Acting As a Profession – Proper Set Behavior For Principle and Extra Actors

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Acting is a Job

Whether you are a Background (Extra) or Principle Actor, you must remember that Acting is a job. Unlike the average, everyday office cubicle position, in this profession you may be surrounded by cameras, lights, boom mikes, cables, crew members and famous actors like George Clooney, Brad Pitt or Cameron Diaz; but when you boil it down, the fact is, it’s still a job.

Regardless of whether you are cast to be on the set for one day or several, it is important to maintain a professional attitude. From day one, make a good impression, and keep yourself at that level or better.

Are You Available Tomorrow?

Your agent will call you to see if you are available for work on the day needed. Give them a simple Yes or No answer. Agents have lots of arrangements to make – they don’t have time to hear “I’ll ask my boss,” “I have a doctor’s appointment that day,” or “Gee, a friend of mine passed away and I was going to the viewing, but that’s okay, I’ll be available.” (All real answers that have been received by actual casting agents!) The agent will most likely say they’ll have more information for you once you are actually booked. They may verify your email address as well.

Do not call your agent back to ask them if you were booked or not. If you do not hear from them by the time they said they would call, chances are you did not get booked for that job. Do not take this personally. You may not have had the right look for this scene, that’s all. But it is important not to bug your agent about this. You either got the job, or you didn’t. Let it go and move on to the next audition. (Actually, I prefer to call these “Job Interviews” – and I treat each audition as if it were exactly that – a job interview.) 

You Need to be On Set

Now the agent calls you back and states that you are verified for the shoot. Have a pen and paper by the phone at all times for notes, just in case the agent does not email you the pertinent information. (In this day and age, most agents will simply send you all of the pertinent information via email.) If they do not, however, you will need the following: Name of Project, Type of Work (Background? Day Player? etc.) Wardrobe? Props (Briefcase, Umbrella, etc.), Location, Call Time, and Directions. Note: if directions are offered, take them. Yes, you can check on line, but often these online directions are incorrect, or do not take construction or other issues into consideration.

Three to Get Ready

Wardrobe. Wardrobe can be a complicated issue. Depending upon whether you are Non-Union or Union, there may be different requirements. I’ll try to simplify these as I go along.

First, go through your wardrobe for two or three possible clothing changes, including shirts, jackets, hats, pants, shorts, skirts, dresses, shoes, purses and other accessories. Make a quick stop to the local resale shop if you need something but don’t have it – track mileage and save the receipt, as this is a deductible business expense. Make sure everything is clean and pressed (unless the wardrobe description calls for something else.) You should have a compact rolling bag with you, like an airplane carry-on size. Don’t fold your clothes – roll them up and store them in the carry-on (rolling decreases flat-line wrinkles). Place your cleaned and polished shoes in there too, in plastic bags so no missed dirt gets on your clothes.

Listen to what your agent says about color, pattern, etc. Pay attention to color restrictions when you are providing your own wardrobe. Most commonly, you won’t want black, white, anything with logos, or patterns. If someone tells you not to wear green, for example, there could be a scene where a green screen is used, and suddenly you won’t have a body on camera. 

Basically, whatever your agent told you to wear, that’s what you wear to the set. This is considered your 1st Costume Change. The reason behind this is that on Union sets, actors are paid extra for costume changes, and for props they bring to set – but only if it is their prop, and only if they are specifically told to use it. I have been on sets where actors come dressed in something totally wrong, claimed that their agent said that was what they should wear, and then they change into what they were told to wear to set in the first place. They do this because they are trying to get some extra money out of the day’s shoot – actors get paid $25+ for every time they are told to change costumes. People who do this on set are nickel-and-diming the production, but worse than that, they make a very bad name for themselves, the agency who sent them, and the location in which the film is being shot.

