Anyone who has ever watched TV or a movie has thought to themselves, “I could do that.” Well, maybe you can. Find out some ways to break into the business as an extra (or maybe even as something more).
Hollywood: What it’s like to be there, and what it takes to get there
In the superficial world of Los Angeles, critically-acclaimed director Loren E. Chadima works hard to keep her feet on the ground. “With all the money around here, it’s hard. When we [Chadima and new husband Kerry Norman] drive through Pacific Palisades, Brentwood, Bel Air and Santa Monica, everyone is driving around in Mercedes and Lexuses. It’s a warped reality,” she laughs. Chadima’s currently editing her latest film, “Cries from Ramah,” which will debut in film festivals this summer. It’s a poignant tale of two mothers, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who have more in common than they realize. She was also recently selected to join the American Film Institute’s (AFI) famed Directing Workshop for Women. (Alumnae of this program include Maya Angelou, Anne Bancroft, Joanne Woodward; as well as directors for shows like The West Wing, 7th Heaven, Judging Amy, Sex and the City, and Dawson’s Creek.)So how’d she get here? She left a Tony Award-winning East Coast theater company to work her way to the silver screen. Starting as an observing director for TV shows like Boston Public, Providence, Strong Medicine, The Practice and General Hospital. She found work in local theaters and gained acclaim at the Ojai Film Festival, where her first film “Surprise” debuted to raves. If you’d like to make Hollywood your reality, Loren has some tips for getting started on the silver — or small — screen.Lack acting experience? Work as an extra.
If you’ve never done any acting before, being an extra is a good place to start. “If you want to act, as an extra, you can see the workings of the set. You can explore and learn what it’s like.” With a laugh, she adds, “You can also stand around for 12 to 16 hours a day.”When you’re on the set, you can learn what all the people there do — an education in and of itself. “You can see what the AD [assistant directory] does, how the director directs,” she says. “You can’t be asking the director how it works, but you can be in the background.”New to the business? Chadima says you should consider doing low-budget films. “You’ll find it easier to build a relationship,” she says. “Up and coming directors are more approachable than Ron Howard or Oliver Stone.”How about working as a soap opera extra?
Chadima says, “If you’re charming or have some star power, being a soap opera extra isn’t great way to break in. The casting agent won’t cast you if you’re too pretty.” (Hey, being so beautiful that they think you’ll compete with the regular characters is a good reason not to get a job.) Can you make a living as an extra?
It depends. “Non-union extras make about $80 a day,” says Chadima. Once you’ve gained some experience and have become union eligible (generally once you have three SAG vouchers — see below) you can make significantly more money, however. What’s the advantage of being a member of the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG)?
As a SAG extra, you’re a higher ranking extra. When the director needs someone to say a line, one of the SAG extras will probably get it. She says, “All of a sudden you’re an ‘under 5’ and you have a line in a movie,” says Chadima. “An accomplished extra can make about $400/day. It all adds up. If you work over eight hours, you get time-and-a-half. If you bring your costume, it’s a little more.”What are SAG vouchers?
SAG vouchers are given for each day of work to extras “in the right place at the right time.” says Chadima. “Once you’ve got three, you can join the union.” When you want to join the union, take your three extra vouchers, supporting paperwork, pay $1300, apply, wait two weeks and you’ll get your SAG card — that is, join the union. (Note: SAG calls extras “background players,” and are currently revising the application process. For the most recent policy, see www.sag.org.) Auditioning tips from the top
Nothing says you care like being on time. Allow plenty of time should you need to park far away and walk the last five blocks.Be confident.
Use positive body language: Look the people you’re meeting in the eye and shake their hands with poise. As a director, Chadima looks for confidence. “I want to know that they know what they’re doing.”Be prepared.
Even if you’re not auditioning for a role as a Boy Scout, you need to be ready. Have a resume and head shot. Color head shot, that is. “Black and white photos are on their way out. A lot of casting agents want digital submissions too,” she says.Enter the room in character.
“Sometimes the casting can happen before the audition. Walking in the room can be the most important thing,” reveals Chadima. If the director or casting agent finds you fit for the role, by the time you’re reading they “just want to see if they can act.” she says. So come prepared and dressed for the part.Be enthusiastic.
You’re asking for a chance to work with them on their project. Chadima says, “I want someone who is excited to be at the audition.”
What type of roles should I audition for?
Look at your headshots. If you saw you on the street, what “type” of person do you look like? Take look in the mirror, do you look like a snooty lawyer? A chef? A punk? A computer science guru? They don’t call it “type-cast” for a reason. Bottom line: Audition for parts that suit you. Hollywood actor Peter Elliot says, “It took me awhile to realize I’m not the handsome hunk or a leading man.” Major network casting
The major television networks offer casting opportunities on their corporate websites.
- NBC (www.nbc.com) they’re casting for lots of shows, including Fear Factor, America’s Busiest Families (a new “home intervention” show), Nashville Star, The Apprentice, Extreme Reunion and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
- ABC (www.abc.go.com) lists the shows they’re casting for on the main page: The Scholar, You Are What You Eat, Vacation Show, Supernanny, House Quest, America’s Most Embarrassing Parents, Wife Swap, The Bachelorette, Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
- CBS (www.cbs.com) is looking for people for Survivor and holding auditions for lead singers for the band INXS (another Mark Burnett project).
- FOX (www.fox.com) has the “Casting Call” link on its main page. They’re currently casting for Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy, Renovate My Family, Nanny 911 and The Swan
Casting near you
To find out what acting opportunities there are in your area, contact the film commission in your state. Some states, California for example, has multiple film commissions. They’ll know what’s filming in your area and who’s doing the casting. Take a look in your local phone book or online yellow pages, and check local theaters and film production companies.They’ll usually ask you to send in a resume and headshot. But be warned: Don’t pay anyone to submit these basics. “If they want money, they’re not legitimate,” says Chadima. Some books you might find helpful
- Twelve Step Plan to Becoming an Actor in LA: New 2005 Edition
- L.A. from A to Z: The Actor’s Guide to Surviving and Succeeding in Los Angeles
- An Actor’s Guide: Your First Year in Hollywood
- Breaking Into Acting for Dummies
- How to Become an Actor (instant download)
That’s a wrap
Finally, have faith in your talent — but keep your expectations realistic: Very few people can make a living in the entertainment business after only a couple years. Like many others in the industry, Chadima has a day job, too: She’s a children’s acting coach. “I love working with kids. I love watching their talents come forth,” she says. “I want to empower kids to be their authentic selves, even if they don’t want to be actors. I can help them find a place to express themselves, and be better human beings.”