This is easily one of the most creative ways to earn extra money if you have the opportunity. I did this in college and will go over everything from how I signed up to be an extra, how it went, and as the headline suggests, how I made $80 a day being a movie extra.
Movie extras are the non-speaking background people in movies
This is not a guide on how to become a movie star, I have no idea how to become the next Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts. I’m strictly focusing on how to become one of the non-speaking people in the background of a movie because all those “normal” people in movies are all paid to be there. These people are called movie extras. Their job is typical to be the “normal” people in the background of movies.
How I stumbled into becoming a movie extra
During the fall/summer of 2009, I worked as an intern in a Landscape Architecture firm in Des Moines, Iowa. This was the year Iowa had a number of tax advantages for movie companies and many of those companies made their way from Hollywood to Iowa to shoot big-budget movies.
My design firm was located on the second floor of a build with vacant space on the first floor that a casting company set up temporary shop. It wasn’t a grand Hollywood looking renovation, but rather a modest set up where you could tell they were only in Iowa for the tax reasons. Yet still professional. Don’t think creepy abandoned building.
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It was a big deal in my office that this casting company opened up shop, so about 5 of us during lunch went downstairs and checked it out. The casting company was super friendly and asked if we’d want to submit our info for potential projects. We were like giddy schoolgirls thinking this was our chance to become famous, of course, we said yes.
Signing up to be a movie extra was easy
Now since then, I’ve heard people spending hundreds of dollars on headshots and all that. For me, it didn’t cost us anything. It was a quick 15 min process where we filled out some forms that were primarily about our physical descriptions “height, weight, hair color, eye color, etc.”. Afterward, they took a couple photos “headshot/body shot”. Just our regular look/style, no Zoolander Blue Steel or anything.
My first project (aka movie)
About a month after we all signed up, I got a call on my cell phone. Mind you, this was a month of hearing nothing, so the call was unexpected. I guess this is the way it goes. You sign up and wait.
The call was brief and happened a while ago, but this was roughly how it went.
Casting Agency: “Hey Andrew, this the Casting Agency (I don’t remember the name), we were going over headshots with the director of a new movie and we liked your look. Would you be available to be an extra, a non-speaking role, on May XX (don’t remember this date)?
Me: “Oh Hey! That’s cool! What movie is it?”
Casting Agency: “It’s called “The Experiment” with Adrien Brody about the Stanford prison experiment. You know about regular people taking on the roles of prisoners and guards for a psychological experiment. We’re shooting a scene at a café, it will be an all-day shoot and we’ll pay you $80 for the day. Are you available?”
Me: In my mind, I’m thinking HOLY MOLY I’m going to be hanging out with Adrien Brody, this is awesome. Yet I played it cool. “Yea I can be there”.
How being a movie extra actually goes
It was easy to spot the café where I needed to go. It was an upscale coffee shop in the middle of a nice strip mall in an up and coming part of Des Moines. I recognized it right away because it was surrounded by large trucks lugging movie equipment and barriers that stopped people from going anywhere near the coffee shop. Needless to say, this coffee shop wasn’t getting any actual customers, it was completely rented out and filled with silent movie extras already inside miming fake conversations to look “normal”.
Apparently, a trick with experienced movie extra actors, those who get there extra early to get the best parts closest to the action. I didn’t know this.
After I parked, I walked up to the café but was sent around to the back alley where the cast/crew area was set up. It was there I met about 10 other extras who were eagerly waiting to be told what to do.
Waiting was the keyword because the life of a movie extra is primarily waiting around all day.
The first 4 hours of the day were the crew setting up the café, checking the lighting, and running through the scene without actually filming. As the “additional” movie extras, we waited patiently for someone to tell us what to do and tried to catch glimpses of the café whenever the alley door opened. Some people (who’ve done this before) brought books, but most of us gossiped about what was going and sharing stories of other movies they’ve been in.
As an extra, I only did one thing all day
About 5 hours in, the assistant director asked for some people. My hand shot up instantly. I was dying of boredom. I didn’t know what needed to happen but anything was better than sitting.
My job was to walk in the background outside the cafe so there was normal movement outside the window. In a straight line, I had to walk 20 feet. That was my moment of movie glory!
To give you a mental description. The scene was a mental flashback of the main character in this coffee shop. So while you would see the hero in the coffee shop talking, surrounded by “normal” looking movie extras in the coffee shop. There was a view of the window looking outside, probably in the corner of the shot. That was me, I was one of 6 people walking on the sidewalk past the coffee shop to make the outside look “normal”.
I sat five hours, to do a 5-second walk outside a coffee shop window in the background of the background of the actual café scene.
After I did my walk, well a couple of times for a couple of takes and after the assistant director told me how to make my walk look casual. I was done and went back to the alley.
The only other activity came at the end of 7 hours when they were packing up to do a night club scene. They asked for volunteers who wanted to join and while I offered (along with everyone else), I was the 7th person when they only needed 6.
That was the end of my acting career. The moral of the story, movie extras need to show up early and act fast to get in the good scenes.
Remember your scene may get cut. Mine did
If you ever watch movie commentary, some actors remember doing some of their best work in scenes that never made it into the final movie. Well, I bought the 2010 “The Experiment” movie online, even though you don’t really own the digital movies you buy. I recognized numerous Iowa qualities, but my coffee shop scene never made it into the movie. Yet I still got paid.
They handed me a check for $80 that day
I remember when they were packing up that day. I asked if they needed anything else. They were super nice, but said no and handed me a check for $80. That was it! However because I showed up and was there if they needed me, I got paid.
If you want to try being a movie extra, here’s what to do
Many elements of my story are pure luck, but don’t let that deter you from trying. Check websites of professional (non-sketchy) casting agencies in your area. They’re most likely in larger cities. Ask them point-blank that you’re interested in being a movie extra and what you need to do. I’m not sure it’ll be as easy as taking your photo and done, but each casting agency will let you know.
Once you’re in their database, you’ll be on their list for a while and will never know when or if they’ll call. Each new movie may be looking for something different or something you uniquely have. There is no way of knowing.
In fact, I received a call from the same casting company 4 years later having never spoken to them since. They called in 2013 after I started my job in Denver and asked if I could be in LA in a week. I immediately thought about how random it was but kindly responded no. In hindsight, maybe I should have tried it, but either way, it’s a unique way to make money and a fun experience.
Featured Image Credit: EvgeniyShkolenko / iStock.