Additionally, you may be asked to go to Wardrobe. Here, the Costumers may enhance what you are already wearing with something from their collection of clothes – a scarf, perhaps, or a different blouse. You will sign for these items, which must be returned to Wardrobe at the end of the work day, in order for you to receive your acting Voucher, which is how you account for being on the set and which eventually lets you get paid for each day’s work.

Hair and Makeup. Prior to the day of the shoot, make sure you are shaved, manicured, plucked and look like your headshot. That being said, your big day has come! Sets will have hair and makeup artists, who are there to enhance your look, not to give you a full hair and face job. So, always come to the set with at least your base makeup (foundation and powder) as well as a light eyeshadow, mascara, blush and lip color. You may be Background in a huge scene with 200 actors; having your basic makeup on allows the Hair and Makeup crew to move you along faster and more conveniently.  Do your hair in your usual manner unless specifically told otherwise by your agent. The Hair & Makeup crew will call you in and will style you based on what you are already wearing. Also, bring your own makeup and hair spray with you.

Prepare to be Bored. A lot of acting is basically waiting to act. You spend a lot of time on set in between calls. The director wants to use you in as many different ways as possible, so that you can be in a variety of scenes without someone saying “Oh look, there’s that guy again!” So a well-supplied actor will bring a small book, magazine, book of crossword puzzles, deck of cards, crochet or knitting project – something they can pick up and put down quickly, but that will keep them occupied in between being called onto the set.

Don’t bring video games, as you tend to get too involved, which includes grunting noises or shouts when you are disappointed that your game figure was destroyed – you must maintain a low noise level at all times. Also, your cell phone is not an item to keep you occupied. If you talked on the phone all the time at your regular job, you’d be reprimanded or worse, fired – so don’t do it on the film set. (On one television project, I was paired for background with a woman who was a real estate agent. While we walked, she called clients on her cell phone. At one point, the director called “Cut,” and this woman held up her finger, saying “Wait a minute” – can you believe it? The Director finished up that part of the shoot which used her as background, and sent her home. Basically, she was fired.)

Additional items to bring in miniature sizes: breath mints (not gum), anti-static spray, a lint roller, an emergency medical kit, toothbrush and toothpaste, a sewing kit with safety pins, clear nail polish, a bottle of water, acetaminophen, and a spare pair of pantyhose in case a tear gets out of hand.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time.

Plan to be early for your call time. Do this by counting hours backwards, like so: Your call time – the time you are to arrive on set – is, for example, 5 AM. You know it will take you an hour to get to the location, but there may be traffic, or some other unexpected delay, so count backwards from your expected time and you realize you need to leave the house by 3:30 AM. Everything is packed and ready to go the night before, you have gassed up the car already, so you won’t have to make any special stops; you just need to grab something to eat and make sure you look good, so plan to get up 45 minutes before you leave the house, which means you actually get up at 2:45 AM.

And lets face it, you need to get a good night’s sleep, so count back another 8 hours and that means you need to get to bed by 6:45 PM, the night before the shoot. Get the idea? I also set two alarm clocks – the one on my nightstand as well as my cell phone. One wakes me up – the other makes me get up out of bed to turn it off – and besides, you never know when there might be a blackout or some other event that shuts off your electricity!

Let Them Know Where You Are.

You’re on the set! There will be signs most likely directing you to the parking area. These may say “Extras,’ “Background,” or “Holding.” Check in with production and report to the waiting area (I’ve waited in libraries, teacher conference rooms, kitchens, restaurants, and even a prison holding cell! The best was the first time I got my very own trailer!) to wait for wardrobe, hair and make up. If you’re an extra, you will be sent to holding with the rest of the extras. If you need to use the facilities, for example, or need to run back to your car, make sure the AD (Assistant Director – or whoever it is in charge of the extras) – knows where you are. Shooting a film or television show is unpredictable, and nothing is more frustrating for a director on a schedule, than not being able to track down an actor. 

Admire the Star from Afar.

