What's it like to be a long-term extra in a TV show?

Many TV shows are set in workplaces where there are a lot of background extras. Sometimes the same extras are there season after season. Do they have contracts with the show? How do they afford to live on whatever they get paid as an extra?

I first was made aware of this when listening to the commentary on an episode of the “Castle”. They mentioned that they had the best extras since it all looks like they’re doing real work and it’s like they are acting out their own scenes. I realized that’s true, and the same people are in the background show after show . “Madam Secretary” also does this. Some of the same extras have been at the meeting table for many seasons. I recognize them even though they’ve never spoken a line or been part of the plot.

I always thought that the studio would call for extras and whoever happened to be available would try out for a low-paying gig when they had nothing else going on. But from seeing the regular extras in these shows, I’m wondering if they’re making a living being “guy who sits at table during meetings”.

Looking at the SAG rates, it seems an extra doing nothing but sitting around gets a minimum of $162 a day in NYC or LA. Not enough to live on, especially since shooting is only, at most, a few weeks a year. The show also may shoot the scenes for extras over several days, not during the entire shooting schedule.

Certainly not enough to make a living, but something for the actor’s resume.

It possible that if they are expected to be used throughout the season, they can negotiate a higher rate.

This guy seems to be doing okay as an extra.

I had always assumed that those perpetually recurring non-talking extras were people who did other work on the set like writers, makeup, etc.
Do people that work on TV shows not multi-task?

Somewhat related anecdote:

I contacted Robert Maschio about 10 years ago to ask him what it was like to play “The Todd” on Scrubs. The Todd appeared regularly, but was never part of the core cast. My wife and I wondered if it was difficult for the actor to constantly be available for appearances, but never know when they would write him into an episode. He literally appears for a minute or less sometimes and frequently missed entire episodes.

He wrote me back, though I do not have his response anymore. He said it was very difficult to be available and that it affected his other acting gigs/opportunity. Obviously, it was huge exposure for him, though, and he was happy to keep with it as long as they kept including him.

He seemed nice.

I remember seeing an interview with the actor who played Gunther on Friends. (Not exactly an extra, as it was sometimes a speaking role. And I can’t for the life of me find the interview now.) He said he knew that the oppportunity to act, even in a small role, in a big series like that was rare. So he banked the money, and while he’s not rich (I don’t think the article quite said how much he made from the show), he was comfortable.

I was an extra for a couple years. It was fun at first, seeing how tv/movies get made. But that novelty wears off pretty quick when have to hustle all day every day to get work for the next day. And surviving off on non union wages is pretty terrible. I’d get into it more, but I don’t have time at the moment.

Afraid I can’t help with silent background extras but…

I was entertained and kept interested by Fred Stoller’s book “Maybe We’ll Have You Back”. I listened to the audiobook version which was good (though not narrated by Stoller). One of the common recurring themes, which is reflected in the title, was the Holy Grail of getting a recurring guest role on a show and how each one-shot appearance had you dreaming about being offered the part of a guy who might be in a show three or five times a season as “wacky fruit stand guy” or “creepy flower deliveryman”.

You think that’s low, try doing it as a non-SAG member. I did it twice; I was in an episode of Blue Bloods and Flesh and Bone. For BB, I actually ended up with some nice screen time, in the background behind Bridget Moynahan, trying to make the fake copier look real. :smiley: Between takes I even made a joke about how nothing works around here, and she laughed. It made up for the low wages.

F&B I never actually saw the episode so I have no idea if I ended up on it. But yes, it was fun but not the kind of thing I’d ever need to do again. And to answer some questions, yes, it would be very difficult to make a living at it, even if you’re union. And most shows ask about your conflicts before they hire you (i.e. have you done the show recently and/or did you do a Pepsi commercial before you came in for this Coke ad).

Keep in mind I’m talking about strictly non-speaking roles here; there are several actors who don’t speak in some episodes but show up in the background of all the episodes. They’re different; they’re listed in the credits and could probably sustain a living wage. Also, you never put background work on your resume. Unless you’re listed in the credits or have a line, it would be unprofessional to list extra work on there.

I’ll be happy to answer any specific questions anyone might have!