There I was, surrounded by at least 100 different extras on a major motion picture set in downtown Chicago. It was a brisk February afternoon, and The Windy City was truly living up to its name. While the temperature was just north of freezing, barely, my excitement for seeing some of my favorite actors up-close and personal somehow kept the chill from hitting my bones.
While sitting in Extras Holding, which was warmed by a single propane space heater, I began looking around at my fellow extras. These people all had the same goal as I, which is to work as an actor. Scanning their faces, while all different, I felt a certain sense of comradely that is rarely felt in a room full of strangers.
After several interesting conversations, one in particular stood out in my mind. This man, who truly thought he would receive the Oscar for Best Background Performer, brought up an interesting point in-between his reciting of his film credits. He began talking about an extra acting technique that is often not discussed – how to look busy without drawing attention to himself.
Now, I know it is tempting to try to make yourself stand out from the crowd with the hopes of having the director notice you and upgrade your standing from a simple background extra to a speaking role, but honestly, that rarely (i.e. never) happens. However, your job as an extra is to seamlessly flow in the background. Your actions should never be so large that they distract from the lead actors, as doing so can quickly get you kicked off the set.
As I talked with this professional film extra, he gave me several tips that I still hold tight to this very day.
Tip # 1 – Know Your Reason
Knowing yourself – these two words are so overused that many extras feel that it does not apply to them. However, when it comes time to perform your duty as an extra, you must truly know your reason for moving. There is nothing more awkward than seeing an extra doing “busy work” that is not natural in appearance. No matter what your goal is within a scene, you must know the reason (i.e. objective) to your movements.
Tip #2 – How Would You Naturally Perform the Task?
While a question doesn’t seem like a tip, this is one of the most important acting techniques for an extra. Here’s a scenario: You are instructed by a director to move through a cafeteria line and pick out some food dishes and then head to the cash register. Taking this instruction, you wait in line. STOP and THINK. How would you naturally wait in line. Would you be shifting your weight from one hip to the next? Looking around the room at your fellow diners? Stare down at your tray waiting for the line to move?
As a film extra, you are typically not asked to portray a specific character. Rather, you are being paid to literally BE YOURSELF. Perform your actions naturally. Think about how you would be moving, looking, talking if you were not being watched by a film camera. This self-awareness will make your performance natural and seamless, which is what the director craves from extras.
Tip #3 – Give Yourself an Objective
Think about your daily life. Every movement you make has an objective. You got out of bed this morning and walked to the bathroom. Why? Because your objective was to brush your teeth. Why did you brush your teeth? To get rid of morning breath. Why don’t you want morning breath? Because people at work or school would not want to stand too close to you.
When you truly think about your daily movements, there is always an objective. I know firsthand that it is far too easy to perform a requested action while on a film set without having a clear objective in mind. Typically, the director (or production assistant) does not give you a deep objective. Rather, you are given a simple one, such as walk to the end of the street and stop when you hear “Cut!” It is your responsibility to give your “character” an objective for performing this action. Once you have a clean-cut objective, your movements will be natural and none obtrusive.