Day in the Life of a Background Actor, Me!

Patti on Wisteria LaneMy new hobby takes little to no talent beyond being able to listen closely and walk without falling. It’s open to all ages, ethnicities, shapes, sizes. I background act – does this street look familiar? I’m parked in Gaby’s Wisteria Lane driveway (“Desperate Housewives” now off the air) for a Halloween episode of an unrelated show. My car scored the booking.  “Upscale cars needed: no black, white or red.”  Then they had me trick or treat with little kid actors who, by the end of the day, were HIGH from sneaking the real candy from their pumpkin buckets.

“Straight out of Central Casting” is a real thing.

IMAG1505TV shows, movies, commercials have hundreds of people doing stuff in the background. Walking. Holding clipboards. Pretend talking. Jogging. Sipping coffee. Driving. “Extras” we used to be called. But someone decided that didn’t sound as important as the job is and upgraded the title to Background Actors. Yesterday on a shoot, they called us Background Celebrities. Smile

If you ask me in person, I will tell you shows I’ve been on but for confidentiality agreement reasons, I would possibly be asking for trouble if I published them on the web.


Question #1 – Do you see the star actors? Sometimes no and other times you’re working in scenes with them. One movie scene was sitting in a restaurant full of other background, fake-chatting for few hours over progressively melting plates of dinner. Between the Principle Players and moi: a tree, followed by a tall flower arrangement, then another table of patrons. So, you won’t see ME in the movie unless there was a secret hidden camera somewhere else pointing in my direction.

Other movies, I flash right across the screen. Short flash, watch for the silver hair.

Question #3 — What is it exactly that you do? Here was my first day working on a detective show:

  • Set alarm to wake: 5 AM – wardrobe to wear laid out, wardrobe extra items in car
  • Out the door: 6:15 AM
  • Call time on set: 8:30 AM
  • Actually arrived Sunset Gower Studios: 7 (clearly freaked about being late, they drum that into you… NEVER EVER EVER EVER BE LATE)
  • Drive around block to find entrance
  • Show Drivers License to guard at gate
  • Get car tag and name badge
  • Guard directs me to parking lot and Studio 16
  • Park, carry extra wardrobe to “base camp” – corral of trucks
  • Put name badge on jacket, rookie move. Take it back off
  • See two guys who look like background, wait with them as others show up, start chatting
  • 8:30 AM on the button A.D. arrives with vouchers – we line up
  • Forget to fill out my voucher
  • Walk to wardrobe truck, line up to get the once-over
  • Jade looks me over, asks “What else you got?” (A classic line, I learn. You hear it pretty much every time you go to a gig)
  • Chooses my other skirt, blouse, belt – gives me a jacket
  • Change in wardrobe truck
  • Give voucher to Isaac, P.A. who notes jacket from wardrobe
  • Background gather near shuttle
  • Given map to drive to shoot location (my car to be used in scenes)
  • Actors with cars walk back to parking lot
  • ZOOM! Bats outta hell drive to location site
  • Get a little turned around but find it
  • Guard points me where to park
  • Sniff, sniff… Mmmm Craft Services for coffee and fresh made omelets
  • Wait in holding tent for first call
  • Actors with cars line up for “rounding” (driving ‘round the block)
  • We hear them yell BACKGROUND, we roll — “Obey all traffic rules,” my instructionsIMAG0011
  • Hear them yell RESET, go around corner and get back in place
  • Four takes, CUT, repark car, eat some fresh-cut fruit from Craft Services, go to holding
  • Needlepoint
  • Put on jacket, wear flats, bring heels
  • Walk to set, get paired up, stash flats in hedge
  • Instructions, how to “cross” (walk from A to B)
  • Five takes, CUT, back to holding
  • Needlepoint & chat, eat a banana
  • Next scene, put on jacket
  • Stand near tree until selected
  • Selected, given crossing instructions
  • My role changes, new instructions
  • My role changes more, go inside hotel and given suitcase and new instructions
  • And… BACKGROUND… Pause, pause, wait for girl to walk away from concierge…
  • Cross! Oops, walked in too late, RESET
  • Cross! Oops, walked too early, RESET
  • Cross! Perfect, BIG WHEW
  • Back to holding, needlepoint
  • Tables being set up for “lunch” (now 4 PM)
  • Crew gets lunch first, then background
  • Official lunch on our vouchers, 4:30 – 5
  • Dismissed at 5
  • Drive back to Sunset Gowers Studio
  • Stand in line to return wardrobe
  • Stand in line to get checked out by PA, 6:15 PM end

Sign 2So after this full day, I recorded my episode at home to look for my car driving past the hotel, then me walking on the sidewalk, then me walking in the hotel lobby. NOT A SPECK OF ME ANYWHERE, lol!  The classic cutting room floor…

Next, I taped another, and you CAN see Tiny Unfocused Me behind Amy’s left shoulder, see my little salt & pepper head?

Parks and Rec

If you live in Southern California or New York City, and want to try this, look into registering with Central Casting.  The process, while not “hard,” takes a bit of effort to get into the swing of things. MINIMUM WAGE, BTW.  But you meet interesting people and often (but not always) are fed well.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JulieD October 25, 2012 at 12:24 am

So cool!!! I loved when you told us these stories in Idaho!! Great shot with you in the background with Amy!! I love Parks & Rec! 🙂

2 sippitysup October 18, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Ah, showbiz. Delicious. GREG

3 Worth The Whisk October 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Bonnie, indeed it can be tiring. And hot. And cold. And achy from hard chairs. Or no chairs. Your feet get a beating, too. Still… it’s fun.

4 Bonnie Banters October 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this experience. I’ve been in a couple of small commercials (one by myself) for TV…but I, like others probably, have been very curious about this process. I often see ads for background actors. Sounds like a fun experience, though I’m sure tiring.

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