The Difference Between a Principal Actor and a Background Actor

JANUARY 28, 2019
Will & Grace (NBC)
A Background Actor and principal actor in Will & Grace (NBC)

A lot goes into taking a production from script to screen. We’ve introduced you to the production crew members you should know, now it’s time to dive in to the performers who work in front of the camera. Whether you want to become a Hollywood A-Lister or just want to get on set, here are the differences between a principal actor and a Background Actor.

What is a principal actor?

Generally, a principal actor is someone with a speaking role on camera. This classification can mean different things depending on the type of production (commercials have different rules than movies and TV shows) or the contract an actor is working under. There are cases when an actor does not speak on camera, but is considered a principal performer, often when the role requires a certain level of acting.

While Central Casting does not typically cast principal roles, we do cast Stand-Ins who work closely with actors behind the scenes. A Stand-In takes the place of principal actors for rehearsals, camera blocking, and lighting set-ups. You can find out more about what Stand-Ins do and how to be cast as one in our article, What is a Stand-In?

What is a Background Actor?

Background Actors perform in a non-speaking role and help bring life to all kinds of productions. Without Background Actors, there’d be no patients in New Amsterdam, All American’s football teams would play to empty stadiums, and Viola Davis would present cases to empty court rooms in How to Get Away with Murder.

On set, Background Actors are given direction by Assistant Directors who tell them where and when to move in a scene. While filming, background may cross in front of the camera, pantomime a conversation with another Background Actor, or even interact with the principal actors.

It’s possible that a Background Actor can be given a line and upgraded to a principal actor while on set. This is done based on the discretion and needs of the production. As a Background Actor, you should never speak on camera unless instructed to by the Director or Assistant Director.

As with principal actors, there are exceptions to Background Actors being purely non-speaking roles. For example, a group of Background Actors can say exclamatory words on camera and still be considered background. Again, the Assistant Director will give you instructions on what to do in a scene, please don’t speak on camera unless you’re asked to.

Working as background not only gives people a behind the scenes look at how their favorite movies and TV shows are made, but offers an opportunity to get their foot in the door of the entertainment industry.

How do you become a Background Actor?

At Central Casting, we cast hundreds of Background Actors, Stand-Ins, doubles, and other roles every day in movies, TV shows, and other productions. If you want the chance to get on set, your first step is to register at one of our offices in Los Angeles, New York, Georgia, or Louisiana. The registration process is different in each office, so please read your location’s Register page before coming to our office to register.

Required documentation

Everyone who registers at Central Casting, including minors, must fill out an I-9 form and present the required I-9 form documentation. This is a mandatory part of the registration process and you will not be able to complete registration if you don’t bring the original unexpired documents to your reserved registration session. Please be sure to read over the Lists of Acceptable Documents before you come to our office.

For more information, please read these guides on required I-9 documentation:

Once you’ve finished registration and we’ve verified your eligibility, you’re ready to get on set. Here are 3 things to know about getting cast and a guide on how to read a Central Casting job post.

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Industry Essentials