Film Acting

Background Actors

A great way to enter the world of film acting is to work as an extra on film sets. (Although you won’t be called an “extra” on-set; instead, you will be referred to as “background.”) You can find calls for extras on the Internet as well as in publications like Backstage, Hollywood Reporter, and Variety. Background casting calls are also sent out by agencies that specialize in background casting. You can find these agencies listed in Ross Reports or online. Doing background work or taking a small role in a student film is another excellent way to cut your teeth. Any university with a film department will have postings announcing casting. When you get a background job, find out if you need to bring your own clothing/make-up. Also, be sure to arrive on time for your call and/or your pick-up location. Unless you are told otherwise, plan to stay on location all day. If you have any other appointments that day you should either reschedule them or do not take the background job. PAs (Production Assistants) will be your main contact for the day, and are not interested in hearing about anything else you have to do besides their film!

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Extra Time

When you are doing background work, be prepared to do a lot of waiting. Some background talent may get booked for a day and end up spending 15 hours in “holding” usually a large hall or space that serves as a waiting room/dining hall/lounge/dressing room. Sometimes, background actors wait all day long and are never called to work. You’ll still get paid; don’t worry. Two important tips:

  1. Bring a book or knitting or something to do while you wait. Don’t sleep; if you get called, you’ll need to be up and energetic at a moment’s notice.
  2. When you are on-screen, remember you are background. Do not call attention to yourself. Keep your movements at a minimum, even your facial expressions.
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Hit Your Mark

One of the most important tips about film acting is “hitting your mark.” It can also be the hardest part to learn. Unless you’re in film that’s being shot with a handheld camera that is following you around, you will need to learn this important skill.

Before cameras begin to roll, your spot for the scene will be marked on the floor, usually in a n X or T formation with some glaring piece of colored tape. When you enter the scene, your job is not only to walk directly to that spot and stay put or you’ll wander off screen and make the director very unhappy. On top of that you need to look natural doing it! See why it’s hard? If you have a video camera and tripod, try setting up shots for yourself at home as practice.

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On Being "Normal"

Film acting is very appealing to many performers because it allows them to be “normal.” There is no need for over-the-top physicality as stage acting requires. Sets are actual places, not made of wood and canvas. There is no immediate audience; your only concern are your scene partners. (Of course, you have tons of crew, equipment, lights and camera in your face, but when you’re living in a scene, these factors all away.) Actors are able to delve into the roles they play as though putting on the suit of another person’s body. When they appear in front of the camera, they are not acting the characteristics of that person, they are that person. Actually, it’s the most abnormal thing an individual can be! There can be a danger in this dissolution of self into the role you are playing. Remember that once the cameras stop rolling, you have a life – your own life. You must respect it and take care of yourself. If you don’t, you will inevitably be unable to tap into your resources to bring life to future characters you play since there won’t be anything there to tap into.

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Pulling Back

There is a misunderstanding about what it means to “pull back” in film acting. Let's clarify: by no means does it refer to lowering your energy or the strength of your character on screen. It does, however, refer to pulling back on your physical gestures. Watching someone wriggling around gesticulating wildly is more than distracting on screen. If you must move, make sure your movements are in-character and germane to the scene. Even if your character has a twitch, choreograph it so that you are not distracting from the other actors who share the scene with you.

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SAG is the Screen Actors Guild – the union for professional screen actors. In order to join SAG, you must have performed in a SAG film, television program, videotape, or commercial. You can also join by having worked as background on a SAG film as long as you were paid SAG rates and worked a minimum of three consecutive days. Members of affiliated performers’ unions such as ACTRA, AEA, AFTRA, AGMA or AGVA can also apply for membership once they have been in their union for one year in good standing (i.e., paid dues) and worked at least once as a principal (lead role) on-screen or in voice-over work. Rates and benefits of being a SAG member can be found on their website at

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When you are on stage, projecting your voice is essential. On film, however, the set is full of audio recording devices from lav mics to booms – all designed to pick up your tiniest finger-tap. A dead giveaway that an actor has transitioned from stage to screen with no additional training is when s/he appears to be yelling lines. There is no need. In fact, film is designed to be true to life, so the same vocal level you use to talk to anyone in your daily life is the same you’d use on a film set.

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