As an actor, you likely at some point will look to do extra work on a film or tv series. This can be a fun introduction to the world of on screen acting, can be a way to make some extra money, and maybe even a foot in the door to more work in the industry. It's important to note though the specific needs from an extra on a shoot, and what is correct behavior and professionalism expected of you in this type of work.
What is an extra?
First of all, an extra is a background actor on the shoot. They are typically not credited on the film or series (no mention of your name in the end credits), do not have any character name or reference, and have no lines. In fact you cannot be recorded speaking anything understandable in the final cut, or the producers would need to handle your role differently.
Your goal as an extra
Extras can be considered living scenery. It's your job to create a visual context in the background for the scene that is happening in the foreground of the shot. Maybe it's a wedding and the shot is about the bride and groom speaking. In the background extras provide the context of the wedding as guests, caterers, planners, family members and more. Or maybe it's a school setting in the cafeteria where the scene is at a table with characters talking. In the background extras provide the other students, teachers, janitors, lunch workers and more.
As an extra it is your job to provide this visual context, without pulling focus or drawing attention. You should be present, engaged, alive, but not especially interesting or memorable. You are part of the overall scenic elements that support the scene being shot in the foreground. You should not attract the viewer's eye away from the primary scene.
How do you find extra work?
If you know of a film or series being shot in your area, look to casting agency websites, even social media for the title of the film or series being worked on. Often a casting agency is contracted to find and hire the extras for the shoot days. You can usually submit photos and resume online or via email.
Extras are often hired very regularly for these projects and in a very short term timeline. You might apply today and be called a few days later for the shoot. In between you might need to go in for a fitting of wardrobe. If you want to do this type of work you need to be readily available for these fast calls. I've been notified in email in the morning that I should come in that afternoon during a specific 3 hour window to get fitted and then the shoot will happen over a few days the next week, of which I might be called for one, two or all days. Having a job that you cannot be flexible with, or heavy family commitments or other things that demand your time is not very compatible with extra work.
It's good to note here too, that when applying for extra work, follow all instructions, no matter how detailed, EXACTLY. Remember that the casting team is dealing with an enormous amount of details. They need you to provide what they ask and be efficient in your communications with them. If you go outside the bounds of what they need and how they need it, you likely won't be hired. As a general rule, work to make their jobs easier! The more you can do that, the more valuable you are to them and the more likely to get hired, and hired back.
What to expect?
First, understand that you are likely one of MANY extras the production team is working with, costuming, scheduling, booking, filming, paying. You need to be easy to communicate with, responding in a very timely fashion, and with no complications to their work. Be prepared, arrive early, behave professionally, follow instructions completely, don't ask for special treatment or allowances. They don't have time to deal with variations.
On the day of the shoot, expect to be there for 12+ hours. If you're released early, great. But often they will keep you in a holding area sometimes for long periods until they know you're needed, or are sure they won't need you any longer.
What NOT to do
Some things that are absolute no no's for an extra:
What you should do
While it may seem obvious, these can't be stated enough:
One of the key tools for any actor is their headshot. It's your calling card, your primary marketing material along with your resume, and it's your surrogate that you leave behind to represent you to the organization sometimes long into the future. Bottom line, it's extremely important. It doesn't matter if you're going for stage, film, tv, commercial or industrial work, every actor wanting to work in the entertainment industry needs photos, regularly, and they better be good.
Ultimately you should have a variety of high quality current photos ready to go as needed, but let's start with the headshot itself. It's referred to as a "headshot" because for a long long time it was just that... it was a photo of your head, typically with you looking at the camera. Strong eye contact, an idea behind the eyes, a great representation of how you look, and a hint of how dynamic you can be as an actor. For a long time, these were always in black and white.
The headshot has changed though in recent years. It's much more common now to have a color shot instead of black and white. In fact, it's almost expected. It's also ok to have a shot that is 3/4 length instead of only your head. This shows some of your body to give the viewer a better idea of your overall look.
The headshot is the big one, absolutely. But it's also a very good idea to have other shots at the ready in case a casting director might want more, or if you sometimes change your look.
For film and tv work you'll want to get signed with an agent. An agent very likely will ask for a few different shots. A headshot for their primary use, then also 3/4 shot, full body shot, maybe smiling versus serious expression. For women, hair down and full versus hair up. For men beard, no beard, and variations between, since the shoot or project might require you to change your current look. For example, the other day I did a shoot on a new Netflix series that is set in 1996. They considered changing my beard or shaving it off for my role as a teacher, but ultimately decided to keep it as is. So if possible, have a variety of looks in your photo archive that show you in different moods, full body in some, different looks to your hair, etc.
