A background actor
is a performer in a film
A film, also called a movie or motion picture, is a series of still or moving images. It is produced by recording photographic images with cameras, or by creating images using animation techniques or visual effects...
, television show, stage, musical, opera or ballet production, who appears in a nonspeaking, nonsinging or nondancing capacity, usually in the background (for example, in an audience or busy street scene). War film
War films are a film genre concerned with warfare, usually about naval, air or land battles, sometimes focusing instead on prisoners of war, covert operations, military training or other related subjects. At times war films focus on daily military or civilian life in wartime without depicting battles...
s and epic film
An epic is a genre of film that emphasizes human drama on a grand scale. Epics are more ambitious in scope than other film genres, and their ambitious nature helps to differentiate them from similar genres such as the period piece or adventure film...
s often employ background actors in large numbers: some films have featured hundreds or even thousands of paid background actors. Likewise, grand opera
Grand opera is a genre of 19th-century opera generally in four or five acts, characterised by large-scale casts and orchestras, and lavish and spectacular design and stage effects, normally with plots based on or around dramatic historic events...
can involve many background actors appearing in spectacular productions.
On a film or TV set, background actors are usually referred to as "background performers", "background artists" or simply "background" while the term "extra" is rarely used. In a stage production, background actors are commonly referred to as "supernumeraries". In opera and ballet, they are called either "extras" or "supers".
Casting criteria for background actors depend on the production. Becoming a background actor often requires little to no acting
Acting is the work of an actor or actress, which is a person in theatre, television, film, or any other storytelling medium who tells the story by portraying a character and, usually, speaking or singing the written text or play....
experience; punctuality, reliability and the ability to take direction may figure more prominently than talent.
There are several casting agencies that specialize only in background work. When hiring background actors, casting directors generally seek out those with specific "looks" that will contribute to the ambiance desired for the film, for instance, "high school students", "affluent senior citizens", etc. Casting directors may also look for background actors that possess special skills needed for the scene, such as rollerblading or dancing. In addition, as background actors are often required to use their own wardrobe on the set, casting directors may seek those who already possess specific costumes or props, such as police uniforms or musical instruments.
On smaller productions or student films, background actors may be hired en masse
with little formality.
The length of a background actor's employment on a production largely depends on the needs of the director and the scene(s) being filmed. Some background actors are only needed on the set for a day or two; others may remain with the film for extended periods of time. On James Cameron
James Francis Cameron is a Canadian-American film director, film producer, screenwriter, editor, environmentalist and inventor...
's film Titanic
Titanic is a 1997 American epic romance and disaster film directed, written, co-produced, and co-edited by James Cameron. A fictionalized account of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt Bukater and Billy Zane as Rose's fiancé, Cal...
, for instance, a group of 150 "core background actors" were hired to play the ship's passengers; these background actors were employed throughout the entire length of filming. However, they were not given any credit in the film's titles - a common practice; However there is The IMDB Database where paying members can list TV, films... ETC.; once confirmed, much like Wikipedia operates.
Salary and working conditions
In the United States, most major film and television productions fall under the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild
The Screen Actors Guild is an American labor union representing over 200,000 film and television principal performers and background performers worldwide...
(SAG) or AFTRA; background actors are protected and guaranteed the same working conditions as actors with speaking roles. The UK equivalent for actors is called Equity. However, on films in the UK the majority of background actors work under agreements negotiated by the Film Artists Association (FAA Division of BECTU).
SAG-signatory producers are allowed to hire non-union background actors after a certain number of SAG performers have been cast; non-union background actors are usually paid the minimum wage. On productions outside of union jurisdiction, payment for background actors is at the discretion of the producers, and ranges from union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...
-scale rates to "copy and credit" (i.e., no pay). Those producers who do not pay their actors may be in violation of state and federal laws about minimum wage for a job.
Between 1946 and 1992, background actors in film and television were largely represented by the Screen Extras Guild.
SEG was disbanded on 1 June 1992 and transferred its jurisdiction to SAG.
In popular culture
The silent film The Extra Girl
The Extra Girl is a 1923 American silent comedy film starring Mabel Normand. Produced by Mack Sennett, The Extra Girl followed earlier films about the film industry and also paved the way for later films about Hollywood, such as King Vidor’s Show People...
(1923) portrays a small-town girl who comes to Hollywood and becomes a background actor in her attempt to achieve stardom.
The television sitcom Extras
Extras is a British sitcom about extras working on TV and film sets and in theatre. The series was co-produced by the BBC and HBO, and is created, written, and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, both of whom also star in it...
follows the exploits of two professional background actors, Andy and Maggie. They spend most of their time on set looking for a speaking role and a boyfriend, respectively.
- Extra helping, Sam Delaney, The Guardian
The Guardian, formerly known as The Manchester Guardian , is a British national daily newspaper in the Berliner format...
, 2 April 2005