If you’re an egoist, this could be a cure for you.
If you’re shy, this could be a cure for you.
If you don’t like people, this is not for you.
If you like people, do it now. Be an extra. Or, as some insist, a background artist.
It’s okay if you’ve never acted. It’s okay if you were the bumblecat without lines in the third grade play The Nonsense Man.
Don’t worry if you’re plain or ugly. Don’t worry if you’re obese or emaciated. Don’t worry if you have a bump on your nose, funny hair or a scar on your face. Those characteristics make you unique.
In fact, sometimes, beauty can hinder you. On one set that was using a few extras for the day’s shot, the director decided not to use the woman who could pass for a supermodel.
“You’re too beautiful,” he said. “This has to be believable.”
Movies and television shows are always under production in Austin. Dozens of short films and web series are being shot. Some productions scream for huge numbers of extras—such as fans at a football stadium or a church congregation. Others seek a few extras in a small scene—a restaurant patron pantomiming conversation in the background.
You go from highs, interacting with a famous actor, to the lows of being shoved aside because the director thinks you look wrong for the part or another extra looks more appropriate.
First Step: Pose for the Camera
First, get a headshot and a body shot. Don’t spend hundreds of dollars.
Find a white or neutral background. Get a friend to shoot you: 1) from mid-chest up and 2) a full body shot from feet to crown. Use a phone if you don’t have a camera. Make sure the photos are in focus.
Second Step: Get Your First Job
Third Step: Don’t Get Kicked Off Set
Once you’re on the set, don’t get kicked off by:
- Asking any actors for a selfie or an autograph
- Asking the cinematographer to make sure you’re in the frame
- Shooting photos of the action
- Eating crew food or snacks
- Suggesting different scenes to the director
- Doing impromptu auditions
Fourth Step: Networking
Meet people. Make friends. If you’re an introvert, step out of your comfort zone.
The people you meet are the best thing about working as an extra. Some are odd, some are peculiar, some are surprising and all are interesting. You’ll find yourself looking forward to seeing your friends on the sets more than star sightings.
In Austin, you need to know about Lannis Temple and Robert McDorman. These two run the Central Texas Actors Group (CTAG). You need to also connect with Dan Eggleston and his Yahoo group. Several who found jobs as extras through these three individuals often continue to bigger roles as they get to know the business. And if you do extra work for any length of time at all, you’ll run across these guys on a set.
Fifth Step: Learn the Business
If you find you still have the drive after heat and cold and long hours of waiting, and shot after shot of the same twenty-second scene for hours, you can try breaking into a larger part by listing your experience as an extra on your resume.
You’ll need a better headshot, some acting classes, and a willingness to go to audition after audition without results. But you have an advantage because you’ve already seen the lack of glamour and the mechanical requirements that are required to shoot a single scene.
Sixth Step: Have Fun
Working as a background artist is a great way to see whether you really like acting. It strips away the glamour. You get paid a bit of money…sometimes. And you’ll find yourself watching every movie, commercial and show with a more critical eye as you find that footage shot over days, weeks or months is cut and edited into a feature length movie, a 22-minute television show, or a 30-second commercial.
One shoot you’ll find yourself dressed formally, but outside in 100-degree plus temperatures. Then you’re freezing in a t-shirt and shorts, jockeying for position for any warmth around a malfunctioning heater.
You’ll see people lie down on concrete during night shoots and go to sleep as easily as if they were on a memory foam mattress.
And sometimes, you’ll be steps away from someone like Timothy Hutton mulling over a cup of coffee during a shoot on American Crime. Despite it being the 20th take, you’ll find yourself avidly watching Hutton stare at the coffee, amazed by how he makes the scene so remarkable.
J. Alan Nelson is a writer, actor and attorney. His written work also appears on Texas Business.
Have you ever worked as an extra in Austin? What do you recommend to those getting started?
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