Background Work in the UK (aka Being an Extra)

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I hope you enjoyed last week’s list of networking, opportunity and education sites for actors and people in the film industry. You can always refer to it here.

This week I want to talk about background work. Aka crowd, extras or supporting artists. As an actor, should you do it? And if you don’t have any experience in the industry, how do you get started? I live and work in the UK, so this is all UK-based though the principles are transferrable.

If you’re an actor, should you do SA work?

When I spoke with the director Louise Hooper, she said that it’s not a good idea to do too much of it. The reason behind this is that you may be seen in the SA camp too often and be labelled as a background person and find it harder to secure work as an actor. My agent said something similar, but you can absolutely do SA work because you get great experience on set and you get to see how the larger productions operate and see all departments in action. I have met a number of actors on SA jobs and many of them echo these sentiments also, but that does mean you’re better off looking for alternatives to SA work as your mainstay while you build your acting career. This can be tough when you love being on set but you have to prioritise and focus on your bigger end goals over the short-term fixes.

If you’re not an actor, can you work exclusively as an SA?

In my experience and from talking to other SAs, very few people manage to “make a living” doing exclusively SA work. It can be done but you need to earn the right to be booked often.

It takes time for the people who book you – the 2nd ADs, directors, costume, hair and make-up, etc. – to get to know you are reliable, trustworthy and easy to work with. That’s not to say you won’t be busy from day 1 (that depends on your look), but don’t expect it. Many SAs go through periods of feast and famine – lots of work, then nothing, then work, etc.

As you build up connections in the industry, more opportunities will open. Even as an SA, being proactive and a good networker means you get remembered for the right reasons. I have met a few SAs in this camp and they work regularly. Some also work on the crew side as Crowd PAs and Crowd ADs so find opportunities to work regularly. As most people in show business are self-employed, you need to create opportunities in a nice way once you’re booked.

If you’re lucky, and in time, you might get the occasional featured role and, if the gods whisper in your favour, a line or two (though this can be as rare as rocking horse poo). A featured role means you are more visible on camera (hence the “moving wallpaper” reference in the subject since 99% of the time you aren’t even in focus) and may receive direction from the 1st AD or main director (which qualifies you for an extra payment under strict criteria). I’ve been lucky to have had featured roles in Andor, Witcher: Blood Origins, You Season 4 and a handful of yet-to-be-released productions. It’s a good feeling to be in the middle of the action (which, I guess, is why I like to be an actor)!

If you want an insight into how SAs get selected for a production and what happens on the day, check out the posts of Extra People’s blog about the life of a 2nd (Crowd) AD: Part 1Part 2.

OK. How do I get work as an SA?

You simply join a number of SA-specific agencies. Don’t rely on one as there’s no exclusivity and not all agencies get requests from all productions. So, register with a good selection and keep your profiles and headshots (selfies are fine) updated. This shows you’re active and available. There are LOTS of SA agencies – some are regional and some are national. Some of the regional ones are known for taking the lead on productions in their region. If you want to work on specific productions, ask around on set to work out which agencies you should be with.

The most common ones I have come across are:

  1. Entertainment Partners: An umbrella company (formerly WeGotPop or simply Pop) that services a number of agencies underneath them such as Key Casting, Camera Action Extras, Artists Book, Extra People, VFA and Two10). You register once and all these agencies can find you. They take 20%+VAT commission per job with no up-front fees.
  2. Extra People: Although they are on Entertainment Partners above, they have their own books also, so register with them separately to get priority access to their productions. They take 20%+VAT commission per job with no up-front fees.
  3. Casting Collective: A nationwide agency with a very big database. They take 15%+VAT with an annual “book fee” taken from your first booked job.
  4. Uni-versal Extras: Based out of Pinewood, they work nationwide. You can pay an annual fee (£30) to become a priority SA. They also take a 16%+VAT commission.
  5. Talent Talks: More of a job directory. You pay an up-front fee (£85 annually or £11.50 monthly) to be able to apply for the jobs. Lots of variety here.
  6. Rachel’s People: Harder to get on their books due to the selection criteria they use. However, once there you’re not just a number like many other agencies. There is a “book fee” from your first job plus a commission on each job in line with other agencies.

