For the past five years, I have subjected myself to freezing temperatures, 100 degree plus heat, 5 am calls, and all night shoots, to provide background or human “atmosphere” for feature movies and television shows. Normally you are one of many in a scene, lost in a sea of faces and costumes that can only be identified as a smeary blur if you put the scene on pause. Is it “glamorous?” Sort of…once and awhile, you get to see famous movie stars up close and occasionally share the same frame. Do you make a fortune and get invited to exclusive Hollywood parties? No. Is it “acting?” Sort of…
You can make a decent income if you work a lot. Not easy to do. There are at least 5000 applications for every acting job posted…even the free ones. If you do get a job, the average union wages (SAG (Screen Actors Guild)-AFTRA) are around $150 for an 8 hour day…better than a Wal-Mart greeter, but not as consistent. You are lucky if you can get three or four gigs a month…not enough normally to earn the $20k a year necessary to get benefits afforded almost every other worker in America. Occasionally you get into time and a half or double time if you work 8-13 hours. Double time is referred to by most actors as “golden time,” for obvious reasons. Wages can be supplemented by additional remuneration for mileage, working in smoke, meal penalties, clothing allowance, etc. But you will never get rich being a background actor.
So if not for fame or fortune, why do we do it? As a retiree, I am lucky enough to not need the income. So for me, it’s just being part of the world of entertainment. It is always what I wanted to do with my life, but chose for my family the practical traditional job route to put a roof overhead, food on the table, and clothes on our back. I always loved telling stories, and making people laugh. I don’t expect to ever be a “big star” at my age, but I still dream about making it on TV or the silver screen. I love being on set if only in a minor role and hanging out with famous stars like Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Daniel Craig, John Goodman, Ben Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix, Paul Dano, Jennifer Aniston, Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, and Ashton Kutcher.
But the biggest reason is the fantasy that you will be “discovered” like Lana Turner at the corner drug store. The term is “upgrade” where the director, or first AD (assistant director), suddenly spot your enormous potential and pulls you out of the masses to have a scene with dialogue. Being upgraded is an urban myth amongst background players, like the holy grail. It never happens to you, but to a friend of a friend of a friend.
Proud to announce it finally happen to me on the feature film, Medicine Men. I got pulled out by the director to deliver lines I got to write for the final scene. My big moment…will it lead to fame and fortune or will I fade back into the background? Who knows…but, that’s entertainment. Regardless, I will keep going and for sure I will see you in the movies. I’ll be the third cowboy with a hopeful look standing to the left of the big star…
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Richard Allan Jones is the author of the comedy/adventure novel, “Drafted,” now available on Kindle on amazon.com.