The biggest rookie mistake an actor can make is not knowing exactly what extra work (background acting) is.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2008, thankfully, I was one of the few people who already had a job lined up for me through a contact I had. My first job in good ole LA was as a Production Assistant on NBC’s hit show, The Office. On the days I didn’t PA, I did extra work. At the time, it seemed like the natural thing to do for an aspiring Director/Actor. I can’t even count the amount of network shows and big studio features that I’ve worked on during those short five months. I’m not bragging, I’m just giving an example of how frequent and easy the work is to get and I’m sure if you ask any actor in Hollywood, they’ve drudgingly done their fair share of extra work themselves.
It’s something we’ve all done but it’s nothing to brag about. Bragging and glorifying being an extra is like bragging and glorifying that you played two hand touch football in the second grade: everyone’s done it.
I did extra work but I knew what extra work was.
It was a paycheck, a networking opportunity, another means to receive SAG vouchers and, at most, a great time to learn all the ins and outs of a professional set without any actual pressure of screwing anything up. Whenever I needed some extra cash, I’d hit up Central Casting, book a show, show up with my backpack and sit around and eat for 12+ hours only to do walk-bys for maybe about an hour. It’s the perfect job for a college student.
The BIGGEST rookie mistake an actor can make is thinking that extra work is more than that. It’s NOT a stepping stone in the industry. It’s NOT like the corporate world to where you have to work your way up, starting from extra work and eventually moving up to speaking roles. And most importantly, it’s NOT a means of building an acting career. I’ve talked to “actors” who keep doing extra work because they think that one day the director is going to see them and say “You! I want you!” and give them lines. The ones who say these things are fresh in town from another state so they don’t know the business at all. Sure every once in a while, the stars will align and you’ll get thrown a line, shit, it happened to me a couple times. But that’s not a “big break”, it won’t extend to another project and it’s just stupid to think that “one day the big one will come” from extra work. It just doesn’t work that way.
Don’t get me wrong, there were many actors who are now famous who have done extra work in the past, but I guarantee you that their big break didn’t come from them doing extra work and crossing their fingers. What gave them their break was taking the classes, going on auditions, surrounding themselves with other passionate and driven people, doing short films, doing indie films; just overall perfecting their craft and building a solid body of content. This is a BUSINESS, not a LOTTERY, and PUTTING IN WORK gave them their big break and doing extra work only hurts your chances in the long run.
Why does it hurt your chances in the long run, you ask?
You ask great questions!
For one, you run the risk of doing so much extra work that that’s all casting directors see you as and so that’s all you’ll be called out for no matter how good your relationship with the CD is. But more importantly, you’ll be taking away valuable time that could be spent taking classes, going on auditions, and perfecting your craft.
In the long run, you’re better off getting together with friends and shooting stuff for your reel than wasting months doing extra work.
If you really need the money and you’re trying to get your SAG vouchers then by all means, be an extra. But honestly, if neither of those apply and it’s been over six months, you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re doing it to be “discovered”. If you’re an “aspiring actor” and you STILL don’t have ANY sort of reel put together after a year (monologues/stage work DON’T count) and you’re still doing extra work to be “discovered”, then I’d have to question whether or not you’re serious about being an actor and you should just quit and go start a career elsewhere.
Yes, extra work gets you on set but it’s probably the furthest thing to getting you closer to being an actor. It’s like being a waterboy and wanting to be on the football team. Sure you get to go on the field with all the other players but at some point you have to put the water down and do the drills and the workouts. You have to PUT IN THE WORK and not just HOPE that the coach is going to see you pouring water and say “You! I want you!” That’s not how it works, just like acting.
Go out, find some friends and shoot some quality content to put towards your reel. Whether it’s a short film, a sketch, or even a feature; shoot SOMETHING. Keep shooting and you’ll get better at it and in turn, your content will get better.
THAT’S what Hollywood will see and THAT’S what will give value to Hawai’i as a film industry. CREATING OUR OWN CONTENT. NOT in sitting around like minions, yelling “Pick me, pick me” when Hollywood comes into town. NOT in crossing our fingers that maybe/hopefully they’ll cast local. Hollywood’s not casting local because they’re not seeing any reason to cast local. OF COURSE they’ll cast local for extra work. That’s done worldwide so don’t fool yourself into thinking Hawai’i has a film industry because you’re getting extra work and everyone once and a while someone will do a student film. If you getting paid work depends on a production having to come into town then guess what, there’s no industry in Hawai’i.
“But I am talented! How can I show my talent if they don’t even take a chance and hire me!”
Again, you ask great questions!
Yes, it’s a catch 22. It’s one of those, you need experience to get hired but they won’t hire you without experience situations. But guess what, technology has democratized filmmaking and now ANYONE can shoot their own stuff. There’s NO EXCUSE to not shoot your own stuff with today’s technology. YOU go out and make something and show Hollywood that Hawai’i has talent! DON’T wait for Hollywood to come down to take action! Show Hollywood that Hawai’i doesn’t need them, THAT’S how you BUILD an industry. When they see what WE’RE doing WITHOUT them and see that we’re CASTING OURSELVES and putting out this great content ON OUR OWN, THAT’S when the talent will be recognized and they’ll hire local. Until then, Hawai’i is purely looked at as a location. You may not like that, but it’s the truth. And if you can’t handle the harsh truth, then you’re in the wrong business.
So just remember, the BIGGEST rookie mistake an actor can make is thinking that you’ll be “discovered” doing extra work and that you’ll have your big break. It’s a great learning experience and a good opportunity to meet other people. NOTHING MORE.
Which reminds me of another slightly relative, yet HUGE, rookie mistake.
DON’T put extra work on your resume/reel. I repeat, DO NOT put extra work on your resume/reel. It’s not even a question and is the quickest way to be looked at as a joke. If you were making a high school football highlight reel to send out to colleges, would you include shots of you sitting on the bench when you played football pop warner? Then don’t include extra work.
Go out there and BUILD Hawai’is film industry!!