9 Pieces of Background Acting Advice from AD Luke Maxcy
In May, Assistant Director Luke Maxcy was the guest speaker at our Central Casting University class in Los Angeles. Luke has worked as an Assistant Director on multiple shows, including Scandal, New Girl, You’re the Worst, and Grey’s Anatomy. Here’s some of the background acting advice he shared with the class.
1. Know what part you’re booked for
When a Casting Director books you, they will give you details that include what role or category you are hired for. You should always write down all of this information. Never head to set without knowing what you’re supposed to be doing when you get there.
Your role information isn’t just so you know who you’re playing; it helps costumes, hair, makeup, Assistant Directors, and other crew members get you where you need to go.
2. Know where you’re going
Productions shoot at a variety of studio lots and locations. Some days you may be working in an area you’re not familiar with. It’s a good idea to prepare the night before so you know exactly where to go in the morning.
“Try to have as much information as you can going in,” Luke said. “Research what gate and parking structure you’re going to, what gate you’ll have to cross over to get into it, and what stage you’re going to. You can pull up maps for most of these lots online. As you work more you’ll be more comfortable with where you’re working.”
3. Know when you’re going
One of the most important aspects of being a Background Actor is showing up on time. You should always check for call time changes before you go to bed, when you wake up, and before you leave for set to make sure you arrive at check-in when you’re expected. Prepare enough time to allow for traffic or other delays that could potentially make you late to set.
“Knowing what you’re coming to work to do and when you’re coming is really important,” Luke said. “Your job is to check for that information and show up on time.”
4. Show up ready to work
The Casting Director may give you wardrobe instructions via an information tape, wardrobe blog, or some other resource. Pay close attention to the details you receive so you can ensure you show up to set in the correct wardrobe. If you have changes or were instructed to bring your wardrobe instead of coming dressed, make sure it makes it to set clean and unwrinkled.
“This is a big one, especially when you’re on a super stylized show like Scandal” Luke said. “Listen to the wardrobe requirements carefully. Be sure to pay attention to what the wardrobe look is and show up dressed. Don’t show up in your gym shorts.”
5. Keep track of your movement
While on set, you’ll often film multiple takes of the same scene. It’s important to pay attention to your movement and timing so you can match it every take.
“Try to be mindful of where you are in each scene in relation to the action that’s happening on set,” Luke said. “If you walk behind an actor and hear a piece of dialogue, that’s great because you should walk behind that actor every time you hear that word.”
6. Give your character a backstory
When casting for Scandal, Casting Director Elana would often create backstories for Background Actors to explain crossing them over between Shondaland shows. Luke agrees that having a backstory for your character is part of the background acting process.
“If I don’t give you a story, give yourself a story,” Luke said. “I love that there’s a story there, I really do because it helps you connect more with what you’re doing. Just don’t have it take away from the scene, have it make sense with what’s happening. A good story can really help you motivate all of your action.”
7. Be respectful
Remember, when you’re cast by Central Casting, you’re hired to do a job. There may be down time for you during the day, but the crew is working the entire time coordinating filming and setting up shots. Please be respectful by being quiet and attentive on set.
“This is really important, when you come to set you’re on our time,” Luke said. “We need to get things done quickly, quietly, and efficiently. Also, you may have questions about how your action needs to change based on new camera positions. Although we want you to ask questions, you have to be mindful of when the timing is appropriate to ask.”
8. Never take photos on set
When you work on a TV show, you’re often privy to storylines that won’t air for weeks or months. Part of your job as a Background Actor is keeping the secrets of the set, which means taking no photos. After all, you wouldn’t want to be the person to spoil the show for everyone. If you need to review the Anti-Piracy and Confidentiality Policy you signed while registering with us, you can find it and other forms on your location’s Sign Up page.
“You are part of the magic,” Luke said. “We are telling a story and you are part of 150 [people] who know it; we need you to help preserve that story.”
9. Make sure you’re wrapped before you leave
It’s important to follow directions and pay attention to what’s going on around you on set. A big part of that is knowing where you’re supposed to be. You should never wander around the lot or leave until you’re wrapped.
“It sounds like a goofy thing, but make sure someone has told you specifically that you’re wrapped,” Luke said. “If you see a bunch of people headed for basecamp, but you weren’t a part of that conversation, find an AD and ask. The worst thing you could do is get home and have me call you because I need you for this scene and you go ‘I thought I was wrapped.’”
Now that you know what to do on set, check our Jobs page to find the latest roles we’re casting. Looking for more background acting advice from Assistant Directors? Read through Michele Azenzer Bear’s tips for Multi-Cam Stand-Ins.