Making movies is glamorous, fun & easy… right?! Well, that’s what people would have you believe, but it’s not necessarily the truth!
I recently spoke to Ashley about her experiences as a background actor, & thought her answers were so interesting! I never knew you could earn a living as a background actor, & though I knew the days were long, I didn’t know they were quite this long!
Hopefully if any of you have similar desires to go into movies, this interview will help give you little push you need!
Tell us about what you do.
I work as a background actor (extra, stand in, photo double) for TV and movies. My job means I could be an extra pushing a plastic doll in a stroller around the mall one day and photo doubling for an 11-year-old boy in a wheelchair the next.
What does an average day at work look like for you?
Every day is different since what I’m doing depends on the scene being filmed. Typically, the day starts with a call time between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. (although there is the occasional night shoot, which might go from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.), and I usually have an hour commute to set. I plan on filming lasting at least 12 hours with plenty of downtime. As an extra, I wait in holding until it is time to rehearse a shot and stay on set until the shot is completed. As a stand in, I keep close to set and take the place of the actor while the crew sets up the lights and cameras. As a photo double, I am made up to look like the actor and take the actor’s place on camera for a shot where the actor’s face is not needed. When I’m not needed on set, I read books and talk to the other extras or stand ins. After six hours, filming breaks for lunch, and everyone tries to relax before filming starts up again. My day ends between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and I rush home to catch up on email before going to sleep.
Do you work alone or with other people?
Movies are a collaborative process. As an extra, I work with the other background actors and take directions from various production assistants. As a stand in or photo double, I work with more of the crew such as the camera and assistant director departments.
Is this what you wanted to do as a child? Did you end up in this job by “accident” or was it a planned career choice?
Growing up, I always enjoyed performing. I was a dancer and figure skater and acted in the occasional children’s production at church. I did not seriously consider a career in movies until college. After I graduated, I had no clear career path, so I moved to L.A. to work as an extra and to learn what I could about how movies are made.
How long ago did you start on this path?
I started working as a background actor in 2008, and before that I acted in plays in college.
How long were you doing it before you made it into your career or primary form of income?
A week after I moved to L.A, I started working full time as an extra. Basically, I had moved across the country with my cat and a handful of credit cards, so I had to start making a living right away. Even though I am no longer living in L.A., my primary form of income still comes from background work.
Did anything significant happen to get you to that point, or was it a series of small steps?
I attended a talent conference in L.A. and decided that I had to move there and work in movies in any capacity I could. Not quite two months later, my bags were packed and I was moving to L.A.!
What kind of education do you have?
Going into college, I wanted to be either an embedded reporter or Indiana Jones, so I studied a broad range of subjects – journalism, anthropology, literature – and changed my major several times. I discovered that I watched a lot of TV while I “studied” and thought that it would be fun to work in TV and movies, so I started taking film and acting classes, too. I received my Bachelor’s from a state university and now like to describe my field of study as “Performance and Cultural Studies”.
Do you think official qualifications are important for someone entering your industry?
The great thing about being a background actor is that you don’t need any prior acting or movie experience in order to work on set. Extras aren’t just actors and film students but, also, realtors, optometrists, and teachers. The film industry revolves around who you know, so I think going to school for acting or film can be helpful for making connections and thus getting work. However, I, also, know people who spent a small fortune to attend acting schools and now work as extras. I believe the best qualification is experience, and working as a stand in is like being paid to go to film school.
If you went to school, did you enjoy studying? Could you see where it might lead you at the time? What advice would you give to someone else who might be studying to get into your industry?
I enjoyed studying in school and liked researching different topics for class. Going into college, I was interested in journalism and anthropology. If you had told me during my freshman year that I would work on movies, I never would have believed you. My junior and senior years of college I became more involved in theatre, and by the time I graduated, I knew that I had to work in the film industry. I think the most important part of working as a performer is gaining experience and meeting people who share your interests.
What do you think is the best thing about what you do?
There are so many things I love about what I do! I meet so many interesting people on set, and occasionally, I even get to meet a celebrity, like Hugh Jackman (who was so cool to everyone on set). I, also, get to work in interesting locations such as the Warner Bros. Studio, a stadium turned into a Styrofoam version of Vatican City, and quaint, little towns. Another thing I love is dressing up in costume, especially for period films, and pretending I live in a different time for the day.
What’s the worst thing?
The early mornings! I am not a morning person, but I often find myself waking up between 4:30-6:30 a.m. in order to make my call time.
Would you call yourself a workaholic, & if so, are you alright with that? Do you think that’s normal for your industry?
When I am working I have no life outside of the set – I’m too tired to do anything. The film industry feeds on workaholics, but for me at least, I’ll work like crazy for a month and then the next couple of months will be slow, so I don’t see myself as a true workaholic.
What would your number one suggestion be for someone who wants to do what you do?
If you want to work in movies, you don’t need to live in L.A. or New York. Many states are now offering film incentives, so contact your state’s film commission to find out what movies are being made in your area and ask for a list of reputable acting agencies. Working as a background actor is a great way to learn about the business for free.
…How about number two?
Make your own movies. The more I work on set the more I realize I want to be a director and producer because they control the working conditions on set. By making your own movies, you can set your own schedule and be free to experiment and learn about the process.
What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
Movie making is not glamorous. Working on set can be emotionally grueling and set conditions can be pretty bad at times – no bathrooms, awful weather conditions, yelling. Also, do not underestimate the power of boredom. Although life on set isn’t glamorous, just being a part of something bigger than yourself can be an amazing feeling.
Are there any major misconceptions about your job or industry?
People have this misconception that being an extra is an easy job where you chill out and talk to celebrities all day. Background actors get little respect for a job that is very necessary to creating the look of the film.
Do you ever have any ethical dilemmas with the work you do?
It’s important to remain true to who you are and not conform to someone else’s standard of beauty or behavior. There is always the possibility that someone is going to ask you to compromise, but so far, I have been able to avoid any ethical dilemmas.
What is the best thing that’s happened to you as a consequence of the work you do?
I’ve learned a lot about myself since I started working as a background actor, and I’ve met a lot of great people. I really think meeting interesting people is the best part about being a background actor because you never know whom you are sitting next to. One afternoon, I met a lady in the background who had had a role on Lost, and it was so interesting hearing her talk about her experiences.
What motivates you to keep doing what you’re doing?
Even on bad days, my love of the filming process makes me want to keep working. When I work on an awful set, I think of ways to do it better so that when I’m the director or producer people will have a good time working.
Who do you look up to within your industry & why?
I admire Sophia Coppola, who is a brilliant writer and director and who, also, was a background actor, and Emma Thompson, who is a wonderful actress and writer as well. They inspire me to explore different facets of filmmaking and to not be afraid to make my own movies.
Rate how happy you are with what you do out of 100 (100 being the best, 0 being devastatingly awful) on an average day.
My happiness on an average day is probably in the 90’s. I like to think my best day hasn’t happened yet, and I hope my worst day is in the past.
Is there much career progression available to you? What would you like to do next?
There isn’t a traditional career ladder for me. If you want a role in a movie you need to audition for it; very rarely does a director give a line to an extra. I am interested in acting, writing, directing, and producing my own films, so I am working on filming some short films
Do you think you’ll continue doing this for the rest of your life?
I don’t see myself working as a background actor forever, but I definitely want to keep working in the film industry!