It's gotta look like YOU
Here's a big one.... Your photos MUST be up to date! I can't tell you how many photos of actors I see that are 10+ years old. I've had some with clothing that was so dated it looked like they were in a period film in the shot. As an actor, you will not be taken seriously if you try to use old outdated photos. A casting director I know has a "wall of shame" in her office of the worst of the worst of headshots. They're a great source of amusement for many.
Your photo must look like you! If you change your hair drastically, you need a new shot. If you had facial hair in your headshot then don't now, you need a new shot. If you lose or gain weight, you need a new shot. Let me repeat, your photo must look like you! I've known actors to be thrown out of an audition or even from a shoot when they walked in looking nothing like their photo. The company called in the person in the photo, not the person that walked in. So make sure you update your photos if you significantly change your look, and that means sending out new ones to your agent, casting directors, etc. You will want to try to get old photos out in the wild replaced with your new one. Along with it, send an updated resume on the back.
This is a subtle thing. As an actor on stage or screen you need to draw the viewer in to you, your character, their journey, their emotions. That's your job. The same is true of you in your photos. It's far too easy in a photo to look static, still... frankly, dead. There needs to be a dynamic feel to the photo. You need the viewer to want to lean in to look at more detail, to want to know you, to want to work with you. This involves your eyes, your mouth, your body position... If you work with a good photographer, they'll know to look for this and to try to capture it. In fact when you are shopping for a photographer, you can ask them questions like "What do you do when working with an actor to capture them dynamically?" or "I need to be sure my photos really draw in the viewer and don't come off frozen or dull. What can you do to help me with that?" When I shoot actors I sometimes will prompt them with some instruction such as "There's a door in front of you and when I say go your best friend walks in and you have great secret to share with them... Go!" and I watch for the expression to follow, and try to capture it. Or "When I say go, one of your favorite people you've not seen in ages walks in... go!" These prompts are designed to spark a realistic reaction that plays well in a static image.
Your job in the shoot is to create the expressions, follow the instruction, play the reactions to prompts such as the above, but do it in a way that the photographer can capture. Let it develop over a few seconds. Think of it almost as a bit of slow motion. If you react too fast the photographer can't catch it. In general, you want to move from expression to expression, pose to pose, eye position to eye position like you're moving through water. Make it a bit fluid and slower than normal so the photographer can capture it at the ideal point, and if he sees something between poses he can stop you to say "wait, right there..." snap! Got it.
Don't over style
Go for a neutral appearance in your photos. Your photo is of YOU, not your fancy hair style, your impressive jewelry collection or that trendy outfit you just bought. The casting people are looking at you! Layering on too much style only hides you and can limit how they might see you for roles they are trying to fill. For example, if they are casting a piece set in France in the 1800's, a photo with big hoop earrings and a turned up polo shirt collar might distract them from how you might appear in period costume. What I generally recommend is minimal jewelry if any at all. Natural looking makeup with little color. Fairly neutral clothing, not too bright in color. Hair worn down and natural. Look nice, professional, well put together, but let YOU shine through. Don't let the styling overpower you in the picture.
Don't retouch! This one can be taken a bit loosely, but the bottom line is, you have to look like that picture when you walk in the door. If you retouch and remove all your wrinkles, smooth your skin coloring, whiten your teeth, etc etc, the picture is no longer a representation of you... and think of this. They may have called you in FOR those attributes! They may love the details on your face that show years of life, wisdom, your age and more. The things that make you unique are strengths for an actor... not detriments. Let the real you show through, while still looking like the best possible you, of course.
It's not a bad idea to have some shots in your file of you in character. So if you play an interesting character with a well designed costume, you might want to get a photographer to take some pics of you if you have the opportunity. Capture it for your portfolio. You can consider creating these from scratch as well. If you have a costumer friend with access to wardrobe, see if you could spend a day putting together some different character looks of things you might readily be hired for... Are you a teacher type? More blue collar worker type? Grumpy old man work well for you? Put a look together, do your hair and make up and get some shots. Never a bad idea.
Finding the photographer
As you can see from the above... these shots are super important for any actor. You must take it seriously, and consider it an investment in your career. If you find a good photographer that you work well with, maintain that relationship. If you're seeking out a photographer, talk to actors who's shots you like for a referral, or reach out to an online list or forum of actors in your area to get recommendations. Then check out their work and talk to them. You'll be paying for these shots, so you have the right to interview them carefully. Lastly, don't assume that your buddy who has a cool looking Instagram account has any idea how to shoot actors. Headshots and actor shots like these take a good eye, as well as a keen understanding of lighting and photography. Also, the right equipment makes a huge difference. Treat this process professionally, like the rest of your acting career.
So once you've chosen the perfect song (see former blog post), now you've got to nail the audition with your performance.
