In the Background

February 20, 2018 at 2:11 pm Leave a comment

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I forgot that I once wrote about the joys of working background. At the time I had only been doing it for a few weeks, so I obviously knew everything. Out of my many jobs, it’s still my favourite, and my main source of income. I first started this post because I had a booking cancelled on me one morning, but they still had to pay me for the day anyway. Thanks, union! So I went to a coffee shop instead, earning a full day’s pay while dicking around on the computer.

The correct term is “background performer”, but I can’t get on board with “background artist“. Come on. If I’m talking to non-industry people, I try to use more universal terms like “being an extra”. But it gets confusing when you say stuff like “I’m doing extra work” (You’re working harder than necessary?) or “I got an extra gig” (An additional gig? Doing what?). Eventually I have to trust that people can follow along if I call it background work. Or doing BG. We are the BeeGees.

The main thing that separates background and principal actors is whether or not we talk. We have to mime our conversations, which is hard to do without whispering or exaggerating your gestures. It’s tempting to fall into charades mode. This scene from Modern Family nails it:

You can be cheering in a crowd scene, but no¬†discernable lines. If you say anything you are upgraded to “actor”, which has happened to me twice. Because of this I now have a credit on IMDb as “Cult Member #10”. It doesn’t happen often because it’s expensive for the production and comes with a lot more paperwork to fill out. And no, you’re not allowed to just blurt something out and get the upgrade. I know sometimes there are main actors who don’t speak, but the “having lines” thing is a general guideline.

Orphan Black

We get paid to be on set, whether or not we get used. Never made it into the final cut? Doesn’t matter, it’s not like we’re getting paid residuals when the show airs. Most BG are happy to be on set but never seen; that means you can get back on the show again as a different character.

I love getting recurring gigs on shows, which is called continuity. Say you have a show set in a workplace, you will find the same core group of people walking around silently in the background. I have so many one-time gigs, it’s nice get the jobs where I know where I’m going and generally what I’m getting into.

Our principal agents hate it when we do background, and some of them even forbid it. One reason is because it makes you unavailable for auditions, but the bigger reason is that it might blow your chance of getting a real part on the show. Like with this picture below, I was already seen as a continuity background soldier-type, so I can’t be anything else on that show. I think it’s been cancelled now anyway. My agent is okay with my background life, as long as it’s not for comedies. Comedy is where I need to be in the foreground :)

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Life on set is not very glamourous. Background people are at the bottom of the food chain. We are just scenery that has to be fed, watered and kept quiet. There are a lot of exasperated crew members, and they don’t hide their contempt for us. The background is treated like cattle, held in a pen and led around by wranglers. I’m serious, that’s what they’re called, wranglers. Soon we start to act like cattle, too, just turning our brains off and snacking mindlessly. We are held in crowded rooms, one folding chair per person, and none for your bag. There’s lots of bags, too, because we bring in a selection of our own clothes for wardrobe approval. Ideally there will be indoor bathrooms, but when you’re on location it’s a porta potty.

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There’s a background craft table that is the same on every set. Water, cookies, bread, fruit, peanut butter and jam. I’m shocked they still have peanut butter out in the open these days, with deadly allergies and stuff. The only time I’ve seen a “no peanut butter” policy is when it’s a kids’ show, or a crew member has an allergy. The extras are expendable. If you’re lucky there’s coffee, but more often it’s hot water that you add instant coffee and whitener to. Lately I’ve seen some veterans bring in their own coffee in a French press, and then just add the boiling water. Brilliant.

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I look forward to lunch because yay, free food. There’s a pecking order on who gets to eat first, and things can get tense. Actors and crew members go through first, then the BG who are union members… and then the rest of the cattle. There’s no way to police who is or isn’t a union member, and sometimes the honour system works better than others. At least most of the time we all eat the same food. I’ve been on big movie productions where there are different lines for different quality levels of food, depending on your place in the chain.

Cell phones are officially not allowed on set, but who are we kidding, everyone does it. You never want to miss a text or email from an agent, because you’ll lose the gig to the next person who answers. Most people can be trusted to turn the ringer off, or not take photos and post them on social media, but… yeah, then there are other people. Good lord there are a lot of nutbars who do background. It’s a weird job, and everyone who does it obviously had nothing better to do that day. There are delusional people who they’ll get famous, who spend their time promoting themselves to other extras. No, I’m not liking your Facebook page. You’re a singer/director/filmmaker? Good for you. Today we’re all just a bunch of blurry background scenery. I used to think comedians were the crazy ones, and they are, but at least comedians have a skill.

There’s some clever background workers, though. They bring their laptop and work on some kind of side gig during the downtimes. They are editing photos, videos, doing homework, writing a script, etc. There are a few real estate agents in the holding area, using the flexible schedule to their advantage. There’s a lot of people around to distract you, but some people tune them out and make it work.

I’m always tired after a long day on set, and it’s hard for normal people to understand why. After all, I just told you that we sit around all day and eat. Sometimes a nap if you’re lucky. Then why so tired? I say it’s very similar to traveling. If you take multiple flights to go somewhere far — even if you stay in the same time zone — of course you’ll be tired by the end of the day. Even though you’re just sitting for most of it, you’re never comfortable. Always moving, carrying your stuff around, going from one line to the next. You can’t settle in one place for long. How well can you sleep on a plane or in the airport lounge? Shuffling around set is a lot like that, and sometimes we’re doing it while wearing uncomfortable costumes/wigs/masks/prosthetics.

So yeah, that’s kind of a day in the life of a background performer. It has its ups and downs, but it’s a great job considering what we do. I don’t mind getting up before dawn to do it, because it feels like Christmas morning. A gig comes with three exciting moments for me: Getting booked, getting paid, and then hoping to see myself on TV. I guess I’m one of the nutbars, too.

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