After reading this article in LA Weekly, I decided to chip in on the whole Hollywood Extra (AKA “Background”) experience, a surreal world where fleeting royalty-esque moments puncture an otherwise constant “moving prop” cattle stigma. I engaged in a steady relationship with the “BG” world for about a year, every day featuring (no pun intended) a different movie, television, or commercial set.
I’ve been an insane person on Criminal Minds, a Cheerio on Glee, and a flight attendant on Sharknado 2. I’ve run from burning buildings in 90210, “rocked out” while Ozzy Osbourne performed a few feet away in CSI, and have driven my dear Volvo Edward through the Entourage world. I’ve watched teen stars gorge on pizza in forgotten pilots, stood next to legends as they read their lines from cheat sheets, chatted with “famous” people I didn’t realize were famous, and watched B-list actors so drunk they had to read from cue cards.
So if you’re wondering what life is like as a background actor, welcome to my Confessions of A Hollywood Extra series. I was just going to do one post, but then realized there was just… so much.
How It Began…
My foray into the background world commenced with a 3 day masquerade scene on 90210, a fitting way to start the ol’ BG career. As such CW shows are slightly obsessed with looks, I found myself surrounded by the crème de la crème of background people, appearance wise. The fact that everyone lurked beneath elaborate masks greatly enhanced the mysterious ethos. Most of the BG girls were provided with dresses by production, while hair and makeup artists, armed with hairspray and makeup palates, scurried around set with a dedicated fervor, touching up fading lip color and taming flyers. It just felt so glamorous. Furthermore, the 2nd AD on this particular set was notorious for being intense, instilling pure fear in my virgin BG body. Most shows I did afterwards were a breeze by comparison.
How It Continued…
I soon learned the tricks and trades of being a professional BG’er. I had my go-to looks for high schooler, bar patron, businesswoman, “hot girl,” and middle America. I could effectively throw together a complete prom look, including hair and makup, while half asleep at 5am, no questions asked. I knew just how long it would take to drive to all of the major studios, as well as their general layout. I had my “set bag,” packed with beauty essentials, reading materials, and hand warmers (the stages are typically frigid for fire safety, especially when one is wearing a cocktail dress!) I always brought a snuggie.
Yet as prophesied by many a newfound friend, the allure of the BG world quickly faded into “routine,” fluctuating hours aside. Within a fortnight, my once wide eyes gave way to proverbial (never literal) eye rolling. I entered a weird zone where the excitement of booking new work and seeing TV icons in action, conflicted with the dreaded long hours and peasant status. I soon became only excited by the anticipation of working shows from my adolescent years, like NCIS, or the few ones I had watched more recently in “real life.” Since I admittedly don’t watch much TV, this was pretty much just New Girl. (Mad Men was never an option for me to work, as my hair was too long for the era.) Friends’ proclamations of jealousy over my set visits to Revenge, Pretty Little Liars, and even How I Met Your Mother, just didn’t hit home. And although I continued to learn new things, and foster many a new friend, I was beginning to count down the unknown hours till “wrap”… before even arriving on set. There was just something so … off … with repeated, silent deja-vu movements, day after day.
I remember meeting a particularly striking BG girl on the set of Suburgatory. She was clearly a “regular,” a resident townsperson in the show. I asked her how long she had been doing background. A grayish hue dampened her beautiful eyes, as she muttered a haunted “too long.” It filled me with ominous forbidding.
How It Ended…
I grew to simultaneously love and loathe my BG days, with more of the later. While I still welcomed a brief high from driving onto studios, getting fitted in wardrobe, and experiencing the occasional surreal movie business moment, the majority of my days were filled with a yearning boredom and questioning of life choices. Joining SAG provided a brief honeymoon period, thanks to substantially increased paychecks, with OT rates hitting ~$40/hr. (The linked LA Weekly article was referring to commercial BG, which can be insanely lucrative if you’re SAG, though it is harder to come by). Union work was also typically more “featured” or “exciting” working conditions. Yet I was still restless.
And some days were pure misery, to be discussed in a future post. I’m not kidding. I have only cried actual tears from misery 3 times in my life. (Thank you Sharknado, We Are Men, and The Fast & The Furious 7!)
Some people slam extra work as degrading and needy, or “below” an actor. (On one music video set, filmed at the Church of Scientology of all places, an actor informed me he would never do background as an “artist.” Whatever.) However, I do not regret my days in Extra wonderland. I loved being on set. It was an invaluable education in production terminology and procedures. It gave me confidence that I can “do this,” acting wise. I got to visit exciting places, and dress up authentically in different eras. I also made quite a few amazing friends in the process. While I would never want to make a career of it, BG was definitely a life experience to be had.