As a director, I can't tell you how many times, in fact more often than not, I have performers audition without really performing their song. They sing it, but they don't perform it. Let me tell you, when a performer walks up and performs the song in character, it's a joy for me. I want to see what you can do! I want to enjoy your performance. I want you to be the perfect fit for the roles I have. I want to see you perform! I want to encourage this in all performers out there. So let's get to it.
Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. I can't stress this enough! Singing along with a cd in your car is NOT enough. You must plan your performance. Practice your full audition from entrance to exit of the room including your introduction and thank you. You want to be so prepared that you don't have to think about it. When nerves kick in, as they will, you want to be confident in your material and every aspect of your performance.
Consider if the auditors want to chat with you, what might be a couple questions you have for them? Maybe you'd like to know what period they are setting the show in, or if they will be having a full orchestra or a small combo, a large ensemble/chorus or smaller cast size. What about their company appeals to you? What other shows has the director done that you've seen and can compliment them on? It's good to have a couple things ready to chat about.
Think ahead of what you're going to wear, how you'll do your hair and makeup. As with modeling, clean and simple attire is generally best. You want to be a fairly neutral canvas so the auditors can imagine you various characters. If you have long hair, I'd suggest wearing it down, styled nicely but not covering your face, and bring a tie or clip in your pocket so you can quickly put it back if they ask or for a different look for a second monologue or song. Avoid heavy jewelry if you wear any at all. It can be distracting. Makeup also should look clean and fairly neutral. Above all, don't dress as a character... either what you're performing or auditioning for. Just no to that.
Lastly, if you are called back to audition a second time, I recommend wearing the same clothes and hair style as you wore to begin with. You want to look like the person they saw before and called back. If you walk in looking like someone different it could turn them off to you completely. On a related note, make sure your headshot is up to date and looks like you as you go to audition.
Your entrance and introduction
When you're brought in, you can say hello to the auditors as you walk to the piano. Greet the pianist with a quick smile, hello with your name, and then open your sheet music, already prepared for them, show them where you want to begin and end (clearly marked) and give them a clear count of the tempo you're wanting. Let them know if you want them to lead you in with music, or just give you a pitch then follow you as you begin. This entire process should take 10-20 seconds.
Now, walk to the audition area, to a mark if there is one, or to a comfortable distance from the auditors. Don't get to close so they feel you're on top of them. Remember they want to see you head to toe. If you need a chair for your number you can grab one or ask for one, but have a backup plan in case they don't want you to use one.
Now with a smile and friendly attitude and confidence, state your name, the song you'll be performing and the show title. If you were asked to do more than one you can give both in order that you'll be performing them. Take a beat to center and get into character (having rehearsed extensively this should take only a short beat), then motion to the pianist for your queue.
The Performance begins...
In any solo performance (monologue, song, etc) using an unseen and imaginary "other" can be an amazing tool. This takes some practice in your rehearsals, but if you can clearly imagine a person you're talking to, with their own point of view on what you're saying and even their reactions, movements, judgements... this all can make YOUR performance appear natural and organic. Think of it as a scene partner that's only in your head. As you begin your performance, you will want to pick a spot in the back wall where you will place the "other" that you are talking (singing) to. This is the person your character is telling the story to, or appealing to, or remembering, etc. You do not want to look into the faces of the auditors, unless in some rare case you're doing a piece where the fourth wall is intentionally broken. This generally makes auditors uncomfortable, since they will need to look down to take notes and they want to watch you without feeling like they need to express support for you at the same time. Focus beyond them. Try to really connect with this "other". Imagine their expressions back to you... what if they start crying? What if they look angry? What if they turn away and you have to get their attention back? These choices can make your performance more dynamic. Use the text of the song as a guide along with the overall story the song is from. As if there is another person there with you, the other is a person with whom you interact. It's a subtle thing. Don't overdo it, but let that energy influence your performance.
Generally you don't want to do too much movement around the space, even if you are playing a piece that is energetic or a character that is frenetic. The auditors still need to have good eyes on you. So how can you use the space, be adaptable to smaller or larger spaces, and convey the performance? Also, if you are given the luxury of singing the full song, or a longer segment, how can you portray beginning, middle and end?
One simple tip is the side, center, forward method. In your performance preparation, place the "other" out front and center. Starting with your focus on them, you stand at center. Then at a moment in the song of introspection, or conflict, or aside, you take a few steps to one side and change the focal point. The energy adjusts for this change. Then with maybe a discovery the character makes, or a point of strong emphasis, they shift focus back to the other and move back to center. Lastly, with the final idea being presented, or final build of the song and story, you take a couple steps forward to build and end there.
What to do with my arms?
