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A background actor or extra is a performer in a film, television show, stage, musical, opera or ballet production, who appears in a nonspeaking, nonsinging or nondancing capacity, usually in the background (for example, in an audience or busy street scene). War films and epic films often employ background actors in large numbers: some films have featured hundreds or even thousands of paid background actors as cast members (hence the term 'cast of thousands'). Likewise, grand opera can involve many background actors appearing in spectacular productions.
On a film or TV set, background actors are usually referred to as "background talent", "background performers", "background artists", "background cast members" or simply "background" while the term "extra" is rarely used. In a stage production, background actors are commonly referred to as "supernumeraries". In opera and ballet, they are called either "extras" or "supers".
Casting criteria for background actors depend on the production. It has been said that background cast members often require little or no acting experience. This however is not true. Any type of unrealistic portrayal must include some form of imagination and acting. Punctuality, reliability and the ability to take direction also figure prominently for these cast members. Background actors are often selected on short notice, after all other preparations for the shoot have been finalized.
Several casting agencies specialize only in background work. When hiring background actors, casting directors generally seek those with a specific "look," such as "high school students" or "affluent senior citizens," consistent with the context of the film. Casting directors may also look for background actors with a special skill for the scene, such as rollerblading, or dancing. A background actor is often expected to bring his or her own wardrobe to the set, and a casting director may favor the one who already has the required costume or prop, such as a police uniform, or a musical instrument. On other occasions, where a costume has already been prepared (for example, to fit another actor who is now unavailable), a background actor may be selected as a "costume double" simply because they are the right size to fit it.
On smaller productions or student films, background actors may be hired en masse with little formality.
The length of a background actor's employment on a production largely depends on the needs of the director and the scene(s) being filmed. Some background actors are needed on the set only for a day or two. Others may remain with the film for an extended period. On James Cameron's film Titanic, for instance, a group of 150 "core background actors" was hired to play the ship's passengers. Those background actors were employed throughout the filming.
Salary and working conditions
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In the United States, most major film and television productions used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or AFTRA. The two unions have merged into Sag-Aftra. The UK equivalent for actors is called Equity. However, on films in the UK the majority of background actors work under agreements negotiated by the Film Artists Association (FAA) division of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU).
SAG-signatory producers are allowed to hire non-union background actors after a certain number of SAG performers have been cast; non-union background actors are usually paid the minimum wage. On productions outside of union jurisdiction, payment for background actors is at the discretion of the producers, and ranges from union-scale rates to "copy and credit" (i.e., no pay). Those producers who do not pay their actors may be in violation of state and federal laws about minimum wage for a job.
Between 1946 and 1992, background actors in film and television were largely represented by the Screen Extras Guild. SEG was disbanded on 1 June 1992 and transferred its jurisdiction to SAG.
In popular culture
The television sitcom Extras follows the exploits of two professional background actors, Andy and Maggie. They spend most of their time on set looking for a speaking role and a boyfriend, respectively.
- The Truth About Being an Extra: How to Become a Good Background Actor - Jo Kelly - Google Books
- "Background Artistes". BECTU. 2011-07-01. Retrieved 2013-03-26.
- Television and movie agreement - collective bargaining agreement; Screen Actors Guild, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, Monthly Labor Review, August 1992