Marci Dean has been in dozens of movies, working on films with Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Reese Witherspoon and Jude Law. But you probably don’t know her name. She is one of thousands of part-time actors who make money as a movie extra.
Extras don’t get film credits or lines. But they can get union wages, meals and plenty of perks — like getting to read novels on the job. Dean says being a movie extra is a great part-time job for retirees, college students, and anyone else who has a highly flexible schedule.
“This business would not have worked for me as a single mother,” she says. “But as a retiree who is not depending on this income to support a family, it’s great.” 

Make money as a movie extra 

Anyone who has watched a film or television show has a passing idea of the role that extras play in movies and television shows. Extras, also known as “background artists,” are the people walking on the street when the main character goes to work; the parents in the football stands; the anonymous crowd at the beach.

Being an extra requires no experience; no acting talent; no talking. While you can sometimes parlay being an extra into an acting career, it’s neither required nor expected.

All that’s expected of you is to show up on time — ideally, early; pay attention; and follow directions. If you’re asked to bring specific clothing with you, have it on hand, pressed and ready to go when you start.

What do extras do?

You’re essentially there to provide atmosphere in one or more of the scenes being filmed that day. But the scene you’re in is just one of many that the production company will be working on. So a good portion of your work day is likely to involve standing around the set waiting to be called.

You can (and should) bring a book and be ready to socialize with your fellow background actors, says Dean. You’ll have plenty of time to check the various casting sites to see if you can find background work for the next day, too. And if you have some sort of quiet and remote side hustle — writing, editing or virtual assisting, for example — you can even do that while you wait.

The only caveat is that you have to be able to interrupt whatever else you might be doing at a moment’s notice to follow instructions given by the show’s director.

How much money do you make as a movie extra?

Extras can earn anywhere from minimum wage to more than $50 per hour. Typically, however, they’ll get paid for a full day, even if they’re only needed for a few hours.

The dramatic swing in hourly pay is largely dictated by two things: Whether the actor is in the union and whether he or she is expected to do something extraordinary — swim, ice skate, play golf or ride motorcycles, for instance. You are usually paid more if you’re expected to bring a costume or prop, like a tennis racket or golf clubs, too. 

However, union membership accounts for the bulk of the difference. That’s because SAG-AFTRA members are guaranteed overtime pay if the production goes over a set number of hours. And 10 and 15-hour days are common in this industry. Overtime is paid at 1.5 to 2 times ordinary wages.

Moreover, SAG-AFTRA contracts demand that productions provide actors with meals — or meal allowances — and pay for mileage, if the shoot is distant or lasts for more than a set number of hours. 

This combination can result in earning more than twice the union standard of about $200 a day. 

Why wouldn’t everyone join the union then?

For two reasons: First, not everyone can join the union. You need to have a certain number of acting credits to qualify. If you do qualify for union membership, the other hurdle is cost. There’s an initiation fee of $3,000, plus annual dues. Annual dues are just shy of $223 plus 1.57% of income up to $500,000.

If you are doing only occasional extra work, those costs can be prohibitive. 

There are also a lot of non-union background jobs that you are barred from accepting as a member of the union. 

Will this help break into acting?

It can be a foot in the door. Because you are around actors, directors and production people, being an extra gives you a good feel for how the movie business works. You are also likely to meet other aspiring actors and actresses, who can share notes about acting classes and other tips on getting speaking roles. 

However, being an extra is generally not a resume-builder. And, the last-minute nature of background jobs could hinder your ability to audition for more serious roles.

Of course, acting ambitions are not necessary. You can make money as a movie extra when you’re simply on vacation; in college; pursuing another career; or retired.

Where can you find extra work?

There are literally dozens of casting sites, including Central Casting and Advanced Casting. These sites enlist background artists for productions that are done all over the country — from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale.

There’s no cost to sign up with a casting service. However, some will ask you to appear in person to take headshots and participate in an orientation, so you may want to stick with a service that’s local to your city.

Dean also subscribes to a service called Extras Management that scours additional sites for potential background work and automatically submits you for any job that matches your availability and profile. This site does charge a monthly fee to actors for providing the leg-work that you’d otherwise have to do. Dean thinks ExtrasManagement is worth the cost for those who want to work regularly. 

How often can you get jobs?

That’s almost impossible to know. Casting for all types of productions has been slow this year because many productions went on hiatus due to Covid. Production companies are now starting to gear back up, but extras are typically called the day before they’re needed. Planning ahead is tough.

In an ordinary year, Dean says she could get called multiple times a week. Right now, she’s getting daily inquiries. But, she’s been reluctant to accept jobs during the pandemic.

Her experience is not necessarily the norm. She has an advantage because she lives in Los Angeles, home to dozens of studios. Jobs are available in nearly every major city, but there are less of them if you live outside of top production hubs such as California, New York and Atlanta. Still, as more streaming services such as Netflix and Apple TV launch and buy original programming, productions are springing up everywhere. 

“There is money to be made and it costs nothing to sign up,” Dean says. “Anyone and everyone can do this.”