It's amazing how often I hear performers ask this, or talk about wrestling with it. What to do with your arms as you're performing? Well first, your arm stance, movement, gesture should ideally come organically from the character you create. Is the character nervous and fidgety? Are the aggressive? Shy? Do some work on this type of discover and try to work from there. But technically you want them arms to support your performance, not distract from it. So keep that in mind. In general keeping your arms above your waste, not hanging at your sides, gives more energy to your performance. Arms at your sides generally convey's the performance is over.
Gestures should come from the energy of the moment of the story, out from your core. If you are working well imagining the interactions with the "other" you're playing to, this can be very helpful. If you imagine the other turns to walk away, might you reach out spontaneously toward them along with a vocal emphasis to try to get them to turn back? If you imagine the "other" is leaning in and hanging on your every word, might you naturally want to reach up to touch their face? If you're frustrated and can't make a decision for yourself, where do your arms want to go? Working from the character, story and interactions with your "other" will help lead the way.
Variations and getting creative
For a song audition, you really have very little to work with. You have your body, your clothes, the empty space, often you have access to a chair. These few things can be used creatively and very effectively, as long as they don't become some strange novelty act. Never let these details distract from the performance itself. They should only enhance it subtly.
First of all, avoid elaborate props. You might use a bracelet on your wrist to convey a gift or memory of a loved one. You might pull a handkerchief out of your pocket to use. The chair itself could be used to place the other in a location that you move around, as long as it doesn't focus your face away from the auditors too much. Just be careful of going too far. If it's not something you would normally have on your body walking around in public, I'd generally say to avoid it. Pulling an egg beater out of your pocket, for example, just looks gimmicky and risks distracting the auditors from your performance ability.
The chair can be useful. I once directed an actor in an audition piece that started out with her watching a movie in a theatre next to her boyfriend, to turn the chair upstage away from the auditors and start with her back to them (after introduction of course). She played looking to her side to him before she got up and then addressed the other she was speaking to out front. She could relate in the scene then to both the other AND to the imaginary boyfriend. It worked beautifully.
Using the space effectively is also important. Again, don't get too close to the auditors, but you can sit on the floor, start to the side and move in, cross the space... These variations can make you more memorable if used well. Always focus on the performance itself first. These choices are there to support it. Be prepared to adapt also. If you planned to start on the floor but realize that doing so will make some or all the auditors have difficulty seeing or hearing you, adapt and do it in an alternate way you've already prepared.
Once you've completely your piece(s), you should come out of character back to your smiling friendly self, repeat your name in case they are video taping or recording and thank them. You can then proceed to the piano to pick up your music and exit, unless they ask you to do anything additional.
Some may ask you to step over to the piano and run some scales to test your range, ensure that you can match pitch, or even harmonize. This generally happens if they need to make sure you can sing the range of a particular character, or if they weren't satisfied in your audition song to give them a complete picture of your abilities. Just smile and do what they ask. The fact that they are asking means they're interested. If they weren't, they wouldn't bother.
Some auditors will want to chat with you a bit. Asking questions about your experience, or just to get a sense of your personality. It is very important that you come off as personable, friendly, professionally, and that you can take direction easily. When a director doesn't know you, they will be taking a gamble in casting you. You need to understand that this is a risk to the production and to the theatre. Your ability to show them that you will be someone they will enjoy working with and not have any problems is very important.
By this same token, your reputation is a critical piece of your performance career. If you get a bad reputation for being hard to work with, obstinate, laking in professional work ethic or attitude, you will simply not get hired any more. Theatres DO check references and talk to each other. Don't be one of those performers.
A number of times I personally have planned to hire one actor, but after the theatre called on their references and got bad reports we went to a 2nd or 3rd choice for the role. It's simply too risky with all the work and time and money that goes into a production to have one troublesome performer ruin the show, or ruin everyone else's enjoyment of the experience. One bad report on an actor and generally I move on to cast someone else.
It's notable here too that I've worked in some remote locations where actors bad behavior is unfortunately reinforced because the talent pool is so small that they continue to get hired despite their bad behavior. This is extremely unfortunate. It's not good for the theatres, for the audiences, for the rest of the people involved in the productions and certainly not for the actor with the bad behavior. At some point they might move away from that area and be completely ill prepared to behave in an acceptable way in the area to which they relocate. I say again... don't be one of "those" performers.
Audition with a professional attitude, even if it's community theatre you're auditioning for. Undergo thorough preparation, with skill, confidence and creativity. Remember, the director WANTS to like you, and the only thing you're competing with in an audition is the director's vision of the roles in the show. Support your fellow actors in their process at the same time. That's the professional way as well.
Spike, as his friends call him, has 30 years in the performing arts world as an actor, director, administrator, marketer, fundraiser. He has consulted with numerous theatres and other performing arts organizations and loves to help such groups and individual artists to achieve their success!