Managing Background Actors

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have heard some of my frustrations with background actors on a small shoot I was helping out on.

First of all, bear in mind that I definitely did not say any of these things on set. That would be even less professional than the extras1 I was complaining about. Besides, no one likes a complainer.

More importantly, saying “You suck. Try not to suck so much next time.” isn’t a very good management strategy.

And make no mistake, when you’re the background PA, you’ve suddenly gone from the bottom rung of the totem pole to the second-to-bottom rung. You’re not necessarily making the creative decision of where the extras should or shouldn’t be. The AD or director2 will most likely make that call, depending on just how important they are to the scene.

But often a PA will cue specific background at specific points, if the scene calls for it. (This is a situational thing. If the shot is MOS, the AD will most likely call it out herself; if the leads are having an important scene and an extra needs to cross in the background on a certain line, there’s probably a PA just off camera cuing him.)

Your job is more than just on set, though. You have to shuttle them to and from extras’ holding, catering, possibly wardrobe. It can be surprisingly tricky, especially when dealing with a crowd of dozens or hundreds.

The vast majority of extras on a big show will be totally professional, but there’s a rotten apple in every bunch. Some idiot who wanders off, doesn’t pay attention to your instructions, steals stuff.

Losing your cool will not help in those situations. Just like you don’t enjoy being yelled at by the UPM when the other PA is late with lunch, don’t tar the entirety of the background with the brush reserved for that one asshole.

Be as clear and friendly as you can, with the group and individuals. Give them whatever information you’re allowed (everyone wants to know when lunch is), make sure they’re comfortable, give them a heads’ up when you’re about to bring them to set.

When somebody does give you trouble, be calm and rational. If they still cause problems, well… you don’t get paid enough for this shit. Bump it up to the 2nd (or 2nd 2nd) AD. They can decide whether to send someone home, reprimand them, or give Central Casting a call to never let this particular extra come back on your set.

Also, try to look at it from the background actors’ point of view. You’re a PA, still wet behind the ears. You’re under 30, you’re still excited to be on set. Many extras have been doing this for decades; this is their career. They’ve seen and done it all, and you’re not going to surprise them.

So, don’t act like a know-it-all. You know this shoot, right now. Don’t talk down to them. In fact, you could probably learn a thing or two from the background vets.

Except for the asshole who tries to talk a selfie with the lead actress. Fuck that guy.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. That link is an older (original?) TAPA complaining about using the term “extra” rather than “background actor.” While I sympathize with the point in theory, 16 characters is too much to type over and over in a post about extras.
  2. Fun fact: the director is not actually allowed to direct background… directly. If she does, they become “actors,” with the commensurate pay bump. Nobody wants to pay for that.
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2 Responses

  1. I’ve worked on and off as a background artist for 10 years in the UK and I’ve slowly seen the “industry” collapse around my ears.

    As a freelancer I’d happily take days on set as and when and fit it around my day job, also somewhat tangentially related to the industry .

    But despite the fact that the studios are busier than ever, the weakening power of the unions, the prevalence of non-union flat rates, the growing number of agencies willing to accept lower rates for their artists and who take on ever more people onto their books, have meant that while the UK film industry is busier than is has been for decades, at the bottom there’s less actual work being handed out by agencies and half the time the money for those jobs has gone down.

    As a result the more professional background artists among us can no longer rely on the volume of work at the rates that make it viable to keep coming back and for me, it’s rarely worth making time in my schedule for it anymore and I know no one who can

    On set this has led to a rise in unprofessional behavior from the background, much of the time because they don’t know any better (Seen a marked rise is selfies with talent who are polite enough to put up with it), which in turn has begun to foster more and more resentment from the AD’s ans PA’s having to marshal an ever more and more unruly group.

    So to sum up the work is less regular, the money has slowly deteriorated and it’s not as much fun on set anymore… Which is a shame.

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