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How to Become an Extra in a Movie or TV Show

OK, 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 [3]).

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 [4], 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 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 [5] 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 [6])