Life as an Actress : To be or not to be an extra

Are you an aspiring actress and wondering if it’s worth doing extra work? I’m sure you’ve heard many people tell actors not to do it because it is below them or it looks bad, but that is not always the case – especially if you are only getting started. I am here to share with you my experience as an extra (or supporting artist some may say) and what I have gained from the experience.

Getting Started

In 2016, I officially moved to the UK from America. In a way, I felt like I had to start all over again to find a new agent, understand the acting system and build a network again. I started university in the autumn of that year doing film and drama, which opened me up to the idea of supporting artist work. There are many different agencies to sign up to, but I started with Maddog and slowly made a shift to POP casting. It took a while for me to get my first booking because a lot of casting is based on size, look, availability and continuity. So, don’t get disheartened if it takes a while to book your first extra role – it’s really like winning the lottery sometimes.

I’ll never forget my first booking on ITV’s Victoria season 1 back in 2017, partly because I was freezing cold for two days. Don’t let that put you off though, sure it can be long tedious days, but what you get out of it is worth it – new friends, experience on a professional set and getting to time travel to a different world for the day.

ITV Victoria Series 1 (2017)

How it works

So once you have signed yourself up with an agency you will enter in all your profile details and upload four main pictures (headshot, front, back, left side, right side). Uploading pictures that represent the natural you are so important for casting because it is essentially the thing that get’s you booked. After all your details and required documents are set up, you are good to go and just have to wait. The agency will submit on your behalf for anything they think you would be suitable for, and when something does arise, you will be given an availability check. Availability checks do not mean you’ve got the role, usually it means you are right for what they are looking for and need to know you are free in order to put you forward to the production company. Once the production company has all the submissions, they go through and pick who they want. Usually, you will get pencilled or heavy pencilled if you’ve been narrowed down before you get the finally booking. It’s important to note that this can be so last minute, and sometimes frustrating, but is why you need to keep that date 100% available just incase that ‘pencilled’ turns into a ‘booked’. Getting booked is very exciting! You will get an email with your call time, base location and any additional information you may need for the day.

Life on set as an Extra

7am call time (before hair and make up) Victoria series 3

Now, life on set as an extra is by no means glam or A-list actor personal trailer glam. Sets can vary depending on production and how they treat their extras. If you are lucky you will have hot tea and coffee waiting for you upon your arrive that can be as early as 6 am, yes I have been there. During my time as a supporting artist I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I will not list names as it is not fair on productions, but one of my worst experiences was only being used for one hour in the day then waiting in a conference room until 8-9 o’clock at night until a security guard came to clear out the buildings and was shocked to see us still there. Lets just say communication was not a strong suit that day. However, there have been more good sets than bad ones I like to keep in mind. Extra’s have their own space during production for dressing, eating and waiting. Be prepared to wait around most of the day, but be ready to be called in at any time to start filming. Extra’s on set can range from a handful to hundreds, it all depends on the type of scene being shot and honestly I have found that depending on how many extras on set can largely impact the way you are treated. The times that there have only been a handful of us are my most memorable time because I got to get to know the crew and talk with the ADs a bit more – only do this if it is appropriate, and if you are an actor do not start trying to sell yourself, it is not what you are there to do. Getting the chance to be a small number of extras on a set is wonderful, but not always the case. If you are on a set with hundreds of extra make sure to stay patient and respectful of the process. It’s a lot of people for hair & make-up to get through and for ADs to monitor, so try not to complain. At the end of the day everyone is there to play a part in creating TV and movie magic, so enjoy the downtime when you have it and be ready to do a scene over and over again until they have the shot.

My experience and views on being an Extra

I have been doing extra work since 2017 and have worked on sets for Victoria, Gentleman Jack, David Copperfield, ABC Murders, Super Woman 2, Peaky Blinders, etc. While I don’t do as much anymore because I have an agent now (yippee), I still reflect back on what I’ve learned on the numerous sets and the relationships I have formed. There have been countless time I have bent over backwards to get to these productions, mostly because I never wanted to turn down an opportunity to engage in what I find so fascinating and hope to one day be working in, and I can say I never regret any of it. My time on set was a constant learning experience, always watching how things operated and learning who was who. As I said, I was at university for most of my time doing extra work so as I was learning film production I got to live it as well. It’s important to always maintain a professional attitude working on production as an extra, and while it’s easy to want to talk to everyone and ask how you can get a job, you have to know when the right time is, and sometimes that opportunity will just find it’s way to you. You hear the stories of actors getting picked up for lead roles by working as an extra, and while not always the case it can happen, it did happen. While it wasn’t a lead role, I did end up getting my featured role on Peaky Blinders by simply just being an extra for three days. Those three days were the most exciting and yet most exhausting days ever. I was coming from York by train and one night I didn’t get home till 11 only to wake up at 2am and jump on a train at 4am to get back to work again. Why? Because that’s how much I love what I do, acting, working on sets and getting experience. I’ll tell you though, I am so glad I did because on my last day of work the 2nd AD offered me a feature role as Finn’s Women saying the director has seen me. Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. I remained calm and accepted willingly, but I am not ashamed to say I walked out of the studio feeling like I was on cloud 9. I was sure everyday till I filmed (from October to January) they would have found someone else. But nope. I went in, had my own trailer and got to feel like a part of something bigger than me for the day, only to be requested to come in again for close up shots. My two days only amounted to three seconds on screen, but overall I cannot say how thankful I was for the experience and who it has led me to meet.

So do I recommend being an extra? Yes! Okay, it gets a bad name sometimes if you are actor but, if you want experience on set and get comfortable in the environment, than do it! My confidence has grown just in the short amount of time working as an extra because I have seen first hand the operations, and if I were to ever finally book my leading or supporting role I will now go in having already a glimpse of the set life. My only advice is, don’t go in expecting to get noticed or make conversation with the cast and crew. Be professional, seize opportunities when you can and just enjoy the process of what you are there hired to do. If you just want to do it for a little extra cash, for a hobby or experience the set – great! Whatever your reason is for becoming a supporting artist I can confidently say you are sure to make amazing friends, memories and come home satisfied after a long day of work.

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Have a great weekend!