? How’d you get the gig?

(Credit: bibendum84)

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6 Responses to “How to Become an Extra in a Movie or TV Show”

  1. Shirley says:

    We knew a couple who did this after they retired. They had portfolios full of pictures and references and openly called it a fun hobby, not a moneymaker. We did see them in a couple of movies, but definitely would have missed them if we had not been told when and where to look. They could afford the time and travel and enjoyed themselves. ;-)

  2. Barb says:

    Divergent is filming in Chicago and their Facebook page is always looking for extras.

  3. cubiclegeoff says:

    I went to USC where they film a lot of things and I accidentally walked through a set while they were filming. I don’t think it counts, but it’s as close as I’ll get.

  4. My Dad has actually been an extra in a couple of movies over the last several years. He lives in Montana and looks the part of a Montana cowboy, so whenever they have a call for someone looking like that he usually gets the gig.

  5. Andy says:

    My cousin (who lives in LA) works for a casting agency and she says she gets 100 of applications for people to be on movies or TV shows. 99% don’t get a call back because they are not serious. For those who do, about 7.9 hrs are spent waiting around the set, and then 0.1 is for actual work. So you need a lot of free time and flexibility. And by no means is the work regular.

  6. When I am not wearing my Chip’s Money Tips hat, my “day job” is being Chip Chinery – Principle SAG-AFTRA actor. I’ve been fortunate, appearing in 150+ TV shows, movies and commercials. Jim is right that being an extra is mostly about having fun and being in a movie. Actors are paid to wait. An Extra who has been doing it for a while will bring his own collapsible chair with umbrella attached. VERY smart move! I see the same people on different shoots. In fact, the same Extra who was my paramedic partner last season on CBS’ “Rules of Engagement” was the other high school wrestling coach on Disney’s “Crash & Bernstein” a few weeks later. There can be a slight caste system between principles and extras. For example, Extras usually don’t have access to the same meals and snacks on the soundstage as Principles. That can be weird.


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