Ah, extras…they are everywhere. Any street scene, courtroom scene…restaurant scenes…airport scenes…dystopian zombies marching...you get the point. Many of those people you see on the screen in a film or on TV are not just real people who happen to be in the background when the scene was shot. (But sometimes they are: my brother-in-law was at Fenway Park when they filmed that scene in Fever Pitch with Drew Barrymore running onto the field to stop Jimmy Fallon from selling his season tickets…and they just asked people to stay around after the game to be people in the stands. Anyway, HUGE Sox fan here…I could go on…) Where was I? Oh, wiping a tear from my eye remembering 2004.
So, extras, or background work, are pretty important to filling in scenes in all sorts of productions. If you subscribe to the casting breakdown sites in any major production city, you will see daily work available for extras. Many adult actors work as extras between gigs or if they have some down time and need some cash. For SAG members, who cannot work on non-union projects, extra work can help pay a few bills while running around from audition to audition to get principal work. Productions sometimes need children. Classroom scenes, playground scenes, and sometimes just kids to be walking down the street holding hands with their parent all may fit production’s vision of what they want to bring to the screen. Learning to navigate the child performer business can be quite challenging – then add in this question: Should my child do extra work? And it can get even more confusing.
SAG-AFTRA, the on-camera actors’ union, sets rates for all types of roles and markets and how much actors get paid based on where the commercial airs, or the network that airs the program…etc. They have many combinations of negotiated rates as well as rules and guidelines for both productions and talent with the goal of creating safe, reasonable, and fairly-compensated work. (Full-disclosure: I am pro-union.) So, for the most part, extra/background work is paid at a set, consistent rate. Principal actors are paid at their set rates…and talent can negotiate UP from there, but there can be no negotiation down on rates. Now, working one’s way through learning all about SAG rules and payment structure can be a huge task. For the most part, it seems like you need to talk directly to people at SAG or maybe a really experienced parent (with like, 3 SAG kids…there’s a mom on Backstage who is a whiz at this stuff) to know the drill. Essentially, it makes sense for a kid to put off joining SAG until they are designated a “must-join” – which means you would need to pay the $3,000 membership fee before you set foot on set for your next SAG job. (This typically happens between the child's second and third SAG roles.) There are more opportunities if you can audition for SAG as well as non-union jobs, and since you CANNOT work non-union jobs when you are SAG, you want to keep your options open for as long as possible. You also want to make sure you are able to pay the membership fee from jobs your kiddo has worked or is about to work – that’s why some agents won’t submit kids who are “must-join” if the role is not a well-paid one.
Ok, so hold onto all of that info for a minute. I needed to set some background.
In all of the rate structures established by SAG (these are negotiated by union members and production management for a period of time for all members), let’s take TV as our example. A one-day role on a program, such as a pilot, would pay about $950 per day. A one-day extra job pays about $150. So there is the money aspect.
Now here is what is really, really, really important. You cannot – CANNOT – use extra work on your resume, or in a discussion with someone you are hoping will offer you representation or a role. It’s basically a necessary, minimum-wage job (like many other necessary, minimum-wage jobs) that anyone can do – and it would not serve as any type of experience for landing principal roles. This may sound snobby, but think of it this way: are you going to bring up the summer job you had at Taco Bell when you are interviewing for a CPA position after college? No. It’s just not relevant and serves as superfluous information.
Go back and read that again. You CANNOT use it on your resume.
If you are wanting to do things in the industry with your kid to get experience, learn the business, build a resume, or – ugh, this one – gain exposure, this is NOT the way to do it.
Extras are often not treated in a manner we would prefer for our children to be treated. There are SAG rules and workplace regulations, and I’m not talking about mis-treatment, but I’m talking about things like being out in the blistering sun without shade for hours while production sets up scenes in which you may actually shoot for five minutes or – not at all. Or the cold. Or bad weather. Essentially, what I'm getting at, is stuff that's pretty uncomfortable and boring for kids. I could go on and on, but on multiple occasions I have had moms say to me things like, “Wow, I really felt sorry for those kids who were extras while my kid had an air-conditioned (etc.) trailer…” Production is focused on the principals. It’s just the way it is.
Ok, so the money is lame, the treatment is lame, you can’t claim it as experience…so why do people do it?
I have a few friends whose kids do it, and they are perfectly equipped to do it when they feel like it. They live in the city, they are homeschooled or do it during the summer, they like to experience interesting things – like maybe work as an extra in a period production (cool clothes) – and maybe pick up a little money. In other words, it costs them nothing, they aren’t missing anything like school or their activities, they’re up for an adventure, and why not? I have friends (adult friends and sometimes their kids) who might do it just for fun if it’s one of their favorite shows; I’ve never done it myself but I wouldn’t say never – I might not mind being a member of a mob behind a crime-scene tape on SVU. Or in a restaurant scene in Odd Mom Out (LOVE, by the way).
Now here’s where I was going up above with all of that SAG background info. If your kid is a must-join, and you do a SAG extra job, you are about to write a $3,000 check to go earn $150. And then your child can only work SAG jobs. And you have to pay dues, which is either a set minimum fee or a percentage of your earnings. (Remember, I am pro-union, but I believe your kid should join SAG when it makes sense financially and based on the quality of the roles involved).
Would I let my daughter work as an extra? No way. I can’t imagine a worse way to spend a day with my kid than waiting around, probably being uncomfortable, essentially trapped until they release you – for not very much money. It's bad enough when that happens at a well-paid gig (which has happened, and will happen to every child performer). Would I work an extra job? Like I said, just for fun – but I am an adult, and I can keep myself from whining or getting annoyingly bored and can understand that I am not there to be pampered. Kids don’t understand that one job they may be treated really well and another there is no food or place to have some down time. And – if there is no benefit to your kid professionally? Why do it?
So, if you fit into the category of not spending a cent to do it and your kid isn’t missing out on anything better, maybe you could give it a try if you feel like it. But, otherwise? Trust me on this one – don’t.