Okay, this one is a pet peeve of mine, and I am going to rant for a moment. How can any actor who really wants to be in the business get hired to play a background actor, and then have the unmitigated gall to actually ask the star of the film to take a photo with them, or sign an autograph? This behavior is not only highly unprofessional, it is also damaging to the actor, the casting director, the agency, and the location. Why do you think so many projects are cast out of Los Angeles and New York instead of the location areas? It’s because of the level of professionalism. If you want more speaking roles to be cast out of your area, then behave in a professional manner, and make sure your colleagues do the same!

Rant over, here’s the scoop: The most important rule on set regarding Principle actors is never speak to them unless they speak to you first. Here’s another one: Never approach a lead actor on any set and ask for their autograph or a photo with them. They are on the set to do a job. Perhaps they are Method acting, and your request distracts them from doing their very best. Fans and Paparazzi follow actors around all day in the “outside” world. The set should be a safe haven where they can relax and concentrate on the scene. Imagine if someone kept taking your photograph and asking for your autograph while you were in the midst of typing up a report for your boss.

Want more? Never bring a camera on the set. Never take pics or videos with anything, and that includes your cell phone. Here’s an example of seriously bad behavior: several years ago, I was hired for extra work on the set of Hack, with David Morse. They wanted my minivan to be the first car in line behind the half-cab that was used to film some teenage cab passengers. I drove, with three other extras and the Second AD in my van. It was interesting to be so close, because there was a film truck with a winch that actually held up the back half of a taxi. The front end was open, and the cameraman was in a harness, hanging over the edge of the truck, while taping the actors in the “back seat” of the cab.

Here’s where the shocking behavior came in: the woman who was in the passenger seat of my van reached into her purse, took out a camera, opened the passenger door window, and climbed out so that she was actually sitting in the window as I drove. She started taking photos of the scene that was happening in front of us. How star-struck ridiculous is that – not to mention unsafe! Needless to say, this woman, too was fired.

Go Where They Tell You To Go.

There is a reason you may be Close Background or Deep Background. It could be your costume, your look, or it could be a Union reason. On one movie shoot, just after I earned my Union card, I was placed in very close proximity to a very famous star. While the picture was up, I maintained my focus, performed admirably, and did not get sucked in to the “Star Watcher” game. This served me well – in between takes, this star began chatting with me, and it made for a fun and memorable day on the set.

On the third take, there was a ruckus – a Non-Union Extra who wanted to “see the star” worked her way up through the crowd scene. This became noticeable in the background, and she actually ruined two takes of the scene. This was a very expensive problem. The women was fired from the set, and the scenes were re-shot. The worst part of this was, she and I had stood in line together at the beginning of the day; when she saw how close I was to the actual filming, she pointed at me and said, “I’m with her.” Excuse me? I did not bluster; I simply told the truth. As they escorted her from the set, she began shouting that I was a liar. How unprofessional is that? Was she jealous that I had earned union status and she had not? Or perhaps she had seen the star talking to me – was she angry over that? Who knows. It was a definite lesson learned – some people will try anything.

Later, I learned that there were 250 Non-Union Extras hired as Deep background, and 50 Union Extras, who were hired for Close Background. The placement of the Background Actors was according to experience and Union requirements.

Respect the Director.

Who is the Numero Uno Persona on any set? The Director. Whatever they want gets done. Listen and follow instructions. For Extras, that includes the Assistant Director (AD) who points out where you need to be. Trust that these people are paid to know what they do. Questioning why or offering suggestions will only aggravate them.

Terms You Need to Know.

AD – Assistant Director – there may be a few of these, and they are “numbered” according to their position – First AD, Second AD, etc.

Continuity – Make sure that every time you do something, it is exactly the same, so there are no errors in the final product (examples – drinking from a glass – the glass must be refilled to the same beginning line every time the take starts over again; did you use your right hand or your left? etc.)

