In movies and TV, an extra is a “background artist” or “background actor”. Movies and TV productions have extras on set to “fill out” the background for the main action of the scene and make scenes look more realistic. Imagine a scene shot in a large city like New York, with two actors walking down the street having a conversation, but the street completely empty of other people – it wouldn’t be real. Extras are needed to make the street look as busy as it might on an average day in New York.
In real life, during the film shoot, the street might be closed off to traffic so the film can be shot without disturbance. But extras are hired to recreate and enhance the reality of the scene.
Extras may have roles as passers-by in the street, people sitting at a café, drivers or passengers in cars or buses, or members of a family in a park. On film, they may appear as blurry images in the background, or they may be in focus around the main actors. It’s really up to the director to decide how they’re going to shoot the scene and how obviously the extras will appear. In the picture here, from Season 6 of the Netflix series, The Crown (photo credit: Netflix) you can see a host of extras around Princess Diana - photographers, security people and people in the street. These would all be extras - but costumed for the role they need to play, and handed props (like cameras) by the production's Art Department.
An extra doesn’t usually have any lines to say.
A featured extra, on the other hand, may have a single line to say – or, they may have a particular non-speaking action which contributes to the story - something that foregrounds them on camera for a moment. You would often be booked for this in advance.
But very occasionally, a director may decide on the spot that they need an extra to say a line for a scene to make sense (e.g. a filler, like, "Thank you!" or "Look out!" or "Later, dude".) And in that case, you're already on set as an extra, so you get roped in at a moment's notice to deliver your line. But don't expect this will necessarily happen to you.
Once the requirements on you extend beyond these basic functions - that is, saying multiple lines of dialogue that push the story forward - you move into the realm of the actor, and out of the world of the featured extra. You then have a "bit part" or "guest role" - in other words, a small acting role in the project.
Do extras get paid?
Most commercial films and TV productions have a budget for extras, and in fact, in Australia, there’s an award rate for extras, set by the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. At the time of writing, it’s $35.24 per hour for a four-hour call-out for TV and digital commercials. Sometimes featured extras receive a little more money for the extra tasks they have to do. Sometimes you see student films and no-budget or low-budget films issue call-outs for extras, but with no pay attached. If you want to apply for one of these, just be clear on the nature of the production and payment arrangements – know whether you’re doing it to help out a student who’s learning the art of filmmaking, or an emerging filmmaker with no money - or whether you’re being duped by a company who should be paying its extras, but isn't. Believe it or not, they’re out there.
Is being an extra a genuine path to becoming an actor?
You may have seen Ricky Gervais’ comedy series called Extras,about an ensemble of characters who work as extras, constantly hoping for their big break as an actor. For most of them, it never happens. Generally speaking, working as an extra is not a direct route to becoming a well-known actor.
However, being an extra can be a great way to experience and understand movie sets. As an extra, you’ll gain insight into how the screen industry works. The days can be long, and the work repetitive (“Right…. Now walk from here to here! Action! Cut! Let’s do it again!”) but it can still be a thrill to be a part of a big movie. You’ll be in contact with extras coordinators, costume people, assistant directors, camera people, and possibly even stunt people where the script and story demand them. You’ll probably not be talking to them very much – your job is to focus on your task alone, and let them do their jobs (which are often stressful and busy during a shoot). But you’ll be able to observe how they operate, and by watching, learn about what’s involved in making a film or TV program. An extra is effectively an unskilled role – you need no particular talent to become an extra, except to match the look the director is after.
So how do I make the transition from extra to actor? If you truly want to become an actor, it’s about learning the skills of the actor. An actor, in contrast to an extra, needs to:
Play characters – embody them physically
Use their voice effectively – master accents, articulation, resonance and projection
Bring emotional vulnerability to their roles – be able to play a range of emotions, according to the demands of the story and the character’s journey
Analyse scripts - be able to think through what their character is like by combing their script for clues, then work out how to bring that character to life.
At Perform Australia, we train people in these acting skills – and much more! So if you'd like to learn, consider these options:
If you’re starting out, try Acting 101 in Brisbane or Canberra – it’s a beginner’s acting course that will introduce you to the fundamentals and give you a taste of what’s involved.
If you’re looking for something deeper to sink your teeth into, try our Certificate IV in Acting. You can take it even further and do an Advanced Diploma as well.
About the Author
Elizabeth Avery Scott is CEO of Perform Australia. She recently coordinated extras with Morgan Hain for the Canberra unit of the Liam Neeson movie, Blacklight.