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A day in the life of a background actor actually starts the night before, at least it did for me and here’s why. The night before is when you get booked to go to set. The night before is when you get all of your call details of what show you will be working on, what you will need to bring to set, where you are going, and what time you need to be there. With this information in hand you can then prepare the wardrobe you will need to bring with you. This is very important especially if you have an early morning call time. You should always check the callbox information line first thing in the morning just in case the call time you were given might have changed to a different time.
Once you get to set you will need to find out where you should check in and with whom. Sometimes the name of the person you need to check in with will be given to you by the casting director or on the call in line and sometimes it won’t. When you get to set just ask anyone who is handling the background and they will tell you who it is if they know. Your best bet is to find someone with a walkie-talkie and ask them. You should be looking for an AD (assistant director) which will mostly likely be the 2nd AD or a PA (production assistant). You will probably run in to a lot of crew guys/gals and they will not always know who is handling the BG. This is really true on the beginning of a movie when the crew hasn’t had a chance to gel. Established TV shows generally have the same crew from season to season and the PA is the same. If you are on location, look for a white tent with tables and chairs. The tent generally serves as the check in area, BG holding area, and the breakfast/lunch area. If you are on a stage, just find the grouping of chairs probably near craft services. There will also be other BG walking around (look for people with suitcases or garment bags) who can direct you as to where you need to check in to receive your voucher.
Now the fun begins. There are several scenarios but let’s just say it’s an easy day. Ok, you’ve checked in and now you have your voucher. Go to the holding area, pick out the spot you think you’d like to spend most of your day, sit down and fill out your voucher in case you need to go to wardrobe right away and relinquish it as collateral for clothes they give you to wear. Now, if it’s in morning and breakfast is available to you (in some cases it may not be but they should have water, coffee, and an assortment of unhealthy, sugary sweet pastries or donuts) then help yourself to some food. The PA or AD will probably direct you when it is time for you to go to wardrobe so they can check your outfits for the scenes of the day. They will “approve” you if they like what you have or they will take your voucher and give you something of theirs to wear. Once you get through wardrobe, you will be directed to see Hair and makeup. Again, there is an approval process and once approved you may go back to holding and wait.
So you’ve been sitting for hours wondering what’s going on and when they’re going to need you. I’ve been on sets where it’s been as little as ten minutes to as much as five or more hours before they call for the extras to be brought to set. It just depends. (I’ve also spent the whole day (14hrs) on a set and they never used any of the extras. This is why it’s important to bring things to do to keep yourself occupied and be sure to bring only things that are not loud or will cause a problem on set. )
Finally, the PA comes in and says, “Background, let’s go!” And off to set you go. You will be placed and told what it is you’re supposed to do. If this is your first time, try not to volunteer for anything happening too close to camera. If you are picked for something and are uncomfortable, please tell the PA/AD then and there it’s your very first day on set and ask if you could do something else. There is no shame asking and believe me the PA/AD will be grateful as it’s their necks if you do something wrong. There will most likely be rehearsals to make sure the director sees what he’s looking for in the scene. Changes will be made if necessary and rehearsed again before shooting. Then, if everything is good, they will roll camera and shoot the scene a number of times. Then they will reset the camera(s) and shoot the same scene again from a different angle a number of times. Reset camera(s) and shoot… Now it’s time to break for lunch, usually six hours after your initial call time. Remember where you are, what shot they are working on and what you were doing. They may be shooting more of the scene when they get back from lunch.
You’ve returned from lunch and are again waiting in holding to be told when they need you to go back to set. Again it could be right away or could be hours. When getting back to set especially if it’s been awhile, determine where they are in the shot and where you were at that time and what you were doing. Of course, it could be a whole new set up and you will need to be placed again with new instructions. They will shoot, reset the camera, shoot, reset camera, and shoot etc. until they are done for the day. You will hear “it’s a wrap!” and know you are done.
You’ve been wrapped and can gather up your things and stand in line to be signed out by the AD/PA back in the holding area. This is where you need to have your voucher again. The AD/PA will tell you what to put on your vouchers for time in/out, lunch in/out and bumps if applicable. If you have given your voucher to wardrobe, you will need to change in to your own clothes, return wardrobe’s clothes to them and reclaim your voucher. Once you have your voucher go stand in line to be signed out. Once you are signed out and receive a copy of your voucher for your records, you are free to go.
To Wrap It Up
“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” ~Vivian Leigh- ‘A Street Car Named Desire’
Learning the ropes in this business seems to be a rite of passage in the school of trial and error. The first couple of times on set you have no idea what you’re doing or how to do it. You may even make mistakes, really, what I am saying, is you WILL make mistakes. It’s just that simple, but that’s ok. The good news is everyone on set had a first time too. They will remember how anxious and tenuous they felt not knowing what to do. Cozy up to people who look like they know what they’re doing, befriend them, ask questions, and follow their lead. People on set are typically extroverted, love to talk and are usually more than willing to share their experience and expertise or better yet take you under their wing. You will find it’s an easy way to pass the time for most background artists. Telling their story of what happened on this set or that one, gossiping about established actors/actresses, who’s in the tabloids, who knows who and what they’re really like when not on camera.