Sound – the sound is now rolling for the upcoming shot

Rolling – The camera is now rolling for the upcoming shot

Background Action – The Extras start whatever action they were told to do

Action – The Principle actors start whatever action they are to do

Cut – Stop what you were doing

On Your Mark – This is where you are told to stand – notice things around you – trees, tables, whatever – so you are sure to stand in the same spot for the next take

Back to One – Go back to the spot you were told to be in at the start of the scene

Tone or Room Tone – This is the background noise on the movie set. Areas without dialogue create a “gap” which needs to be filled with sound, or Room Tone. The Sound person will call “Quiet for Tone.” Everyone – cast and crew – stands still and maintains total quiet while the Sound person records Tone.  


All of the above information is important especially because the scene will most likely be shot several times, but from a variety of angles. The Director will want two to three “takes” of each angle including front, back, sides, even scenes reflected in car or store windows, or mirrors. So you may be taking the same short walk 20 to 30 times. Do it the same way each time. This is important for Continuity.

A Few More Do’s and Dont’s.

These are a few ways you can get an edge on the competition. A professional demeanor and being easy to work with are some of the top things that can make sure you’re asked back on set for another project.

Do Not Ask for a SAG Voucher. The Screen Actors Guild is a serious union, just like the Teamsters, DGA or IATSE. Unions require a specific number of hours worked along with training requirements, skill tests and recommendations from senior Union members in order for Non-Union members to join. SAG entry requires three Union Extra Vouchers, which means that SAG is assuming the Extra works a specific number of Non-Union days, becomes familiar with the workings of a film set, and then is upgraded when doing a good job and proving they understand what is required.  When someone asks for a SAG Voucher, it sends up a red flag to the casting director and/or agent that not only does this person not have the experience needed; they may also behave in an unprofessional manner on set.

Is This a Speaking Role? If a Casting Director calls to check your availability for background work, don’t ask, “Is this for a speaking role?” No actor will ever be cast in a speaking part without auditioning for it in front of a Casting Director and a camera. An actor will never be cast in a speaking role from just your headshot. Yes, there are stories floating around about “Upgrades” – when a Background actor is given a few speaking lines – but that is extremely rare, so don’t count on it.

Do Not Try to be Seen as an Extra. Background actors are hired just for that – background in a scene. It is an important role in a film – walking up and down the street, looking in a store window, eating in a restaurant. Your job is to create atmosphere, not to go to the movies later and say, “Hey! There I am!” In fact your job as an Extra is NOT to be noticed. On top of that, the less you are noticed, the more you will be used in the film. Watch a few movies and see how many times actors actually look away from the camera. See that woman looking in the store window? She’s a professional. See that man looking up so his face is recognizable? Maybe not so much.

Are You Union or Non-Union? When asked, state your union status. If you are Non-Union, then say so. If you are SAG Eligible, this means you are not SAG and you are Non-Union. The reasoning is for your benefit actually – SAG Eligible means if the Casting Director hires you as Non-Union, and you become upgraded, there is a possibility that you then become a Must Join or Must Pay with SAG; this means you may need to pay upwards of $2,000 in fees to join the Screen Actors Guild. If you are not prepared to pay that kind of fee, the production will actually be fined for hiring someone who has become MUST PAY. So SAG Eligible on a resume actually places you at the back of the list when a Casting Director is looking specifically for Non-Union talent.

Do Not Gossip on the Set. Do not talk about the local casting community, especially Casting Directors and/or issues you may hear they have with each other. Do not discuss why one agency got the casting job, but not another agency. Do not discuss how much money you are making. Would you discuss these issues at any other job? You shouldn’t do it on the set, either.

Will You Work? Finally, do not say you will do Extra work if you are not willing to do the job.

Use Your Common Sense

While most of this is really preparation and common sense, the reality is that a lot of people have stars in their eyes, and little regard for doing what is right. You will not become a respected professional in this business if you act like a fool. The key word is “Business.” Treat the acting profession as a business, and you will find yourself in a much better position than those who treat it as a game.

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