From Film Extras to Background Actors

APRIL 9, 2020
Film extras at Central Casting.
Extras lining up at the front desk of Central Casting in Hollywood (1958)

Background Actors have been around about as long as the film industry itself. They're essential to making movies, TV shows, and other productions look and feel authentic. A lot has changed since the early days of Hollywood, including the transition of referring to TV and film extras as Background Actors.

Early Hollywood film extras

When the entertainment industry started to take off in the early 1920s, thousands of people flocked to Hollywood with hopes of becoming the next big star. These hopefuls were called "extras" because they were the extra people who filled out scenes. The main way to find work at this time was to wait outside the gates of studios, hoping production would hire you on the spot. With little regulation on hiring film extras, many people were exploited while looking for work.

In an effort to fix the employment issues and exploitation that plagued the industry, Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) president Will Hays commissioned several studies of the employment conditions in Hollywood, including one by future Central Casting women's division director Marian L. Mel. After reviewing the results of the studies, Hays created the Central Casting Corporation in 1925 as a way to regulate the hiring of extras in Hollywood.

The creation of Central Casting gave film extras a clear path to finding work in the industry, a better understanding of their pay, and insight into what to expect on set. In the first six months of operation, Central Casting placed 113,837 extras (629 a day) in major Hollywood films.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, some of the most successful actors registered with Central Casting as a way to kick start their film careers. Even now, many people see background work as a way to get their foot in the door of the industry.

Extras to Background Actors

While terms like atmosphere and background have been around since the early days of filmmaking, extras remained the popular expression until the early 1990s. In 1992, the Screen Extras Guild (the primary extras' union) merged with the Screen Actors Guild, a change which corresponded with the move from extras to Background Actors.

Background Actors themselves were the primary force behind updating the terminology. Many felt the term "Background Actor" encompassed more of their responsibilities on set than just being the "extras" who filled out a scene. If you're cast as a Background Actor, you may hear other names like atmosphere, background artist, background talent, BG, and background.

How to become a Background Actor

Throughout the evolution of Hollywood, one enduring constant is that Central Casting is still the leading Background Actors casting company in the entertainment industry. So if you want to become a Background Actor, this is the place to start.

The first step is to onboard with one of our offices in Los Angeles, New York, Georgia, or Louisiana. Visit your location's Sign Up page to learn more about how to onboard with Central Casting.

Once you've registered, you're eligible to be cast in our movies, TV shows, and other productions. Want to see what we're working on? Jobs we're currently casting can be found on our Jobs page. If you want to know the projects you may be cast in, you can look through the recent movies and TV shows we've worked on in our credits section.

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By Meghan Dubitsky

Article Category:

Hollywood History