It's 4:30 a.m. on a brisk spring morning in 2013, and I begin my frantic walk to the train. I double-check that I have my three forms of ID, collection of costume pieces, and various ways to pass the next 14 hours.
After three years as a background actor in NYC, my system is solid. But I have to admit, I've recently hit a wall.
Exhaustion aside, I've learned a lot: the setup of a shot, the terminology of the crew, and most importantly, the general decorum on set. I've worked professionally in theatre since I was about eight years old, but never in film. So this was my chance to be a fly on the wall of the film industry, and for a while, it served me well.
However, my bright-eyed days are in the past, and stress-free shoots are becoming few and far between. What remains are endless weeks anxiously staring at my phone, waiting for another gig; 4 a.m. mornings filled with fear that my train will be late, that I'll forget my tax IDs, or that a crotchety production assistant will scold me for something out of my control; and the lack of time or money to audition, get back into class, or develop my career.
The false promise of upward mobility as an extra brings many misguided souls to this gig. But this is not a shortcut, or even an entry-level job. Though there are exceptions, the true way to a consistent artistic career is time, training, and constant work — not waiting around to be picked out of a crowd. Still, the belief that background acting leads to principle roles remains prevalent, leaving many actors frustrated, disappointed, and distracted from more realistic pathways into the field.
So on that fateful morning, I wrote a mental pros-and-cons list and began my breakup with background acting. It was time to face the fact that this once-fulfilling gig had somehow become my dead-end job.
Con: Early mornings, trains with questionable safety.
Pro: No rush-hour crowd.
6:30 a.m.: I follow a set of printed arrows into the basement of a church in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I spot a few familiar faces and a beautiful table of bagels, both of which make all the difference.
Pro: Constant supply of food.
Con: Spending the day in a strange basement.
7 a.m.: An understandably groggy hair designer named Jan sets my hair in tight curlers and either says nothing (because she's been up since 2 a.m.) or asks me about my usual hairdo on set. Yes, I have a hat. It's a big one. Then we chatter like old ladies at the salon — my favorite part of the day.
Pro: Fabulous hairdos with Jan.
Pro: A pretty great hat.
8:30 a.m.: After getting into costume, I head off to breakfast — which is helpful since we're low on money and groceries at home — and I prop myself against a building as I eat my omelette, basking in the reactions from morning commuters as they process that I'm wearing early-20th-century garb. They give me the it's-too-early-for-this-shit NYC glare, and I smile back.
Pro: Breakfast carts.
Pro: Looking silly in public.
9:45 a.m.: Rumors begin spreading that it's a four-scene day. This is a bad thing. Assume 12-14 hours, hope for less.
Con: No control over my schedule or monthly income.
Con: Lack of social life due to having no control over my schedule or monthly income
Con: No time to audition.
Con: Constant financial anxiety.
10 a.m.: I sit down by a familiar friend, and we get talking about work, or lack thereof. I suggest dropping out of background acting for a full-time office job to save up to audition more regularly or get back into class. He looks at me, shocked, and says, "But you'll never come back to acting. People who work in offices are giving up! What if they give you a line someday?"
Pro: Life chats.
Con: The Stockholm-Syndrome-esque dedication to being an extra.
Con: The false belief that extras are frequently cast in larger roles without an agent or audition.
11:15 a.m.: Still in the basement. Suddenly, an unassuming extra asks the production assistant when we'll get to go to set. The PA tells him to sit down and stop asking questions. I comfort him for his misguided attempt and leave to seek out post-breakfast snacks.
Con: Demeaning attitude toward background actors — something I can't completely blame PAs for since they work longer hours and usually make even less than we do. Still, you are constantly reminded you are the bottom of the pack.
Pro: Post-breakfast snacks.
Con: Realizing each day is lost time to advance your career. This is not creatively fulfilling work, by any stretch of the imagination.
Noon: After obsessively checking my phone for the past four hours, I get an email about work for the next day. Hooray! I have 15 minutes to respond and claim the job. Suddenly, we are called to set. Now! Quickly! Put down your things and run! I think about tucking my phone in my apron, but I'm a stickler for rules and bitterly leave the phone as they herd us off to set, leaving the email unanswered. Crap.
12:15 p.m.: I sit on a bench for the first scene and try not to think about whether my budget is screwed without work for tomorrow. One of my favorite actors is on set, so I watch him work instead. He gives me a small, familiar smile and wave, and I feel a little better about life.
12:45 p.m.: We break for lunch, and irrational fear spreads through the crowd. Rumors start spreading. I hear there isn't enough food. Why are they letting the crew go first? I bet the union actors will eat it all. The last comment includes eye-daggers in my direction.
Pro: Eventually earning my union card.
Con: The imbalance of respect toward union vs. non-union actors. We are all doing the exact same job, but the pay disparity is staggering, and non-union eats last. This understandably creates resentment throughout the group.
1:45 p.m.: We return to set. Everyone has eaten. The panic subsides.
4:30 p.m.: The first scene is over and we're cattled back to our holding area. My email informs me that tomorrow's job has been filled.
5:30 p.m.: The sun is setting and cell phones are losing their charge. The crowd starts fighting over outlets. Tension is building and alliances form. The craft services table has been changed over to post-lunch candy bars and I begin eating my weight in Popsicles and Snickers.
6 p.m.: Conversations have taken a turn — the way they do when you spend 12 hours in a basement with a room of strangers. I find out that the woman next to me is a retired banker and the guy across from her used to be a cop. They are splendid and we talk for several hours.
Pro: Great connections with interesting people.
7:30 p.m.: It's apparent that the rest of the group will not go to set for the rest of the day, but we are all held to the end. I start knitting a scarf.
Pro: New hobbies.
Con: I am not remotely growing or challenging myself.
9 p.m.: I get an email about work for tomorrow. Hooray! I'm warned it's an early-morning call.
10 p.m.: We are released, and a mad dash to the changing area ensues. We are given our pink I-9 slips, and I head home to Jersey City.
My call the next day is 7 a.m. in Queens. I am relieved about the money, and accept I'm in for five hours of sleep.
Con: I may or may not get paid for that gig on time.
Con: I see my husband for a half-hour before passing out and doing it all again.
Con: I'm angry all the time.
- Cons: 15
- Pros : 11, mostly pertaining to food
My choice was clear.
I've held a ton of survival jobs since college. I've taught, I've temped, I've even advertised coffee outside of gas stations. But the background-actor era — that was the only gig that had any relation to my career, or so it appeared. There I was, every day, so close I could touch it. And yet, it taught me that dead-end jobs often disguise themselves as potential opportunities that string you along and distract you from actually working toward your goals. I began associating film work with feeling anxious and degraded, and my income was just inconsistent enough to keep me from saving or paying off debt.
Switching to a temporary office job was the best choice I've made in my career so far, and returning full-time to acting and writing is on the horizon.
In every industry, at every level, there comes a time when you've squeezed every drop of education, financial stability, or life experience from a gig before it's time to move on. For many others, background acting is still a wonderful experience: working alongside award-winning actors, free food, "flexible" schedule. But as all things are, beauty (and progress) is in the eye of the beholder.
Changing your tactic of reaching your goals is not giving up; it's accepting that you change as time goes on, and you career choices need to change with it.