Background Work. To do, or not to do.
There are a lot of opinions on whether or not you should do background work if you're pursuing a career in acting. I was told repeatedly not to do it. I was told that I would only be seen as a background performer not a real actor. I was told I would get stuck in that world.
I did it anyways. I'm so glad I did! I really enjoyed doing background work. I've learned so much from being on set, even with just being in the background! Heck I'd do it in Atlanta but they only do non-union BG work here. I've also auditioned for shows, that I've done background work on before. So don't listen to the negative Nancy's.
I encourage you to do BG work if you've never been on a professional set before. It's a huge learning experience. It's the reason I love it so much! You're in that world, and get to see the behind the scenes of a production being put together! You get to learn set lingo, terminology, watch working actors in the moment, hear and see how they handle being directed in each scene. You learn technicalities of filming that you otherwise wouldn't get the chance to learn before booking your first speaking role. Now of course there are things that come with booking your first speaking role that you won't learn by doing background work. But this is "Set Etiquette 101"
Even more so, I encourage you to sign up with Central Casting (Atlanta, NY, Los Angeles), and take their stand-in class. If you can be a stand-in for an actor, you'll learn totally new territory. You're essentially pretending to be the actor until it's time for them to shoot, and they pay you for it! I get paid to play pretend? This is awesome!
Some guidelines for you if you do decide to enter the world of the background performer:
1. Don't talk to the actors. This would seem like common sense but it unfortunately is not. They're there to do a job. They're rehearsing their lines, trying to get to whatever emotional point they need to reach for the scene, etc.
2. Don't talk when you're on set period. This seems a bit extreme, but when you have a hundred people in one room and they're all chattin it up, it gets hard for the higher ups to give direction, or even think.
"Quiet on set! Background, quiet!" Is something you'll hear regularly. Don't be one of the culprits they're talking to when they say this. You're there to do a job, and you are the lowest on the totem pole. I don't say this to discourage you. I say this as a reminder to respect the work that everyone else is doing. You don't want to draw negative attention to yourself. That's one sure way not to work on that show again.
3. You aren't going to get a speaking role. It's so incredibly rare that a background performer gets upgraded to a speaking role. You hear stories of it and you get your hopes up, only to be let down. Now, you may get chosen to be "featured" which just means you're going to be recognizable. This doesn't come with a pay bump, or a credit. You're still background. Bummer! I've been there, I feel your pain. It's fun to be featured though! Your friends will think you were on the show and that you made a million bucks! You made like $50 after taxes, but they don't know that! Well I guess in my case, now they do. Cats out of the bag, people!
4. Be selective. Do background work, but be cautious about it if you have an agent and might possibly audition for that show. As a rule of thumb if you have an agent: Only submit for background calls that sound like they may not be a featured role. Don't submit for "hot cheerleader, shirtless guy, Brandon's friends" etc. These are categories that may be possibly heavily featured. I know these are enticing because of the whole "Maybe I'll get a line!" fantasy. You won't. Worse, you risk not being able to get a speaking role on that show ever because you're now recognizable. Submit for "patient, crowd, concert goer, patron." These are all safe bets.
5. Don't take pictures or videos. This is huge. I see my friends in LA doing this all the time. Don't do it. I know it's fun, you're on set and you want to show everyone back at home! But you can't take a selfie of your wardrobe, a picture of the studio lot, anything really. Don't post plot lines, special guest stars that day, or where your location is. Just take it all in, and resist the temptation to humble brag. Also...if you do bring your phone to set, make sure it's on airplane mode. You don't want to be the person that ruins a shot and wastes money and time and now the director is yelling at you! Yikes!
6. One last thing: Don't put background work on your resume. It wasn't a speaking role, and casting directors or agents will find this out after doing 5 seconds of research on you. Do it for the education of being on set. Enjoy it, it's a lot of fun! Sure the days can be miserably long but if you're prepared for that, it's a blast! Always have in your head that you're going to be there for 12 hours. That way if it's less then you're excited to be done early, and if it's a long day then well, you've mentally prepared for that!
If you're in LA it's a pretty well paying job, especially if you're Union. You're literally getting paid to hangout, and be on a tv/film set. Sometimes you even get to film at studios! Bring a phone charger, a book, notebook, headphones, water, and some snacks. You'll be given snacks and food on set all day by the way so maybe you won't need those snacks after all haha. Don't bring anything valuable; lap tops, kindles, iPads. You will have to leave your bag for sometimes hours at a time, and you just don't want to risk it.
I hope this answered some questions you may have about doing background work! If there's anything I didn't cover and you still have questions, comment below or shoot me a message!