There are others such as Mad Dog, Ray Knight, etc, and I’ll list some below so you can research and/or apply to them 😉 Some of these may have closed (I know Guys & Dolls did), and some may be specialised such as modelling and SPACT.

Remember, just ask other SAs for advice when you meet them. Note that some SAs have VERY strong opinions about which agencies are good and which are bad. While I have consistently heard the same stories about one or two agencies, I have found that it is not always the agency that’s at fault and it can be down to the attitude of the SA that muddies the waters. And just because you’re registered you are not guaranteed any work. Remember, productions are looking for people they can work with easily and they do report back about your professionalism on set. Agencies can also quickly discern if you are easy or difficult in your interactions with them, and this can affect your opportunities.

Conflict of Interest?

Normally, SA work does not conflict with your main acting work but do check with your agent if you have one as you may have contractual obligations. SA work is a different category (not acting per se), but you might get put forward for speaking roles or commercials and this may overlap with your acting agency contract.

Oh, and don’t expect to necessarily be seen on screen. When you’re background, you’re background – aka moving wallpaper. You’ll probably be a blur or one in a crowd behind the main actors unless the stars align (which they rarely do). Or your scene may even get cut!

Unions: Equity & BECTU

Also, once you have received £500 in income from SA work you can join Equity. This also gives you public liability insurance plus other benefits (such as 50% off WeAudition). However, if you’re only focusing on SA work, I’d recommend joining BECTU as they have a stronger focus on SAs. The unions can defend your corner in the rare instances you have been treated unfairly (and in the ongoing conversations around AI).

A Helpful List of SA Agencies

This list is not exhaustive and some agencies may be closed or specialise in different areas – such as modelling, children or SPACT. DYOR!

Agency Oakroyd, Alana Herron Personal, Alan Sharman Agency, Allsorts Agency, Artist Managment UK Ltd, Avenue Artistes Ltd, Andrea Wilder Agency, Bennetton, Bettys and Dudes, BMA Models, Bonnie & Betty Ltd, Boss Casting, Broadcasting Agency, Cairns Agency, Casting Central, Celex, Chris Snode Promotions Ltd, Creative Casting, Creative Kidz & Co, David Agency, DK Model Management, Dolly Brook Agency, Elliott Agency, Ethnika Casting, Eurokids & Eka, Extra People Ltd, Extras NI, Extra Special Ltd, Face Music, FBI Agency, Featured & Background Casting Ltd, Film Cast Cornwall & SW, Fresh Agents Ltd, Gold-Cast Agency, Guys & Dolls Casting (no longer trading), Industry Casting, IPM Talent, Jaclyn Agency, John Doe Associates, JPM Extras, Kreate Promotions, Lemon Casting Ltd, Linton Management, Mad Dog Casting Ltd, Mark Summers Management, Melanie Mcdonagh Management, MFS Military Film Services, MOT Models, Nemesis Agency Ltd, Niche Casting, Nidges Casting Agency, Norf Casting, Norrie Carr Agency, Northern Professionals Casting Company, Oriental Casting Agency Ltd, Pan Artists Agency Ltd, PC Theatrical, Performers League Agency, PHA Casting, Phoenix Casting Agency, Piece of Cake, Polease, Pop, Power Model Management Casting Agency, Rapid Talent Management, Ray Knight Casting, Ray’s Northern Casting Agency, Real People Casting, Regency Agency, Revolution Talent Managment, Rhodes Agency, SA19 Agency, Sandra Reynolds Agency, Sapphires Model Management, Scream Management, Screenlite Agency, Seven Casting Agency, Slick Casting Ltd, Solomon Artistes, Spact UK, Spirt Model Management, Stav’s Casting Agency, Take 3, The Casting Network, Tuesdays Child Ltd, Turnstone Casting Agency, Ugly, Uni-versal Extras, VisABLE People, Ward Casting, 2020 Casting.

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By Edward

The Here & Now

I’m working on developing a feature film – a supernatural thriller. You can find more about this on my production website. I am doing a script readthrough at Pinewood later in March for a TV comedy pilot. Plus the usual audition rounds of course. And my IMDb StarMeter has improved by 30,000!