As I wander through Hollywood throughout my life, I occasionally work as a background actor, also known as an “extra.” Here is a story about my experience lately when I was a “featured extra” on an NBC mini-series.
This is my stream-of-consciousness report about production experience these days.
The TV mini-series “Law & Order True Crime: THE MENENDEZ MURDERS” was in production in September and October of 2017 and aired as eight hour-long episodes on NBC on Tuesday nights at 10:00 pm from September 26 to November 14. It was produced by prolific producer Dick Wolf’s Wolf Films, based at Comcast’s NBC/Universal lot in Universal City, California. NBC, the “National Broadcasting Company,” is a prominent broadcast network that was one of the original television broadcasting companies.
The dramatic series format used for THE MENENDEZ MURDERS is called “single-camera” as opposed to the in-studio “multi-camera” production technique developed for TV shows in the early 1950s. However, the term “single-camera” refers to television productions shot in classic cinema production style, even though they often employ more than a single camera. On THE MENENDEZ MURDERS, there were usually three cameras used on set. The technique is what is described, differentiating the basic type of production style.
Background actors provide atmosphere, and are often referred to as “atmosphere,” in shots to simulate realism of additional people in scenes. Background actors are not directed by the Director, have no lines, and are rarely “established.” “Established,” also called “Featured,” means a specific person who becomes recognizable and is required in scenes for the sake of continuity and flow. Usually, background extras are not noticeable and are easily replaced.
Background acting has existed throughout the history of motion pictures and television. There used to be a Screen Extras Guild, a union for background actors, but it went bankrupt a quarter century ago. The prominent Screen Actors Guild, then known as “SAG” and now known as SAG-AFTRA because of the merger of two actors unions, represents professional actors and absorbed the agreements of the Screen Extras Guild. SAG-AFTRA has stringent requirements for joining, and an actor must be proven professional according to minimum standards before being allowed to join. In order to keep background actors, who are often not acting professionals and for whom there are no acting requirements, from flooding into SAG-AFTRA, SAG-AFTRA established rules for extras. They can qualify for SAG-AFTRA membership only if they gain three SAG vouchers. They then become “SAG Eligible.”
A voucher is the record of a day’s work on a production; it is essentially the time card. For union productions, those companies who are signatory to the MBA “Master Basic Agreement” with the motion picture and television guilds and unions, there are rules about the use of background actors. A union production requires a minimum number of SAG background actors. For instance, a production may be determined to require, say, ten SAG background actors. If the production uses ten or fewer, they all must be SAG members. If the production uses more than ten, the additional background actors may be non-union. If for any reason fewer than ten appropriate SAG extras are available, the remaining positions can be filled with non-union extras. However, those non-union extras, up to the required minimum of ten, must be treated exactly as if they were SAG extras. That means they get the same pay and amenities. That pay equals a “SAG voucher.”
Generally speaking, non-union extras earn minimum wage, with no benefits beyond routine State protections, but often are paid a minimum of eight hours per day, and earn overtime beyond eight hours. SAG extras earn about twice as much in wages, plus benefits and better working conditions.
Shoot days for THE MENENDEZ MURDERS were commonly 12 to 16 hours. Such days are very attractive to background actors, because the minimum wage builds up quickly with that many overtime hours. Earnings of $200 to $400 per day are common.
As a featured background extra on THE MENENDEZ MURDERS, background actors worked about twelve days on the production, and the casting agency might give a background actor SAG vouchers on three of those days. This is done on occasion to benefit a non-union extra who has performed well and who is needed on the set every day. This is separate from the hoped-for “speaking role,” which is also a way for a background actor to gain SAG membership. These opportunities are under the “Taft-Harley” rules about using non-union people on union shoots.
Central Casting was the background actors agency for THE MENENDEZ MURDERS. It is the oldest, largest, and most prominent agency in business. Central Casting maintains its own files of background actors. Anyone can register for consideration for background acting roles by visiting a Central Casting office on the scheduled intake days. There is no charge for registering. There is also no guarantee of ever being chosen to work on any production. I first registered with Central Casting in 1994, and work off-and-on whenever I want or need something new to work on. It is not a career for me. Personally, I always try to act even when an extra, and that is often noticed by the director. (I also worked on HBO‘s notorious WESTWORLD as one of the “blue people” for its entire first season, working totally nude for many days. I was featured in several shots, but cut out during editing of the final episodes, which, sadly, happens. Probably the weirdest moment in my life was casually chatting on set with the incredible and friendly Sir Anthony Hopkins while I was completely nude!)
THE MENENDEZ MURDERS was a high quality, big budget union production. The courtroom scenes I was in were shot on a brand new soundstage on the Universal lot. After Comcast bought NBC and Universal, it moved NBC production from its former lot in Burbank onto the existing Universal lot. It built new soundstages for NBC. Most soundstages on studio lots are decades old, so it was refreshing to be in a brand-new soundstage. The soundstage for our production was on the other side of the soundstage for the new WILL & GRACE series shooting alongside us.
The production crew at any given time was at least a couple dozen people.
Cinematographer Lisa Wiegand used three Arri Alexa Mini cameras for the production, sometimes on SteadiCam rigs, sometimes handheld, usually on Fisher dollies. The 35mm-format film-style digital cinema Alexa cameras are very popular and common on professional movie and TV productions. They can record 4K UHD ProRes images, with High Dynamic Range (“HDR”) and low noise.
My experience on set was unique because this set was the darkest I had ever worked on. I spoke with Ms. Wiegand about this. She explained that the low-light sensitivity of these cameras – she used the camera’s native 800 ISO – was exploited to use the least amount of light. The dark set allowed for more control of light shaping, reduced the heat and discomfort on set, and reduced the power consumption. Yet, the final production looked as good as anything ever shot.
The crew and talent worked together well (not always the case for for film/TV productions). Law & Order True Crime: THE MENENDEZ MURDERS was an excellent working environment and very pleasant.
I was “featured” as “Juror No. 10,” and was specifically on set in that role every day of the jury episodes. As a background actor, I appeared in the usual shots of the jury. I was also set up with special scenes that focused on me. Scenes that included focusing on me in a voting scene reacting specifically to the jury foreman, and focusing on me reacting to the fight that occurred in the jury room. As is too often and uncomfortably common, I was ultimately cut from the end product of the episodes, left “on the cutting room floor” even though my performances were praised by the director, cinematographer, and scripty. That happens, sadly.
As an actor, uniquely, I always try to act whenever in a situation as an extra, and that is often noticed by the director.