The Taxonomy of Background Actors

- by Joanie!

Yesterday I talked with a friend about my short lived time as an extra, or "background actor", when I first moved to NYC while I looked for steady employment. In the course of my brief month of appearing walking in the park or clutching a microphone that wasn't connected to anything on the courthouse steps, or pretending to eat dinner and have a conversation (albeit silently) at the table next to Debra Messing, I discovered that there are certain types drawn to being an extra and how best to approach them, especially considering that you spend between 10 and 12 hours locked up in holding or being shuffled to and from holding and set with these people.

1. The Young Hopeful
I could count myself in this category. Young, fresh out of school, new in the city, often naive, and with dreams of performance on stage, tv, and film. They're mostly quiet until talking to others about "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts" of being an extra and developing a career in performance. Pleasant to spend the day with.

2. The Old Pro
This is usually someone who was leading lady or leading man material, who has aged out of their primary role type. Often they were in small or featured roles on Broadway or tv/film, and they do extra work (as a SAG member, of course) to supplement their income between plays, commercials, and other media where they play the mom or dad. Pleasant to spend the day with. 

3. Bored Retirees
They'll work a show one day a week at most- the long days combined with hours of standing is hard on these folks, who will regale you with stories of their former industry, or how their spouse is just happy to have them out of the house for the day. They're generally happy no matter what the circumstances of filming, since they're just glad to be "part of the magic." They're also likely to give Old Pros and Young Hopefuls a ride home from filming in their old Cadillac of it's on their way, and they'll point out all the changes in various neighborhoods. Pleasant to spend the day with.

4. The Sad Has-Been
Different from the Old Pro, the Sad Has-Been tells you everything they've ever accomplished. Without stopping to breathe. Somehow, this one page embellished resume can last for twelve hours. Usually, their accomplishments are minor at best, and the tend more to be star-[expletive deleted]s than people who actually ever wanted to work as an actor. They are most likely to ignore the rules and go places on set they are not supposed to be, and to bother principal actors, especially if they're "famous." When bussed anywhere for filming, they will talk the ear off of anyone in hearing distance. Best not to make eye contact and feed the beast's ego.

5. The Inappropriate Oddball
This is the person paired to walk with you in a scene who tells you inappropriate stories of sexual exploits in between scenes when you have to stay on your mark and can't run screaming. He or she is also the person, who, when told to "have a conversation" in the scene, will make up given circumstances for their "character" and announce to you "I'm an alien and this skin is itchy!" once the cameras are rolling and you can't display an actual reaction and thus draw attention to yourself and the Inappropriate Oddball instead of the actors being paid to talk. Avoiding eye contact and nonresponsiveness does not stop the barrage of creepy inner monologue from being spoken out loud. Best to just wait it out and slink away at the earliest possible moment. 

6. The Smelly Weird Guy
Every show gets one. Stay as far away as possible to avoid being stuck next to this guy all day.

7. The Smactor
When not mugging on camera, the Smactor talks about Method like it's a religion to be followed and asks questions about your character as if you are putting thought and effort into being scenery that eats. Show them you're not a "serious actor" and they'll drift off to find their own.

8. The Career Background Actor
These are the people who got their SAG card for background acting, and have no desires or aspirations beyond being an extra forever. They're the guys who loudly play cards in holding, annoy the tech staff, and are generally doing this because of a lack of ability and desire to do skilled labor or professional work, either in performance or another industry. The career extra will mock the Young Hopefuls for ambition, try to one-up the Old Pro, entertain the Bored Retiree, and invite the Sad Has-Beens, Inappropriate Oddballs, and the Smactors to a game of cards as a means of enticing them to be one of their own, with mixed success. They never stop talking, and will tell anyone who will listen the merits of a show- based entirely on the quality of craft services and not plots, writing, and acting. Fun to be around in very, very limited quantities of time. On days where filming goes overtime, they are happy to stay and collect more money, and tend to annoy the other extras and Production Assistants (extra wranglers) more and more as the day wears on.

Background acting is not for the weak (unless you possess patience, the ability to tune out loud talking, or are really annoying yourself) and it's most certainly not a permanent life solution (with the exception of #8). But it is a source of hilarity and weirdos. One last note if you, dear readers, ever plan to be an extra: anyone who talks to you at 6am before coffee is likely to keep talking to you all day long. Do not engage. Find a quiet retiree, sit next to them, and open a book.